Cycling speed, in some ways, is just math. Saying that is a lousy way for someone to fall in love with you, but let’s face it – you’re never going to convince any romantic interest to like you by talking about bikes.

But forget about trying to make your bed more crowded for a second – let’s imagine someone made a race simulator that allowed you to plug in a course, a cyclist, and the weather and spit out an approximate time it would take for that cyclist to complete the course.

Sounds useful, huh?

Well, you’re in luck – someone has built such a race simulator, branded it, and packaged it into software you must pay for – it’s called Best Bike Split.

Fortunately for you, I’ve paid for it and am in the mood to demonstrate how tiny differences in performance add up throughout a gravel race like, say Unbound 200.

The Setup

The Rider

Best Bike Split requires setting up an athlete profile, including age, height, weight, FTP, and training elevation.

For this simulation, I’ve chosen an average rider with an age of 26, weighing 166 lbs, FTP of 370, and a training elevation of 5,000 ft.

The Bike

You can witlessly add your bike and attempt to make aerodynamic assumptions about your setup or choose from several default options.

Thankfully, the engineer behind Best Bike Split recognized the growing popularity of gravel racing and created a default Gravel Bike setup, which saves time and embarrassment.

The Race

Best Bike Split has thousands of courses available in its database, but if your course isn’t there, you can just find the course, download a GPX file and upload it.

The Race Plan

Once you choose a rider and a course, you can create a race plan for the course that considers the weather on race day and then prompts you to select a race goal model type: normalized power, goal time, and TSS. They even allow you to pick the average intensity factor for the race and specify the max % of FTP (how hard you’d ride) throughout the race.

Click ‘Update Race Plan,’ and after a bit of loading foreplay, you’ve got an estimation of time, average speed, average power (what moves you), Normalized power (how it feels), variability index (how much your power varies, intensity factor (your average effort in comparison to your FTP), TSS, watts/kg, and calories burned.

The Results

If you’re not easily impressed, the metrics and graphics might make you want to resume using Tick Tock, but stay with me because if you’re like any performance-obsessed gravel rider, you’re pathologically invested in the effect of (mostly buying) small changes in fitness, weight, aerodynamics, tire choice, and equipment to perform.

As you’ll see, small changes in performance multiplied by 200 miles leads to ridiculous time savings.


Before we go through the variables, I’d like to point out something that’s not totally obvious – generally, the slower you ride, the more these hacks matter. 

That’s counterintuitive, especially with aerodynamics, because anyone trying to improve their aerodynamics always sees watts savings advertised at higher speeds, with the savings increasing the faster you go.

However, if you ride slower, it takes you longer to go the same distance. If you spend more time doing something, time savings measures have more time to take effect, thus saving you more time. 

So, even if you’re not moving as fast as the pros, these hacks will still benefit you and save you lots of time. 

Waxing Your Chain

When you were asleep in Physics class, your teacher discussed different forces that act on mechanical systems like gravity. A bike is no exception.

If you break it down (I won’t be here because yawn), nearly everything seems to get you not to move on a bike – it takes a lot of energy to overcome these forces.

Luckily, to an extent, you have control over the degree to which these forces oppose your forward movement. I could mention the most significant forces that affect you first, but that’ll probably make you sad, so let’s stick to reducing a force that takes time, money, and lots of chemicals, all for the good ol’ cause of reducing drive train friction!

Did you know your filthy, uncleaned, noisy chain is robbing you of free watts? Yep! Drive train losses due to a poorly maintained chain can add up to as much as 7 watts (in extreme cases).

Solution? Wax your chain. Straight facts – it’s annoying. You must buy enough chemicals from Home Depot that people will think you’re the next uni-bomber. You also have to purchase waxing products, a slow cooker, and extra chains for the system to get efficient, but if you put yourself through this agonizing BS, the result is a shiny chain, cassette, and a drive train that doesn’t leak lots of energy.

And what would 7 watts of saving translate to for Unbound 200?

15:29. That’s right – cleaning and waxing your chain adds up to fifteen minutes saved over 200 miles, the equivalent of raising your FTP by 4%.

Seems insignificant.

Aerodynamic Tweaks

n the past ten years, some bike company released the catchphrase ‘Aero is everything.” Maybe it was Specialized. Perhaps it wasn’t actually a bike company; I don’t remember – it doesn’t matter. What really matters is – is Aero everything?

Well, no, but yeah, it matters.

