Unbound 2023 gravel tech mega
Strap yourselves in for our Unbound tech bonanza
This competition is now closed
By Ben Delaney, Liam Cahill
Published: June 5, 2023 at 3:00 pm
Unbound is the world's most important gravel race, with the 200-mile distance serving as the marquee event for the Life Time Grand Prix series that has $250,000 on tap. There is also the 350-mile XL, plus 100-, 50- and 25-mile events.
Held on the rolling Flint Hills outside Emporia, Kansas, the race is notorious for tough conditions.
Sometimes it's blisteringly hot and humid; some years it pours rain. Perhaps the most difficult is when rain hits dirt roads that don't drain well, and soupy mud turns to ultra-sticky, peanut-butter mud that brings wheels and riders to a standstill, and ejects chains from chainrings.
While the forecast for this weekend's race was largely dry, rain the day before sent many riders scrambling for thinner tyres for better mud clearance. And boy did they need it. Conditions for Unbound 2023 made for a particularly challenging edition of the event – for riders and their bikes alike.
Tyre selection varied wildly; some riders had 38mm slicks, and others had 2.1in knobbly tyres. Outside of the 70 Grand Prix competitors, gear selection is an even wider cornucopia, with everything from singlespeeds to fat bikes and tandems seen in the Flint Hills.
We’ve already covered the new Shimano GRX groupset and the new Canyon Grail spotted at Unbound, so let's get into the tech detail.
Here's our Unbound 2023 gravel tech mega-gallery, covering everything from tyre choices and puncture precautions, to aero setups and custom hacks, as well as the bikes of some of the fastest riders in the race.
No other piece of gear is more discussed or fretted over at Unbound than tyres. While the top riders are limited to their sponsor's options, there are still myriad choices for tread, width, pressure and the use or tyre inserts or not.
With rain soaking parts of the course and rendering some miles-long stretches difficult if not downright unrideable, many riders opted for skinnier than usual tyres, in an attempt to cut through the mud and leave additional clearance between the frame and tyre. A few riders ran a knobbly tyre up front and a slick in the rear.
Lachlan Morton chose a mismatched tyre setup. He paired a 44mm rear tyre with a massive 2.1in front tyre.
Morton ran the Vittoria Terreno Dry up front, with a slightly more knobbly tyre on the rear.
Note also his wheel choices. A 60mm-deep Vision Metron front wheel was likely there to eke out every aero saving possible. A lower rear wheel might have been chosen for weight-saving purposes.
While there were muddy parts of the course, the overall theme was still for a fast race, so riders tended to stick to slick, or semi-slick treads.
Innokenty Zavyalov, for example, ran full slicks, simply sizing down for the mud.
With a number of Specialized-sponsored riders taking part, there were a good number of the company's Pathfinder tyres on display. They’re a popular option for non-Specialized riders, too.
Intermediate treads were also popular, with riders aiming to combine traction in the mud with fast-rolling speed anywhere else.
The Maxxis Rambler was a common sight, while the Schwalbe G-One RS is another Unbound favourite having been launched at the race last year.
AG2R's Larry Warbasse, meanwhile, was rocking a set of Pirelli Cinturato RC X tyres.
Pirelli launched the Cinturato Gravel RC last year as a mountain bike-inspired gravel tyre, with a heavily lugged tread pattern for grip.
We’re not familiar with the ‘X’ version used by Warbasse, though. Is this a new tyre?
Unbound takes place over the Flint Hills of Kansas and, well, the clue is in the name.
Ride a bike through these hills of flint and you’re almost guaranteed an enforced rest to fix a puncture.
With no follow car to bail riders out, having tubeless tyre plugs (aka bacon strips) at the ready is key for anyone who wants to stay at the sharp end – and anyone who just wants to survive the race.
Fixing a tubeless puncture quickly is crucial in a race, so several riders opted to tape Genuine Innovations’ bacon strips to the front of their bike, ready to plug a flat. Others had little Dynaplug canisters at the ready on their bike.
Lachlan Morton had two bacon strips already in their plugging tools, taped to his Di2 cables on the handlebar, ready for the fastest deployment. An F1 engineer would be happy with that.
