Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Observations On 2023 Unbound Racing

The same road that was a big problem in 2015 was used again this year with similar results.

WARNING: A long ranty post for today. You've been forewarned... 

 Now after several days of looking at commentary and stories about the 2023 Unbound event, I have a few things to get off my chest concerning how things went down. Especially since our media is so piecemeal now that you cannot get a good read on things unless you read ten articles and look at scads of Insta and Facebook posts. Couldn't we just go back to when we had to wait a month for the cycling mags to print? It was sooo much calmer then! Ha!

So the big deal this year was that the Pro Men and Women would each get separate starts ahead of the plebeian masses whom the event is banked off of. That's another matter for another time, but the important point was that NOW things would be more "fair" in terms of who was racing for a living out there. 

Next: There were a few days of pop-up, heavy thunderstorms leading up to the event that were dumping copious amounts of rain on the course, which was to feature the very same three mile stretch of dirt road that we had to march during the 2015 "Mud Year" of the DK200. These storms were random, but significant enough and occurring often enough that they became a factor in the event. 

The next piece of the puzzle was that Unbound Race Director, Ben Sachs, told media gathered there the day before that there was a re-route which could be implemented if necessary to avoid the three miles of goo, which by the way, was the first time that section had been used since 2015. 

  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

My view of the D Road Hill in 2015
Now there was rain overnight before the 2023 Unbound event and the three mile section in question here is only about 11-12 miles out from Emporia. I dunno...... 

Maybe it wasn't easy to check it out before the riders launched at 6:00am? 

Regardless, the riders were sent off and there was no implementation of the reroute. Was this done to keep the "spirit of the event" or.....? So far, neither Mr. Sachs nor anyone from Unbound will say- yet anyway. That could change. We'll get to why that is and what I think will happen a bit later. 

Right now all you need to know is that many Pro men in the field of 116 riders failed to finish, many of them directly or indirectly due to this stretch of road. This field's stragglers were caught by the Women's field, which was made up of 57 riders, and saw fully about a third of that number as DNF's by the end of the day, again, many blaming this section of road. The women's field, in turn, was caught by the fast end of the amateurs running the 200. By the time all was said and done, by Mile 20 it did not matter much that the Pro Men and Women got a preferred start ahead of the masses, which numbered about 1100, according to stories I read. Of course, of those many did not finish. I read somewhere that the attrition rate in the 200 was 43% of the field.

During the 2015 event, the entire course was either wet, mud, or had standing water across the roadway.

So, naturally we could find several instances of complaints about course conditions, how "all that training went to waste in 11 miles" (Where have I heard THAT before!) , or how, at least in second place Woman's Pro rider Sofia Gomez Vllfane's opinion, the Woman should have their own race day and that it should be shorter. 

Here's the deal: First off, the RD, Mr. Sachs did not, for whatever reasons, utilize the reroute for D Road. Why not? This is an important question. Without an answer, I will have to assume that what happened was preordained. Update: Thanks to "Nebo" in the comments on this post, we do have a response from Life Time's President, Kimo Seymour: See HERE)

So, the mud section came and yes- if you have not been paying attention here, you might come away from the Unbound thinking that was too extreme, or that somehow this played into "unfair" situations for some riders. Well, here's the thing folks- weather can squash anyone and elevate others. It's random sometimes, and yes- Low finishing rates are a result. This is what has been accepted in gravel racing since 2005. 

In other words- "Hey Pro riders and media- DO YOUR RESEARCH!" And- If you don't like the idea of any of that mud or rain, or whatever, then maybe these events are not for you. That's right folks. Gravel events are not going to be every cyclists cup of tea, and that's okay. I don't like crit racing, and so I don't enter crits, even if I was good enough to make money at it. I still would not sign up. But that's me. The point here is that I shouldn't ask criterium overlords to make criterium racing easier for me to accept. You shouldn't ask gravel racing promoters to make their events easier either. Just don't go if you have issues with the format.

Checkpoint #1 Trans Iowa v12

The other story I saw wasn't so much a complaint but that what was observed was thought to be a "new tactic" that the Pro Men were using at Unbound. 

What could it have been? Was it new GPS computer tracking? No? How about some nutritional ju-ju no one has tried before? No? What was it?

Here is what it was: The guys and gals are using cell phones to call in to support for the reasons of quicker pit stops. 

As if THAT hasn't been going on since, well since cell coverage got good enough that rural riders could count on getting messages across the air waves. Be that by an actual call or text, the result is the same. 

So, sorry to bust your bubble out there, but this is definitely not a novel use of a cell phone. If you've been reading this blog for a long time, you already know that I wrestled with cell phone usage for years when I put on Trans Iowa. Coaching, emotional support, navigation, awareness of competitor's positions, and more were all used in Trans Iowa. Prearranged support probably was too, I just never caught anyone doing that, but look, I'm pretty sure that happened looking at the evidence. 