What can you improve aerodynamically? Your bike frame, wheels, handlebars, race tires, chain, derailleur pulleys, helmet, skinsuit, and, unfortunately, socks.

Unfortunately, nothing in life comes for free. Sure, if you wrapped up like a condom and dumped your kids’ college fund into every watt savings trick available, you will be aero AF.

But, you’ll also be poor, uncomfortable, and more than likely spending considerable time in a ditch in Kansas repairing flats, clutching your back, and extricating yourself from brambles.

To a lesser extent than road, your ideal gravel racing setup is a tradeoff between aerodynamic performance, comfort, and durability. I’ll never forget seeing someone blow by me in the first 25 minutes at Unbound in 2021 with a TT frame in aero bars running 28 mm tires with a shit-eating grin on his face. Five miles later, I saw the same guy in a ditch with a cracked head tube with a very different look on his face.

So, no, Aero isn’t everything, but it’s safe to say that you can add a few aerodynamic touches to your rig that won’t risk mechanical hazards or physical misery.

Here’s a list, sorted by dollars/watt, because few people are made of money:


Product Potential Watt Savings Potential Cost Dollars/Watts
Aero Frame 20 $5,500 $275/watt
Aero Wheels 25 $2,500 $100/watt
Aero Handlebars 10 $350 $35/watt
Race Tires 25 $175 $7/watt
Waxed Chain 5 $175 $35/watt
Oversized Pulley Wheels 2 $600 $300/watt
Aero Helmet 15 $300 $20/watt
Aero Skinsuit 20 $200 $100/watt
Aero Socks 8 $30 $3.75/watt

Tire Choice

As mentioned above, many forces oppose forward movement on the bike. It should come as no surprise that the part of the park that touches the ground – your tires – is no exception.

Tires have rolling resistance – the watts required to oppose the forces acting on the tire contacting the ground. This is called Crr.

A few incredibly dedicated, nerdy indoor types have blessed (or cursed us) with websites showing different tire types’ rolling resistance. Take a look.

As you can see, the tire you choose can save you a lot of watts, but an obvious catch bears repeating – you get no free lunch in this life.

The tires with the least rolling resistance are about as durable as a tissue. They don’t say the quiet part out loud, but some are essential single-use tires that will puncture if you’re within a mile of something sharp.

So, sure, a tire with a higher Crr will be slower, but it won’t be as slow as the tire you’re constantly repairing.

Unbound’s reputation for ‘challenging’ road conditions is not exaggerated – it’s a nightmare out there.

So, sure, you don’t need to put on a Kevlar tractor tire, but you should pick a tire with a reputation worthy of a heavyweight prizefighter.

I promise you – when you’re on your knees in hour 10 of Unbound, the last thing you want to do is get off and repair a flat.

Weight Loss

Cyclists are famous for their healthy, centered relationship with body weight and image. 

Just kidding. Cyclists writ large, as with any weight-bearing endurance sport, are infamous for their unusual dietary habits and body dysmorphia that often compromises their physical and mental health and long-term enjoyment and participation in the sport. 

Why? Because weight matters a lot in cycling. Gravity is a hell of a drug, and since cyclists make up about 80% of the total weight of the combined bike and cyclist, a cyclist that reduces their weight will be faster, provided they can put out the same power. 

How much faster? I’ll skip that equation because I have something happy to report: losing weight won’t help you much at Unbound.

Why? Well, it’s just not that hilly. In 2022, the verified course only had 7,500 feet of climbing. While that sounds like a lot, remember that’s 7,500 feet over 200 miles for an average of 37 feet of gain per mile.

Consider a different gravel race with mountainous parcours like BWR CA. The sadists in charge of that course stack that race with over 11,000 ft of climbing in 130 ish miles for an average of 84 feet of gain per mile, or more than 50% more climbing per mile than unbound.

Also. Not all vertical miles are the same. With rolling hills, it’s easier to keep the gas on over the top of the hill and use your momentum to coast halfway up the next one. With proper, sustained climbs, you’ll be earning every pedal stroke. 

This isn’t to say that weight doesn’t matter – w/kg always plays! However, I ran the math in Best Bike Split and in Unbound, as a rule, weight reductions give you half the time savings by increasing your watts by the same percentage. 

For example, increasing your power by 5% saves you 17:33; decreasing your weight by 5% saves you 8:18. 