Tobin Ortenblad, meanwhile, had his tubeless plug tool strapped to the seatpost, which might seem like the muddiest place possible to mount a tool.
That is, until you see Russell Finsterwald's effort. His bacon strips, wrapped around the brake hoses, were completely caked in mud by the finish. At least it looks as though he didn't need them.
Unbound is one of the toughest single-day races on the calendar, subjecting both bike and body to an almighty test. Preparation is key – and that means having everything you need for, in the case of Unbound XL riders, 24 hours or longer in the saddle.
Some of the racers in the shorter distances will get away with storing their essentials in their jersey pockets – but once you get up to the 200- and 350-mile distances, you’re likely to need a bag or two.
However, not everyone got the memo. Laurens ten Dam and Larry Warbasse were two riders in the elite 200-mile race who went without bags, beyond a small saddle pack.
The Specialized Diverge of ten Dam does, however, feature frame storage under the front bottle cage.
Lachlan Morton chose a slightly odd place to mount his one storage bag, tucking it in front of the seatpost. The triangular Tailfin bag isn't a design that is available yet, and comes from the company's R&D department.
The 350-mile XL race sees the number and size of frame bags increase.
XL racers also compete unassisted, meaning they must carry all their food and water or stop at stores on the course.
And if you’re going through the night, as is the case with the XL 350-mile racers, you’re going to need lights. This fork-crown mounted front light is a very neat solution from Luke Hall.
Hall also has a charging cable running from his Wahoo computer to a battery pack, which is probably a good thing to have if your ride is going to take over 24 hours.
Ulrich Bartholmoes, meanwhile, used a Supernova Airstream 2 front light, mounted very neatly in line with the head tube.
His BMC Kaius featured a very tasty build with a Rotor InSpider power meter, SRAM GX Eagle AXS derailleur complete with a Kogel oversized pulley wheel cage, and Lightweight Pfadfinder Evo Disc wheels wrapped in 40mm Hutchinson Touareg tyres.
An Apidura frame bag keeps storage inside the frame's front triangle.
Banned this year for the elite 200-mile competitions, but allowed in all the other fields, aero bars continue to be important in endurance gravel.
For the fast riders, it's about aerodynamics. For many amateur riders, and even many elite riders in the XL, it's a comfort thing, because they allow a change of hand position and take weight off the hands and wrists.
Even in the elite 200-mile fields, some riders found a workaround. Innokenty Zavyalov fitted a section of bar tape to the flat section of his handlebar. This enabled him to rest his forearms on the bar, mimicking TT arm rests.
Add in a long Garmin Edge 1040 computer to hold onto and you’ve got a makeshift aero bar setup.
Away from the 200-mile race fields, women's XL winner Legan fitted a set of aero bars for the ultra race.
Her efforts paid off, winning the event by a healthy margin.
If you’re doing big distances at race pace, you want to be efficient. That means aero is going to play a big part in your bike and clothing choices, even before TT bars become a consideration.
Factor's Ostro Gravel is the perfect example of this. Lauren De Crescenzo's bike featured a special paintjob for the race, with the frame boasting numerous aero touches.
The head tube has an hourglass shape, with the central section narrowing to smooth the airflow through the rest of the head tube.
Deep tube shapes come straight from the Ostro VAM, Factor's fastest road race bike, while a Black Inc bar helps the brake hoses stay hidden.
De Crecenzo's bike features a CermicSpeed oversized pulley wheel system, mounted to a SRAM Red rear derailleur. The 1x 48-tooth aero chainring is mounted to a SRAM Red power meter crankset.
Finishing the bike is a set of Black Inc 34 wheels and lovely Rene Herse tyres.
De Crescenzo was far from alone in riding an aero-optimised gravel bike.
Life Time Grand Prix racer Hannah Shell took to an aero-profiled Cervélo Aspero-5, while, as we’ll come on to, Larry Warbasse hopped on the racy BMC Kaius.
As the gravel bikes category evolves, we’re seeing a distinction between race-focused (read: aero) bikes with generous tyre clearance and aggressive (for gravel) geometry, and machines aimed at even bigger, burlier adventures.
In the case of BMC, the brand has the Kaius as its ‘performance’ gravel bike and the micro-suspension equipped BMC URS as its ‘exploration’ gravel bike.
