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Haley Smith Unbound: Inside the Canadian’s big gravel debut

Diving into the deep end of drop-bar racing with a top-10 in Kansas

Haley Smith rocketed into the world of gravel racing over the weekend, scoring an impressive sixth in her first Unbound Gravel appearance. While the Canadian Olympian rolled into Emporia, Kansas with serious mountain bike pedigree, her successful debut is remarkable as it wasn’t just her first Unbound. It her was her first gravel race. Ever.

When I caught up with Smith over the phone post-race, she was stoked two days after the race. While many riders were still wallowing in the Unbound “hangover,” Smith was laughing at the craziness of everything that unfolded at her first Unbound.

We talk about mixing training for 90-minute World Cup cross country races and 11-hour gravel races, returning to Unbound with an eye on the podium, and why she was so confident going into her first long-distance race.

Canadian Cycling Magazine: Unbound was your first official gravel race?

Haley Smith: Straight up my first gravel race. I’d never done one before.

How was the race for you with the mass start? The mass start sounded … hectic.

It was definitely pretty sketchy. There were 1,200 people in our start. They put the pro field at the front, but you still all started together. The pro women were mixed in with the pro men. We had about 10 minutes of neutral roll out on pavement before we did a hard right onto pretty loose gravel.

I wasn’t quite far enough up in the pack, so I got stuck behind a lot of crashes. People were dropping like flies. For most of the crashes, I manage to skid to a stop and skirt around it. In the last one, I also got hit from behind. There was someone tangled in my bike, my Wahoo somehow launched into the dirt and I had to dig around for it. But I didn’t get hurt and my bike was fine, so that was a blessing. there were people with broken seat posts, etc. in that first half-hour, and their first day was just over.

We could have a five-hour conversation about how the race played out. It was truly an epic saga of events out there. I chunked it in my head into three little races between the feed stations. Each of those segments had so much going on in terms of weather, mud, people crashing and highs and lows of energy. But my equipment performed really well. I had no flats. The only thing that went wrong was breaking one spoke in a crash and my top tube bag. That’s pretty rare to not have a problem.

You were running Tannus tire inserts for Unbound? Have you been riding those for a while?

That was the first day I rode the gravel insert. They feel really good. We also switched to 60 tpi tires from 120 just for that bit of extra flat protection.

Compared to a World Cup or a stage race, what was the overall experience like?

At least how I approached it, there was no pressure and everyone is daunted by the distance. Ot the startline even the people hoping to win have a little bit of fear that they might not make it through. At any other race you don’t really line up with that in your mind. I think that made people work together a bit more, and they were really encouraging of each other.

You’re also out there for 11 hours. When you’re out there that long, you will have lows, major lows, where you feel you can’t turn the pedals. Everyone respects that and knows that. The vibe was very encouraging, like you were all part of a team. You’re all trying to do this together and, even if you want to beat the person you’re riding with, you can’t do it without them, either.

How did you prepare for the race?

We have been preparing mostly for an XCO style of effort. We were relying on doing a pretty big volume block in December and January to do most of the leg work for us before this one. When we came back from the World Cups in Germany and Czech, we had two weeks to do some sort of training to get ready for it.

Ideally, if you’re preparing properly for an event like Unbound or you want to peak at it, you would have a dedicated training block with time to rest before it. We didn’t have that. So we just trained pretty hard for the two weeks leading in, in the hope we’d end up with “training camp legs,” where you do all that high volume and at some point you sort of feel invincible. It worked pretty well. Both L’Espy and I were a little fatigued, but we did the best with what we could.

How do you manage, or balance, training for a 19-minute XCC or 90-minute XCO with a 200-mile gravel race?

I think if we were doing it properly, with an intent to peak at Unbound – which, now that I’ve done it, I want to do next year – you can’t really effectively do both in a short period of time. As it was, I think the best way was to train for XCO. You still need that speed and the ability to go above threshold. As long as you have a base from earlier in the year, that’ll carry you through.

Will there be more races like this? Sixth is an impressive start for your first really long race.

Thanks! Yeah, I definitely like them. The races that touch me, or speak to me are expanding. I’ve always said that I’m an XCO person, but I think that I’m now an XCO and endurance person. I love them both.

The rest of the year we do have some longer races, like Leadville. And we’ll be back next year for Unbound. I can definitely see myself pursuing this kind of racing. Who knows, maybe I had beginners luck. But maybe with more focus and preparation, I could do even better. I’m definitely keen to find out.

Coming from XCO, was there any surprise that the really long distance went well?

Honestly, no. I’ve really worked on endurance for years. The longer it is, the better I do usually. The higher the effort is for a prolonged period of time, the better I do. I have this weird little confidence thing in my he’d that I know I can endure things. There is nothing physically harder in an endurance event than anorexia. That is the ultimate in human endurance, from what I experienced. So anything like this, I have the confidence of knowing it won’t be harder than that, I won’t ever be that tired.

So it’s not a surprise to me, but I also have to be careful. I want to stay good at both ends of the spectrum so I’m trying to figure out how to approach training and racing so that I don’t lose the snap in the shorter stuff.

This is also the longest single-day race you’ve done. Was there any nervousness about racing that distance?

Yes. It would be more accurate to say that I finished that effort as opposed to racing it. Even for the first two hours, I was reluctant to go as hard as I needed to go to stay with groups or match accelerations. There was this massive worry about if I could even finish it. So I was nervous. I knew that no matter what I was going to get to the finish line, I just couldn’t tackle it with an outcome goal that I would normally have in an XCO, because there is just that lingering “what if I don’t make it?”

Is there anything you’d do differently next year?

I’d be a little more sharp mentally. I was being a bit casual through the checkpoints and probably taking my time too much. I think now that I know I can finish it, I also know I can win it if I have a great day. So that kind of attitude is what I would change.

But it was my first drop bar race, my first gravel race, my first race over five hours. So there were too many ‘firsts’ to tackle. Now that I’ve got those, I’d be more willing to send it to see what kind of result is possible.