We could caveat this to the moon (yes, I know losing body fat has other advantages beyond improving w/kg), but the point is that a larger rider at Unbound doesn’t have the same gravitational disadvantages to overcome in other races. Enjoy your sandwich.


Best Bike Split demonstrates what you already know but hate to admit – by far, improving your fitness is the most impactful determinant of finishing time.

Unfortunately, even if you take out a loan on your mortgage to buy the best bike, tires, aerodynamics, chain wax, etc., you still have to pedal. If you can pedal harder, longer, over 200 miles, that extra fitness produces staggering time savings.

Here’s a table of time savings at Unbound 200 in 1% improvements in FTP up to 10%.

~9:30 hour Finisher (~20 mph avg)

% FTP Improvement Time Savings
1 2:44
2 5:25
3 8:04
4 10:41
5 13:14
6 15:45
7 18:13
8 20:39
9 23:04
10 25:25

~12:30 hour finisher (~16 mph avg)

% FTP Improvement Time Savings
1 4:02
2 7:59
3 11:53
4 15:42
5 19:27
6 23:09
7 26;47
8 30:21
9 33:51
10 37:18


K, that was a lot of foreplay to arrive at the number you’re really looking for – how much speed can I buy versus how much speed can I earn?  Here’s the breakdown:

Average Rider Elite
-4% Drag 8:24 6:24
-3% Weight 7:21 3:03
-1% Rolling Resistance 1:19 0:43
Total 14:28 10:10
10% FTP Increase 37:18:00 25:25
Total 50:47:00 35:00

It’ll take some squinting, but here’s the bottom line: You can buy/hack 1/3 of your potential speed – the rest is fitness. 


What Best Bike Split Doesn't account for

Unbound isn’t run solo in a wind tunnel – it happens in the middle of nowhere with thousands of your best friends through sketchy stretches of road and nasty weather. In the real world, these factors play just as hard as wearing condom socks.


Anyone who has accidentally watched part of a bike race from an airport bar has heard the commentators go on about the effects of drafting. Hot tip – if commentators bring something up, it probably matters a lot, except if Sean Kelly is saying it.

Yes, drafting saves you lots of energy. If you’re riding behind someone, you can pedal 20ish% easier and still go the same speed. If you’re behind several people, the effect increases.

While Lifetime has banned aero bars for the pros, they still haven’t gotten around to banning drafting, so getting in and working well within a group of riders is essential to your fastest race.

Fundamentally, bike racing is about crossing a distance as fast as possible using the least amount of energy. In the first 2/3 of Unbound (before everyone explodes and dies), your energy should be focused on getting into the fastest-moving group you can find and then doing the least amount of work possible in that group – NOT trying 190-mile solo flyers.

Variable Conditions

The Midwest in June is an unforgiving place. Chances are the weather will either be pizza oven hot or rainy with a side of tornadoes.

We’ll touch on the heat later, but Unbound turns into a clown show if it rains. Rivers across generously called ‘bridges’ bloat, flooding the crossing, making your passage treacherous. Mud overflows into single track rendering it a soupy, drive-train-killing mess. Some sections are just plain unrideable, and you can be left hike-a-biking for over a mile. Sure, the rain spares you the heat, but the tradeoff is questionable.

In rainy conditions, your grit, equipment choice, and technical ability matter even more than usual, and maintaining a high speed is more than just pedaling hard and wearing the right shit, but is also about your line choice and split-second course decisions that can be the difference between riding your bike, walking it, or, more likely, trying to find sticks to clear mud out of your drivetrain.

Getting Schwaggy

If you want to go fast, you must get good enough on a gravel bike to consistently stop using your fear finger and braking when you don’t need to.

I know many bike racers with miserable FTPs and a fondness for overfeeding that go much faster than you’d think on paper just because they can ‘schwag out .’What does that look like?

When you’re going into a turn like a semi backing into a Walmart, they fly into the corner seven mph faster than you, chop you, and with only minimal braking, rip by you and carry on over rocks, roots, streams, etc. and disappear out of sight around the corner. That was one corner.

What’s fast? Multiply the 20 seconds they put into you on that technical feature by every technical feature you encounter over 200 miles and calculate how much time that is. I guess you won’t wonder how they beat you by over an hour, even though they look more like a part-time truck driver than a bike racer.


Heat kills performance because your cardiovascular system has two jobs – delivering Oxgyen to working muscles to you via the blood and dissipating heat. When you’re overheated, guess what your body prioritizes?

