Unbound Gravel Tips & Tricks 2024

Unbound Gravel Tips & Tricks 2024

Posted by BigCommerce on 13th May 2024

Ventum Pros on how to survive Unbound Gravel 2024
The men's pro field at the Unbound gravel race.


From nutrition to tactics, sage advice from four of Ventum’s top gravel pros on how to survive the 2024 Unbound Gravel Race.

It's nearly time for Unbound Gravel 2024. It's the biggest show in American gravel racing, or as Ventum athlete Zach Calton calls it: "the Final Boss of Gravel." 

A little over 200-miles in length and this year covering the infamously brutal North Route, Unbound is arguably one of the hardest races in North America. We asked a few of Ventum's veterans of the race to share advice on how they manage the day. From nutrition to tactics and bike setup to the songs they'll have stuck in their heads, this list will give you insight into how to race Unbound Gravel 2024.  

Ventum racer Emily Newsom at the 2024 Mid South gravel race.


Emily, in 2021 and 2022, you finished 3rd at Unbound! With the race now heading back to the North Route, are you planning any changes to your bike?

With the rough terrain, I will definitely be running wider tires! How wide is yet to be determined, but for sure a 45c or more. I will choose a tough tire that can handle the sharp chunky "gravel" and will install air inserts for the possibility of an unfixable flat. In 2022 I ran inserts and they saved my day in that they allowed me to continue riding to the aid station and switch wheels after I ran out of Co2's fixing multiple flats.

Newsom's bike setup for the 2024 Mid South Gravel race. She'll likely change a few things for Unbound.

With the North Route being more rocky and rugged, are you considering any changes to your bike setup or equipment choices beyond just tires and gearing?

I may run a cushier bar tape, namely the Arundel Gecko Pave!

Mechanical issues can be a significant challenge in gravel racing. What measures are you taking to ensure your bike is mechanically sound throughout the race?

Air liner's, plenty of Co2's, a waxed chain barring wet weather, and a top notch mechanic who will ensure everything is running smoothly pre race day!

How do you plan to adapt your race strategy to tackle the steeper, punchier climbs on the North Route compared to the previous years?

It all depends on how the race is unfolding. If I am with a group, I will make sure to punch with those around me so as not to lose the benefits of being with them. If I am solo, I will monitor my effort to stay relatively steady as the bursts of power can be rapidly fatiguing. In general, staying under control whether in a group or not will be key to having a strong second half of the race.

Can you share some insights into your race-day nutrition plan? How will you fuel yourself to tackle the demanding North Route ?

My plan is a balance of drinking a moderate amount of carbs and ingesting a variety of both gels and waffles. Most likely I will also make some energy balls sweetened naturally with maple syrup so I can vary my intake. It becomes challenging to take in calories after 6-plus hours of racing, so having options will be important. I will also have higher sodium gels, such as the UnTapped Salted Citrus, in the event race temperatures are high.

What's one song or mantra that gets stuck in your head on these extremely long and grueling events, and do you think it'll be on repeat during the race?

When the going gets tough, there are a number of things that my mind latches on to. Sometimes it is a song or short mantra, but more often I tend to pan out and view the big picture. For instance, if my body is not responding how I'd like it to, rather than feeling disappointed, I give myself specific encouragement; thinking thoughts that will help me continue on, versus bring me down. If I am flying, it is of course much easier for the positive self-feedback to flow. There are few things that give me greater pleasure than reaching halfway through a race and realizing I've only just begun tapping into my physical resources. If this is the case I continue to monitor my effort, keeping myself somewhat in check until I reach a point where it is safe to empty the tank to the finish line.

This will be Zach Calton's first Unbound racing the Ventum GS1.


Unbound is looming as the biggest event of the year. What adjustments have you made in your preparation for Unbound compared to last year?

Yeah, Unbound is a major target for the year. On paper it doesn't suit me, but I put a lot of work into making it suit me last year. With my average race duration going up a lot converting to a gravel racer last year, I necessarily had to add a lot of volume to my training to be prepared for the season in general — Unbound especially. This meant a bit more cautious approach to intensity.

