Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Unbound 2023: An Event That Is At Odds With Itself

 It has been over a week and still the issues that plagued the 2023 Unbound Gravel event are still percolating amongst journalists, social media folks, and riders. The event saw not just some tough conditions, but some tough to deal with issues. Issues that are at odds with the event's heritage and where it has grown itself up to this point. 

I received a comment on last week''s post I wrote on Unbound that was three pronged in nature and was going to require too much verbiage to answer in a comment section. Besides, all of you readers would have missed out, and I think this is a relevant, current issue. Part of the comment deals with an ongoing debate that has been in circulation amongst the "gravel faithful" since the 2000's. 

Part 1: Money & Influence

 That ongoing debate being a two faceted one entailing how gravel events are to be run and also a question: When does the pursuit of money/earnings/profits debase the ideas behind grassroots gravel to the point that it (the grassroots ethos) no longer exists?  Some may think this debate started this year with Unbound Gravel. They would be gravely mistaken. I was told that the 2023 Unbound is not relevant to how the 2015 DK200 was, or how Trans Iowa was run, but oh! It is 100% relevant. In fact, all of this is one continuous thread which has evolved- yes - but historically and ethically the issues are related in a very meaningful way. To think otherwise is short-sighted and - frankly, wrong. 

Consider that during this year's Unbound, there were reportedly many destroyed parts, people angry, disappointed, missing the time cuts, not finishing, getting defeated by a water stop that ran out of water, etc. That all is a mirror image of what happened in 2015. What is different? Well, people paid a lot more to get into the 2023 event, but relatively speaking, the people that paid to get into the 2015 DK200 did as well. That event was, at that time, the most expensive, hardest to get into, (maybe Trans Iowa was harder to get in to, but that event was free), gravel event on the calendar. So, historically speaking, these two events are very congruent. Comparisons are not only fair, but expected. Does paying what riders paid to get into the 2023 Unbound mean they "deserve to have an opinion "? (Read: Have influence over the event) Well, if it does, so does what the 2015 DK200 riders paid, and really, using that logic, what any rider paid for an event. How you answer that debate will give you an outcome that is either chaotic, or one that is orderly in nature. 

While the ethos of gravel events has always included challenges such as muddy roads, today's culture of high-dollar gravel events has some riders challenging those values. Image by Wally Kilburg

When an event is run as a for-profit venture, the fees, again- read my post last week - are not just an admission price to ride. These events cost money to put on, and they support some people's livelihoods.  Again, because people get paid to do event productions doesn't mean that they don't care - If anything, you could argue that it means they care more. Without you, the riders, they lose a job. So, I think that gets lost in the debate sometimes. 

But when an event gets into a mindset that a "paid for event/experience" has to look a certain way, or have certain amenities, or have a certain level of competitive athlete attending, then compromises have to be made. If an event started out as a smaller, more intimate affair, and "for profit" ideas start to infiltrate that original ethos, things will naturally change. Simply stated, you cannot have the same event anymore. You can try to balance things, but eventually, you either go all-in, or you quit. The grassroots part fades away. There seemingly is no other way for an event to "grow". Not in this culture. 

Part 2: Logistics For Big Events

As mentioned previously, water was an issue for Unbound this year, (reportedly) and I know for a fact that it was an issue in 2015. The problem stems from "estimating" your needs. This isn't a big deal for an event that has existed for years and remained the same, or nearly so, for all that time. However; in the particular case of Unbound, this event hasn't remained the same for two years in a row at anytime in its history. Especially so in terms of rider participation. 

Basing needs off a known number of riders is easier to dial in than to try to project needs to a bigger field of riders based off a smaller field of riders. There are so many variables. Add weather variances into the equation and things get really squirrely. Imagine that this year's Unbound was drier, but was hot, like over 100 degrees hot. If they ran out of water this year at a high temperature of 90°F  I cannot imagine the carnage a 100+ degree day would have added, and that temperature is somewhat common for that part of the country in early June. So, that failure to supply riders, if true, is regrettable. 

I used to get concerned when even a few riders descended upon a convenience store. Image from T.I.v12

 Part 3: When An Event Idea Is Scaled Up Too Much

Now, maybe I am flattering myself to think this, but when the DK folks came up with the XL idea, I think it was based off of Trans Iowa, which was always a self-supported, 300+ mile, self-navigated challenge with a time limitation. While that idea may seem somewhat appealing to event organizers to add to their existing event distances, there are a couple of very important points that seem to get lost in this idea that are salient to its success

One: The original idea is to have "self-navigation" be by cue sheets, not by GPS, and this is a VERY important part of the idea. Without that you are just really putting on an extra long time trial on unpaved (hopefully they are unpaved) roads. Cue sheet navigation is a HUGE part of what made Trans Iowa what it was. Second: This idea cannot work with large fields of riders IF they are to use native resupply options as their source for water and food. Overrunning convenience stores with dirty, uncouth looking outsiders that drain the shelves of vital goods that locals rely on is NOT cool. Especially if those riders leave a mess behind that others outside of the event have to clean up.

