Styled as the world’s greatest gravel cycling event, the Garmin Unbound Gravel race attracts some 4000 riders from across the globe each year, a melting pot of pros and ex-pros, fast amateurs and outsize characters alike, all seeking to test themselves (and their tyres) against the unforgiving Flint Hills of Kansas.
Based around the town of Emporia, a 3-hour drive to the geographic centre of the United States (if you exclude Hawaii and Alaska), the 2021 edition of Unbound marks the sixteenth time this super-size event has hit the flint. Not that many people would know it.
All-road, gravel, bikepacking – call it what you will, but riding modified road bikes off-road wasn’t a recognised category in the early aughts. Still, many cyclists were pointing their wheels off-road nonetheless, emulating the early days of the Tour de France in the randonneuring tradition, to which events like Unbound owe a large part of their popularity, albeit without the panniers and brevet cards.
Of all the events on offer at Unbound, the 200 is the most hotly contested (participants of the XL, a 357-mile monster may well disagree), with serious speed, meticulous preparation and a bunch of luck the order of the day for any rider looking to place well or even complete the course in one piece. And this year, our friends and partners at Above Category and Enve were there, teaming up in a collaborative assault on the leaderboard, spearheaded by AC’s hard-charging Brennan Wertz.
A first-time racer at Unbound, Brennan made the switch to bikes after rowing for Stanford University in a career that saw him take bronze at 2016’s Under 23 World Rowing Championships in Rotterdam. Trading the water for wheels certainly didn’t slow him down, as his growing top-tier road and gravel palmares and stand-out performance at Unbound attest.
For anyone interested in preparing for and racing Unbound, Above Category’s journal has lots of helpful information, including some beautiful pictures of a very special Mosaic GT–1 made especially for the race. And over on Enve’s site, you’ll find an in-depth look at the design and development process of the team’s cycling clothing, which we had the pleasure of creating for the race as part of our Custom Equipment program.
With its simple, logo-led design, heat-beating white colourway and orange accents, the AC x Enve jersey takes advantage of our proven R2 silhouette. Not only is it featherlight, but thanks to R2’s advanced, strategically-placed fabrics, it’s also incredibly breathable and fits like a dream. In other words, it’s the perfect bike jersey for Unbound.
For the matching bib shorts, Brennan and crew fell in love with the long-distance comfort provided by the Unique Bib’s chamois and the feel of the Gregarius Ultra’s body. So we combined the two, creating somewhat of a hot-rod bib short that carried the team in comfort to the end of the race and Brennan to a deserved tenth place, an incredible result for a first time Unbound entrant.
If there is a golden rule of riding, it’s don’t change anything before a big event. But some rules are meant to be broken, which is why, with only a week to go before Unbound, Brennan traded his old footwear for our new Unique Adventure shoes.
“I’m usually extremely paranoid about all things cleat and shoe,” he said, phoning in a few days after the race to give his feedback on his new footwear. “But once the Adventure Shoes arrived at Above Category and I had a chance to try them on, they felt so good so quickly that I decided to throw caution to the wind and make the switch.”
And it wasn’t long Brennan had a chance to use the shoes in anger, lining up for a pre-Unbound tune-up at The Huffmaster Hopper gravel race in Northern California, where he placed 4th on a fast 89-mile course, proving that his new Unique Adventure shoes delivered speed as well as comfort.
Fast forward a week and some 200 miles of shoulder to shoulder racing through the dust and heat of Unbound, and Brennan’s shoes got another chance to prove themselves, this time with a brutal sprint to the finish line to secure his tenth position. “It was only after the race that I realised I’d set a new power record for 2021 on that sprint!” he said, laughing at the memory. “I’d dropped back a few wheel lengths behind the other rider to tighten up the BOAs – I often tweak my tension as temperatures change and the Uniques make fine adjustment super reliable – and as soon as it felt right, I pressed for home and the shoes delivered in spades. The sole is so perfect for big power efforts and the sort of hike-a-bike that you get when gravel riding that I can’t imagine a better platform for a race like Unbound.”
Equally important but often unmentioned are cycling socks. They might not be headline-worthy, but pick the wrong pair, and your feet can suffer, especially in the heat of competition. At Unbound, Brennan matched his Unique Adventure Shoes with our seamless, ultra-fine and incredibly soft Ultra Longs to create the perfect pairing for a summer of fast-paced gravel racing.