Chasing Light and Gas Stations at Unbound Gravel | Craft Sportswear US

Chasing Light and Gas Stations at Unbound Gravel

by Chris Mehlman on June 16, 2022

Photo Credit: Mike Siegrest

Trying to encapsulate in words 20.5 hours of the most memorable race I have competed in is a monumental task. More than a race, Unbound XL was a life-changing adventure for my mind and my body. It was my 4th gravel race ever and came in my first season in this discipline, but I don’t think any amount of experience could have prepared you for a race like this. There were so many unknowns: when the first moves would go, how hard the beginning would be, whether I would be able to eat enough, how my mind would react, how others would treat the gas station stops, or how my body would hold up to such abuse.

Beyond the race tactics, the surreal nature of the experience will stick with me for the rest of my life. At sunset, our lead group of around 15 people was pedaling through a gold-tinted, open-range dreamland dotted with cows and horses. Coming in the first few hours, this moment stood in stark contrast to the night shift. Riding during the graveyard shift made me feel as though I was pedaling through a dystopian, post-apocalyptic landscape past deserted towns bathed in a harsh yellow from street lights. I felt as alone as ever despite being with other riders. Each gas station stop seemed like an oasis from the nightmare, yet each came with its own stress, as there was a scramble to get out of the store with the group. No one waited, and the idea of being alone at night 10 hours into the race terrified me. Our only company was animals: 2 skunks, 2 raccoons, 1 turtle, 3 deer, 1 armadillo, 2 owls, and more shining eyes of curious cows than I can count. At times, our little crew felt like the last remaining humans in some sci-fi movie. We were charging through the night, trying to save our lives.

Evening smiles had quickly turned to nighttime blank stares into the black abyss stretching out beyond the reach of our lights, which I desperately hoped was safe and smooth. Our future was not visible: only the 100 yards ahead of us. Maybe this was good. Maybe it saved our minds the stress and danger that comes with the knowledge of one’s eventual fate: sketchy downhills, washouts, mud, water, and rocks. However, riding at speed into this emptiness when I was so tired required a big leap of faith that I would be ok. I was so tired that my mind’s protection mechanism shut off and I eventually lost the ability to fear. Few words were exchanged. I was expecting the group mentality to become that of a cohort of sailors shipwrecked on an island: working together, yet eventually cracking and being unable to handle others’ minute errors, leading to anger and frustration. These cracks did appear, but not while riding. Rather, cohesion broke at the supposed safe havens of gas station stops when I, along with a few others, was left behind multiple times. With 200 miles left, cohesion was needed to help us all succeed, yet, in line with human nature in general, each person was looking out for themselves first and foremost and did not care about the others. I was ditched at multiple gas station stops and, at one point, tricked into stopping before another racer attacked when I was out of sight. Coming back to the front of the store and seeing no bikes was a serious hit to my already fragile mental state. It was so tempting to give in and let the group ride away into the open expanse, but I knew I would regret that later. I clawed my way back each time, using the anger of feeling deserted to draw more out of my mind and my sobbing legs. Such tactics did anger me. Pretending to pull off and letting me get out of sight around the side of the building before attacking felt like a cheap way to get a gap, especially with 90 miles left. However, racing is a free-for-all. There are no “unwritten rules'' in this type of race. The bitter taste in my mouth motivated me more. The last time this gas station ditch succeeded was with 40 miles left when 3rd place left me at the stop since he was ahead in line and did not need more water. Why I didn’t learn my lesson at the previous stops will always baffle me, but one’s mind reacts in unexpected ways in such a fatigued and confused state. The hectic nature of the stops was a surprise, given we had an ample lead over any chasers and we had so long left to ride. Human nature seems to turn everything into a battle and assume that others are out to get you, even if those same other people actually wanted a more relaxed stop just as much as you. As soon as one person rushed, everyone else followed, and soon, this race to nowhere became the norm. I needed food and water, so when push came to shove, fuel trumped speed. I can regret my choices or be happy the race panned out as well as it did. I know which option I should choose.

Photo Credit: Mike Siegrest

Cycling is typically about fitness, skills, in-race tactics, and mental toughness. Unbound XL took these to the extremes, throwing in a new element of rest stop tactics and making mental toughness and fueling two of the deciding factors: more than fitness.

As much as the nighttime and post-gas station chases dragged me to the lowest of lows mid-race, the sunrise felt like a new birth. I heard it was beautiful from other racers, but I wouldn’t know. The immense focus it took to pick the right lines through rock-hard ruts and to stay on the wheel after 15 hours of racing with no sleep gave me tunnel vision. While I was not able to enjoy the sunrise in its glory, the feeling of turning off my light gave me renewed motivation to keep pushing. Those who spent over 30 hours laboring on the course had an unimaginably more challenging experience. One sunset was enough to make me want to quit. I cannot fathom the despair they would have come with seeing the sun disappear for a second time in the same ride. To those who pushed through that, chapeau.

Photo Credit: Mike Siegrest

While missing out on third place by 1 minute due to the gas station stop was disappointing, I know I gave everything I had, and I was just as happy to finish as I was to end up in 4th. If I had had the legs, I would have closed that gap. I did not. For every racer who chose to take on this crazy challenge, finishing was an accomplishment. There are few race finisher pint glasses I will keep, but the glass we were given (which happened to be 2 pints in a nod to the XL) will stay with me. What will stand out to me for the rest of my life is the experience I had of pedaling through the night and the difficulty of ignoring the realization that I had hours left to ride before sunrise. Those 9 hours and 17 minutes of darkness made up the most emotionally-potent period of racing I have ever experienced. I believe that the experience of pushing to sunrise and on to the finish and realizing I could, in fact, do it is applicable to the rest of our human experience. Humans and society are going through an Unbound XL experience without knowing it, especially now. The race taught me that even in the darkest moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel when you believe it is coming and push away negative thoughts. No matter how hard the going in, you can, and we can reach that light.