Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity

Or something like that…

June 2022 was an absolute whirlwind – a cyclone of bike racing, family visits, road tripping, week-long event production with a world record, annnnnd COVID. But it all kicked off with Unbound XL, and I want to share some highlights of that experience before they turn into one green and golden and dirt colored mushy memory. So, let’s start with day one:

So clean at the start line!

Paul met back up with me at the hotel after his volunteer shift. I’d been drinking my Skratch Wellness Mix, trying to keep eating, packing up the final gear (more on that later), and completing a 10min test ride where I realized (a) I had a strap rubbing on my wheel, (b) something was squeaking just a tiny bit but I couldn’t diagnose the problem, and (c) it was hot out.

He drove me down to town where we wandered through the expo to get to the start line. I arrived with ~10+ minutes to spare but it was already complete chaos. Riders and friends were all smushed together. Race director Ben was making an announcement about a detour just before the first gas station but all I could hear was “closed road” and “pink flags”. I crossed my fingers I’d figure it out when I got there. My friend Eric from Boulder and a couple BaseCampers were at the start. I was excited to see them and so happy they were there, but everything was happening so fast that I didn’t really get to say too much to them.

And then the countdown was starting! A quick rush to make sure my Garmin inReach was on and my phone was in airplane mode (thanks to Paul’s reminder seconds before the start) and we were off!

My inReach sent a GPS ping every 10 minutes which went to an online tracking board. This was for rider safety, but also meant Paul and others could follow my progress.

It wasn’t until we were rolling that I realized I was in the back. Like the waaaaay back. No matter. I figured I had 350 miles to catch up, so that’s what I started working on doing. The first hour I spent working on catching groups in front of me and getting ahead of them. Slowly I leap frogged passed riders at a steady tempo pace working to find a group I could work with. I rode alongside one woman who looked “very strong”, and a couple of folks who’d already been thrown off the front third due to their fast pace.

Eventually I caught up to Anna, my Ride or Die teammate, who was riding alongside a VeloNews writer named Betsy (whose article “How in the hell do you race Unbound XL?” I’d just read in the hotel an hour before the race). They were going a steady endurance pace, and I slowed to join them. Before long the “very strong” woman caught back up to us and introduced herself as Sarah. The four of us grouped up and soon both caught and were caught by a couple groups of guys as we headed towards “the cattle pens”.

This is the key open range area of the ride where the route cuts along private ranch land and cattle roam free. I remembered it from the April camp, and I remain steadfast in my healthy fear of animals that weigh 15x-20x my weight.

Heading towards more cows

Mostly the cows just sit on the side of road and watch as you go by. However, if there are too many cyclists or you’re going too fast, or they just feel like moving, the cows can stampede across the road. We thought we’d made it through the thick of it and were just relaxing when all of a sudden several cows came charging across the road immediately in front of us. We all slammed on our brakes, incredibly not crashing into the cows or each other. It was a bit of a heart stopping moment which we all recovered from quickly, but it did not make me any happier about having to weave around future cows.

The next hour or so was spent riding along with various folks, appreciating the headwind because it took a little of the bite out of the hot afternoon sun. A lot of those early miles were fast and fun, and we found some sizable puddles to go through soaking our feet early on. I’m not sure mine ever fully dried until after I finished – just as they would get close another puddle would appear.

Flint Hills gravel and oil wells (Sarah on the left, Betsy on the right)

At one point, I remember someone commenting on how he felt like he’d barely even started riding and everything felt super easy. This was maybe 40 miles in, so it was a very reasonable comment. But I was already thinking that my legs were feeling a bit sluggish and a tiny seed of worry popped up about how well I’d be able to do.

At some point I realized we’d lost Anna, and eventually she came riding up behind me. But she wasn’t doing great, her stomach was super queasy and she wasn’t taking in any liquid or food. I rode with her, trying to think of things to chat about to take her mind off her stomach. She’d started at the front, alone in a sea of older dudes who took off at a breakneck pace (several of them blowing up just an hour or two in). That tough start, along with race anxiety and the heat, was making her ill. We rode together for a while – she wanted to make it to the little resupply shop in Cassoday about 60 miles in – but her pace was slowing. Finally her body relented and she ended up solidly vomiting on the side of the road for a few minutes. She was worried her race was over (understandably) but I had hope and encouraged her to get to Cassoday (just a few miles away), eat and drink, and reassess. We rode the remaining miles into the town, finding and successfully navigating the “road closed” detour.