With the volume in my legs coming off 2023 in a bit better spot, for sure the training is harder, a bit longer, but also a bit more intense with a focus on really having some punch at the end of the 10-hour day instead of just getting through it. I've also just been making time and space to get my GS1 off road more often, it's a long day and it requires a lot more than just fitness to get through. Building up those calluses and rigorously testing equipment is a super important piece of the puzzle too.

If you encountered a fellow participant midway through the race, what's one tip you would offer them to help them push through?

Eating more than you think is critical both in the days leading up but also out there. We do run into quite a few of the 100 mile and 350 mile participants out there and a lot of them are simply bonked. Both the legs and mind tend to go quick when you're out of sugar, but if you can train your gut to eat a lot of sugar, that's worth probably a year of training in itself in an event that long.

But from a mental standpoint, you just have to try and remember why you're out there and how short a 10 to 15-hour race is compared to the year(s) of preparation you've put into it, so don't leave any regrets out there, and go for it!

What are your thoughts on the North Route for Unbound? Have you raced in this direction before?

Never raced the North Course. Last year was my first year out and it was plenty rough for me, but I'm excited for the additional challenge of what I hear is a much rougher course. The harder the race the better for me. I'd rather lose because I didn't have the legs than because I missed the wrong split, and a tougher course increases the odds that the strongest prevail so that makes me happy. Two hundred miles is plenty of time to recover from a flat or other issue if you're prepared and the course is selective enough.

Reflecting on your racing experiences this year, what's been the biggest learning curve for you?

For sure just being more conservative with equipment selection. When reflecting on last year and races gone awry, it was typically due to a crash or other issue that maybe could have been avoided if I had better control of my bike. I ran full slicks a lot last year with the mindset that I wouldn't lose the race due to handling but due to fitness, so a bit faster rolling tire, more aero position, etc. was the move.

However, I think there is so much chaos in these gravel races that a bit more cornering and braking traction, a more comfortable position on the bike, more mud clearance etc goes a long way in avoiding or minimizing setbacks when someone chops your wheel or whatever other unpredictable event happens. I really like the slacker, longer wheelbase setup I have on my GS1 compared to my bike last year for fitting larger tires and stability at high speed. Even if knobby-er tires cost you two watts or whatever, it's worth not hitting the deck or flatting, and you're bound to have dozens of these little scares over the course of a 200 mile race.

What’s one song you've had stuck in your head while training and will be playing on repeat during the race?

Man, that's tough. My go-to lately has been 93 'til infinity by Souls of Mischief. Higher by Creed has made a bit of an ironic comeback lately but it kinda hits 7-hours into a ride even if I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it lol.

Ventum athlete Emma Grant after finishing the Unbound Gravel 200 in Kansas.


This will be your 3rd time racing Unbound. Are you going to be making any major changes compared to prior years?

Just little tweaks here and there! My biggest life-changing tweak has been buying a car — which already feels quite performance enhancing to take a little more control of prep. On the bike, I’m going for SRAM’s mullet one-by gearing this year. Tires are a TBD, but maybe I will go for a fatter Kenda Alluvium this year. I am also doing the bulk of my training at sea level this year in Tucson, so I’m pinning my hopes and dreams on race day being really hot.

This year’s North Route is known for grueling and rocky terrain. Are there any equipment modifications you are going to make that are unusual?

Mind, body, and bike are three things you can influence, so yup, dialing in my GS1 to work for the terrain and then just surrendering to whatever the flint rocks have in store for me. A tad more sealant than other races, tire inserts, and a slightly lower pressure are just a few of the things on my Unbound to-do list.

Is Unbound going to be your first race of the 2024 season?

Nope, I’ve already done CO2UT. That was a long-ish chance to test out equipment and fueling and remember what race day alarms feel like to the nervous system.

You’ve spent your off season in New Zealand. What was your favorite part living and training over there and how do you think it helps with your preparation for Unbound?