And this use of texting in an order to your "pits", (which is essentially what the Pros have for themselves now), is prearranged support. It is not fair to all the riders, but you know, as long as all the plebeians have paid their entry fees, Unbound probably doesn't care about what is fair or not to the entire field. And the whole idea of having three to four mechanics and team people there at those pits is not new either. That came from cyclo cross and 24hr racing. That happened in 2005 at Trans Iowa. So, yeah.... 

Then we have the folks who are complaining that this or that is "unfair" or if not that then it's "not right". This brings us back to whether or not Unbound or its directors will address this mud year thing. In my event it was "Take it or don't come to the event. This is what it is." However; there is a slight bit of an issue with Unbound being able to stand their ground in this area. That would be their entry fee. 

An image from Trans Iowa v6 by Steve Fuller

When you charge a fee for an event, you are taking money in exchange for several things. The event production and maybe the race director get a portion of that. The fee covers insurance, technical things like timing, lights, tape, and race numbers. Stuff like that. Stuff many of you think about when you go to an event that "should be there". 

But there are also intangibles and unseen expectations at work here Things like "The course better be doable by at least 80% of the riders" (where THAT came from is pretty random) , or "My training better pay off here", or related, "My coaching better show up as being worthwhile here". 

Other things like, courses that leave gear in pristine running conditions, or easily traversed terrain, or how about having a big welcome at the finish. (Yes, really. I've seen and heard people have a conniption over not getting fanfare at finish lines) 

So, Unbound has all of that and this becomes even more of a pressure placed on the event organization due to the extremely high entry fee and the fact that the event is difficult to get in to. That it is a "bucket list" event also adds to the pressures with regard to people wanting some assurances/insurance that they will finish and have a good time. 

Well, here's news for ya: Failure Is An Option.  I get that it can be deflating, regrettable, and that it is really hard to see the person in the mirror in front of you as having the most responsibility in that. It's easy to point at the RD, the event, or someone else. But those four other fingers are pointed at the person who really needs to own up to what happened. 

And what happened could be 100% out of your control. Yep! Hard to swallow, I know. I've been there. I know all about this. And it is 100% relatable to this year's Unbound. 

I missed the cut-off at Checkpoint two at the DK200 in 2015 by two minutes.

So, back to Unbound and their high entry fee. You expect to be able to ask - nay demand - that for nearly $400.00 and more for housing, travel, equipment, etc, not to mention all that training time, that you shouldn't have to put up with _____ (Fill in that blank any way you want to) 

And Unbound, well, ya know, they gotta listen. Maybe they hold to their guns, or Corporate may lean on the RD's and say that they gotta start cleaning up the complaints. But I hope that they don't. I hope that Unbound doesn't sanitize their event. I hope that they don't think that they should change because of 173 Pro racers while ignoring the 3K+ others. This is not where gravel racing came from. You want a curated experience with a near 100% chance of a positive outcome as a Pro? Well, again - maybe this is not for you. And yes, we're okay with that. That's what I hope Unbound will do.

Gravel racing was never about making things easier. It was about an event that stretched you, that challenged you, that maybe no one would finish. And that was good. It was seen as something to be celebrated. Hard years at Trans Iowa were cherished and desired. We had a nearly perfect year for Trans Iowa in v12, the year I saw the most finishers ever for one event. You know what I heard afterward from many of the riders? They wanted to try Trans Iowa again and they hoped for a "mud year" because that would be a "real" challenge. 

In other words, the people at Trans Iowa, and many other gravel events, didn't want to participate in an event that "most people would finish". They wanted to be pushed to limits and see if they could go past them. I get that money invested in high entry fees, high-dollar equipment, (which is 100% NOT necessary to compete) and time investments, make it hard to see what is the thing that made gravel events take off. But I can tell you that making things easier, more sanitized, and "equal" is not a recipe for truly satisfying and soul - stretching experiences. 

Failure is an option.

Sometimes it is the best thing that could ever happen to you.


NY Roll said...

I am going to paraphrase a conversation I had with Lance Andre in 2014 about his fat bike race Triple D. I create my course to make people who are not serious, quit and quit early. I punch them in the face with intensity and difficulty up front. If they are serious they will rise to the challenge. Those who are serious see opportunity to win in the scenario. Those who are not, quit early and quit often.
Side note: I always finished triple D except for my last attempt in 2018 or 2019. My rear derailleur cage exploded. Somehow I got the perfect frozen sized weed in the cage, and it wedged at part.

Skidmark said...

Greets GT, maybe a disclaimer like our Dirty Pecan has: If you need a juice box and a hug every 20 miles, this ride is not for you.

Doug M. said...

There's the fun vs. challenge dynamic in racing that is well discussed, but I don't often see folks mention the stress and drudgery it takes to get to the starting line of a mass ride/race. Every bike event I participated in as hoi polloi was super-stressful, and scaled linearly with size. I can't imagine training, planning, spending, and clawing my way into an event the size of Unbound just to show up and have a miserable weekend. I'd make regrettable complaints too.

