The thing about gravel racing is you never know what you’re going to get. Sure, there’s gonna be a race. Everyone will be on point. There will be dirt—for sure. But outside that… who knows? What’s the weather gonna bring? Who’s gonna show up to attempt to steal your glory? What do the cards hold in terms of luck staying clear of a sharp rock aiming to carve out a sidewall, the rider in front causing you to divert into a ditch? Will I make it to the finish?

Unbound 2022 brought all that uncertainly in spades. Apart from a collection of distances to make every racer happy (from the spirited 25-mile event all the way up to the overnight haul that the 350-mile Unbound XL brings), every race—and racer—had a blank slate. Last weekend, that slate was scrawled on… with a bit of mud.

Apart from a legion of Litespeed riders lined up for all the action Litespeed had one hired gun for race day named Chris Brown. Besides being Litepeed’s national sales director, the lithe Brown is a top former top-level mountain biker, who finds his home at the front of races ranging from 50 to 100 miles. The trickier the course, the harder the pace, the more at home Brown is.

So it was with this year’s Unbound 100 where Brown found himself for the third time, attempting to improve on his best result, an overall runner-up finish in 2019. With the Ultimate Gravel as his weapon of choice, Brown was dialed, with a light rig that was tough enough to beat back anything, from an errant rock to an off-course rider, along with nimble handling characteristics, all in a frame with that inherent capacity to absorb the high-frequency vibrations that the gravel roads of Emporia are know to deliver. The only thing he and all other athletes had to sort out is how to fine-tune for the weather.

Before the race, the Unbound expo was packed, as was the Litespeed booth, where we had our bikes out on display and available for test rides, including the popular Watia and race-proven Ultimate Gravel. We also brought several Litespeed riders bikes into the booth for free service, to ensure their bikes were shifting with surgical precision for the race. One of the most experienced riders at the front of any gravel race, Brown was there to chat with riders, espouse advice while showcasing the most progressively-designed titanium gravel bikes in cycling.

Brown’s race-day choice? Amid the hot topic of the aerobar debate, Brown decided to mounting a set of clip-ons for race day. “Looking back,” he says. “I wouldn’t have run them; because I was in a group for so much of the race, I never had a clear line of sight in front of me to feel comfortable getting in them and riding safely. Next year, I’ll go without aerobars.”

Lining up toward the front of the 100-mile event, Brown saw a kerfuffle as two riders moved right to the front of the start line: former Tour de France green jersey holder Peter Sagan, and Sagan’s former teammate, Daniel Oss. Talk about X-factor; if these two came to battle, it was gonna be a whole new—and unexpectedly painful—game.

The race started, and things strung out, with Brown solidly in the lead group with Sagan, Oss and the other contenders. While the concerns about mud on course due to rains the previous days was founded, the sun had been out enough the day before the race to dry the course, leaving just a few sections of puddles that would get chewed up as the race went on. “Really, it was ideal conditions,” Brown said. “Even though we ended up racing in the rain at the end, it was never really windy, and never hot.”

Brown was able to roll up to Sagan and chat a bit as the pace settled down. “He was such a nice guy,” Brown says. “He was drilling it, but you could see he and Oss were just going, like, 80 percent. Watching these guys ride so smoothly, it was pretty surreal.”

Alas, the former ProTour riders were out to have fun rather than hurt the field; the duo stopped at the Water Oasis at mile 43, and the lead pack let out a collective breath of relief, leaving the race to the rest of the mortals. At that point, it became a game of cat and mouse.

Brown was put in a bit of trouble when he missed a split in the lead group. With a not-insignificant effort and cohesion from the small collective he was with, Brown was able to bridge back at Judge’s Hill Climb at the 55-mile mark. It would prove critical, as the winners would come from this group of about 15 riders.

When two riders wearing Camelbaks decided to roll through an aid station at mile 62—one that all those riders with standard bottles had to stop for—the tactics came into play. The two water-eschewing riders powered away and out of sight, holding their lead right through to the finish to take first and second.

With the remaining group chasing the final podium spot, a 10-rider sprint group Brown barreled toward the finish line. “The guys just weren’t letting anything go, so by the time many of us got to the sprint, there was only so much to give.” Brown dashed across the finish in ninth place in 5:09:48, with a blazing fast 20.26 mph average speed.

In the end for Brown, it marked three top-10 finishes in three tries at the Unbound 100: third in 2019, sixth in 2021 and, this year, ninth overall (including second in his 40-49 age group), against a field of nearly 1,200 starters. And it was a nice follow-up after Brown notched a 16th-place overall result at Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego in late April.

"I’m pretty happy, and as always, it was fun,” Brown says.

And next year, he’ll leave the aero bars to the triathletes.