A Tandem Unbound 200 Story
Words by Dan Hughes, photos by Dalton Paley and others
In 2022, after completing a historic fifth finish in the Unbound 200 (a first for an Emporia woman) and establishing a new Fastest Known Time (FKT), Paulina Batiz (“P-Bitty”) was searching for the next challenge in her cycling career.
For some reason she turned to me: “We should ride the tandem next year!”
At the time it seemed like a great idea and I agreed. It was a year off and anything seemed possible. Plenty of time to train and prepare. As it turned out, it was also plenty of time for me to slip further into sloth.
The year slipped by and as race day approached, I was growing less and less enthused about riding a tandem 200 miles through the Flint Hills. After 11 finishes in the 200, and an XL 350 finish, there really wasn’t much more I was looking from Unbound on a bike. Riding a tandem is in many ways harder than riding a single and the thought of doing something more challenging was antithetical to my current cycling goals. But P-Bitty is on a different growth curve in her cycling career and she has yet to find her limits (maybe she doesn’t have any) and so a tandem sojourn was required.
As always, the lead up to the events in Emporia begin from further afield, and this year was no exception with events kicking off in Lawrence on Monday. Now in its second year, the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame exists to recognize those that have contributed to the growth of the sport and this year Sunflower was honored to be the host for a meet-and-greet ride with new inductees Yuri Hauswald and Alison Tetrick, both of whom have been friends of the shop for several years. A quick levee lap was a great warm-up spin, followed by burgers and beers at the shop.
Casual lap, led by Yuri and Ali.
Tuesday saw several riders depart the shop and since I was the one that knew the route I had the mixed blessing of riding with gravel legends like Yuri and new additions Corey Godfrey, but also needing to be near the front of the group to point the way. Ultimately I resorted to just shouting from the back and if the vanguard didn’t hear me, I would just call them on the phone. It was the best I could do as I was barely hanging on. But overall the vibe was chill as we celebrated the GCHoF and eventually ended the day to a posh glamping setup at Pomona Lake spearheaded by Matt Gilhousen and the Sunflower crew. It was a great way to end the day and even a torrential downpour couldn’t dampen the mood.
Riding to Pomona with legends.
Beautiful sunset before the rains came.
But the rain didn’t let up. Overnight the storm parked right above us and by morning, the prospect of a soggy ride into Emporia was scuttled and instead we regrouped at a greasy spoon restaurant before doing a ride in E-town to mingle with the masses. It was a great time and I hope the GCHoF shake-out ride continues to be a thing…lots of great folks. The whole thing was a perfect lead in to my emceeing the HoF induction ceremony later that night where we enshrined four new members, most of them dear friends. It was a stellar evening filled with heartfelt speeches, even if it did run a little long. And we all got cool new jean jacket vests!
Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame members Corey Godfrey, Yuri Hauswald, Kristi Mohn, Dan Hughes, Alison Tetrick, and Mark Stevenson on the GCHoF shakeout ride.
Everyone fancy in their Ripton jean vests.
Thursday was spent getting Paulina and my’s bike ready, and then drinking some libations at the Chamois Butt’r VIP party at Mulready’s. It was a lighthearted way to ease into the coming festivities of the weekend.
Friday was packet pick-up day, stopping by the Gravel Family podcast, and then seeing off the Unbound XL riders. In a harbinger of what was to come, no sooner had the brave almost 200 souls headed off on their 350-mile journey than the heavens opened up and drenched everyone. I shuddered to think of what might be in store for those riders, but the rest of Friday was spent getting straight to bed for an early wake-up call.
Gravel Family Podcast with Jason and Sophia.
Unbound XL riders head out on course.
When I woke up on Saturday morning at 4am, I was not feeling it. Part lack of competitive desire, part not wanting to let P down, part just being done with suffering, I was in no mood to ride. I told P as much and we had a good cry over it. To be clear, Paulina had a stated goal of “getting you back on the podium” but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t have cared less about that. I’ve stood on the podium many times, and am fully aware of the level of competition these days. Plus I’m old and in terrible shape. But Paulina still has a competitive fire and balancing those two goals is not always comfortable. We agreed to take the day as it came, but there were no guarantees beyond just trying to finish.
At the start line I had hoped to blend in and ease out of town, but somehow we found ourselves right amongst the other tandems, and while P was effervescent, I was full-on sourpuss. That we made it out of town was a surprise, although we almost didn’t…a train split the peloton and instead of the usual pel-mel romp out of town (with the associated crashes and chaos), we were split up into smaller groups almost from the get-go. This was fine by me as the tandem is not an agile machine and takes some effort to maneuver…better to not be around a bunch of people.
