And perhaps no other street name is as appropriate for this finish line's home as this event epitomizes the commercialization of gravel riding and racing in North America. Maybe even for the world, as far as gravel goes.
While the evolution of the DK200 into Unbound has been well documented here and elsewhere, I wanted to see where this event has led not only gravel cycling in general, but how Unbound has affected the town of Emporia, Kansas. Enough about the winners, the social media posts, and the Facebook comments, what about the average citizen in this town? What really makes this event tic? These are some things most of us give little thought to. But as large as this event has become, as important to the cycling calendar as it has grown to be, there are still six times as many residents who live there, make a living there, and call Emporia "theirs" as there are racers. It is from these people that the backbone of Unbound is formed from.
So, briefly, please allow me the chance to paint a picture here for context. It is safe to say that for several of the early years of the DK200, most residents of this once sleepy little Kansan town were totally unaware of gravel cycling. A few nut-jobs showed up every early Summer, rode around out there in the Flint Hills, and disappeared as quickly as an afternoon pop-up thunderstorm on the prairie, never to be heard from again. But at one point, an enterprising businessman approached co-founder of the DK200, Jim Cummins, with an idea. Bring this downtown. Let's get the local businesses involved, we can grow this to benefit the community. That's what I overheard as I was sitting within earshot of that conversation in 2009. UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Kristi Mohn, also a member of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame, was the first to suggest this to Jim and Joel in 2008. The gentleman I saw a year later was influenced by Kristi's idea, so credit where credit is due. Thank you Kristi Mohn!
That was the impetus that began the slow evolution from this event having less than 100 riders overall in 2009 to having 160 riders two years later, and ten years after that the event grew to host 2,626 riders in five event distances. This year in 2023? The event is claiming to have approximately 4,000 riders!
This obviously has strained the resources of Emporia to their limits and maybe beyond in some ways that most people never think about that attend the event. 4,000 riders with support people. 4,000 riders with all the infrastructure, UNBOUND staffing, volunteers, and extra help businesses bring in to service the attending riders and support people. This doesn't even consider media and event expo people coming in to cover the event and show company wares and services. In fact, Emporia Police Captain Ray Mattas estimates that the entire population of Emporia grows by 8,000 - 10,000 people over the four days of the event.
|A local grocer gets into the spirit of the event with this display.
But big money windfalls that come in a short window of time not only stress the community's resources but the residents themselves to a high degree. I watched a female employee of a motel near the Kansas Turnpike sigh and in reserved tones explain that she was on day four of a 14 day stretch of work because taking the Unbound weekend off was not an option for her.
In another case, where we saw an effect on the local economy, my wife and I walked into a restaurant on the Wednesday before Unbound where there were no clean tables and after ten minutes of waiting we ended up leaving without being spoken to. Apparently they were so busy they couldn't keep up with the lunch rush.
Back at the motel on Thursday morning a discussion arose amongst some locals who did not know the details of the event other than that it snarled the usual traffic flows and that it involved "thousands and thousands of cyclists". Disruptive cyclist who were making impacts on the local citizens that the cyclists probably were not thinking about. Heads were wagged and eyes were rolled, but you somehow got the feeling that the bother was worth it somehow.
|Vendors were setting up on Wednesday for the All Things Gravel Expo.
Up to that point the man hadn't been riding a bicycle since childhood. After the event, he discovered the gravel riding community that had grown up around the DK200 event. This got him even more interested in gravel riding in the Flint Hills and eventually he entered the DK100. After riding several 100 mile versions of DK/Unbound, he has stepped up to ride the 200 mile event.
Mike said after that Lunar Kanza ride he was smitten with the Flint Hills. He loved the welcoming and accepting qualities of the local gravel riders. He felt welcomed and encouraged. Now he is ready for the big miles.
Mike was pretty stoked about the gravel scene around Emporia and thought Unbound was a worthwhile event for Emporia overall. Mike did admit that there were "pockets of resistance' locally to the gravel scene and Unbound. Despite that, he felt that most folks thought it was a good thing. Mike said, "I suppose the town benefits from it economically. At least from what I've heard it has", voicing the general populace's views on the production.
However; not all is well in Gravel City. Last year, a man named Greg Bachman was tragically mowed down out on a gravel road near Emporia by a driver of a truck, a local resident, while Greg and his wife were riding a day or so before the 2022 Unbound. An article published on a Colorado based website paints a picture of anti-cyclist bias in the police's handling of the case, (Read that article here), and many questions are raised concerning responsibilities for rider safety and public education. So, while there is much good that Unbound brings, there are still some areas that could use some improving.
While today you'll see scads of posts celebrating the wins, the epic efforts, and the crazy conditions which typified this year's edition of Unbound, there is a "behind the curtains" thing that is going on and has a huge effect on Unbound and those who ride in it. Things that, if one of them goes wrong or haywire, (like Greg Bachman's death) it could derail the entire event and its future.
While we engage in debates about aero bars, race tactics, and "fairness", don't forget that there is an entire foundation which exists that supports all of that to even exist as a thing. Consider the motel worker, the police officer, the waiter and waitress, and the people at the sanitation department. You are not bringing 4,000+ people and all the accoutrements associated with that to ride an event without those people and more.
Those are the people behind the curtains that are the real heroes of Unbound.