Unbound Gravel is, arguably, the most grueling and prestigious gravel cycling event on the racing calendar. With the 2021 edition of Unbound Gravel taking place on June 7, we’re excited to shine a spotlight on the Felt athletes who will be rolling to the start line, as well as their preparation for one of the most unique cycling challenges in the world. (Photos: James Stout)
Pro Cyclist Robin Carpenter is no stranger to long days on the bike. The Philadelphia native who rides for Rally Cycling has been a pro cyclist for nearly a decade, and in that time, he’s won some of the biggest races on the road calendar like Tour of Alberta, Cascade Cycling Classic, Joe Martin Stage Race, and more. For 2021, Carpenter has been eager to test his legs at one of the many epic gravel races that have become incredibly popular in North America in recent years. But Robin didn’t want to just enter any old gravel event—for his first-ever gravel race, he opted for the most storied one of all, Unbound Gravel, taking place this weekend on June 5. Here’s how Robin has been training for the big day, what his goals are, and why Unbound Gravel is often considered an “eating contest” as much as it is a bike race.
FELT: We hear that this will be your first-ever gravel race, and it happens to be the most prestigious one of them all! How have you been preparing?
Robin: I’ve been collecting as much experience as I can from other people that I know have done it, but it’s going to be a brand-new experience.
FELT: Have you ever raced 200+ miles on dirt?
Robin: I’ve never done a race this long, that’s for sure. Everybody that does these races reports that there’s a time when everyone is falling apart at some point. There’s a high intensity in the first couple of hours, so it’s not like everybody is just cruising along. There’s some amount of pacing involved, but if you want to win you have to go with the people who want to race off the front from the start.
FELT: How long has Unbound Gravel been a goal for you?
Robin: Gravel has been taking up a lot more bandwidth of U.S. bike racing interest, so I was curious. I’ve been thinking about doing Unbound for the last couple of years, it’s the Super Bowl of gravel racing. Normally my schedule doesn’t align with it but this year I’ve been able to enter it.
FELT: You have a lot of experience in road races. Have you ever ridden any road races that featured gravel sections?
Robin: I’ve done Paris-Tours, Schaal Sels, and Antwerp Port Epic, which is a similar idea but honestly worse than Paris-Tours. There was also one called the Slag om Norg, so I’ve done a couple. I’m not unfamiliar with the concept. I own a gravel bike and I ride dirt all the time, especially in the winter here in San Diego.
FELT: Have you modified your training in any way to focus on Unbound Gravel
Robin: I haven’t changed my training much at all. The main goal will just be getting my nutrition right and avoiding mechanicals. But I was on vacation in Hawaii and I rode to the top of one of the volcanoes [Mauna Loa] on the big island and back from the main town in Kona. It was a seven and a half hour, 150-mile ride all on my own, although it was on road, I have to admit.
FELT: What’s going to be your nutrition plan for an event like Unbound Gravel
Robin: It’s going to be a bit of an experiment for me. I’m used to doing races with a team car and feeders on the side of the road, so food is never really that far away. The special thing about this race is that there’s only two aid stations on the whole route, so you have to be strategic about picking up food and drink. I’ve heard people describe the race as an eating contest as much as a pedaling contest.
FELT: Tell us about your gear setup and all the items you’ll be bringing along on race day.
Robin: I’m going to have hydration packs with pockets that I can put food in, and I’ll be swapping those out at the aid stations. I also have room for three water bottles on the bike itself. I’ll have First Endurance EFS in my CamelBak and bottles for sure. I’m thinking about taking some homemade rice cakes on the bike in addition to more easily digestible things like gummies.
FELT: What’s your strategy going to be like for the aid stations? Will you have any fun snacks waiting for you?
Robin: On rides like this there always comes a point where you’re sick of eating the same sweet food—it’s called palate fatigue. I’m planning on leaving some really salty savory snack in the second rest area, and in hot races I keep pickle juice around because it helps reset your palate and adds some performance benefits with the electrolytes and vinegar. I’ll also take on something high in carbohydrates like a sandwich or a slice of pizza. If I’m close to the front, I’m not going to eat a slice of pizza, though.
FELT: Let’s talk tactics. What’s your race strategy going to be like?
Robin: I think I’m fit enough to win one of these if everything goes right. I’ll pick out an experienced rider—like Ted King who’s won this event a couple of times—and try to follow them. I have a friend and former teammate who lives in Kansas called Joe Schmaltz who rides those roads all the time, so he’s a good wheel to follow, too. But in the end, I’m out there to learn and have a good time.
FELT: Do you have any specific goals for your first-ever gravel race?
Robin: I’ll try to set myself up for success by being with the right people, but you could be out there for 14 hours if things really don’t go your way. So it’ll either feel like a race or a real adventure. I’m really excited to see what the gravel roads are about out there. I’ve seen some photos and some of them just look super gnarly. It looks like you’re out in the middle of nowhere which is the goal for a lot of us these days on training rides, to get yourself kind of lost and ride new roads. It would be awesome to get a result, but, in the end, the goal is to finish the event and finish it strong. I really just want to see what the gravel scene is all about.
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