From Surgery to the Podium at Gravel's Super Bowl

If you ride bikes you probably are familiar with what is affectionately referred to as the Super Bowl of off-road racing, Unbound Gravel. It’s 200+ miles in the Flint Hills of Kansas - a grueling race that is known for chaos, mechanicals and unpredictable weather and terrain. For me, this race has always been a career goal to podium and I built a lot of my off-season prep to do that. Unfortunately, if you read my last article, you can recall my plans were derailed with an ankle surgery 12 weeks ago. I remember after the surgery what it meant for my season and I said, “well, Unbound is off the table now.” I was sad, but I committed to the process of recovery and rehab and it wasn’t until 2-3 weeks prior to Unbound that I got the okay to line up and try to ride it. At best, I viewed it as a long training ride to get back into shape for the second half of the season.

So here I was on Saturday morning lining up against the best with low expectations. My main priorities were to protect my ankle to ensure I would not have any setbacks for the second half of my season. I also opted with my coach to train through Unbound, meaning we were in a pretty heavy block of training for the last 5 weeks leading into Unbound. I even remember going into Unbound week feeling slightly tired and feeling the impacts of what I refer to as “panic training” leading into the race. I had a lot of doubts. I had a lot of insecurities about my fitness. It also doesn’t help as an athlete reading race expectations, riders to watch and hearing about everyone’s build into the race. To the world, I wasn’t even an honorable mention or wildcard rider to watch and why would I be? I just had surgery on my ankle, and with no high level race starts this season, I don’t blame those predictions. But as a high performance athlete, you always want to be considered. You want to be seen - seen for your potential but really just seen for the hard work you’ve poured into the effort to race at the highest level. So I put all comparisons aside, opted to not even look up the other women in the field that I didn’t already know and instead just focused on what I needed to do that day.

The process goals I had for myself were easy - focus on what I need to do to keep me rolling smoothly. This meant riding conservatively on the downhills to avoid flats, entering technical sections at the front and committing to consistent fueling. I wanted to protect my body and protect my equipment and I felt confident that if I did those things I would finish the race. But as the race started, we had something special happen. The women had their own race - unimpacted by the men (for the most part). This meant we had a pack of 40+ women rolling together through the first 40 miles. From there, our group dwindled to about 20-25 women at the halfway point. At this time, I could tell I was riding well and feeling good. I honestly didn’t know if I might implode at any point as this was my longest race to date and my first Unbound without a DNF early on. But I also set a goal this season to be an animator and to be aggressive. So with that, about halfway through there was a long climbing section into Little Egypt which is an iconic part of the course for splits. I decided to sit on the front and drill it for about 20 minutes. This split our group in half and then we were down to just over 10 women in the front. We eventually started to work together cohesively and caught one rider who had taken a solo breakaway earlier in the day.

From there, I continued to set a hard pace on the climbs and slowly we popped off a few other riders and took NINE women to the line for a sprint finish at the premier event of the year. Going into this finish it was very tactical and for anyone who races bikes you know at the end of a race it becomes a cat and mouse game. The group slows and we anxiously await to see who will make the jump to get away. For me, I knew my top end fitness was not the sharpest so I made a choice when I got stuck on the front of the race for a long period of time entering back into town. Instead of slowing up and waiting for someone to launch an attack from behind, I opted to set a hard steady pace knowing that it would be harder for riders to come around me. For this finish, there is a hill called Highland Hills (or rather Hotdog Hill now thanks to GoodLife Brands) - and given the strength of the women in this group I anticipated it to stay together until the sprint. So I led into the hill, the attack on the hill strung things out and then I positioned myself into the back of the pack going into the final stretch. This allowed me to get more momentum and I was able to tactically move around and be in the mix for the win. I thought for a split second that I had the win, but I gave it my best effort which was good for third place overall. I felt nothing but gratitude at that finish line for how the day unfolded.

Not many know the amount of sacrifice and compromise I have had in the last 12 weeks rehabbing to get back and race this event. These sacrifices can be isolating, painful and grueling - but they make days like this past weekend worth it. As professional athletes, the wins are few and far between as the sport becomes more competitive so we cherish these moments more than anyone can comprehend. For me, knowing that I almost didn’t line up for this event, it was even more special to have such a surprising result and comeback.

So what do I think was responsible for my comeback at Unbound? Well, lots of things actually. I had an entire performance team responsible for my rehab including my surgeon, my PT, my skills coach, my strength and conditioning coach, my cycling coach and my sports psychologist. I have access to the best nutritional resources and I ruthlessly committed to not losing muscle mass through a high protein animal diet rich in collagen to also help my tendon heal. I also dedicated a lot of specific time to Unbound preparation in terms of course recon and equipment in the month prior.

Above all, I never gave up on myself. When it got hard out there, I never made excuses - and trust me a lot goes wrong in a 10+ hour race where you can easily come up with a reason to justify falling off when you are suffering that hard. But even when I knew the sprint finish was coming, instead of thinking about my lack of top end, I just ruthlessly committed to trying regardless. Commit to the process of showing up and trying - you never know when you might surprise yourself.

Photos: Eric Wynn / Slowtwitch Media House
Video: Courtesy of Paige Onweller / John Matthews