(Kansas) – Gateway to the Unknown
June, 2023. Somewhere south of Emporia, Kansas.
As far as I can see there is nothing but vast rolling hills with nothing but grazing cattle and the occasional pickup truck for company. These are the Flint Hills of Kansas, in the heart of Middle America. As I ride, almost surfing over the crunch of rough gravel, there is not a single tree to break up the endless horizon. Though I was born only a half day’s drive north in the same Midwest, I’ve never felt like I was in such a foreign land. In fact, I’ve never ridden in such an unforgiving, alien environment. Not in my daily rides through my adopted homeland in Tuscany, not the peaks of the Dolomites, nor Tierra del Fuego, Argentina at the gateway to Antarctica.
Here I feel an overwhelming sense of isolation. The howling headwind, relentless infernal sun, and constant threat of thunderstorms and tornadoes remind you in no uncertain terms that out here, survival and perseverance are solely up to you.
When we got to Kansas, it seemed a bit like a joke out of a reality TV show. An American, an Italian, and an Irishwoman go to Kansas in a pick-up truck to see if they can survive a day (or more) racing through the endless fields wind, baking sun and constant threat of tornadoes. We drive up to a house in the middle of nowhere that, in theory, is our Airbnb. Emma, our Irishwoman chimes in,
“Who wants to go ring the bell to see if they greet us with a shotgun?”
We’d been traveling from Spain and Italy for a few days now, and anyone who’s been to the farmlands of middle America can tell you that finding addresses isn’t so easy, and people have a ‘slightly’ different view on property rights and gun ownership. The rolling hills may be green in Kansas, but that’s about where the similarities with Emma’s native Ireland end. She sure hasn’t lost her typically Irish sense of humor on her journey from her adopted hometown of Girona, Spain to the American Midwest.
Fortunately, there were no guns, but we did stay in a hunting lodge. After all, in the infamous Flint Hills, south of Emporia, self-sufficiency is essential. Without it, you will flounder, spinning your wheels in the mud, dirt and pastureland. This is a pioneer country, where you have to keep moving to survive, but with a cruel twist: ride as you might, but the horizon never gets any closer.
As a rider, Emma’s determination and matter of fact way about her with a great ability to see the world from an outside perspective and make light of difficult or peculiar situations served her extremely well on the rough roads, baking sun, thunderstorms and gale force winds that she encountered on her journey to Emporia and back again. Emma is a unique character in the often self-absorbed world of cycling. She knows how to be serious and professional in her racing and training, but not at the expense of making a joke about the absurdity of two Europeans and an American getting lost (figuratively and literally) on the roads of middle America. After all, making light of the situation is key if you’re going to have the success she’s had.
After lighting up a “for fun sprint” (her words, not mine) to the delight of the crowd, Emma rolled to a stop, brakes squealing in protest of riding 13 hours through thick mud, she finally came to a stop. Caked in mud and completely spent, the media team asks her, “how’d it go?” Without skipping a beat, she looks dead in the camera with a twinkle in her eye, and offers the most honest post race interview possible, “FUCKED”. She knows what she’s just accomplished despite the short notice call up to gravel’s biggest event. Something tells me she wants more from Unbound. She’ll be back.
This is Unbound – no matter how physically prepared you are, it becomes a test of mental fortitude so unforgiving, it will leave you second guessing yourself at each and every one of the 320+km from Emporia, towards the horizon and back again. None of us went as far in search of the horizon as Cristiana, who ironically did most of it through the darkness. For the Trentino native, 320km just wasn’t enough, so she took on the monster of the Unbound XL: a 560km unsupported journey to the deepest depths of your willpower. Said in her words, “this is where I thrive – the longer, the better.”
Like those who crossed the American continent more than a century ago with nothing but a few possessions and their dreams, Cristiana found the limits of her willingness to push on. Plagued by nighttime thunderstorms and the resulting “peanut butter mud” that clogged every moving part of her bike, she wrestled her bike through everything that nature could throw at her on the plains of Kansas, reaching emotional lows she had never felt before. The desire to quit was strong, but not stronger than Cristiana’s resolve. She fought through every type of adversity imaginable to finish 4th in the women’s race. “I’ve been dreaming of this for over 3 hours” she said at the finish.
What? Surely she was so tired she meant 3 years, not three hours. But then she picked up a taco from the local taqueria and took a bite. “This is the hardest race I’ve ever done”. I’d say in that moment, she fulfilled 2 dreams, one slightly more important than the other.
From a rider’s point of view, the emotional highs and lows suffered during Unbound are harder than any obstacles the 320+km course could throw at you. When things are good, they’re good, but when they’re bad, they’re really bad.
Unfortunately for me, the emotional lows started almost immediately with the now infamous mud pit at kilometer 21. Like a third of the Pro/Elite field, I suffered a string of misfortunes due to mud, barbed wire, and everything imaginable in between and was eventually forced to abandon. After walking along the course for an hour, I found a spectator who was able to fix my chain problems and set off again in hot pursuit of Emma. Knowing my own race was over, my thoughts turned to helping the team. I tried in every way possible to overcome the seemingly endless obstacles thrown my way, but it was not to be. I had lost too much time and Emma was riding too fast, so catching up to be a loyal gregario for the remainder of the race was not a possibility. With great frustration and more than a little regret, I climbed into the car to refocus on the next races. It wasn’t what I imagined for my debut at Unbound, but it was not my last attempt. I’ll be back to set things right.
This is the essence of Unbound. It’s the collective story of thousands of personal journeys of riders who, though they race together, must ultimately overcome every form of adversity on their own power. Pit crews and race adversaries turned allies of circumstance make success possible, but no amount of outside help can get you back to Emporia. That is solely up to you. Out here, you need a strong head, and an iron will to push back the thousands of outside forces and voices in your head telling you it cannot be done, to quit, to give up. You must be able to shut out those voices, to be stronger than the forces that conspire against you. You must be Unbound in your will to carry on through the darkest moments.
What is Unbound? It’s the act of becoming unbound.
Can you fly free?
At the gateway to the American West, only your will and determination can answer that question.