I have been told that not only does the Unbound XL have a GPS guided course, but that their field was so big that they overran convenience stores and caused a lot of concerns with local businesses and local residents. If true, that is just really wrong, and not the way we as gravel promoters want to leave our trace.Which, ideally would be no trace.


Unbound, when it was it was known as the DK200, was originally an event with a completely different feel, rider experience, structure, and goals. It grew to be this behemoth of a corporate run affair over the period of most of two decades. It is vastly unlike its beginnings, yet it clings to vestiges of its past with a dogged determination that would seem to be silly looking at it with 2023 glasses. 

When Kimo Seymour, President of Life Time comes out and states that, " long as I am here, we're never going to change a course just because someone wants to make it easier.", he sounds like one of the early pioneers of gravel events. (I may or may not resemble that comment) On the other hand, when the event charges $290.00 for a 200 mile experience, or $250.00 for the XL, and makes you go through a lottery to even get the chance to pay that, then a certain amount of expectations are going to follow. Can an event like this dictate to riders that they just have to suck it up and deal? 

That's a great question, but what this underscores is the fact that Unbound is perhaps at a crossroads of sorts where it needs to reexamine what it can retain from its past while staying true to its mission to its corporate overlords to make a profit. I think much of that issue needs to be debated within the confines of Life Time's offices. 

Meanwhile the participants in this event, and other gravel events have to exercise their liberties. If an event seems distasteful, demoralizing, uncouth, or otherwise negative, you do not have to participate in it. Unbound did not start out being "The Biggest Gravel Show On Earth", but it was declared as such often enough that you believed it. That could change, but that means you have to decide that it will, or that it won't, based upon your decision to participate. That is often called "voting with your dollars", but in reality, it is a meaningful action of yours that does, in fact, have influence. If you give that up, go ride in Unbound, and still complain about Unbound afterward, well, there is no help for you.


KC said...

I think I've heard or thought "DK is at a crossroads" since at least 2013. It's so different now but it's been a steady evolution since I went to my first in 2010.

Guitar Ted said...

@KC - Yeah, I'd agree with that. It has a lot to do with the fact that - in terms of promotions and the "eye test", the DK200 was the pinnacle of the gravel calendar since around that time. Most people coming in to the gravel cycling scene after 2013 were doing so because, in part, they had heard about the DK200.

Ironically it was also about that same time that co-founder Joel Dyke stepped away from the DK200. So, I would agree with your assessment because of Joel's philosophical differences which led him to his decision, and that combined with the perceptions of the DK200 at that time and going forward.

It's obvious looking back at the history that this time period, 2010 - 2013, was when the DK200 made the turn towards being more of a corporate affair/for profit/sustainable income producing event. Many lamented this, many thought it was a sign of the "ruination of gravel", that gravel had sold-out.

Again, we have a way of "growing things" in this culture which often is centered around the generation of capital and income over that of human experience and needs for event participants. We have a way of defining "success" in terms of participant numbers and cash generated. Bigger is "better". I'm speaking in overall, general terms here. It is the framework within which many minds see "growth" in business terms. The DK200 became a business first in the early twenty-teens. It left the challenging human spirit first ethos in second place and since that time that part has grown to become less important, especially so with the purchase by Life Time Fitness of the event.

So, to your point, the "crossroads" has taken years to get through, and when you see Life Time trying to keep some of what the DK200 was, in its early years, alive it makes me think, - at least internally at Life Time, that they see that heritage as being something of value yet. But to fully get through the "crossroads" they've been stuck in for so long, the management is going to have to decide if they truly want to go all-in on their corporatization of the event, or if they want to try to continue to hold on to those shriveled vestiges of the early DK200 and "die on that hill".

I don't think the second option is a viable one, and I have not thought so since Life Time took over the event. When they changed the name to Unbound they should have just jettisoned all the old ways and reformed the event in their own vision. What they have done has put them in a very difficult situation, and I think that Life Time's trying to grow their participant numbers, as they clearly have, and to have a Pro cycling level event congruent with the old event ways, is at odds with what the DK200 really was all about. In other words, I don't think what they are doing as it stands now is viable long-term. The crack in the armor - so to speak - was shown this year by the way they set the fields and now with the aftermath of the situation.

But I'll be the first to say I'm wrong if Life Time pulls through this as they have it set up now. Time will tell.....

DT said...

i just came here to say BILL GRAVES CAMEO APPEARANCE!!

Guitar Ted said...

@DT - Ha ha! Yes, there he is!