In my younger years, living in Sydney, I remember turning a corner, one of my regular corners in my regular inner west neighbourhood and seeing one of the many street performers that scatter themselves on the busy main street during rush hours. So often I never noticed, walked on by and didn’t think back. But this man. He could sing. A clear and concerted voice, a passion and artistry and a song I had never heard… possibly an original. I stopped, I listened, I found some change to donate to his guitar case, and I continued to do so for the next year whenever I came across him. I never knew his name, but wow I was a fan.
About a year later, I flipped the radio station in the car, lackadaisically browsing the FM channels, when I heard a voice, and I thought, wait I know this song… I know this voice. This is my street performer. He had a breakthrough video on YouTube performing an original, and next thing, he was recorded and it blew up worldwide. I was torn. In one way I was so stoked for this amazing artist, as he’d made it, his sweet song was now for everybody. Yet there was a part of me that hurt, this was my band, mine! And when I told people how I was one of his original followers, it was met by a whole series of blank looks which shouted, who cares man, this song is a banger. In case you all are dying to know, the song is Let Her Go, and that street artist is now globally known as Passenger.
And there I was, a passenger of the more traditional sense at my first Unbound. This event/race has grown into something of a monster. It’s beyond big in every sense. Not only for the fact you basically have to get lucky on a lottery to get a start, but for riders, this is the Superbowl, the Wimbledon, the Tour de France of Gravel. And not only for the riders, but commercially, every company that is trying to etch its name in the sport are all fighting for space, to be noticed, to be the star in the tidal wave of content and advertising that comes from and out of this race.
So what does this mean? Well. I can’t speak for the commercial interests directly, but as a rider, and a fan of the whole (I HATE TO SAY THIS) the spirit of gravel – Oooh yes I used the most overused expression in the sport right now, the spirit at Unbound was not what I expected. Did I miss the years when Unbound was my busker?
Naïve perhaps, I too have followed the Instagram stories of Ted King, Laurens ten Dam, Ian Boswell and the feeling was that Gravel in the USA is super-chilled, super-relaxed and the racing is just riders all on the same even playing field, going head to head and high fiving whoever won. This is like, the antithesis of the WorldTour, so you can see how it’s attractive right?
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How wrong was I! I turned up with a bike bag, a few essential tools and spare parts, shoes, kit and a helmet. Go time. A friend of mine, Cowboy Steve from Campagnolo USA flew in the night before the race to help me out in the feed zones, which at this point I already thought, man, how pro am I! Little did I know…
At Unbound, many of the USA-based pro riders had a whole team of helpers at the feed zones. Somebody to swap bottles, somebody to change hydration packs, somebody with a pressure washer to spray the bike down, another on lube duty and for those worried about tire damage, F1-type drills and well-oiled wheel changes were actually a thing… I was woefully unprepared.
By the time I’d swapped my bidons and grabbed a new bag these guys had clean bikes, new wheels, full bottle swaps and were already 10 seconds in front attacking out of the feed zone. It was game on!
I think it’s actually totally badass that Unbound is this serious, that the racing has become so professional, so to speak. Because winning this race, can actually change a rider’s life. It’s not a big deal, it’s a HUGE deal to win it. So obviously, this professionalism and racecraft will follow. But it begged the question, has Unbound created a type of gravel racing separate to any other?
I think so. Personally, I was a bit unsure of what to think about USA gravel after Unbound. I was contemplating my approach to the racing thinking: OK, If I’m to focus on this next year, do I need to up my investment to compete with these guys? As a European-based rider, what will it take for me to be on this level investment-wise? Well, Ivar Slik won as a non-American, so that says a lot, and also says that you don’t need all these accoutrements to win, but for sure, they help.
The week after Unbound, I headed to the Belgium Waffle Ride in North Carolina only to be met with the exact opposite style of event. No team feed zones. No spare wheels. No pressure washes and also, much less pressure. The course was actually way more interesting, the race vibe was chilled, the venue was like a big party and the racing? The racing was lit! So was it the same? Not at all. The heads of state in terms of pros were all just smashing each other, every climb, every downhill, every moment. The winner Pete Stetina showed a masterclass of timing when he attacked our front group. After the race, chill vibes only and everybody was just enjoying the tales of the day’s effort. It was serious racing, 100%, but I turned up with a bike bag and kit and managed to get second. It felt like the playing field was equal. It felt like (I’m about to say it again, sorry) the spirit of the sport was exactly what you see and hear about online.
So no, gravel is not becoming too professional. I don’t think at all. However, Unbound is a beast of its own, a standalone event with so much build-up, so many commercial and personal interests that it has in fact become much of what we all thought gravel was counter-culture to. But does that change my dream to go back? No. Does it change how awesome the event is? No. Would I ever say Unbound is still the most important race to win? Absolutely. It’s just a class of its own, a tidal wave that now can’t be stopped.
But are the riders that first turned ground on the 200-mile epic 16 years ago on janky bikes with cantilever brakes feeling the same as me about their old favourite band? Well, they’re likely not even on social media so who knows. But maybe, just maybe, they miss the old vibe. But hey, to steal a line from Passenger, perhaps overthinking this whole thing might be best met with the simple yet poignant sentiment to just ‘let her go’.