Unbound Gravel and the Same Old Serpent

I sat down in the dust with a kingsnake and hit my low point in June 2019. At least, it’s what passed for a low point then.

Heat dazed, I’d just watched a racer flop his right turn on V Avenue some four miles east of Council Grove, Kan. He dashed his head against the road and slid, face down, into a sickening stillness.

I hurried over and was surprised to find him awake with his cheek to the road. He stared at my shoes.

He got up, and we moved toward shade, where I fought my dizziness to study his. What distinguished heat exhaustion from regular exhaustion? And how would a concussion look hiding inside this mess? I decided it would look just like this, and I encouraged him to abandon.

We argued about it for a few minutes in the heat––politely, generously, Midwesternly. And I can’t tell you whether it was his speech or my hearing that slurred. He thanked me through my tinnitus, staggered up, righted his bike and rode a swerving line toward Council Grove and who knows what triumph or darkness.

A little disgusted, I sat back down and abandoned, myself.

Then out slid that kingsnake from the grass. Too fried to kick or flee, I told it to bugger off.

And that, race fans, was how the world’s last DK ended for me—with a kingsnake charting its lazy way across V-is-for-Viper Avenue. It reared up at a pair of passing gravel tires, then slipped invisible into the opposite bush.

***

Jesus, when I think of all that’s happened since.

  • The festering of hard feelings over this race’s racist original name, with its tethers to the serpent of America’s original sin.
  • The sting of our politics.
  • The global pandemic.
  • George Floyd’s murder.
  • A lost season of races. A lost school year.
  • A Lincoln police officer shot by a child.
  • The big lie. Our Capitol stormed by “tourists.”
  • 600,000 American deaths.

Then for good measure, the day before Mothers’ Day, a college kid tending to his phone plowed his car at 45 miles per hour into another car holding the mother of my children.

Oh, to feel only as sick as the sickest I felt with that snake in the summer of 2019.

2020 in a photo: An exhausted health worker reacts to mass burials in New Delhi. (Photo, Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

***

Unbound Gravel’s renaming and first running marked us a way back. Here was gravel racing’s “new normal”—a way made a little wiser by our sharper sense of the Great Plains’ serpentine history.

Here also was our first Emporian opportunity to pedal together again. After every brutal thing we’d been forced to endure in isolation, finally, this: a chance to endure something huge together, by choice.

Before the haymakers, a friendly fist-bump. (Photo, velonews.com)

This year’s course was a 99% match with 2019’s, meaning that if I hung in there long enough, we’d eventually turn right again on V Avenue outside Council Grove. And I’d have my little coldblooded reunion with what Abraham Lincoln called “that same old serpent.”

***

First, a warmblooded reunion.

My son, Marcus, returned to Emporia for a second crack at the juniors race.

To help control Saturday’s crowd, Unbound shifted this 25-mile juniors race to Friday morning. And to avoid sending less experienced teens racing over a highway overpass and onto city streets, they nudged the finish line just outside town. These moves had the wonderful side effects of letting parents in the 200 experience their kids’s race, and gave us a secluded spot to cheer them home.

Marcus (right), a chip off the old blockhead (left).

The rollout was legit, and Marcus described the familiar early-mile spasms of a nervous pack. A girl in front of him drifted toward one racer, then over-corrected and struck another. She wiped out immediately in front of Marcus, taking another rider down in the process. And Marcus could do nothing more than pick which part to run over––spine or thighs. He chose her thighs and hoped for the best.

Marcus somehow kept his bike upright. He stopped to check on the downed riders, who both appeared generally OK, then did his best to chase back on. But a strong lead group was quickly establishing. And they weren’t interested in being caught.

Marcus, upright and unflustered. (Photo, Marathon Photos)

At some point, three boys—Luke Robinson of Louisville, Colo.; Finn Smith of Overland Park, Kan.; and Jack Tell of Lawrence, Kan.—got separation from the top girl, defending champion Oona Nelson of Lawrence. That changed when something disrupted the boys. A rubbed wheel or overheated corner took all three of them down.

Oona grabbed the solo lead as the boys got back up and started their chase. Working together at full tilt, they reeled her back and retook the lead, but never completely shook her. And while Finn Smith took the three-way sprint in the final meters, Oona Nelson was just a dozen seconds off the pace, winning the girls’ championship and placing fourth overall.

