The Big Picture | Unbound Gravel 2022 (Part I)

Unbound Gravel is a 4,000 participant-strong gravel race in the Flint Hills in and around Emporia, Kansas. The race first took place in 2006 with 34 participants; the event is now, according to the Emporia Gazette, the World’s Premier Gravel Event. This was my first time in Emporia. I was in town to photograph the race for two teams and a handful of privateers. These are my stories.

The Day Before

Getting to Emporia, Kansas, for Unbound Gravel presented by Garmin may have been one of the most challenging travel days I’ve encountered, and I once spent 11 hours in a cold, barren terminal in Istanbul waiting for a Turkish Air flight to South Africa for the MTB World Cup.

My lasting impression of Istanbul: This photo and Marco Fontana sitting in front of me in coach and going full recline for the entire flight. My knees have never been the same. © 2018 Bill Schieken

Despite three canceled flights, a nail-biting transfer at O’Hare for fellow photographer Bruce Buckley, and an almost-flat-tire-on-the-rental-truck, we finally made it to Emporia past midnight and way behind the eight ball.

I can’t speak for anyone actually racing the event, but for those of us covering Unbound, Thursday is a crucial day. Missing it was a huge logistical mistake and making sure I get to Emporia on Wednesday, next year, is my first (of several) lessons learned for the trip. Thursday had been reserved for photographing bikes and exhibits, reconning the course, settling in to the surroundings and preparing for the weekend. Friday was supposed to be a safety day to pick up any remaining tasks and dial in the plan for Saturday. That we completely missed Thursday meant Friday would be a big push that had to go off without a hitch.

Lucky for me, I don’t sleep much. So I was up around 5 a.m. on Friday and had an opportunity to have a quiet walk around Emporia before the craziness started.

A few things here: first, not being familiar with the Kansas bagpipe scene, I did, at first, think the actual Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing at the Granada theater and thought that was going to be a mess. But more importantly, Big Head Todd? Hello, 1989! Maybe I’ll be back in October. © 2022 Bill Schieken
This was one of the first photos I took in Emporia. I had no idea at this point the donut shop would be the backdrop for one of my favorite photos from the weekend. © 2022 Bill Schieken
The calm before the storm. Literally and figuratively. Hours later, the expo would be wall-to-wall people. A day later, it would be pelted with rain. © 2022 Bill Schieken

After a little more exploring around town and another cup of coffee it was time to do a quick recon of the course. To do this, we had prepared in advance and rented a Tacoma truck that was more than capable of handling the notoriously rough Flint Hills roads. However, we never needed the truck because of the fantastic work by the media team from Lifetime and Verde Communications who enlisted the Kansas City Jeep Club to drive media members on race day. Ben was our driver and he was fantastic. We will definitely be snagging him for next year, too.

Ben took on the navigation duties and drove the Jeep. © 2022 Bill Schieken
Ben also commandeered my drone and after a quick non-crash course he knocked out some keepers on race day. © 2022 Bill Schieken

Even though we didn’t see that much of the course on Friday, it was enough to wrap our heads around what was in store for the next day. So just going out and getting a feel for the landscape was well worth it.

Future Unbound media driver-in-training on the finishing roads of this year’s route. © 2022 Bill Schieken
Bruce Buckley and Corey Wallace take care of some pre-race shots, while Lyon County’s highway department worked to give racers a smooth return home after 190-some miles of suffering. © 2022 Bill Schieken
Here’s what Bruce was shooting in the image above. © 2022 Bruce Buckley

Once back in town, the afternoon was drifting away and a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call for race day was looming. But there was still work to be done to catch up with what was missed on Thursday. First on the list was to track down Nathan Haas who was debuting his Castelli “Wizard of Aus” kit that complemented his Colnago G3X bike. Thankfully, he was at the first booth in the expo I passed, downing a post-ride burrito in front of the Brooks tent.

We had about 15 minutes to knock out a kit reveal photo session that usually would take several hours. This was the epitome of run and gun and Nathan Haas is a professional photographic gunslinger. But first, burritos. © 2022 Bill Schieken

Usually, when you shoot rider/kit/bike photos, you spend time scouting locations and making sure the environment makes sense for the image. We didn’t have that luxury. I had another commitment in two hours at a house about 40 minutes away, and Nathan needed to eat and get to bed for the next day’s sufferfest. The clock was ticking.

