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Nearly 5,000 cyclists from around the world experience Kansas via the dirt roads

EMPORIA — Roads with minimal maintenance are a common sight when you live in a rural area.

Pick-ups, tractors and all-terrain vehicles have no problem traversing the often rugged and rocky terrain over hills and through flooded streams.

Now try that on your bike.

And that for hundreds of kilometers.

That’s what nearly 5,000 cyclists did as they set off from Commercial Street in Emporia for the Life Time Unbound Gravel races from Friday to Sunday.

Participants in the Unbound Gravel 200 mile mass start take photos on Commerce Street in Emporia Saturday morning before the start of the race.Participants in the Unbound Gravel 200 mile mass start take photos on Commerce Street in Emporia Saturday morning before the start of the race.

Participants in the Unbound Gravel 200 mile mass start take photos on Commerce Street in Emporia Saturday morning before the start of the race.

Gravel grinding through the Flint Hills

This year’s races saw the most riders in the event’s 19-year history traveling to Kansas from all 50 states and 40 countries.

Only for the third time did the participants cycle north from the starting line.

The 350-mile XL route took riders past landmarks like Echo Cliff in Dover and to Pillsbury Crossing outside Manhattan before heading back through the Flint Hills to Council Grove and Cottonwood Falls, reaching a total elevation of 20,458 feet over 352 miles .

Other routes include 25, 50, 100 and 200 mile options.

Topekan Alex Steflik poses with his bike after a fresh wash and a finisher's medal from competing in the Unbound Gravel junior 50-mile race Saturday in Emporia.Topekan Alex Steflik poses with his bike after a fresh wash and a finisher's medal from competing in the Unbound Gravel junior 50-mile race Saturday in Emporia.

Topekan Alex Steflik poses with his bike after a fresh wash and a finisher’s medal from competing in the Unbound Gravel junior 50-mile race Saturday in Emporia.

Topekan Alex Steflik, who experienced the race for the first time in the junior 50-mile class, was among the group of the world’s best riders who took part in the Life Time Grand Prix elite 200-mile race.

“I love it because I mean, I look up to those people,” he said. “It’s just so cool to be super close to them. And some of them will take a moment to talk to you and ask how you were doing.”

Steflik, who recently graduated from Seaman High School, competed as an athlete for SHRED Composite, a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) team in Topeka, during his college years.

Jim Phelps, 74, competing in the 25-mile race for the second time, said this is the endurance you need to train for.

“A few times I get passed by 20 of these speed racers,” Phelps said. “It’s just so impressive.”

Topekan Jim Phelps crosses the finish line after competing in the Unbound Gravel 25-mile race Saturday in Emporia.Topekan Jim Phelps crosses the finish line after competing in the Unbound Gravel 25-mile race Saturday in Emporia.

Topekan Jim Phelps crosses the finish line after competing in the Unbound Gravel 25-mile race Saturday in Emporia.

For exercise, Phelps said he trained by doing laps around Lake Shawnee.

Jason Dunderdale also completed the 200 mile route for the second year. On Saturday he left at 6:30 am and completed his journey 17 hours later.

The Capital-Journal caught up with him halfway through his ride.

“I’m having a great time,” Dunderdale said. “I’m a little behind schedule, but well ahead of my previous finishing times, so I’m having a lot of fun.”

Conditions were ideal as there was just enough rain to dampen the dusty areas a bit and not cause increased water flow at the creek crossings.

“It’s been ‘hero gravel’ pretty much the whole way,” Dunderdale said.

Dunderdale took part in a mass start with 1,038 other cyclists, with the elite classes starting just ahead of them.

“It’s always impressive to see those guys go and how quickly they can cover the distance,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about this kind of racing: it’s big enough to attract pros, so us mere mortals can share a race track with them.”

The best performance in the world

Unbound Gravel men's elite 200 riders will head towards Little Egypt Road during Saturday's race.Unbound Gravel men's elite 200 riders will head towards Little Egypt Road during Saturday's race.

Unbound Gravel men’s elite 200 riders will head towards Little Egypt Road during Saturday’s race.

The Life Time Grand Prix brings together the world’s top 30 men and 30 women in a series of cycling races that includes seven events and this year’s prize pool of $300,000.