Nelson’s gutsy performance made me a big fan. (Photo, Marathon Photos)

Marcus rolled in ninth overall, seventh male, which placed him first in the boys’ 11-12 grade division and earned him one of the most coveted trophies in American gravel racing.

The Unbound branding iron is his.

***

My aspirations for Saturday fell far (far-far-far) short of the podium. I just wanted to see the thing through. Aim for a daylight finish. And if fortune allowed it, I wanted to be on two wheels next to Marty Killeen as he reached his 1,000th mile.

While my run-ins with a kingsnake in 2019 and a busted derailleur in 2017 left me two for four, Marty had kept his Unbound scorecard unblemished through 800+ miles (and a freak jellyfish attack). He felt a grim determination to reach the 1,000-mile club in the minimum attempts. And a grimly determined Dr. Marty is a sight to behold.

Dr. Marty Killeen: a sight to behold. (Photo, Salsa Cycles)

Pete, Addison and I were his assistant regional managers for the day.

By this, our fifth lap through the Flint Hills, the Abes have established quite a few Unbound traditions. Among them, two are most holy: There’s the vast pre-race dinner at Casa Ramos. And then there’s the absurd, Are-you-on-crack? pace we like to set for the first three or four hours.

Gosh, it felt good to fall back into those familiar habits.

This early pace was something I knew I couldn’t hold once the sun lifted high enough to begin its dirty business. And I realized I was basically playing my cards the same way I had in 2019, when my race coughed up its ghost on Viper Avenue.

BUT, I rationalized, the forecast high was lower and the south wind higher than two years ago. And while most racers were quietly dreading the prospect of riding the last 80 miles into that wind, I had learned to look at this late headwind as a lifeline. If I could chew through the first 120 miles and approach the day’s hottest hours with nature’s fan in my face, well, maybe even a heavy sweater like me could finagle a good day.

I had sketched out my strategy for Beth, who did that crinkly thing with her eyebrows. “Or––you could start with a sustainable pace, really focus on your hydration and nutrition, then go into the second half with more strength.” Gravel wives are silly, and care nothing for tradition.

“Fine,” she said. “Ride how you like. Just don’t die on some road I can’t drive the van down. We can’t lose another vehicle, and I don’t want to crack an oil pan coming to get you.”

***

The flashbacks started on Illinois Creek Road, around mile 90. My stomach’s lemon recognized the patch of scraggly trees, down low where the air kept still, as the place where 2019’s heat sickness delivered its first serious squeeze.

It was supposed to be cooler this time. But the heat already felt well above the 84-degree forecast. My Garmin could’ve given me the temperature had I pressed a couple buttons. But I didn’t want to know. I told Marty this was where I had to get “serious careful.” He nodded and downshifted.

Getting warmer… (Photo, Addison Killeen)

Race-sponsor Garmin kept quiet about hell’s temperature. But race-sponsor Shimano had plenty to say about hell’s direction. We turned right off Illinois Creek and met a huge blue sign announcing: “Shimano welcomes you to: LITTLE EGYPT!” A chorus of neighboring flags flapped the company’s flagship gravel line: “GRX! GRX! GRX!”

I didn’t need the commercial, but I appreciated the heads-up. Little Egypt Road is infamous for riding like an uphill silverware drawer. It’s the stretch where, in 2019, Colin Strickland blew the doors off the World Tour pros. It’s also where, 10 miles from water, I had boiled my poor tea kettle dry.

Strickland launches his race-winning move up Little Egypt in 2019. (Photo, Wil Matthews)

I refused to repeat my mistake in 2021, and picked my way upward through Egypt’s forks and knives at a dapper pace. I’m kinda proud I got through it without walking.

When we limped into the farmstead water station around mile 100, my bottles and Camelbak were dry, but I wasn’t gut sick. And that felt like a win.

We expected nothing more than lukewarm water at this stop, but were treated instead to a squadron of camouflaged volunteers from the Kansas National Guard. They were armed with stock tanks full of life-giving Cokes floating in glorious ponds of ice cubes.

Mobile Athlete Saturation Hospital

The guards pounced on me, filled my bottles with water, my belly with Cokes and my sock with ice. “I had no idea cyclists had such a thing for pantyhose,” said one guardswoman as she expertly stuffed mine nice and fat and swung it back to me.

