3 years ago by Kit Nicholson

Q&A: Robin Carpenter prepares for Unbound Gravel

Ahead of his first gravel event, Carpenter spills the beans

Rally Cycling is heading to Unbound Gravel with Robin Carpenter to take on what is widely regarded as the world’s biggest gravel event on June 5.

We caught up with Carpenter as he prepared for his trip to chat about everything Unbound Gravel, from race aspirations to midway pizza stops. 

This is your first-ever gravel race, how have you prepared?

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.

Have you any experience of racing gravel sections in road races?

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.

Carpenter putting his gravel bike through the paces.

How long has Unbound Gravel been a goal?

Gravel has been taking up a lot more bandwidth of US 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.

Have you ever raced 200+ miles on dirt?

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.

How have you modified your training?

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. 

What’s your nutrition like on a race like this?

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.

Like most cyclists, Carpenter will also have a caffeine plan for the race. Likely one that begins with grinding beans in his hotel room at 4 am.

What will you be taking with you on the bike?

I’m going to have hydration packs with pockets 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. 

Have you any mid-race snack stops planned? 

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.

What will your tactics be?

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.

What are your targets for the race?

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.

To learn more about Unbound Gravel and how to follow along, visit the event preview here.