Not looking forward to it.
We rolled out of town and up Road D hill, the first real hill on the course and I knew what was on the other side…the potential for miles of hike-a-bike. This had been a surprise in 2015 when it had happened before, but since both Paulina and I were veterans of that particular year, we knew what we were in for: miles of mud that were passable only by walking on the verge. So as soon as we hit the mud, we dove for the ditches and started hiking. Pushing the tandem is not easy, but carrying it is worse, so we endeavored to do more of the former and less of the latter. We eventually made it through the section and continued moving south on the Towers climb and through the Bazaar cattle pens. The pedaling was relatively easy and we made progress towards the first water oasis.
Before I go any further, and if you read nothing else from this missive, know this: Paulina Batiz is the perfect stoker (for the uninitiated, on a tandem the “captain” sits up front, the “stoker” sits in the rear). She is powerful, petite, very neutral on the bike, and is always positive. She is the yin to my yang, and when I say the pedaling was “easy” it’s because she was riding very, very hard. That she was able to power our bike, feed me, take care of herself, and remain upbeat 100% of the time is a testament to her strength. She’s amazing.
The perfect partner
The water oasis behind us, we soldiered on to the Teterville climb, descended some chunky gravel, and made our way to the first checkpoint in Eureka. This was a bit of a challenge as the wind and heat were coming up, but we eventually got there and were taken care of by the crack team of Mulready’s Pub. Informed that we might have been the first tandem in the category to come through, we nonetheless took a protracted break before heading out into the big rollers and high heat of the next leg to Hamilton and Madison.
While it felt good to be refueled and topped off on water, we quickly ran short of liquids as the temperatures climbed. Much will be said about this year’s Unbound being the “toughest ever” due to the mud, but I think 2009 likely holds that title when the finishing rate was below 20%. There was no mud that year…only high heat and humidity and we were heading towards it. At my behest, Paulina and I stopped at every water opportunity, even haranguing some barefoot children into giving us water. It felt like the day was slipping away from me, until suddenly all hell broke loose.
Just outside of the hamlet of Hamilton, the skies opened up to torrential and sideways rain. Barely able to see the road in front of us, we picked our way to the water oasis and assessed the situation. The oasis was like a refugee camp with people huddled under tents and awnings. The temperature had dropped a good 15-20 degrees and while most folks shivered, I finally felt in my element.
Thinking back to similar conditions at Trans-Iowa v.13, I told Paulina: “ya know…these are the kind of conditions where smart people quit. That could be good for us. I’m dumb enough to keep going.” So keep going we did, only to discover another 3-mile hike-a-bike section. P had ridden this section in recon a few weeks early, so we knew how long it was, but it didn’t make getting the big bike through there any easier.
Dirty on the front for me, filthy on the back for P
Once past it, we remounted and pedaled back towards Texaco Hill and the beautiful high prairies. It was here that we suffered our only mechanical when we cased a rock with the front wheel and instantly flatted. Luckily we had all the right stuff at hand and quickly double plugged the hole, re-inflated and moved on. Nursing the low front tire and feathering the non-existent brakes (having burned through our pads in the muck) gave us something to focus on other than pedaling. We crawled up “The Judge” climb and moseyed over to Madison for the last checkpoint.
There we were greeted by two pit crews, battling over who was going to take care of us: Mulready’s and Sunflower. We handed the bike to Matt and his crew for powerwashing and lubing, and let Mulready’s feed us. It was a great stop and with the knowledge that we only had 39 miles to go, felt like we might actually get there.
Only 39 miles to go!
But it wouldn’t be without some more hiking. Shortly after rolling out of Madison, we encountered the worst of the mud. The section wasn’t long, but the walking opportunities were minimal, and the mud had congealed into the dreaded “peanut butter” variety that everyone fears. We were fortunate to find a broken mud stick on the ground, thus allowing each of us to have a tool to clean the mud off the bike once we cleared the section. From there it was just a few simple rollers until the relative ease of cruising back into Emporia. I say simple because the pedaling was easy, but my main concern was not letting the bike go too fast (we had almost no brakes at this point), not getting overhauled by another tandem in the last miles, and making sure we didn’t t-bone a deer in the fading light.
Hiking through the mud
But none of that happened and in perhaps an apt metaphor for the day, my worst fears weren’t realized. We rolled through the ESU campus, down the finishing chute, and into first place in the tandem category. And for something, that at the outset of the day, I couldn’t have cared less about, it felt pretty special. Special because we had overcome the day, special because we had finished with distinction, but mostly special because we had done it together.