‘Experience counts in the Flint Hills’ - How will European pros fare at Unbound Gravel 2024?

The likes of Matej Mohorič and Greg van Avermaet are aiming for success at Unbound this year, but will they be able to beat seasoned gravel riders?

Unbound 200 can only be described as the very pinnacle of gravel racing. The UCI Gravel World Championships may take place later this summer, but there’s a strong argument for Unbound being a better representation of who the best gravel riders in the world are. Raced over 200 miles traversing the Flint Hills of Kansas, Unbound is known for its difficulty, from the gruelling distance; to the rough terrain which can wreak havoc on bikes and kit; to the growing depth of field in both the men’s and women’s races.

The start list for the 2024 edition of Unbound is a perfect representation of how the gravel discipline has evolved in recent seasons. Just a few years ago, the elite field would have been made up almost solely of American gravel riders, while the event now boasts a far more varied and international peloton, including some well-established current and former professional road cyclists. 

Matej Mohorič winng the UCI Gravel World Championships (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

In the men’s race, a stand-out favourite is Matej Mohorič, the current UCI gravel world champion, who also brings two of his Bahrain-Victorious teammates with him. Alongside Mohorič, former road professionals like Petr Vakoč and Greg Van Avermaet are also targeting Unbound. Despite their experiences in the UCI WorldTour, however, there are some fundamental differences between road and gravel racing which are only learnt through race experience. Speaking the week before Unbound Gravel, Van Avermaet was quick to point out that he somewhat underestimated the challenges that come with gravel racing at the highest level.

“I’m still scared of the distance of Unbound. It’s been my strength to do long races and I normally get better as the kilometres go on, but this distance with my preparation scares me a little bit. But it also gets me out of my comfort zone so I will see how it goes,” the Belgian said. “You have to organise a lot of things alone and be ready for it, also material-wise it’s really important. This kind of stuff is underestimated a little bit. I still have questions to ask.”

The competition that the likes of Mohorič and Van Avermaet are going to face at Unbound from American gravel professionals will be stiff. Keegan Swenson dominated the Life Time Grand Prix gravel series last year and is the defending Unbound champion, while Peter Stetina is the recent winner of the Traka 360 (a prestigious gravel event which was held in Spain a few weeks ago). The American rider argues that experience is crucial when it comes to racing Unbound due to the risk of mechanicals and the unsupported nature of the event. He believes that this is where riders who have experienced the race before have the upper hand, especially considering that there is a course change for the 2024 edition of Unbound.

“Winning Traka takes pressure off, but in gravel things change by the minute, especially on the northern course of Unbound. One thing that I do have is I’ve raced the northern course twice, both in 2019 and in 2021. I know what it is and it’s completely different from the south. It chews up bikes and tyres and it’s a lot of luck. All you can do is prepare at home. I don’t know how much practice Greg has in plugging his tyres and preparing at home,”  Stetina stated in a press conference before Unbound.

The men's lead group at last year's Unbound 200 (Image: Life Time Grand Prix)

“This year is the deepest field we’ve ever had. All of the Life Time athletes are known quantities, the unknown is the influx of European-based riders. It comes down to how these guys prepare, we know that they have the engine but we’ve seen in the past that a lot of WorldTour riders come expecting to demolish, but experience counts for something in the Flint Hills. It will be interesting to see how the fire at the front changes things. It’s going to be a record-breaking year regardless of the conditions.”

Another element which European professionals are bringing to the gravel scene is teamwork. While working as a team is common in road racing, gravel has largely been an individual sport in the past. However, as more and more riders compete in races like Unbound with shared sponsors and with a mindset that comes from road events, many riders are expecting team tactics to play a bigger role than ever in this year’s gravel races.

“I’m riding together with Petr Vakoč, we are both riding with Isadore clothing. We don’t have a game plan but I see he is strong and he has the legs. He won Traka and he’s still motivated, he had really good preparation and he looks forward to the Unbound adventure,” Van Avermaet explained. “We can help each other as he has more experience on the gravel, it’s a good combination with each other.”

In the women’s event, riders working as teams is also expected to have a big impact. Three of the key contenders for the Unbound race as Specialized athletes: Sofia Gomez Villafane (last year’s Life Time GP winner), Geerike Schreurs (who comes from the Netherlands and races for SD Worx) and Sarah Sturm (an experienced American gravel rider who finished third at Unbound last year). Sturm believes that these riders can use each other to get the best result possible in Kansas.

“Gee and Sofia have medal potential. I’d like to throw my name into that hat. I’d like to mix it up with some team tactics out there with the women,” Sturm explained. “Team tactics are coming to women’s gravel and I think it’s exciting. It’s something that the Europeans might bring to the US and I think why not?”

The chances of mechanicals are high at a race like Unbound (Image: Life Time Grand Prix)

The added complication in the women’s elite race at Unbound is the opportunity to draft off male riders during the event. While the women have a separate start time, it’s not uncommon for them to catch some of the slower elite men riders (or those who have suffered from mechanicals) which means the men’s event can end up impacting the result of the women’s. The organisers of Unbound Gravel were considering implementing a ‘no-draft’ rule for 2024, though they eventually came to the conclusion that it would be too difficult to enforce across the wide expanse of course. 

Villafane has expressed her disappointment surrounding this decision on her social media, writing in an Instagram post: “I truly believed Unbound Gravel were going to figure out a way to give the elite women a race that would be protected from start to finish and not allow any men to affect the race dynamics or outcome. So much progress has been done over the past two years and I am thankful for the separate start that was implemented in 2023 and the added time buffer that will go into effect in 2024 but we still have a long way to go.”

The issues surrounding fairness in the women’s race, alongside the intricacies that teamwork brings to Unbound, plus the influx of established current and ex road professional riders taking part in gravel events is all symbolic of a growing and changing sport. Whether the challenges of doing mechanics on the fly and not knowing the Unbound course will mean that the European riders are at a disadvantage next weekend or not is yet to be seen, but one thing that’s certain is that Unbound 200 is going to look different in 2024. The gravel discipline is constantly evolving, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch it unfold.

(Cover image: Life Time Grand Prix)

Shop now