Emporia, Kansas, sits in the heartland of the United States. A small, vibrant college town where a student at Emporia State University is credited with creating the sport of disc golf and making the hamlet the ‘disc golf capital of the world’.
But the community also expanded its fame over the past 17 years in the world of cycling and has become the centrepiece for gravel riding and racing. Everyone now not only knows where Emporia is located geographically but continues to build its stature historically as the home for Unbound Gravel. Paying homage to the nearby Kansas City Chiefs NFL team, three-time Super Bowl winners, locals are proud to call the hometown race the ‘Super Bowl’ of gravel.
Unbound Gravel started with 34 riders in 2006, then had 100 in 2007, and they rode on one route, 200 miles of expansive dirt roads. Now there are six routes from which to choose, and 4,000 participants clamour to get acceptance through a lottery process. Pro cyclists from around the world make this a key race for the year. But what caused the explosion in the popularity of the event?
“I can’t remember what year it was that Rebecca Rusch showed up, but she was the ‘queen of pain’, a multi-time MTB national champ, and a legitimate legend. She showed up and legitimised it, and the buzz started happening,” four-time Unbound Gravel 200 men’s champion Dan Hughes told Cyclingnews.
Hughes etched his name in history as the first winner of the event. He recalled how the event grew and pegged the year 2011 as the start of the explosion. That is the year when he won his third 200-mile full-course race in Emporia, and Rusch won her first race there in the women’s category. She stamped her authority on the event, finishing only six minutes behind Hughes for third overall among the mixed-gender field of 258 finishers.
“It went from 34 to 100 and then 200 to 400. Every one of those years, I was like, well, fast people are gonna show up next year. I think it started with Rebecca [Rusch] and then Ted King, the first of the WorldTour riders to retire and race gravel. People came to the event and were just gobsmacked at how hard the event is, and how beautiful it is, and how great the community is. And now it’s 4,000 people,” Hughes added.
“The first four years, the event started and finished at this raggedy hotel on the north side of town. But in year five, Kristy Mohn, with the Main Street Coalition, moved it downtown. And I think that was probably the first stepping stone to certainly draw more people.“
Amanda Nauman, a two-time 200 winner and a runner-up in the XL 350, said it was Rusch who peaked her interest in racing in 2015.
“Rebecca had such massive results, for me to line up next to her in 2015 was a really big deal for me. And that’s one of the cool things about the mass-participation events, in general, is that situation can actually happen,” Nauman told Cyclingnews. “And then Ted [King] winning on the men’s side, it was the same idea. How am I gonna stack up against Ted? So people got that feeling from 2013 through 2016.”
The Rusch is on
Rusch remembers her first trip to Kansas well, saying, “What is this thing?”
“It is kind of interesting the explosion [of Unbound]. A sponsor wanted me to go to this gravel event, and as a mountain bike racer, I didn’t want to go because I’m not a ‘roadie’, and roads are going to be boring. At the time, I had three 24-hour solo World Championships and four Leadville wins. Nothing on the road ever appealed to me. It was a job requirement, so I went,” Rusch told Cyclingnews, with a short chuckle and adding, “I’m not tooting my own horn” in relaying the story.
“I took it seriously, like any race. I got my equipment all dailed, Dan [Hughes] helped me get a mechanic, and I treated it as a professional. Other people who were professional athletes weren’t coming to gravel because they just didn’t know about it, same as me. The 200 miles to me was not a big deal because I raced 24 hours at the time.
Her tune changed after just one competition. Rusch said the dirt roads “have a lot of character”, provided a technical challenge, and it was a good fit somewhere in between mountain biking and road cycling.
“You know, I was a naysayer, and literally, I couldn’t have wanted to do anything less. But I was forced to go, and I was wrong about it. It was actually pretty exciting,” the cycling legend confirmed. “A mass of people riding together that did not appeal to me as an explorer and a mountain biker, someone who likes to be alone in the wilderness. So it wasn’t a big sort of mass conglomerate that I feared it might be. The terrain was exciting, and it was kind of fun. I found it was a lot like mountain biking.
“I took it seriously, went back to defend, and it became part of my race schedule for a number of years. And, honestly, Unbound was part of the big motivation for me to launch Rebecca’s Private Idaho.”
Rusch is now in both the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and the Gravel Hall of Fame. Her resume spans cycling world championships to motivational speaker to winner of an Emmy Award, now has race promoter as another accomplishment as her four-day off-road cycling event. Rebecca’s Private Idaho takes place August 31-September 3 in Sun Valley, Idaho.
“There are high-profile racers coming into the sport, and equipment is developed for it now. So I don’t want to take credit for making [Unbound] amazing. It didn’t have to be me. It could have been any professional athletes that happened to come. I just happen to be the one that showed up. I won a bunch of times in a row. People got excited about that,” she said.
“While I may have helped bring a lot of exposure to Unbound, Unbound also gave me a lot too.”