Emporia Impressions

Pictures by Alex Roszko

In the field of Anthropology, there's a saying of 'making the familiar exotic and the exotic familiar'. The phrase touches on the fundamental aim of understanding and familiarizing oneself with foreign cultures. While it reversely can shed new light on the practices and habits we often take for granted in our mundane lives.

Most of us who've experienced the positive impact and joys of riding bikes know just how all-consuming the two-wheeled passion can get. But even given this infinite presence, there are experiences and sides of cycling that are reserved for a select few to encounter. The demands, challenges, and commitment of pro racing are some of the clearest examples of this.

In an attempt to offer insight into the events that unfold during these ultra-fast races and show the toll it takes on the riders and their gear, we asked three of our athletes to share their experiences from the world's biggest gravel race, Unbound. Presented in the shape of Rose (highlight), Bud (new ideas/perspective gained), and Thorn (biggest challenge), read Mattia, Brennan, and Maude's thoughts below.

Mattia de Marchi
Races for Enough Cycling
Finish position: 5th (9:15:28)

The 200 miles of rolling, chunky gravel spread out in the Flint Hills of Emporia, Kansas making up the route of Unbound Gravel calls for big engine watts and punchy power surges. Traits that don't rhyme well with Mattia de Marchi's 60-ish kg frame.

But the three-time Traka 360 winner proved why he's not only one of the most likable characters in all of gravel but also one of the discipline's most complete riders, by beating the odds and finishing in an impressive fifth position.

Rose: the most important moment for me in the race was when I decided to get rid of the fear that something unexpected would happen! After a few hours of racing, I told myself enough of riding with the fear, I shed it and told myself to HAVE FUN MATTIA! From then on it was push and enjoy!

Bud: the awareness one more time of the fact that everything comes back! I have to be more aware of my strengths! My new idea and realization is a fuller belief that I AM STRONG and the people who believe in me make me even stronger!

Thorn: the retrospective feeling of waiting to wait. I usually start and go by feeling, but this time around I tried to be more calm. And it was perhaps also the thing that stopped me from following Lachlan (Morton, eventual Unbound winner, i.e.). But races are also won by a willingness to risk losing them! Maybe next time I will listen more to my heart!

Brennan Wertz
Races as a privateer for Above Category & Mosaic
Finish position: 60th (9:58:10)

In contrast to Mattia, it's hard to imagine a rider better suited to the characteristics of Unbound's course than the California native Brennan Wertz. Standing 6'5 and hovering around the 90kg mark, Brennan's stature and engine are tailor-made for Unbound.

But since placing a promising 9th in his debut back in 2021, Brennan hasn't had the chance to get a clean run at this monster of a race coming down to bad luck in the shape of sickness and mechanicals. This year was unfortunately no exception to that rule as he used 14 plugs, 9 CO2s, and multiple wheel swaps to overcome a persistent early puncture. Unsurprisingly Brennan's highlight had nothing to do with his own race.

Rose: the highlight of my Unbound weekend was watching my very good friend Salifu Mohammed finish his first-ever Unbound XL. This is something he has been working towards for some time and I really enjoyed being a part of his process, helping with the preparation, and supporting him through the journey. Being able to meet him at the finish line after I had finished my race was an unforgettable moment. 

Bud: I felt really good physically during the race and I know I had a great preparation for the event. Even though I was taken out of contention for a result early on in the race, my physical sensations were very positive and I leave Unbound with new motivation for both the rest of the races I have this year, as well as Unbound next year.

I have been training really hard this year and it's encouraging to see so many positive indications, even if some bad luck stood in the way of converting that into a result.

Thorn: as I alluded to above, my chances at a top result went out the window pretty early on when I rolled over an innocuous rock on a pretty straightforward gravel road roughly 40km into the race. This piece of flint rock I hit must have had a real sharp edge to it, because it sliced a big hole in my tire, rapidly releasing all the air inside the tire. Repairing the tire to a rideable state unfortunately took me 3-4 minutes, 4 plugs, and 3 CO2s. From that point on I had to change my expectations, but still feel I made the most of the day given the circumstances. 

Maude Farrell
Races for PAS Racing
Finish position: DNF

The keen observer will have noticed a change of background in Maude's portrait. The original idea had been to capture Maude in front of the same corroded metal door as Mattia and Brennan. But in racing as in life, things don't always go according to plan.

Maude's continued battle with performing in the heat meant that she never reached the finish line in Emporia and was forced to pull out mid-race.

Rose: it feels like an obvious one, but it can't be said enough, just how remarkable it was to see the Women's peloton have the opportunity for a clean race with so little interference from the Men's race. It was really special and pretty moving to be in that group and experience all of us riding together.

Thorn: yeah, the thorn is so many things. But I guess the simple thorn is the heat and my body's lack of liking the heat. I wish I was biologically different, I wish I was more attuned to the kind of racing environments that we frequently find ourselves in; high altitude, heat, long distance, or usually all of the above. But ultimately my biology is not as well suited for that.

It's really hard when your body is not in the same place as your heart and mind are. So, the other side of that is feeling I was ready and I wanted it so badly, but the body wasn't there the day I needed it to be.

Bud: for a lack of creativity it's maybe a combination of the rose and the thorn. Just seeing what this did for Women's gravel racing - the kind of dynamic it opened up, the kind of excitement, and really providing evidence that when we're given the space and respect to race amongst ourselves we'll make it exceptional. And ultimately prove that the idea about women's racing being predictable, boring, and won't have any interesting outcome is false.

The other bud is trying to see that I have some opportunity to explore what is going on with my body and learn something else. I'm not necessarily thinking of it as a bud, but maybe there is something I can learn from this since it's been more frequent than I'd like. I would really like to learn how to serve my body and get it to work for me and not against me.

Make sure to follow these three amazing athletes here:

Pictures by Alex Roszko
Race pictures of Maude by Chiara Redaschi