Population 100 “give or take a few”

I’d tried to spend the earlier part of the day pulling together my plan for the resupply shops (which were mostly gas stations every ~60 miles). From everything I’d read, and everything I knew about regular aid stations, I knew these stops were both a place I could hemorrhage time but also where I should be smart in making sure I was organized for the next leg. My plan for Cassoday was to just grab water. I’d already gone through both bottles on the bike and a good bit of my hydration bladder thanks to the heat. I rolled in and waited in line to use the sink, wanting to get in and out as fast as possible. I’d been happy to bike with Anna, but I was also anxious to get rolling and gain some more time. I refilled one bottle with GU drink mix and the other with Skratch SuperFuel that I’d brought in my jersey pocket for fast access, and added more plain water to the bladder. I tossed out some wrappers, confirmed Anna was going to chill and rehydrate, took my phone off airplane mode to shoot a quick text to Paul “At Cassoday”, and jumped back on the bike.

Between slowing my pace to hang with Anna (normally super strong, but who can go all out when you can’t keep any food in!?) and the rest stop, I now had a lot of energy to burn. I wanted to see if I could catch back to Betsy or Sarah who I’d seen rolling out from the aid station as I was getting water. I’d just hopped into a pace line when a cool thing happened — a rider came up from behind waving a credit card asking each rider if they’d dropped it. Happily, its owner was the guy in front of me. He’d apparently dropped it at the store without realizing it, and it would have been a long race without it! I stayed with that group for a few minutes, but soon realized I was going faster and split off the front solo. I wondered if I was burning too many matches, but took to heart what my coach Namrita had said which was something to the effect of: “When the going is fast, go fast”. Knowing it would soon be dark, I kept on the gas.

Cruising solo on a long stretch of gravel road

Somewhere in here, as I was taking pictures, I briefly turned my phone off airplane mode. I’d silenced everything except for texts from Paul. What I saw when I turned it on was a slew of messages. I didn’t read any except to catch Paul’s which said, “Check InReach. Not pinging.”. As I was riding I awkwardly grabbed my inReach which was nestled in its usual spot in my Feed Bag. It wasn’t that it wasn’t working, it had simply turned itself off. Oof. I turned it back on texting back “On again” and got a confirmed “Working” before I shut off my phone. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh boy, I bet a lot of people are texting to Paul to ask what’s happened since my dot hasn’t been moving”.

I carried on and soon spotted Jeff, one of the guys who had finished the overnight at gravel camp in front of me. He was working on pacing steady up the hills, admitting he wasn’t quite feeling his best. We leap frogged each other for a while as the light faded. Around this time my Garmin bike computer got very cranky. It’s old and loved (I’m its third owner) and sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work right. It had loaded the course fine, but suddenly it was telling me to take a U-turn. I could clearly see riders in front of me, so I was hesitant to believe it. A rider nearby confirmed we were “on this road for the next five miles”. I spent several minutes trying to reset my route and going through circles trying to get it to reread the course. Eventually everything got on track again, but it left me slightly worried. What would happen if I lost the course alone in the dark?

Speaking of the dark, I had thought out my set up through pretty well — my front and rear lights were already set on my bike, and my clear glasses and helmet light were in my feed bag in easy reach. I didn’t need to stop pedaling to get my night set up ready to go.

Night set up, activate! Clear glasses are a must for gravel to protect your eyes from rocks!

I tried to find a balance between being able to see well enough to keep my speed up and saving my lights. I was fully prepared (mentally and physically) to go into and even through a second night. I had a spare helmet light but only one front light, and I wanted to be a touch conservative.

8:45PM and the light is fading

Just after 9PM I turned on my lights and mentally got ready for the night ahead. Just before things got pitch black, I did manage to skirt around a sizable snake that had decided to just hang out in the middle of race course. And shortly after that, I rode up alongside a familiar face – Betsy! She and I were riding a fairly similar pace, and we settled in side-by-side. Shortly thereafter we were treated to a wonderful show of fireflies along both sides of the road. Oregon (and most of Colorado) doesn’t have fireflies, and I was quickly transported to my childhood 4th of Julys spent catching fireflies after the fireworks. It was a welcome start to the evening. Before long the lights in front of us had faded and we didn’t see any lights behind us. The true night riding had begun.

