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Unbound bans aero bars and adds separate elite races

Big changes coming to marquee gravel event

Gravel Unbound Photo by: Life Time Events

Unbound Gravel, one of the U.S. gravel scene’s most prominent events, is making a few major rule changes in 2023.

First, the Kansas event is diverging from gravel tradition and creating separate elite men’s and women’s races for the first time. Second, the Life Time-owned event is hemming in the “anything goes” ethos of gravel slightly by banning aerobars, though that change will only apply to elite field. Third, Life Time is taking the step to add course marshals at intersections to improve rider safety.

Both changes likely emerge out of growing concerns for rider safety among the increasingly-professionalized elite gravel ranks. As the new discipline shifts from purely mass-participation to a high-dollar pro event, in part due to the attention of Life Time’s own Grand Prix series, riders are pushing for more equal, and more safe, conditions.

RELATED: Haley Smith headlines 2023 Life Time Grand Prix roster

Canada’s Rob Britton races Unbound Gravel 2022.

Separate elite starts and race marshalls

The first big change is that the elite men and elite women will be separated from the amateurs and from each other. This change only applies to the 200-mile event. It is, in part, aimed to address safety concerns. “By removing the ability for out-of-their-league non-elites to get mixed in with the elites,” Life Time states in its annoucnement, adding “This thereby removes some of the risk of folks riding beyond their abilities and causing dangerous scenarios.”

Both changes also makes the elite racing more fair for the pro women who would quickly be scattered into mass-start fields, making the race difficult to follow or, as was the source of some controversy in 2022, work with – or recieve assistance from – male teammates.

RELATED: Haley Smith finds consistency (amid chaotic mass starts) on road to Life Time Grand Prix victory

The elite men will now start 10 minutes ahead of the amateur riders. Elite women will start two minutes later, eight minutes ahead of the amateur riders. Life Time also added that it will be vetting entries into the elite field: “If there are any riders who we are unsure about, we reserve the right to reach out and ask them for credentials to start in this field.”

Life Time added that it hopes this change keeps the elite racers from changing the race experience too much for the amateur racers, who make up the vast majority of entries at Unbound Gravel.

To further increase safety at Unbound, Life Time is adding a course marshal at “every intersection with paved roads to increase rider safety.”

Peter Stetina’s Grizl at Unbound in 2021. Photo: Canyon Bicycles / Wil Matthews

No aerobars in elites

Life Time is also addressing a long-running debate about aerobars in gravel racing. Aerobars and bar extensions of any kind will be banned in the elite field. Since the elites will be separated, officials will enforce this rule on the start line.

Like searate starts, banning bar extensions is intended to make the elite racing safer.