Equipment test: 350 miles of Unbound XL

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On Saturday, I rode the longest bike ride, in terms of time and mileage, of my life.

Read also: How the hell do you race Unbound XL?

The Unbound XL is a 350-mile racing beast that the folks at Unbound Gravel added to the distance options menu in 2018. It’s not quite a bikepacking race, but it certainly pushes the limits of sleep deprivation. This year people rode really fast, with William Harrison finishing in just over 20 hours and Cynthia Frazier completing the epic in 22.5 hours.

My own journey was 26.5 hours, including about 2.5 hours of stopping at gas stations to stock up on snacks and water, lots of pee breaks on the side of the road, and a very slow run in a stubborn peanut butter slime.

A nice display of all the stuff I used on the XL, including the extra pounds of mud picked up around mile 315. (Photo: Austin Sullivan)

Not bad for someone who signed up to do this two months ago at Sea Otter.

A laid-back, last-minute approach to rides of epic proportions has been my modus operandi since I started cycling, and it has rarely failed me. The XL worried me a little more than anything I’ve ever done, and I’m so grateful for the gear – some old and some new – that kept me comfortable and, more importantly, able to shift and brake for the duration of the ride. Here are some highlights.

Moots Routt YBB – Two months ago at Sea Otter, I confessed a secret to John Cariveau and Nate Bradley of Moots at the expo: “Guys, I think I’m doing the Unbound XL.” There was a favor in the confession – did they think they could get me a bike in time for the race? We debated the Routt ESC but ultimately decided I didn’t need the bike that much. The Routt YBB felt like a happy medium, with a little squish in the rear and plenty of room for the big, juicy gravel tires. It was almost dodgy when the bike wasn’t available for delivery until six days before I left for Emporia, but what could go wrong – it’s a Moots?

Shifting with the SRAM Red eTap AXS groupset was flawless, even after a literal mud bath at mile 315. The 44t chainring mated to an XPLR 10-44 cassette was ideal for pedaling through endless Flint Hill rollers. The red brakes protected me on rocky, rutted descents in the middle of the night. Three bottle cages kept my fears of dehydration at bay. And of course, the handcrafted ti frame glided through the miles like a schooner at sea.

The Moots Routt YBB after 350 miles of Flint Hills gravel and two attempts to clear the mud with a garden hose.

Revelate Designs Tangle frame bag and Shrew saddle bag – Since I’ve been bikepacking, I’ve had at least one Revelate Designs bag strapped to my bike. Bag makers born in Alaska have set the industry standard for durable and practical frame bags. I was thrilled when the small Tangle half frame bag fit my 52cm Moots. Smaller riders struggle to find ways to use the center triangle space efficiently, but the Tangle fits perfectly under my top tube while still allowing access to both water bottles. Huge zippers and big teeth make it easy to open and close the Tangle – a very important feature when you’re constantly dipping into the bag for snacks while on the go.

The Shrew is an oversized saddle bag that I love for credit card touring. During XL, this is where I kept all my repair kit (and a prayer that I would never have to access it). I also stuffed a decent sized rain jacket in there (those prayers went unanswered).

Schwalbe G-One RS tires – I arrived at Emporia with one set of tires on my bike and raced with another. After a fun run from Schwalbe with two future Unbound champions (Ivar Slik would win the 200 and Cynthia Frazier absolutely crushed the XL), the guys back at the expo said, “you want some new tires?” and before I could stammer an answer they had stripped my wheels of the rubber I had come with. I’m really happy to have “agreed” to ride with the new G-One RS tyres. The speed-focused gravel tire has a semi-slick center tread and claims to have 20% less rolling resistance than the G-One R. I was less concerned about speed and more about puncture resistance , and the RS is constructed with three layers on the sidewall to protect against cuts and snakebites. I did. Not. Apartment!

The G-One RS features a new directional sharkskin file ramped down the center for fast rolling. Larger angled shoulder knobs grip corners and loose terrain.

Machines for Freedom Essential Shorts – At the last minute, I decided to wear these shorts instead of my favorite Velocio bibs. I tend to pee a lot, and even though the Luxe bibs are really easy to pull up and down, I thought it might be easier not to have to deal with bib straps during 350 miles. I’m actually quite satisfied with my intuition. Not only did I have to pee for 26 hours, but I walked through countless water crossings and it rained really hard for about an hour. I got pretty wet pretty often, and in those situations I think the less fabric to manage, the better. I reviewed these shorts exactly two years ago, and am happy to say that I still love them today, especially since I wore them on my longest ride through the rain and mud and so many hours, and three days later I can comfortably sit in a bicycle saddle.

Julbo Fury sunglasses with photochromic lenses – I have long loved these sunglasses for early morning Nordic skiing sessions. Starting with clear lenses that turn dark at sunrise never ceases to amaze me. For some reason my pre-race brain preoccupied almost did not think of using them for the opposition situation – for the transition from day to night. These were perfect for the XL. It was only during deep twilight around 9pm that they got a bit stuck in the transition from light to black and I had to take them off a bit. Otherwise, they offered perfect protection in the light and at night.

The photochromic lenses of the Julbo Fury give it full protection against the sun and transparent eye protection in the dark. (Photo: Anne-Marije Rook)

Castelli Roubaix Gel 2 Gloves – I’m not a glove-wearing gravel rider, but while packing for Unbound, I searched my glove drawer for the most comfortable padded glove, knowing that hand discomfort would be very likely for 350 miles. I think I put them about 150 miles into the run, and I’m happy to report that my palms are in perfect condition with no pain, swelling, or pain to speak of.

Specialized S-Works Recon MTB Shoe – I tested the laced version of the Recon, my favorite gravel shoe, but decided to go with my old pair – the ones with a BOA dial system – for this big ride. Removing my shoes at gas stations every 100km was a game changer for my wet feet, and the BOAs in these shoes made it easier to get in and out of them. The lacing would have been painful. Touchpoints can get . . . responsive on such a long ride, and my feet stayed comfortable even though they were soaked and crumpled in my shoes for 26 hours.

Electronics used include a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt (charged twice during the ride), an Outbound Detour light mounted on my bars, a Night Rider Lumina light on my helmet, and an Anker PowerCore Essential power bank for charging. I carried two extra SRAM batteries and an extra helmet light.

Does your Wahoo come with a personalized motivational message?

Honorable Mentions: Ergon SR Pro Carbon Women saddle, CamelBak Chase hydration bag, POC Essential Road jersey, white Velocio socks (although they had to go in the trash 😭), new friends who made the night less scary and the miles more manageable, Welch’s gummy fruit snacks and peanut M&M’s, Cheezits and cold coffee in a can, and due to the above – coming home with my electric toothbrush.

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