I probably buy more nylons than 95% of American women. And I’m OK with that. (Jamie Farr as Klinger, M*A*S*H, 1972-1983)
Your narrator dons nylon #1 at the first checkpoint in Alma as three generations of Killeens look on.

While the heat felt the same as 2019, I was heartened by the differences I noticed. I had been sick going into the 100-mile aid station that year, and I never really got unsick from there. But this year, my strength felt more elastic, more responsive to my immediate conditions.

I’d wilt, water myself, and quickly perk. I repeated that process again and again. Beyond water, I even began to notice differences in what my legs could do down in the muggy ravines versus the higher ridge lines, up where the air was freer to move over my back and under my chest.

These little bounce-backs made hope easier, even as I began to drag on our group’s speed. Sure, I was suffering now. But I was a shift in the breeze away from a rebound. One Coke from excellence.

Then I wasn’t.

My spirit cracked a few miles out from the Alta Vista aid station at mile 125. I stopped sweating with a mile or two to go, and struggled to control my breathing. There rose the possibility that I might not make it to my serpent on V Avenue.

We rolled over the chip timer a hair above walking speed and I collapsed in the nearest available shade.

I put my odds of biking out of Alta Vista at about one in five.

Mighty low. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

Marty dumped a couple cold bottles over my face and torso, and the shock felt like defibrillator paddles. But I didn’t wake up. Peter, Addison and Marty were mostly quiet, like wildebeests are quiet when the herd thins. What was there to say?

Bro, you good? (Photo, Vincent Grafhorst, Minden Pictures)

Eyes closed, my mind locked onto the voice of a woman complaining nearby. Here she was, strong enough to stand and carry on a lively conversation with her friends about how shelled she felt. She rattled off a clearheaded list of the mistakes that brought her to this sorry point, and they were my mistakes, too. Her pace hadn’t fit her fitness. Her response to the heat was too little and too late.

I told myself that if I had the strength to talk like that, I wouldn’t talk like that. I’d get up and pedal my damn bike.

I grew jealous of her and irrationally angry. Even in my heat-altered state, that irrationality bothered me. This woman hadn’t wronged me in the slightest. Yet here I curled in the grass, full of ugly venom for her. It made me sick, this anger, and I rolled over to puke in the foot of ground between my hands.

Nothing came of it. So I stood up instead, angry at my anger, and set out to refill my bottles.

Screw all, I thought. If my legs wouldn’t carry me, maybe anger would. I yanked my bike from under a maple tree and rode a swerving line toward Council Grove and who knows what triumph or darkness.

***

From there, the rest of the race both does and does not matter.

My theory about the headwind sustaining me through the heat both did and did not prove true.

Pete, Addison and I all had our dark periods. And immutable Marty slowed for each of us in our turn. The lion’s share of that slowing was done for me. And our goal of finishing before sundown slipped quietly past us.

The farther into the course we went, the prettier it got. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

I was alone, a bit behind the others, I think, when the course turned onto V Avenue. And I smiled at the intersection where, two years ago, the wrecked stranger had rested his cheek on the road. The shady spot where we sat for a time was shady for a time again.

The kingsnake had moved on from the point where I abandoned. And now I could move on, too.

No longer concerned with finishing by dusk, we were free to sit with family at the Council Grove checkpoint as long as we liked. And we liked a good while. Marcus, Mia and Sydney, so well prepared to see us through the checkpoints quickly, did their own downshifting to mellow with us.

Later on, that dusk with my three closest friends was as beautiful as anything I’ve experienced on a bicycle. The anger that got me up off the ground and moving again in Alta Vista had long spent its purpose. And I sloughed it off like old skin. And as the sky reddened and the hills darkened, I was free to brighten.

We passed along the dam to Lake Kahola and were cheered by pleasantly inebriated Kansans in motorboats. The temperature dropped, and the air came to feel congratulatory. It patted our backs for not quitting and dimmed the lights.

Peter and Marty leave the lake behind. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

It was good and dark when Emporia drew near, and I congratulated Marty on his thousand miles. He said not to be too hasty with that stuff, that we weren’t in yet. But we knew we’d made it. Even on this darkest road, there were no surprises left. Just the friendly tip of the tail of this race’s same old charming serpent.

Four for four!


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