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The Great Gravel Boom :: 4,000 riders expected at Garmin UNBOUND Gravel 2023

unbound adjective

un·​bound | \ən-ˈbau̇nd\

1: having no limit

The gravel race that began with 34 participants in 2006 will boom through the scenic rolling hills of Kansas’ Tallgrass Prairie in 2023, with thousands of cyclists clamoring for a lottery ticket to ride. Although participants will hit blacktop roads in smaller sections, the vast majority of the races will take place on gravel and dirt roads.

Garmin Unbound Gravel, a series of Life Time-sponsored races billed as the “World’s Premier Gravel Event,” is expected in 2023 to host more than 4,000 cyclists through the rough and tumble terrain of the Flint Hills of Kansas.

The dirt

“What makes the event is the gravel itself. The Flint Hills region of Kansas has some of the gnarliest, chunkiest, and toughest gravel on earth from its flint rock,” said Jordan Titus, Unbound public relations specialist. “It’s unlikely riders will complete the event without stopping to fix multiple flats. But, they’re amidst one of the few tallgrass prairies left in the world – 4 percent of what was once 170 million acres is left – so the views are breathtaking and special.”

Unbound’s website is currently taking registrations and will open up its lottery on January 5. Winners will be determined by January 20. All registrants will be notified by mail, but entry fees (to be announced) will not be charged until winners are notified.

“Some of these roads receive little to no maintenance throughout the year and can be quite primitive in nature,” Unbound says. “In the event of inclement weather, gravel and dirt roads can become mud roads. Riders are therefore encouraged to prepare their bikes, their bodies, and their minds to be ready for any and all possible conditions.

The mud

Judging by photographs from last year’s competition, the deep mud is real. Riders crossed the finished line in front of hundreds of fans caked in mud and plastered with smiles.

The races

For the events, Unbound will offer its signature 200-mile race as well as a 100-mile challenge and a 350-mile “grueling” competition. While most cyclists sign up for the 250-mile, there is also a 50-mile, 25-mile, and separate race for juniors, so everyone has a chance to participate, Jordan said. The lottery is necessary since more riders register than they can possibly accommodate.

Unbound said they added the 100-mile race as a stepping stone to its 200-mile main stage event, “perfect for those looking for a long day in the saddle, all the challenges of Flint Hills gravel goodness, and just a bit less pain. You will enjoy a solid day of racing and riding and all back in time for enjoying some finish line festivities. Coordinators said bicyclists shouldn’t assume the 100-mile race will be a piece of cake. “There are plenty of guts needed for this 100-mile jaunt.”

The spirit

The 200-mile race is described as the marquee event that has earned Emporia, Kansas, the name Gravel City, USA. “This event will bring to life that indomitable spirit that lives within each and every one of you. Along your 200-mile journey, you’ll travel to the furthest depths of your psyche and unravel the reasons behind why it is you’re here in the first place.” This race requires stamina, grit, strength, and ability, so don’t show up in anything less than great shape.

The 350-mile race is an overnight, self-supported race, so only the toughest of the tough need to apply.

Life Time, known for its health clubs throughout the U.S. and Canada, will provide fully stocked aid stations and support vehicles along the courses to ensure riders are hydrated and stay healthy.

“Garmin Unbound Gravel is presented by Craft Sportswear and was founded in 2006 at a time when gravel grinding was just beginning to catch the interest of the endurance cycling community,” Jordan said. “Event founders knew that the beauty of the region is best explored on two wheels, and with that, the 200-mile race took shape.”

Jordan said since then, cyclists from around the globe have taken to Emporia’s hilly roads for tire-shredding, the “sun-baked gravel we’re infamous for,” he said.

And while the event has grown steadily in participation, Jordan said it’s the life-enriching experiences that have inspired the team to grow with it.

“Unbound Gravel isn’t just a race. We’ve also become a huge piece of the Emporia community and culture,” he said. “We’ve impacted our local community throughout the years and see a charitable piece from each year’s event affecting the lives of many folks in our town.”


The attendees

The race has drawn riders from 50 states and 38 countries, he said. “We still pride ourselves in the grassroots feel and work hard to impact those coming to Emporia for the Unbound weekend.”

In the end, the event brings riders, fans, families, and volunteers together for “an amazing celebration of community and cycling,” he said.

The event is part of the Life Time Athletic Events portfolio and comprises 30 world-class, iconic, and premier endurance events, including the Miami Marathon, the New York City Triathalon, Chicago Triathlons, and Leadville Race Series in Colorado.

Along with athletic events, Life Time’s goal is to reshape how people approach health and fitness with its healthy way of life communities. Life Time’s foundation work included two pilot grants that funded trail development in Leadville, Colorado, and provided bikes for public schools in Emporia, Kansas. As of 2021, the Life Time Foundation had partnered with 35 public school districts to impact more than 1.7 million children in 3,634 schools across the country.

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Marianne Todd has been a professional photojournalist and writer since 1987. Her career began in newspapers and rapidly spread into national news magazines. Her work has been featured on the pages of Time, Life, National Geographic, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, where she was nominated for Photographer of the Year International. Todd became a publisher in 2009, creating titles reflecting the music, arts, and tourism industries of the South (she still sports the accent), and her work as the official photographer for Governor Haley Barbour led her to photograph everything from Hurricane Katrina to presidential visits. Since moving to New Mexico four years ago, she has left hard news coverage to travel on her trusty BMW F 750 GS, journeying the roads of America and beyond.