Emporia’s Unbound Gravel is the second event and also the longest.

The men’s elite 200 mile winner was Lachlan Morton (EF Education-EasyPost) with a time of 9:11:47

“Honestly, I thought a win here was a little bit beyond me right now,” Morton said.

“The levels keep getting higher and I’m getting older,” he said. “I’m just really happy with how today went. I left alone with 190 kilometers to go against the wind, I just wanted to race hard and race with everything I had. I wanted to leave it all out there today, and in the end I did that.”

In the women’s race, German PhD student Rosa Klöser secured victory as her debut victory after a nine-rider sprint finish with a time of 10:27:02.

Klöser’s day was more eventful than expected as she recovered from a crash, a puncture and a wheel change that almost ended her race prematurely.

The Unbound Gravel elite 200 women's racers continue Saturday on Divide Road north of Emporia.The Unbound Gravel elite 200 women's racers continue Saturday on Divide Road north of Emporia.

The Unbound Gravel elite 200 women’s racers continue Saturday on Divide Road north of Emporia.

“This was my first UNBOUND. I only started cycling a few years ago,” she says, “and I’m still a full-time PhD student, so I cycle part-time. I still can’t believe I won! “

Kristi Mohn, marketing manager at Life Time, said the event continues to grow and change.

“We are so excited about the way the event turned out this year,” she said.

“It feels like we’ve taken everything to the next level,” Mohn. “Not only did so many people come out to race, watch and cheer on the racers, but the finish was a much better experience for all athletes – not just the age group athletes, but the elite riders as well. best of all was seeing a real women’s race taking place, but a nine-race spring? That was incredible.”

The next race in the series is Crusher in the Tusher, a 69-mile gravel ride in Beaver, Utah, on July 13.

The full results are available on the Unbound Gravel website.

Unbound Gravel 200 mile participants pass through Eskridge on the K-4 highway Saturday as they wind toward Alma and the Flint Hills during their race.Unbound Gravel 200 mile participants pass through Eskridge on the K-4 highway Saturday as they wind toward Alma and the Flint Hills during their race.

Unbound Gravel 200 mile participants pass through Eskridge on the K-4 highway Saturday as they wind toward Alma and the Flint Hills during their race.

“Endless dirt roads” in Kansas and across the Midwest

Unbound Gravel proves that communities become destinations for what they have to offer in the varying terrain, unique landmarks and sparsely populated roadways.

The evolving discipline of gravel cycling has opened the doors to a new kind of tourism for communities like Marysville, with roads that go on forever.

“Marysville is becoming quite a cycling community,” said Mark Hoffman, who stood at a booth Friday promoting the 11th annual Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash on Sept. 7.

Within the Marshall County city there is a mix of trails used primarily for cycling, including the Blue River Rail Trail which follows a 70-mile route to Lincoln, Nebraska. Just south of town is Alcove Springs Historic Park, which offers nine miles of single-track mountain biking trails in the 223-acre park and was a popular stop along the Oregon Trail.

The cattle grazing along Divide Road north of Emporia look unamused Saturday morning by the passing cyclists participating in the Unbound Gravel races.The cattle grazing along Divide Road north of Emporia look unamused Saturday morning by the passing cyclists participating in the Unbound Gravel races.

The cattle grazing along Divide Road north of Emporia look unamused Saturday morning by the passing cyclists participating in the Unbound Gravel races.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Hoffman said. “Gravel has really opened up a lot of things, especially for the Midwest, you know, because we have endless dirt roads. We have a network that never ends. So the possibilities, you know, just like our event we do a different trail every year. ”

Because of the event and the rail trail, Hoffman said Marysville bike shop Backroads Bicycle can service it.

Hoffman also helped create the website GravelKS.com with the motto “The State That Made Gravel Famous” and with 97,000 miles of trails available.

“There are other small communities that have gravel rides that bring people into town because we all have landmarks and historical things that we want to share with people,” he said. “And a lot of people like to go to small towns and escape the city, with less traffic, a slower pace and, yes, cycling is a great way to do that.”

This article originally appeared in Topeka Capital-Journal: Unbound Gravel 2024 brings top cyclists to Kansas in premiere race