Unbound Gravel Race has made Kansas a cycling destination
May 22, 2022
Unbound Gravel is just under two weeks away. The race, previously known as Dirty Kanza, continues to be the highlight of the year for anyone who loves gravel cycling. For us, it's like Christmas in June. It's a time where people from all over the world converge on Emporia to celebrate cycling and ride their bikes 25, 50, 100, 200, and even 350 miles through the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas. It's the biggest gravel race in the world and arguably the most important cycling event in the United States. You can think of it as the Indy 500, Boston Marathon, or Kentucky Derby of gravel cycling. It's not yet as big at the Tour de France or some of the larger cycling races in Europe, but, its popularity has influenced many of the big races in Europe. Many races in Europe now include gravel sections to align with the growing interest and attention that gravel riding is receiving. Also, many professional road racers are now finding a home in gravel racing. They'll be competing to win the big race this year.
For Kansas, the economic benefits of the race are enormous. All of the hotels in Emporia have been booked for months. Overflow riders will be filling hotels in Ottawa, Topeka, and all of the small towns within 100 miles of the race. Restaurants and small businesses will be packed with cyclists who want to soak in the culture of Kansas to fully experience one of the biggest athletic events of their lives.
The benefits extend well beyond race weekend. Cyclists have come to recognize Kansas as THE place to find some of the best, challenging, and beautiful gravel roads in the world. Cyclists from all over the country visit Kansas throughout the year to train and ride the roads that the big race is on. They research the routes and learn the names of the small towns that were previously unknown to them. They search out the small coffee shops, unique diners, and cool places to stay. Most importantly, they gain an understanding of Kansas and it's people.
While many of us who are close to cycling follow all of the news and information about Unbound, it's incredible to me how many Kansans, outside of Emporia, don't know about the event. I predict this will start to change very quickly.
This year, Unbound Gravel will be part of the Lifetime Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is a race series that includes six off-road events across the country. The limited field of 20 riders will compete, on a points system, to try to win the prize money associated with the Grand Prix. This type of event will continue to move gravel racing from a grass roots, niche sport, closer to a professional discipline. I think the series will bring attention to some of the incredible athletes that make up the sport and give more people a chance to hear their stories. It will probably also lead to more non-cycling media attention and television coverage.
Another big development for this year is the introduction of the Gravel Hall of Fame in Emporia. The Hall of Fame will recognize the riders and event organizers who have made gravel racing what it is. I think the Hall of Fame will bring a lot of people to the area and solidify Emporia as the center of the universe for gravel cycling.
As the sport grows and gains more attention, you'll hear many people complain about how the race isn't the grass roots event that it used to be. Many of the changes came when the race was acquired by Lifetime Fitness a few years ago. I rode the 100-mile race back in 2017 and 2018 and I can attest to the many changes that popularity has brought. In fact, it's become so difficult to get into the race that I haven't been able to get in for the last few years. Many people have to wait years to get in.
For me, I couldn't be happier with the popularity and attention Unbound has brought to gravel racing. One of the biggest benefits is that Unbound has spawned hundreds of grass roots events all across the country. There is a gravel race almost every weekend in the summer including our very own The Bad Astra and the Maple Leaf Gravel Grind in Baldwin City. While these events may never grow to the size of Unbound, they are gaining a very loyal following and will continue to grow at their own pace.
We shouldn't be surprised by the growth of gravel cycling. Cycling is an incredible outdoor activity that has always been popular. However, the growing danger of mixing with cars on the road made cycling (in the USA) too dangerous for most people. Gravel cycling gives people a way to ride their bikes on roads with little or no traffic. And that, to me, is the biggest benefit. Gravel cycling is bringing more people back into the sport and giving people a reason to try out cycling.
Of course there is a downside to all of the attention, popularity, and growth of gravel racing. Cycling in the United States has always suffered from the cycling industry's over emphasis on racing as the primary way for people to enjoy cycling. The popularity of gravel racing may perpetuate the attitude that cycling is an extreme sport requiring a race bike and lots of expensive race specific clothing. We need to continue to make cycling accessible to all and we should recognize racing is just a small part of the sport. However, I do think that gravel racing has brought a lot of people into the sport. I am a good example of this. In 2017 I saw how much fun people were having riding gravel and I started learning about the big race in Emporia. So, on a whim I signed up for my first Dirty Kanza. One thing led to another and I eventually opened a bike shop and made cycling my second career.
If you are not familiar with the Unbound Gravel race I recommend you head down to Emporia to check it out. I guarantee that you'll be inspired by the people that participate in the race but also the energy and enthusiasm that it brings to the small town in the middle of Kansas.