My solution was to stop going to events and just ride when and how I want, and life is the better for it! Horses for courses, but more folks need to be honest with themselves if it's really worth it instead of chasing FOMO, IMO.

Guitar Ted said...

@Nebo - I think it is relevant and insightful to consider Doug M's comment below yours as an answer to that take.

Guitar Ted said...

@Dog M - Right on. Yes, and I think this effect is contributing to the rise in social "group gravel rides" and individual adventure/bikepacking pursuits. While big challenges in an organized setting will always appeal to some, it is not for everyone. Too often media and cycling punters feel that EVERY event has to cater to EVERY person and EVERY whim. This is a recipe for negativity, failure, and division.

Finding that niche that speaks to your heart sometimes involves experiencing events that teach you that something you chose is not for you - if you are listening, you will learn. Those that end up wanting events to change to evolve into what they think it is they want to experience are the problem. Those people are working at it from the wrong end.

MG said...

I’m with ya’ 100%, Brother. Well said.

teamdarb said...

My only gripe comes from watching recap videos....participants walking and riding off course avoiding the mud. Every last one of them should be disqualified in my opinion.

Stud Beefpile said...

In 2015, I did the DK100, and was one of the complainers at the time. My wife rode it with me, and talked me out of quitting at the end of the mud section, and we both finished that day. Eight years later, I'm with you that the event should not cater to the whiners.

There is plenty of precedent and information available for every participant in Unbound to know what they're getting into. YouTube videos, Facebook posts, ride reports, personal experiences of friends, etc., etc., etc. The Rider's Bible (since renamed) tells us we are responsible for ourselves.

I'm glad to see LifeTime stick to their guns on this matter. The people who finished this year have epic stories to tell and reason to be proud of themselves for overcoming a physical and mental challenge. These types of personal challenges makes them better, more resilient humans, IMHO.

A-A-Ron said...

TransIowa is not 2023 Unbound. Even 2015 DK is not 2023 Unbound. The marketing has changed, the event has changed, and the clientele has changed, like it or not. Just because it was right for the type of race it WAS, doesn't mean it is right for the race now. For the cost, I think racers deserve to have an opinion. People can vote with their dollars. But that is UnBound's issue to deal with.

To me the bigger issue I would be upset about is running out of water for participants.

The other thing that I would love to hear your comments on G-Ted is Unbound XL. I "heard" stories of gas stations being overrun with muddy participants. Trash everywhere. Mud filled the store. A race to the cash register. If true, is this acceptable? Not the type of look I would want to present to the outside world.

Guitar Ted said...

@A-A-Ron - The crux of the issue lies within this comment you made: "For the cost, I think racers deserve to have an opinion".

Secondly, water, or the lack thereof, was also an issue in 2015. I know. I had to wait 20+ minutes for the water checkpoint to get resupplied. I missed CP#2 by two minutes. I don't think it takes much to understand why.

As for the XL issues, and more comments on the previous two things, see my post for this coming Wednesday. Too much to unpack here for the comments section.

Jay Schuur said...

great post. I disagree with your conclusion. I am a 5x DK200/unbound finisher and I DNF'ed 2023 at mile 176 (2nd aid station) because I was pissed and wanted to get a beer. My complaint was that the 3 mile mud section was unrideable after about 100 or so riders. I walked through and kept my bike pristine, but that ruined my day. Its a bike race, not a tough mudder. Everyone knows that road turns to PB with moisture. Why destroy people's bikes and make people walk when there was a simple reroute that had been used multiple times before. Its not like the other 203 miles aren't there to make it challenging. The race director has an obligation to the 3000+ riders they invited to make decisions about the course that will provide a reasonable experience. Walking 3 miles in mud in the first 15 miles is not reasonable.

Guitar Ted said...

@jay Schuur - The DK200/Unbound has a history of running the event when the dirt roads get rained on. The current race directors have stated strongly that they want to preserve that style of running their event. That's been public information and has been communicated via their promotions for years now.

In that case, you - the rider - have to decide whether or not to "buy into" (literally and figuratively) this ethos. In other words YOU have a CHOICE.

I used to tell people like you with this opinion when it came to Trans Iowa that, "Maybe this event is not for you".

There are upwards of 700 gravel events nationwide. I'm sure one exists that fits your needs/wants. OR, again as I used to tell people, "If it doesn't exist, make an event that fits your ideals for a gravel event." That's what we did. That's what the originators of the DK200 did.

Unbound is just a gravel bike race. It will be affected by weather. You may have that (and you did) affect your outcome. I see that as being fine. Again, not everyone will. It's about what you choose to accept or not. But doing five DK's/Unbounds and then still expecting that you will not have something beyond your control happen to you? Yeah.... I think you have the experience and that you know that is unreasonable thinking. It isn't your ideal outcome, but it is a possible one.