This summer, a unique cycling challenge awaits off-road enthusiasts in Emporia, Kansas – the Garmin Unbound Gravel 2023 presented by Craft Sportswear. Since its inception in 2006, this once solitary 200-mile trek through the Flint Hills has evolved into a series of six distinct races, thanks to the organizational prowess of the Life Time group.
The Quintessential Unbound Gravel 200
At the heart of Unbound Gravel remains the 200-mile main event. This arduous journey begins and ends in the urban heart of downtown Emporia, tracing a solitary loop that cuts through the sun-soaked prairies of central US. The path navigates some of the toughest natural terrains – flint-strewn gullies, chunky rock formations, and challenging climbs, all under the unpredictable caprices of the Kansas weather.
In the spirit of evolving challenges, this year’s 200-mile route stretches an additional mile to a total of 205.5 miles. The deceptive calm of the prairie landscape belies a cumulative elevation gain of 9,100 feet, thanks to the relentless undulating hills. A significant feature of the 2023 edition is a testing climb just before the finish line on Emporia’s Commercial Street.
Navigating the Wild Expanse
The course traverses in a counter-clockwise direction, skirting the Interstate-35 and pushing riders southwest into a series of punishing ascents. Just 42 miles in, cyclists encounter Texaco Hill, the first of two water oasis stops intended for hydration only. No support crews are allowed at these stops, but a store at the second oasis in Madison offers an opportunity to refuel with snacks.
At the 79-mile mark, riders reach Eureka, where they encounter the first of two checkpoints. Here, support crews are allowed to assist riders at the local high school. Riders then chart a course westwards before heading northward, passing by Walnut Creek and Rocky Ford to reach the lowest elevation point of the route. With a final water stop in Hamilton, riders brace themselves for a grueling 48-mile stretch dominated by uphill terrain.
The Final Stretch
With 60 miles remaining, a taxing climb unfolds over a different part of Texaco Hill. The second checkpoint lies approximately 20 miles from the top, in Madison City Park. From here, a final northward push of 37 miles leads riders back to Emporia. A 4.2-mile gravel stretch presents the final challenge before a right turn onto East 15th Avenue propels riders into a steep 3.8% climb. A right turn at the peak heralds the final stretch of 2,000 feet to the finish line on Commercial Street.
The Unbound Gravel 100
The 100-mile race, a shortened version of the 200, has participants crossing Texaco Hill before heading directly east to Madison, and then turning back north.
New and Noteworthy Challenges
This year’s race reintroduces D Hill, a hill outside Emporia not featured since 2015. It leads to a rustic road that becomes treacherously muddy in heavy rain. Another challenge lies on 270th St & K Road. Between mile markers 59 and 63, riders approach Bee-Yotch hill, a demanding climb culminating in a winding descent. Thrall, a picturesque open range road, offers a stunning journey through the ghost town of Greenwood County’s Thrall. The climb of Highland Hill, previously scrapped due to construction, has been reintroduced in the week leading up to the event.
The race also brings riders close to the native fauna of the region, with a rough road stretch between miles 20 and 27, where riders need to navigate around free-roaming cattle. The scenic Texaco Hill offers beautiful views if riders can afford a moment to enjoy the surroundings. Mile 110 to 120 follows the rolling roads along the creek bottom near West Creek. Another climb awaits at mile 143, and the infamous ‘mud road’ from last year’s race makes a return at mile 164. The final descent at mile 193 takes riders over an old repurposed railroad bridge near Rocky Ford before the final stretch to Emporia.
As cyclists prepare to face the wild, rugged terrains of the Flint Hills, the 2023 Unbound Gravel promises to be a thrilling blend of endurance, resilience, and the indomitable spirit of adventure.