All eyes at the UNBOUND Gravel event last Saturday in Kansas were on the 200-mile bike race with WorldTour pro cyclists lining up against stars of the mountain bike, cyclo-cross and gravel cycling world.
But by the time those top pros lined up to start at 5 a.m. June 5, a few brave self-supported racers had already been riding through the Flint Hills of Kansas for 14 hours.
One of those was Durango’s Sam Vickery, who took on the UNBOUND Gravel XL event that covers 357 miles from the start in Emporia, Kansas.
After an incredible start with the lead group for the opening 80 to 90 miles, the 25-year-old settled into his own pace with eyes on the finish.
A 2017 graduate of Fort Lewis College and an alumnus of the FLC cycling program, Vickery handled the heat of the day and fought off the urge to sleep at night to finish in ninth place in 25 hours, 58 minutes, 9 seconds.
“It’s still surprising. You have so much self doubt and uncertainty. The mileage is daunting,” Vickery said Wednesday after returning to Durango. “Immediately crossing the finish line, it’s an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. With a couple of days to reflect back on everything that occurred throughout and just how cool it is and how sweet it was to be out there and make it to the finish line is overwhelming.”
The XL distance was won by 31-year-old Taylor Lideen of Phoenix, who finished in 22:57:14. Only 23, Will Loevner of Allison Park, Pennsylvania, would roll in second in 24:32:40. Vickery and Loevner were the only riders under the age of 30 to finish in the top 35. The women’s XL first-place finisher was Alaska’s Lael Wilcox. The 34-year-old finished in 26:55:24, which was 12th overall.
The last rider to finish the XL came in just under 36 hours. Only 46 riders completed the feat.
UNBOUND Gravel, the premier gravel event in the country, has become a destination for many top cyclists for the 200-mile event. The XL race of more than 350 miles was born in 2018. Distance isn’t the only difference between the two, as the XL is also an unsupported effort by the participants who can receive no outside aid in terms of food and water or bike maintenance.
That means the athletes have to rely on commercial services to resupply, and that primarily came from convenience stores and whatever water spigots they could find along the way. Most came 70 to 80 miles apart.
“UNBOUND Gravel is kind of the big daddy of gravel races these days,” said Vickery, who is originally from Littleton. “For some reason, I was always really intrigued by the (XL) distance, adventure and self-supported ethos. I wanted to do it in 2000, but the race was canceled. I finally got the chance this year and was up for a big challenge and big adventure.”
Riding for the newly formed Team Segment 28 squad based out of Durango and operated by Vickery and Rotem Ishay, Vickery rode a bike that didn’t vary much from his usual Specialized cyclo-cross setup aside from the addition of aero bars.
After a 3 p.m. start June 4, Vickery was happy to ride with the leaders before falling back and riding alone for roughly 40 miles, knowing he needed to dial it back to make sure he didn’t burn himself out too early.
At Mile 118 at the second resupply point, Vickery caught up with eventual fourth-place finisher Jay Petervary of Idaho.
“We rode together pretty much the whole night, eight or nine hours until the point I flatted and he kept going,” Vickery said. “It was good to have someone to ride with through the night. We didn’t speak to each other too much. Head down, tapping it out, at least someone else is there and we can keep pace with each other and keep each other awake. He’s a legend of this ultra-style racing. It was special to be with someone of that pedigree in the night in a big ultra.”
Vickery said the heat of the second day was the biggest issue he felt the rest of the way. The lone front flat tire he was able to quickly repair was his only mechanical issue.
“The hallmark of that race is that it’s known for beating the crap out of bikes. To get away with a really minor flat, I feel super lucky,” he said.
At the finish line, one of Vickery’s roommates Stephan Davoust, a pro mountain bike star in the U.S., was there to greet him with a cold beer. And as soon as he got back to his rental house, Vickery was finally ready for some sleep and to rest his bruised hands and stiff neck and back from so much time bent over the handlebars.
And in the end, the finish was the only result that mattered.
“It’s super naive, in my opinion, to go into a race like that thinking about a result,” he said. “It’s just you versus the course, keeping your bike together, and goal No. 1 is to finish. That is 100% what I was after going into the thing.”
Two of Durango’s top pro cyclists lined up in the 200-mile race.
Quinn Simmons, a 20-year-old WorldTour cyclist for Trek-Segafredo, and Payson McElveen, a 28-year-old experienced UNBOUND Gravel racer representing Orange Seal Off-Road Team, departed the start line at 5 a.m. June 5.
Simmons, in his UNBOUND debut, would crash after trying to chase back to the lead group following a flat tire. After roughly 55 miles, he abandoned the race and went to a nearby hospital to receive stitches in his knee.
Supposed to leave for Belgium the following day for the Tour of Belgium and preparation for his Tour de France debut, Simmons returned home to Durango to recover. He hopes to heal in time for next week’s USA Cycling Pro Road Nationals in Knoxville, Tennessee.
McElveen, who battled illness the entire week leading up to UNBOUND, said he didn’t have the performance he had hoped for in Kansas but could be proud with a 27th-place finish in 12:05:01. He finished alongside fellow FLC cycling alum Ryan Standish, who was 28th in the same time.
McElveen was at the front feeling good but quickly had a mechanical issue that required assistance, which he received from other riders. But the big issue would put him 20 minutes behind the lead group.
“For the remaining 10 hours I rode with the simple goal of finishing – to give this special event the respect it deserves,” McElveen said in a post to Instagram. “It was an absolutely brutal day to be riding alone with 20 mph head and cross winds the majority of the second 100 miles. ... Surviving to each aid along with trying to exchange a few positive words with every racer I encountered was key... counting 667 ‘hi’s’ and ‘good jobs!’ was like a tailwind and engaging mind game. Leaving the final aid, I linked up with long time friend (Standish) and we finished the final 50 miles together. We picked up a couple more buddies along the way and finished together all grateful for the quality company.
The men’s 200-mile win went to Vermont’s Ian Boswell in 10:17:24, while Laurens Ten Dam of the Netherlands was second in the sprint finish. Former WorldTour cyclist Peter Stetina was third in 10:18:35, while Ted King was fourth in the same time and Colin Strickland raced to fifth in 10:25:34.
The women’s win went to Atlanta’s Lauren De Crescenzo, who crossed the line in 12:06:49 to place 31st overall. Amity Rockewell of California was second in 12:22:15.
For all the riders, UNBOUND represented an opportunity to be back with the cycling community, as the gravel event brought together those from all disciplines and united them once more after a year of race cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I always tell people that I don’t race bikes or anything to be a bike racer, it’s for the people in the community,” Vickery said. “To go a year without that was tough. That’s our community, support group and who we like to be around. To finally have chances to be back around those people and catch up and to race has meant so much and felt so good.”