On June 3, the gravel world descends upon the small town of Emporia, Kansas (population 24,000) for Unbound Gravel. We interviewed three Challenge riders who will be there.

“Unbound is a huge race in the U.S., and is known as the ‘World Premiere Gravel Race.’ It has a lot of history and fame and even just getting an entry to race is a hard deal,” said Challenge rider Tim Rea.

Rea, who is originally from Sydney, Australia, and currently resides in Miami, Florida, transitioned to gravel from professional triathlon. “I raced as a professional triathlete for six years before retiring at the end of 2021,” said Rea. “Since then, I have moved specifically into amateur cycling with longer distance riding and endurance gravel races.”

Challenge professional Caroline Mani (Groove Off Road Racing) is part of the Lifetime Grand Prix, a six-event series where a selection of 70 gravel pros race for a $250,000 prize purse split equally between men and women.

While Mani has raced several of America’s legendary gravel races, it’s on the cyclocross bike where Mani’s palmares shine. A silver medalist at 2016 Cyclocross Worlds in Zolder, Mani is a five-time French National Champion in the discipline. This Colorado-based rider also won the 2021 and 2022 USCX National Series. Before this season, Mani only raced gravel sporadically in order to support her cyclocross racing fitness.

Mani’s decision to take a more focused approach to gravel is a practical one. “Gravel right now, especially after COVID, has emerged as the hot thing to do,” said Mani.

Of our three interviewees, Luke Hall is arguably most “at home” racing gravel. “I grew up on a farm in Southeast Kansas, so you could say gravel riding was my first real riding experience,” said Hall. “I would use my Pacific MTB to explore the county roads. Throughout my 20s, I struggled with alcohol dependency and picked up a 1988 Schwinn Circuit on a whim. It introduced me to the whole culture and community of road racing. After years of riding and racing criteriums, I borrowed a gravel bike from the shop I worked at and was flooded with feelings of familiarity from my youth. I was immediately hooked.”

Just like Hall, you could say that America is currently hooked on gravel. “I think gravel is the organic answer to boredom with the U.S. road scene,” said Hall. “Everywhere you look, stage races are shutting down and road races are few and far between. Emporia wasn’t known for its cycling culture before Unbound. It’s really exciting to feel like the U.S. has a cycling culture it can call its own.”

A race as long as Unbound requires specific preparation. On that front, Mani explains that she faces the challenges of an amateur even though she rides pro. “I’m racing pro, but I am not pro in the sense that I work full time," said Mani. “I have two jobs and it’s those, not riding, that pay the mortgage. This week I will ride 20 hours, but I am maxed out, getting up early and working late. It’s a balance.”

Both in training and in racing, these Challenge riders rely on their tires!

“My favorite tire is the Strada, or maybe the Criterium RS, or maybe the Getaway,” said Rea, struggling to choose. “I have Challenge tires on all my bikes, ranging from fast road racing tires, to comfortable all-terrain tires and off-road specific. One consistent thing is that they are all well-constructed and hold up well to lots of mileage in all conditions.

Selecting the right tire is crucial, or as Hall puts it: “Different horses for different courses.”

“Living on the Front Range of Colorado, there are a wide variety of riding conditions, from pancake flat, ultra-smooth hardpack to climbing mountains on rugged jeep tracks,”said Hall. “I’m a huge fan of the Strada Bianca in a 40mm for those smoother, fast conditions.”

But Unbound’s gravel isn’t smooth. On the contrary, Kansas’ Flint Hills gravel can be unforgiving. “A course like Unbound requires superior puncture protection against the razor sharp gravel,” said Hall.

Likewise, Rea called the Flint Hills “notorious for shedding rubber.” He added, “There are some chunky B Roads out in the Kansas Plains, so having some nimble grip is reassuring.”

While durability is key, rolling resistance, grip, and pressure are also key considerations.

“A tire needs to roll well on the flat and more tame sections,” said Rea. “Tread pattern also can play a huge part for holding traction and/or if it gets wet and muddy. It is a hard mix to get right.”

Mani points out that a tire of the correct width and pressure will be key to “smoothing out” her 200-mile race. “If you ride 200 miles with too much pressure, you are going to be wrecked!,” said Mani. “As someone used to riding 33mm for cyclocross, I am getting used to bigger tires. I really do like the 40s.”

The riders will make their final tire and pressure selection during course recon, but they agree the Challenge Getaway H-TLR is their “most likely.” Hall favors the 45mm, while Mani, who is a smaller rider, loves her 40s.

Challenge is proud to announce that at Unbound Gravel, it will be unveiled the new reinforced version of the Getaway. This tire is specifically designed for those riders who want to keep pushing their boundaries further. As part of the new XP Series, it represents a significant leap forward in handmade technology. Stay tuned for more details to follow!

We wish all our Challenge riders speed, traction, and durability in the Flint Hills!