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.
Part II of this Unbound series is more about the photos than the stories. The day is still a blur, and I’m not sure what happened for most of it. If you missed the pre-race portion of our trip to Emporia, you can find that here.
What I do remember is that 4:30 a.m. came around fast and, sadly, I was up before the alarm. I made coffee from the travel kit that rarely leaves my suitcase these days, grabbed a quick breakfast in the Emporia State University cafeteria, picked up fellow Photographer Bruce Buckley, and we were at the start line by 5:15. That gave us about 30 minutes to grab as much pre-race coverage as possible. Lit by street lights and mobile phones, the pre-dawn photos were grainy and dark, matching the nervous energy that dominated the racers and media on the starting grid. Trying to find my riders and shoot something that gave a sense of the anticipation of the day was the first order of the day.
Once the start line photos were secured, it was a race to the Jeep and a hasty retreat out of town. Our first stop was 22 miles into the race at the Bazaar Cattle Pens. We had a 40-minute drive to get there. This turned out to be the least stressful stop of the day. With the race more or less together and a late-arriving train delaying the start by several minutes, we were in place well ahead of the first riders.
The Cattle Pens is a great shooting location. You’ve probably seen a lot of shots from this spot and for good reason. First, it’s wide open and you get the full group snaking down the descent. Second, EVERYONE was there. It was like being on a photo safari except you were allowed to get out of the Jeeps and the wild animals were riding bikes.
As soon as the lead vehicles crested the hill, the drones were launched, photo angles were locked in and the challenge to secure a photo that differed from everyone else began. In cinematic terms, this first photo is your establishing shot. An opportunity to give a sense of place and set the scene for what is to come.
Establishing shots done, it was now time to try and grab some mid-range and close up photos of my racers. This was a great opportunity to get everyone before they were spread across the road with big time gaps between each rider. The challenge, of course, is that with the tight racing, getting a shot where your rider isn’t tucked in behind another person isn’t always easy.
There’s an adage in travel and nature photography about how you should always look behind you when looking for something to shoot. As we headed back to the Jeep after the last riders went by, this adage was never more on point. The sun started rising behind us, and the views were spectacular.
Back on the road and off to our second stop around the 47 mile mark. This is where things started to get tricky. We had to get there fast to make sure we were in time for the lead group and then we had to stay a little longer to make sure we were there for all of our riders. As the day went on, this time gap between leaders and the rest of the bunch stretched farther and farther, which led to difficult logistical decisions and sacrifices by day’s end.
Without the benefit of a Thursday recon session resulting from us playing airport bingo and getting to Emporia later than expected, we were forced to figure out shots on the fly. This second stop was the most hurried of the bunch and not my favorite location of the day. But we did see Logan Owen go off the front for a bit. And we also got to see the cattle let the riders know who had the right of way in these parts.
For this spot next year, we are definitely going to explore Teeter Hill that comes after the turn we were stationed on for this stop.
On our way to the next scheduled stop we found an intersecting road that led us back to the course. It was a nice straight section of road that allowed for some cool head-on shots. I picked up a lot of my riders here, which made for a less stressful day at the final stops.
I came into this event hoping I could see everyone I was shooting at least twice. Halfway through the race and I’d already met that quota. That’s a nice feeling. And one to remember down the road when I come up empty at every stop. Things don’t always fall apart.
At this point in the race, the prevailing theme was fields and gravel roads. That’s what I expected from Kansas, and that’s what I got. However, an unguarded bridge over a creek crossing was not what I was expecting. That’s some East Coast-type stuff, and seeing it in Kansas made me feel right at home. Time to get the toes wet.
“You know what they say about the weather in [your town here], if you don’t like it now, just wait five minutes.” I was told that two weekends ago in Durango, Colorado, and last weekend in Kansas. It turns out that a lot of places have volatile weather patterns. All this is to say, while Jeep driver Ben was glued to his Gaia GPS and Google Maps, I was playing the part of the guy on the F1 pit wall constantly checking the radar. And after threatening rain all day, we finally got all we could handle at about the 150-mile mark.
After this spot we hit one more section of road to knock out the final on-course images before heading to the finish. The finishing corral and dramatic finish to Unbound Gravel, as well as the post-race suffering/relief, deserve their own post so I will be back with part III soon enough. Until then, here’s your victory salute shots for the men and women.