Monday, June 05, 2023

Unbound Gravel: The Real Heros of the Event

 The gravel racing scene in North America just held its "Super Bowl", its premier event. The event with the biggest pay-off for winning in terms of life-changing benefits to the male and female Pro who pulls off the win there in Emporia, Kansas on Commercial Street. 

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.
Despite the meteoric growth of Unbound Gravel over the years you'll be hard-pressed to find any locals that will publicly voice any negativity over the event. It undoubtedly brings in a windfall economically to the community. LeLan Dains, head of Visit Emporia, claims that in 2018 the impact was 6 million and "is probably more than that now". Given the nearly doubled amount of riders since then, I'd say he's on to something there. 

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.
Then there are residents of Emporia that are directly impacted by the Unbound gravel event and have had their lives redirected as a result. I met one such man, who I'll call "Mike", at the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame after-party. Mike told me that around 2016 he was made aware of an event called Lunar Kanza, a night time gravel event which was about 50 miles in length. More or less this was a for fun ride in the middle of Summer. 

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.


Phillip Cowan said...

Amen to that! Being somewhat of an introvert I try to keep my life hoopla free. I think it might be fun to spend a long weekend in Emporia to ride the flint when Unbound wasn't going on. I gather there are other rides in the area at other times of the year. This sort of slower but steady tourism would be easier on the locals.

Jon Bakker said...

I'm glad someone took a bit of a deeper look into the community and impact the (mainly) one day event has on the city and its people. We have a few similarly large cycling events in MI that are tackled differently, but each seems to go off without a hitch.

The Iceman Cometh mtb race (mostly two track, sand, and a limited amount of single track - has been won more than once one a gravel bike, and hundreds ride it with gravel bikes). 5000+ riders, point to point. They handle it mainly by segregating the crowds from the main populace at the start (where they take over most of the Kalkaska's airport grounds) and the end (where they take over a resort campground, Timber Ridge, just outside of Traverse City). There's also an expo the day before the race at a local resort (Grand Traverse Resort and Spa). Economically, Traverse City is big enough to handle that kind of influx housing-wise as it is a resort-ish town during the warmer months of the year anyway. That said, the big spots where money is spent by the groups of people are essentially finessed by the circumstances to the Expo (which is not within walking distance of any off-site restaurants/shopping, so everything benefits exhibitors and the facility) and the finish area vendors/campground resort. There's nothing to buy or do at the airport that I saw. Many riders stay at the local hotels, though, so it probably has an enormous impact on the town, but there's probably not a lot of trickle down to the average person. This is my take as a rider, of course, and I'm not complaining, just observing.

The other event, Barry-Roubaix, which takes place in Hastings, MI, had 4400 riders this year and takes a very different approach to Iceman (and seems similar to Unbound) - the bulk of the event is in downtown Hastings, where several blocks are shut down for the start chute/finish area and for the after party. Barry involves shorter distances than Unbound, so riders spend more time in town, and the whole downtown opens up to the crowds. Every downtown shop is open for family and friends of riders, and it's all walk-able. The shorter event means people are generally only there for the day, and housing needs are restricted to the relatively smaller portion of riders who come from far away and to the limited registrants who sign up for the 100 mile distance (the longest on offer). Most 62, 36, and 18 mile riders who live in the lower peninsula of MI can probably drive there the morning of the event, park, pick up the packet (in the basement of the local hardware store!), warm up, race, and enjoy the fellowship afterward. Hastings and Barry County residents are also out in force during the race, holding up signs, cheering on riders, ringing bells, handing up water, and in one case even cold beers!

I enjoy both of those events and will be racing them whenever I can swing it, but they have different and intentional approaches to their interactions with the community, and if I had to pick one over the other, I prefer the Barry-Roubaix environment to the Iceman. The Iceman finish is something else, to be sure, but that's only a slice of the event. The biggest difference is that I can come and go to an Iceman and I won't even see downtown Traverse City. At Barry-Roubaix, however, you can't race there without seeing and experiencing the city of Hastings and its people.

Guitar Ted said...

@Jon Bakker - Thanks for the very insightful comment. It sounds like you say - The Michigan events are big but are operating on a different principle in many ways. Great comment! Thanks for reading!

MG said...

Amen… The people of Emporia have been, and continue to be, very accommodating, despite the fact that it brings a week of chaos into their world.

Jay Schuur said...

thanks for writing this. I have ridden DK200 and now unbound 6 times from 2017 up through this year. I have watched it go from a medium sized event to a monstrosity. The people of Emporia, Madison, Eureka and the other towns are the heroes, and I thank them every chance I get and make sure to spend money locally.