We’re just days out from the 17th edition of Unbound Gravel, the biggest gravel race in the world with 4,000 participants battling it out across the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas.
Off-road careers can be made in Emporia, which continues to draw world-class talent in search of glory. Familiar faces such as Keegan Swenson, Ian Boswell, Laurens ten Dam, Peter Stetina, Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes are all back for yet another crack at the 200-mile marquee event. And they’ll be joined by an old WorldTour comrade and gravel newcomer, Jan Bakelants.
The Belgian was a professional road racer for 14 years before retiring in 2022. Throughout his career, Bakelants raced 14 Grand Tours and notably won stage two of the 2013 Tour de France, where he held the yellow leader’s jersey for two more days.
“The UCI world title of Gianni Vermeersch received a lot of coverage here in Belgium and got my attention. After 15 years as a pro, you can imagine I have seen every road many times near where I live. On gravel, you discover new things, like you’re on vacation but from your own house,” he says.
Bakelants said gravel has given him fresh goals to keep riding for though he enters his first Unbound without expectations.
“There is no stress about the results,” The Belgian says. “I did that for 17 years. This year will be about learning, a recon year. The goal might be as simple as to finish and have fun.”
At the international level, the discipline of gravel racing is only just gaining momentum. The UCI organized its first UCI Gravel World Championships in 2022, and many national and regional championship are premiering this year as a result.
In the U.S., however, the discipline has had a steady following for some time, and an increasing amount of non-American riders have been crossing the pond to find world-class competition on American gravel roads. In 2022, Dutchman Ivar Slik became the first non-American to win Unbound, and the European contingent of racers, led by Laurens ten Dam, are growing stronger each year.
With more competition than ever and serious thunderstorms forecasted for race day — bringing the possibility of mud, river crossings, and even more chaos—, Bakelants is in for quite the ride.