And here is where that Emporia magic revealed itself. Across the road from where Nathan is eating his burrito is an alley that leads to the donut shop in the third photo of this gallery. The donut shop window is painted in colors that complement Nathan’s kit. That was the destination I had in mind. As we started to walk down the alley, the first thing both of us saw was an old Vespa locked to a laundry line. Vespa, Colnago, Castelli: this is a no brainer. “Should I hop on the Vespa? Think anyone would mind?,” Nathan asked. “Absolutely you should, caution to the wind,” I replied. On the scooter, images shot, and back off before anyone was the wiser.

An Italian scooter for an Italian kit and bike. Perfect. © 2022 Bill Schieken

Once done with the scooter, we didn’t make it ten more paces down the alley before finding a great-looking garage. That was followed by the church windows and a Greetings from Emporia sign, all within spitting distance. It was almost comical how easy this was going.

Keeping the momentum alive, we hustled to the donut shop. Initially, I was hoping to get some interior shots with Nathan buying a colorful array of donuts at the counter. But, alas, Daylight Donuts was closed for the day, so we were stuck with an exterior shot, which would have been a decent shot on its own.

I was scoping out the storefront when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two Emporia bike police officers standing off to the side. Here was the moment of truth. How do I do what is going through my mind without offending anyone or ending up in cuffs? It’s caution to the wind part two. Let’s do this.

“Officers, can I ask a huge favor? Do you mind if I take your photo with my Australian friend who’s in town for the race?”

“Sure, that would be fine.”

“Great. One more thing … And I don’t mean this in a negative way, and I know how it’s going to come across … but … could we take the photo in front of the donut shop?”

” … … … yeah, no problem. That’s fine with us.”

“amazing. Thank you.”

The officer on the right has ridden the 200-mile Unbound more than once. Was non-commital, when asked, on jumping into the 350. © 2022 Bill Schieken

With Nathan’s photos done, edited, and sent out to sponsors, it was time to head out to the prairie and shoot Russell Finsterwald’s and Sofia Gomez Villafane’s Specialized Crux bikes in full race trim.

There are a handful of photo set pieces that every participant of certain genres must at some point in their career create. They are the rules and you must comply. For instance, if you are in a band, you must take a photo with your band posing on train tracks. If you are a stand up comedian, you must have a photo of yourself performing in front of a brick wall. And if you are a gravel bike, you must be photographed perpendicular to a gravel road, preferably in Kansas. These things become cliche for a reason. And that reason is that they work. These are the rules and I was here to comply.

And for that reason, when I was driving up to the Specialized Factory Racing team house and turned off the perfect gravel road and into the driveway, I knew my good fortune would continue. We didn’t have to go far to get this done.

To execute the proper bike profile photo there are a few approaches you can implement. Some use a bike stand and try to get rid of it with post-processing, others go for the stick or rock behind the crank. Personally, I’m a proponent of the balancing act. Basically, it’s a trust fall with a very important piece of equipment at stake, but in reality it’s a simple task: You balance the bike, you release the bike, you catch the bike. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.

If you nail it, the bike looks like it’s standing on its own, you can crop out the bike holder, and you’re good to go. With Zak DeMeritt’s help, we nailed it. Not his first bike-balancing rodeo. Bike profile shot completed. Mark it off the list.

Before leaving Specialized Unbound HQ, Sofia wanted to shoot a photo of her “race prep” that consisted of her lounging on the porch in a robe and drinking a mimosa. Although I made it through the bike shoot without damaging her ride, I wasn’t as lucky with our first mimosa glass. Maybe shattering that glass was good luck for the next day. Mazel tov. Regardless, my streak of photos just falling into place continued with the barn cat showing up and trying to steal the show. This photo on its own is such a baller move. Following it up with a victory? That’s like calling your shot the day before and delivering on the day.

But that’s a story for Part II. Stay tuned …

© 2022 Bill Schieken

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