John Kollhoff of Abilene joined hundreds of fellow cyclists June 5 for the Unbound Gravel race in Emporia where he road 200 miles — a total of 18 hours and 45 minutes — on his bike.
He started around dawn Saturday and finished at around 12:45 a.m. Sunday. Kollhoff rode further on his bike during the race than he did between Emporia and Abilene to get to the starting line, he said.
There were more than 900 people who took part in the 200 mile leg of the race — there are 25, 500, 100, 200 and 350 mile races associated with Unbound Gravel. Kollhoff recalls being lined up in the middle of that crowd of cyclists at the starting line and that “there was a ton of energy” despite the early hour.
“For like a mile or so all you see is just this snake of cyclists going through the hills,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to just be a part of something with that many other people. Usually I ride alone or with one or two other people, so just having that many people around — it kind of changes the dynamics too. Just having to ride around other people and being careful about where you’re turning and things like that.”
It was his first time in the race, which used to be called the Dirty Kanza. He described it as “intense.”
“This is kind of like the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Stanley Cup of gravel racing,” Kollhoff said. “In the gravel community, it’s considered to be like the world championship and it’s really in our backyard.”
The race takes cyclists through a maze of dirt roads in Lyon County, Morris County, and Wabaunsee County. Cyclists traverse roads that in some cases rarely see any traffic outside of people leading their cattle out to pasture much less vehicles and bicycles.
Kollhoff said he meeting other cyclists and sharing the road with actual cycling professionals.
“The best part is just the atmosphere and all the people,” he said. “You have former world tour pros — Ian Boswell who won the whole thing, Laurens ten Dam got second, Ted King, Peter Stetina — all these guys that some of them have top 10 Tour de France finishes. So it’s kind of cool to be out on the same course as them. But I think the whole gravel community is pretty cool. Most of us aren’t going out there to win the race, we’re just going out there to participate and have fun. And you meet a bunch of people, get to know other people that maybe you’re already acquainted with better. Over the course of 200 miles, you see a lot of the same people over and over again. You’re passing them or they’re passing you or you see each other at water stops so you kind of get to know some people.”
Kollhoff plans to do the race again next year — committed to doing it again Sunday morning, the day after finishing his first Ubound Gravel race.
The recovery in the aftermath of the 200 mile race wasn’t bad, he said. Kollhoff wasn’t dehydrated or sunburned — just sore.
“The things that were worst were just my hands and my feet just from being on the handlebars and on the pedals that long,” he said. “That was kind of the worst.”
Temperatures had been in the 80s during the race — it could have been worse. The last leg of the race was the easiest.
“Where the roads kind of flattened out around Council Grove I kind of took it a little bit easier than I should (have),” Kollhoff said. “I wasn’t super stressed out or ready to pass out — kind of recovered a little bit in that last 50 miles.”
And the race had a great atmosphere, he said.
When he rolled in after midnight after finishing the race, there were far fewer people there to greet him than there had been when he started out, but there was still a handful of observers and Unbound Gravel officials present when he crossed the finish line.
“I actually got to see a couple of my friends come in just shortly after me, so that was cool,” Kollhoff said.
He’s just happy to have finished the race. About one third of 200-mile participants didn’t make it across the finish line, he said.
Kollhoff spends a lot of time on his bike, doing 150 to 200 miles a week in the months leading up to the race. He helped put on the Wild West Gravel Fest in Abilene last year — a 125-mile ride that will take place again this October.
Kollhoff only started doing these long-distance events about two years ago after taking part in a triathlon.
“I realized I didn’t like the running or the swimming, but the biking was ok so I decided to just do more of that,” he said.
COVID-19 made it harder for him to stay in good cycling shape by canceling events. He had planned to do the Unbound Gravel in 2020 along with several smaller ones, but they were all canceled.
“I was in pretty good shape all through the end of the year but I actually broke my face skiing in January so I kind of had an unplanned month off of training,” Kollhoff said. “I basically had to restart at about the end of February.”
There are longer races out there — including the 350 XL race — but Kollhoff doesn’t know if he’ll be taking part in these any time soon.
“With little ones around it’s kind of hard to do the training,” he said.
He and his wife have a three-year-old son Patrick, an eight-year-old daughter Whitney and an eleven-year-old daughter Claire.
Kollhoff said he worked around family time by doing longer rides on Sundays in the early morning.
“Most of the time, you don’t really need to do that many long rides,” he said. “You can do 20, 30, 40 miles in a couple hours in either the morning or the evening.”
He said he was excited about classes at Spin On in Junction City, a local exercise studio that focuses on cycling and hoped it would increase local interest in cycling.
Kollhoff said he plans to ride more often in order to improve on his time for next year’s race. He uses an app-based training program.
“It’s all automated but you can choose what kind of a training program you want to do, so I’m going to try to do one that focuses less on endurance and more on — it sounds kind of crazy — but shorter distances,” he said. “There’s been some research that shows essentially training for shorter distances helps you more in the long distances just by training your muscles to do burst efforts — the climbs especially — by improving your time on the climbs. Getting that type of fitness will help.”
But improving his finishing time is less important to Kollhoff than just being out there and having fun.
“For me, it was just to be out there and do it,” he said.