Riders with single rings were split between running chain guards and trusting the clutch (if their rear derailleur had one) to do its job.
This year, the challenge wasn't necessarily rough terrain, but the thick, pasty mud that jammed many a chain.
With the super-sticky mud building up on the chain, it can be easy to find it unshipping from a 1x chainring.
Rob Britton had a K-Edge model keeping his chain on the massive 50-tooth chainring.
Why such a big chainring for gravel?
Well, he uses a Classified two-speed rear hub, giving him an effective 34-tooth chainring should he need it.
Seventh on the day, Russell Finsterwald also went for a K-Edge device to keep the chain on, but others decided a clutch derailleur would do just fine.
Geoffrey Langat was one such rider. He finished the 350-mile event in just over 25 and a half hours, but many XL riders were forced to abandon after hours of walking in the mud.
Back to Lachlan Morton's bike and the mismatched tyres weren't the only strange modification. His Shimano XTR pedals had one side of the retention system removed.
Quite why, and whether this was done by a mechanic or the muddy conditions, is unclear.
It was also unclear, for a time, as to why Kim-Eng Ky had a spoon dangling from a storage bag.
She later said it was used to clear mud from the bike.
Unbound sees a wide variety of gearing options, from road drivetrains to mullet setups.
Mullet gearing combines a road or gravel crankset with a mountain bike derailleur and cassette – business at the front, party at the back.
SRAM has actively encouraged mullet drivetrains, with cross-compatibility between its wireless XPLR and Eagle components.
Russell Finsterwald was among the riders rocking a SRAM mullet, while Jasper Ockeloen, riding what we believe to be a new Canyon Grail, also opted for a mullet.
With the new bike offering SRAM Universal Derailleur Hanger compatibility, Ockeloen paired a 48-tooth 1x chainring with SRAM's new T-Type Transmission direct-mount derailleur, shifting on a huge 10-52t cassette.
We also saw the new, unreleased Shimano GRX 12-speed as a mullet arrangement on Taylor Lideen's bike.
While Lideen was ‘only’ using a 10-45t cassette, that rear block came from the XTR M9100 mountain bike groupset, hinting at a future when Shimano offers wider mullet compatibility. Will the new GRX work with the huge 10-51t XTR cassette?
Finally, an increasing number of road pros are turning to the dark side with a stab at gravel racing.
One rider who's very much not retired is AG2R Citroën's Larry Warbasse, who threw himself in at the deep end by making the Unbound 200 his first-ever gravel race.
Oh, and he's just ridden the Giro d’Italia, too.
Fresh from a three-week Grand Tour, Warbasse rode his BMC Kaius for the first time the day before racing 200 mud-caked miles.
Keeping things roadie, Warbasse's Kaius sports narrow 36mm bars and LOOK Keo Blade Carbon road pedals.
His verdict at the finish? "You couldn't pay me enough to do gravel racing every day."
Ben Delaney is a journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for and editing some of the biggest publications in cycling. Having studied journalism at the University of New Mexico, Ben has worked for Bicycle Retailer & Industry News, VeloNews and BikeRadar. He has also previously worked as Global Brand Communications Manager for Specialized. Ben covers all things road and gravel, and can be found logging big miles in the Rocky Mountains that nestle alongside his home in Boulder, Colorado. He has covered the most important bike races in the sport, from the Tour de France and Tour of Flanders, to the Unbound gravel race, and specialises in tech content, showcasing what the pros are riding and putting everyday equipment through its paces.
Road and gravel presenter
Liam Cahill is the road and gravel presenter for the BikeRadar YouTube channel. Liam has been racing road and cyclocross since his teens, and riding for as long as he can remember. With a national 24hr time trial champion for an uncle, there are racing genetics in his family. However, Liam has inherited none of them, boasting the South West's largest collection of Cat 3 2nd place finishes. Before joining BikeRadar, Liam was a tech writer and presenter at road.cc, where he published hundreds of reviews. From budget bikes to the most expensive upgrades, he's tested it all. When not presenting, you’ll find him contributing reviews to BikeRadar.com, nattering on the BikeRadar Podcast and listening to Taylor Swift whenever possible.
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