The next hour went by quickly and, just after 11:15PM, we rolled into our second stop at the Jump Start gas station in El Dorado. I’d been trying to assess what I needed to buy in my head. I had a short list of high(ish) carb, easy to eat things in my brain (fruit snacks, pop tarts, sweet iced tea, etc.) but the bright lights and selection felt briefly overwhelming. Just a couple days after finishing I had already forgotten exactly which foods I had bought at which gas station. However, I do know this — my stomach, which had very much appreciated the first bottle of high calorie Skratch SuperFuel in the heat hadn’t tolerated the second bottle I’d made of it at Cassoday quite as well. The temps had come down and it was more than I needed. I was craving Oreos, but knew that Fruit Snacks were a better option for the number of carbs. I grabbed a large bag of them (“sharing size”), a pop tart, a large rice crispy treat, and a sweet iced tea. Back outside the store I dumped the iced tea one of my bottles, put the pop tart in my gas tank, grabbed some ‘tried and true’ snacks from my backpack (including my favorite Spring Awesome Sauce ‘gels’), and shoved the rice crispy and fruit snacks into my backpack for later. However, I didn’t really want the food I’d grabbed, and I’d spend the next few hours trying to convince my stomach it needed to eat while regretting not getting those cookies.

I was ready to go fairly quickly, but Betsy wasn’t quite ready. Deciding it was silly to ride off by myself into the night just a couple minutes ahead of her, I opted to eat more pop tart and wait. Our front lights combined made the road much easier to see, and company through the night (especially from another female rider) was unexpected but welcome. Just as we were getting ready to roll out we spotted Sarah coming up behind us. I must have passed her at some point between Cassoday and here, but I don’t know where! She was just headed in to buy her snacks, so we waved goodbye and set off.

The only picture I have from the middle of the night – we stopped for Betsy to pee on a fairly smooth section of road. Not pictured are the cow eyes glowing off in the distance…

Once again, my Garmin started acting finicky. Without Betsy, I would have had to stop and confirm the route on my phone or, more likely, dug to the bottom of my pack and pulled out Paul’s Garmin (which I had grabbed as a backup knowing mine could be weird). But that would have taken time, and Betsy was kind enough to make sure I didn’t make any wrong turns.

The night riding had been pretty good overall – some chunky gravel areas that made your teeth chatter a bit – but nothing horrific. However, thanks to all the rain we’d had prior to the start, we soon came through an area with massive ruts, likely caused from folks driving along the wet roads. The going here was slow and unpredictable – one moment the road was fine, the next you were getting bounced around and slammed into mud so high your tires couldn’t clear it. We passed one guy standing alone and asked if he needed help. “No” he said, “I fell and I think I have a concussion but my friend is coming to get me”. We stopped to make sure he was really, really okay and then, confident his ride was on the way, continued on. Not long later we came across two guys sitting in the road. Betsy knew one of them and waived hello at the same time we realized the second guy was down on the ground with an arm warmer covering his face. Apparently he’d gone down in the ruts and sliced open his face, his clear glasses thankfully protecting his eyes. They had called an ambulance and sent coordinates, but it had been 40min and no ambulance had yet arrived. After confirming there was nothing we could to do help we continued on, keeping a careful eye on the road in front of us.

We didn’t see too many other riders until all of a sudden Jeff, (the rider I’d seen much earlier in the day from gravel camp), came up behind us. We’d seen him briefly at the last gas station, along with his very kind wife who cheered us on, and we played a little leapfrog over the next couple hours. He’s a confident and skilled rider, and came with some speed just as we all were coming to a corner. Betsy and I were side by side since we’d seen so few others, and he went to ride around us only to go right into a set of deep ruts. We came across him a few seconds later standing on the side of the road. He thought his tire might have unseated, but assured us all was likely fine, and we continued on.

This brings us to maybe 2AM, about 11 hours and 150 miles into the race. It’s here that Betsy made a pee break (her third, while I still had yet to go). And it also seems as good a time as any to put a cap on part one. The wee hours of the morning, sunrise, downpours, deep mud, new friends, and a lot of fruit snacks are all still to come. Part two is here!

Author: cartwheelsandcake

Cyclist, climber, hiker, trail runner, back country skier, dabbling mountaineer Lover of cake, chocolate, brownies, and sweets. Excellent napper.

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