NZ, being a skinny island, has fairly unpredictable weather. It’s an all-four-seasons-in-a-day kind of place, so I think that helps with getting in the right frame of mind to handle whatever Kansas throws at you. The winds can also be a little bonkers so I am quite accustomed to staying calm whilst trying to stay upright. I am very fond of NZ for the great outdoors and time in the bush totally disconnected from the rat race of life.

What would be your biggest tip for an athlete racing Unbound for their first time?

Don't sweat the small stuff. Walking around the expo and sizing up everyone elses gear can psyche you out and make you question everything. Just own your prep, embrace the day, and trust yourself to do your best.

What song is playing on repeat in your head right now while training and do you think it'll be stuck on replay during the race?

Shut Up and Dance by WALK THE MOON. Those lyrics get me out of my head and into a more flowy state!

John Borstelmann at the finish of the Mid South 2024 gravel race.

John Borstelmann

John! With your extensive experience at Unbound, how many miles of the race do you estimate you've covered throughout the years?

I've raced and finished Unbound four times, twice on the north course and twice on the south course. So that makes for a total of about 813 miles in 45 hours and 43 minutes. Much of both of the north courses are the same, as are the south courses. So maybe something closer to 500 unique miles of Flint Hills gravel covered over the years specifically during the race.

With the race returning to the North Course after two years on the South Route, have you adjusted your training regimen in anticipation of the different terrain and challenges?

The north route is undoubtedly hillier and chunkier than the south route. But both require a very similar type of training and equipment. The front group will most likely get whittled down faster this year, but plenty of strong riders will be able to hang until several hours into the race. I have had the option of using aero bars both previous times I raced the north course, so without those this year, it will be even more important to stick together with riders who I'm comfortable with and who will cooperate well. Some of the north route's longer climbs will make the heat seem even worse, so hydration is absolutely crucial to being able to put out a strong effort for the whole day. And, of course, the bigger your tires, the better.

Reflecting on your past Unbound experiences, can you share a moment from the race where you hit a low point mentally, and how did you push through it?

The lowest point for me in all my years of racing Unbound was last year, 2023, in the depths of the mud pit at mile 11. My bike got stuck six times, and six times I had to dig out my tires using my fingers and a paint stick. After the sixth, I found a puddle in the middle of the road, gave my bike a full bath, shouldered it, and walked the remaining 5 miles until the road turned back to gravel.

I had gone into the race with excellent preparation, hoping for the best result of my career, but I couldn't manage to get through that mud in any sort of decent time. It didn't help that I got cursed at multiple times by other riders trying to pass me as I trudged down the middle of the road. The rest of the course was at least rideable, but there were plenty of other low points, like when a 45 mph crosswind hailstorm at mile 160 convinced me that sheltering in a ditch was the most prudent course of action. But in the end I managed to finish in a relatively decent time, proud that I had put my head down and pushed through, despite all the misery and disappointment.

What motivates you to keep pushing forward, even when faced with extreme challenges during the race?

"Taking a step back" and looking at my situation from a bigger perspective helps me persevere through the extreme challenges of a race like Unbound. I think about how lucky I am to have the opportunity to take on such a challenge, and all the years of training and preparation that have gone into the effort, and how good it will feel to finish knowing that I gave it everything I had. And at the end of the day, I will have a nice shower, meal, and bed to go home to. So, in the grand scheme of things, pushing through what might seem like an insurmountable challenge on the bike is really just one hard day.

What’s your setup going to be for this year?

I'll be running my amazing Ventum GS1 with the Ventum CR2 all-road integrated bars/stem combo, SRAM Red XPLR 1x48t chainring and 10-44 cassette, Zipp 303 Firecrest wheels, Specialized Pathfinder Pro 47c tires with Cushcore inserts, Shimano road shoes and pedals, either Abus GameChanger or StormChaser depending on temperature, Voler Velocity Versa Suit, a small top tube bag and a hydration pack for most of the race.

What song is playing on repeat in your head right now while training and do you think it'll be stuck on replay during the race?

Variety is the spice of life. If I had just one song stuck in my head for all of training and the entire 200 mile race, I would probably lose my mind. But I have been listening to a lot of Dave Matthews Band recently, no one song in particular, sorry.