Heat. Because our cells evolved to thrive in a narrow thermal band, everything falls apart if we go above or below it, and we die.

Since Unbound is always long and usually hot, heat management is a key performance driver. How do you manage the heat?

Sodium. You need to supplement sodium heavily to mitigate the sodium lost through sweat. The amount you need to supplement is individual, but even a low-sweater on a cooler day at Emporia will probably finish looking like they swam in a vat of salt afterward.

Your preparation for Unbound isn’t complete without knowing your sweat rate and developing a strategy to offset the losses.


I’m sure someone has completed Unbound fasted, but you shouldn’t try. Regardless if you finish in nine hours or seventeen, you can expect to burn roughly 8,000-10,000 kcal or the equivalent of 80-100 Miller Lites. That’s a lot of Miller Lite.

Your ability to eat what you need to sustain your effort is a multifactorial problem that depends partly on your fitness, heat management, pacing, and gut tolerance.

In general, though, you should shoot to eat at least 70-100 grams of carbohydrates per hour. With the help of a T-89, you might realize that even if you finish in the lead group, that entails consuming 30 gels throughout 200 miles. What’s your bet on whether you’ll ever want to eat another gel again after you cross the finish line?

Of course, if you’re wise, you’ll eat more than gels because 150 miles in, the last thing you’ll want to do is eat yet another gel. What works for you is what works for you, and the only way to figure that out is to experiment in training.

And what’s the time savings at Unbound between eating well and eating poorly? Hours. If you bonk, zone 1 feels hard, and all the aero hacks and technical ability in the world won’t make up for pedaling 100 watts below what you could typically sustain.


It seems absurd to stress about your pit time in a race over 200 miles with only two aid stations, but…you don’t want to linger.

Unlike how you record your training rides, once the gun goes off at Unbound, the time doesn’t stop. Your finishing time is your ELAPSED time between the start and finishing, NOT your moving time.

Consequently, it behooves you (if you care about your time, and you do if you’ve made it this far in the article) to spend as much time moving as possible.

As trivial as it sounds, if you can reduce your pit time at aid stations to five minutes rather than ten minutes at each, then guess what – you just crossed the finish line ten minutes faster!

How can you execute faster pit times?

You need a plan and great support.

Once you ride into the aid station and find your support, you nor they should wonder what you need. Your nutrition and fuel should be laid out so it’s easy to grab and decision fatigue minimized. If efficient, you should be able to get in and out in three minutes tops, excluding any mechanical nightmares you somehow survived between aid stations.


No one talks about this, but being able to piss off the bike is a superpower because pissing while you’re moving is ALWAYS faster than pissing while you’re not.

Don’t laugh, think. Throughout a 200-mile race, you’ll probably need to piss 2-4 times, especially since, metabolically, you’re compressing a week’s worth of metabolic processes into 10 hours. If every piss takes you conservatively two minutes, you could save roughly four to eight minutes just by not stopping.

Is this easy? No.
Is this trainable? Yes, even for the ladies.
Is this dignified? No, but you’re going to be riding through cow shit anyway. What’s the difference?

Mechanical Aptitude

Mechanicals at Unbound happen constantly – one in ten racers gets a flat during the race. I just made that statistic up, but rest assured many, many people spend some time on the side of the road fixing their tire, derailleur, chain, or God knows what sometime during the race.

You don’t just need to know how to fix it; you need to know how to fix it fast. Unbound shouldn’t be the first time you read the instructions for your bacon plug or figure out how to use a chain breaker – your mechanical aptitude is a skill that can save you hours during Unbound – or guarantee you never finish it.


I can’t plug a ‘Superior mentality’ into Best Bike Split and see how much time this saves you throughout 200 miles, but let’s not pretend that nothing that goes on upstairs affects your performance.

Your ability to persevere, handle setbacks, go hard, and make intelligent decisions stem from a three-pound ball of soft tissue with incredible plasticity – yes, it’s trainable.

And yet, few athletes work on that, much less even realize it’s a limiter.

If you want a program that can help, hit me up.


If you fill a wheelbarrow with cash and head to your local bike shop, you can buy significant speed at Unbound.

Regrettably, you can’t buy the legs, head, skills, or execution that make most of the difference.

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Tired of getting your teeth kicked in at Unbound? Let’s’ change that. Whether it’s a training plan or coaching, I’ll get you to the finish line faster, guaranteed.

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