A 2023 Guide to Epic Endurance Cycling Events
Whether you’ve opened the email confirming you’re bound for the Unbound 200, the 10,000-foot starting line for the Leadville 100, or another epic cycling event, you’ll find information on how to get ready here. Dan Hughes has crossed the finish line at some of the most challenging cycling events in the country, including the Unbound XL, pictured above. He won Unbound 200 (four times!), Gravel Worlds, and Trans-Iowa v.13; completed Leadville (four times, earning the big buckle twice); was inducted into the inaugural class of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame; and has supported countless cyclists with their endurance event goals and dreams. Here, he gives us the inside scoop on this season’s biggest off-road races — covering everything from how to prep for the weather to selecting the best bike to get the job done.
His hard-earned insights can now be used to your advantage in this epic endurance cycling events guide we've dubbed the Dan Hughes How-Tos. Continue reading to learn how to make your next cycling adventure more fun and successful, or be inspired to sign up for your own experience!
Belgian Waffle Ride (BWR) Kansas
Where: Lawrence, Kansas
When: October 14, 2023
Distances: 123-plus miles (Waffle); 76-plus miles (Wafer); 39-plus miles (Wanna)
Highlights: The Belgian Waffle Ride event series started in 2011 in San Diego, it now includes Arizona, Vancouver, North Carolina, Utah, Kansas, and Mexico. The event series draws an elite field competing for the Quadruple Crown – best finishing times across four of the BWR series of races in a single year. The Quadruple Crown requires San Diego and Kansas to be in contention, meaning an impressive pack of elite competitors descend upon the event and Lawrence, Kansas, each October. Riders can expect a series of Belgian-themed features, including a waffle feast, a finisher’s beer trophy, and more.
How-Tos: Our home race, BWR Kansas follows the proven formula of other BWR events … namely a demanding parcours that keeps you second-guessing your bike choice right up until the last minute. A gravel-forward course with lots of climbing, BWR Kansas throws in a lot of singletrack as well, making it one of the tougher courses on the BWR circuit. Run a slightly wider tire than you would at other events and be more secure on the trail sections, or “run what ya brung” and prepare to bluff your way through the tougher sections. The party in Downtown Lawrence is not to be missed, and as one of the last gravel races on the calendar each year, BWR Kansas is a great way to wrap up the season.
Photos courtesy BWR
The Mid South
Where: Stillwater, Oklahoma
When: March 11, 2023
Distances: 100 miles, 50 miles, 12 miles (plus the option to double with a 50K run on Friday)
Highlights: Previously known as the Land Run 100, Mid South started in 2012 with 120 participants. Every year the race has grown, and, this year, 3,000 participants will line up to ride gravel … or run in the red mud the event is famous for (see above). The full weekend includes running events, the Mid South IPA annual release and party, and a hangover ride on Sunday.
How-Tos: While this year’s event has already passed, it is worth planning for the upcoming year’s race. Mid South, the traditional kick-off to the gravel season, is all about the weather. If it’s dry in the lead-up to the event, expect loose, dusty roads that roll fast and make for an easier, albeit more nervous, day, given the looseness of the surface. On the other side of the coin, if it’s muddy… expect a slogging hike carrying your mud-laden bike for, potentially, miles at a time. If that’s the case, your best bet is to dive for the grassy ditches and avoid the red clay mud as much as possible. Be ready to go single-speed if things go really sideways, or maybe start that way. In the end, in either kind of conditions, it’s a party not to be missed and you won’t soon forget it.
Photos courtesy Mid South
Where: Emporia, Kansas
When: June 3, 2023
Distances: Junior, 25 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles, XL (350 miles, unsupported)
Highlights: Unbound Gravel started as the DK in 2006 with 34 people. The ride now has more than 4,000 participants across multiple distances. Event entries are on a lottery system, but participants can volunteer at the event for an entry spot the following year.
How-Tos: The world’s most prestigious gravel race, Unbound is the event that focuses the eyes of all cycling aficionados on Kansas every year. If you’re toeing the line for the premiere distance of 200 miles, remember to break your effort up into digestible distances … 30, 40, or 50 miles at a time. Keep your non-moving time to a minimum and always keep going forward on the course … even if you’re crawling. The good times (and the bad) are transitory, so enjoy the good while it lasts, and don’t quit when the chips are down (or the wind is up in your face).
Photos by Dan Hughes
Leadville Trail 100 MTB
Where: Leadville, Colorado
When: August 12, 2023
Distances: 100 miles (with the option to double with the foot race the weekend adjacent)
Highlights: The Leadville race series includes a 100-mile trail run that started in 1983, then in 1994 added the mountain bike race. The annual “race across the sky” is a lottery system alongside the option to secure entry through one of the qualifying races.
How-Tos: It’s tough to excel when there’s no air, and there’s a lot less air at 10,000 feet. While not overly technical, the real challenge at Leadville is dealing with the lack of oxygen. If you’re coming from sea level, have a good idea of where your functional threshold is (either in terms of heart rate or power) and try to stay under it all day if possible. At lower elevations, it’s possible to bury the needle and recover, but when most of the race is about 10,000 feet, it’s almost impossible to recover, and you’ll dig yourself a big hole that you can’t get out of. It’s all worth it, though, if you make it back to town and claim that belt buckle (in either small or large varieties, depending on your finish time).
Photos courtesy Leadville 100
Where: Lincoln, Nebraska
When: August 26, 2023
Distances: 300, 150, or 75-mile routes; optional running events also
Highlights: The first year of the actual race was 2010, in 2008 and 2009, it was held as the “Good Life Gravel Adventure.” There is a new route every year for every distance to keep things fresh, but the routes all keep some of the icons on course. This year, directors are hoping about 50% of the course will be roads that have never been used before. The 150-mile route will go through Valpirasio, Malcolm, and Raymond (3 icon towns on the course). The team is trying to work on logistics to have the 300 route go to another state again this year.
How-Tos: Long before the UCI stamped their “world championships” moniker on gravel, the fine folks in Lincoln, Nebraska, were getting folks out onto the dusty and loose roads of the rural Midwest. Expect a self-supported, never-flat course and a huge party at the end of the day. The course is generally less chunky than other Midwestern races, but the pre-dawn start and large fields are interesting quirks to this homegrown event.
Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI)
Where: Ketchum, Idaho
When: September 3, 2023
Distances: 18.7 miles (Tater Tot), 56 miles (French Fry), 103 miles (Baked Potato)
Highlights: The race is held between 6,000 and 8,500 feet, which is noticeable, especially in the very dry climate. There is no cell service, some more technical components, and lots of family options around the area for a great weekend. Plus, this year, the event has announced the addition of the “Official Potato Olympics” as the closing competitive event. Get your teams and costumes ready!
How-Tos: RPI, founded by cycling legend Rebecca Rusch, is a must-do bucket list event for everyone. Getting to Ketchum can be daunting, but once you’re there, you don’t want to ever leave. The race itself starts with a LONG climb out of the valley and you start at a solidly high elevation to begin with. Once you’re over the top of the pass, be sure to keep your head on a swivel because the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous. Before you know it you’ll be rolling back down that long climb back into town, but save a little for the finish since there’s often a headwind for the final few miles. It can be morale-sapping at the end of a long day, but the gelande-quaffing and party in the town square are worth it.
Photos courtesy RPI