The Road to Unbound with Rebecca Fahringer

WORDS BY
Pete Harrington
PHOTOS BY
Trevor Lyden

Professional rock collector, writer, sit-down comedian, and absolute ripper on the cyclocross scene – there are as many sides to 7mesh ambassador Rebecca Fahringer as there are medals in her trophy cabinet. And now she can add gravel grinder to her resume as she leaves shoulder-season behind and clips in for the new wave of events drawing riders to the dirt from every discipline, the highlight of which is Unbound this coming June in Kansas.

It turns out that tornados aren’t the only things that touch down in Kansas. Self-titled as the ‘world’s premier gravel event’ and unofficially known in rubber circles as ‘the money month’, Unbound brings together some 4000 riders from around the world for a wild weekend of drop bars and dropped hammers in the tire-shredding Flint Hills of Kansas. This mixed-bag of mountain bikers, roadies, ‘crossers and dirt-first fanatics all come to suffer across a brutal landscape of tire-torching gravel in one of several events, each longer than the next. Which is why today, I have an excitable Rebecca Fahringer on the phone as we connect to talk about her Road to Unbound, how she’s prepping for the race, her gravel 101s, and why 7mesh apparel gives her an added advantage.

Hey Rebecca, you there?

Err….hello Pete. I think my headphones have gone kaput.

I have some lovely fruit-branded ones that also cause me problems, despite the promises made.

Oh, I’m here! Yes, I don’t know if I have done better or worse by not committing to the company of which you speak. I have ‘the other brand’ as well as that one, so at least I can’t hate one company. I can hate them all.

It’s good to be consistent. I now realise we haven’t spoken or seen each other since the 7mesh Spring/Summer shoot in Oregon last year! How have you been?

More or less ok! Although I managed to get a second concussion, which put paid to much of my’ cross season, so I’m hoping that my gravel season goes well.

Rats. Sorry to hear that. What happened?

I was racing in literally the first weekend of the ‘cross season. Some girl just t-boned me and sent me down.

How’s the recovery going?

It’s going ok. I tried to race through, and I was like, oh no, I’m not really getting symptoms. And then I was on the road for six weeks, so I finally just pulled the plug on the season and took a few months on the couch. I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t see lights. I couldn’t look at my phone or drink alcohol. It was mostly just headaches, but now I have tinnitus and headaches, and the weirdest thing is I’m noticing my resting heart rate is ten beats per minute higher than it used to be.

It’s not the coffee presumably…

Ha, well it might be! But I did look it up and the internet tells me it’s how your cardio system reacts to brain injuries as the neurons attempt to repair themselves.

Good work, brain. Does that mean you’ll still race a full gravel season?

Sure am. In fact, it’s already started. My first race was down in Mount Shasta, California. I was pretty pleased, although I realised I still had some PTSD for falling. In the group, I made a safety bubble of people around me, and I was like, all right, I see the front up there, and they’re going to attack, but I don’t even care. I’m going to sit here with my safety bubble of these middle-aged men that seem not to want to come close to me. And I’m okay with this.

Sounds like a smart move.

Once things spin out, it’s easier to ride harder and be more aggressive. And there’s always a lot of nerves from everyone in the first race of the season. So I’m always on high alert because people are twitchy and excited. But it was good; I got fourth.

For those who haven’t raced cyclocross and gravel, how do the two formats differ?

It’s like apples and oranges because I’m competing at the highest level in the ‘cross scene. Whereas for gravel races, even though I’m competing at the highest level, I’m dumped in with everybody. Perhaps because of that, gravel racing is a bit more relaxed. The Lifetime Grand Prix series that I’m doing this year has three gravel races – one of which is Unbound – and three mountain bike races. And at my first race, I expected a laid back, fun atmosphere, but those women were cutthroat! Brake checking into singletrack and everything. And if you’re trying to avoid running into somebody, that is not smart, nor ultimately, a successful strategy. So perhaps things are becoming less relaxed.

Is cyclocross similarly aggressive?

There’s not a lot of malicious stuff. There are defensive moves that people seem to know, but they are done safely. For example, if you can ride something but you want to slow the people behind you down, you might tactically dismount to force a change. I think cyclocross always feels safer because the speeds are lower, and you’re on dirt and grass and not hard pavement or hard gravel.

What are your gravel goals for this year?

Since I am doing the Lifetime Grand Prix series, those six races are my main focus. I hope to do a few outside of that. For the Lifetime events, I have no idea what to expect because there are mountain bikers and road racers and gravel-specific people all competing agent each other. Also, Triathletes, world champions, national champions, and Olympians spread across different disciplines. And first up is Sea Otter, a mountain bike race, and I’ve never done a high-level mountain bike race. I haven’t competed against these women, so everything is unknown.

Switching between a mountain bike and a gravel bike in the same season seems like a unique situation!

Yeah, it is. Although the mountain bike races are not very technical. Sea Otter might be the most mountain bike-y. The other is Leadville, which is pretty much an out and back on double track, but it’s so long and rough that they say to ride a mountain bike.

I’m trying to imagine a triathlete riding a mountain bike.

Where will they put their double-butt bottle rockets? Nobody knows. Joking aside, everyone who can ride technical stuff will be fighting to get in front of the triathletes or the roadies. Luckily, most of the women involved are professionals who know their skill level and hopefully have respect for their competition, meaning they’ll race, but they’re not going to put people in harm’s way.

Moving to Unbound, you’ve ridden it once before, I believe?

Yep, last year. It’s interesting because you wouldn’t believe you were racing in Kansas. Everybody expects Kansas to be long stretches of monotonous cornfields, but it’s really all rolling hills. It’s beautiful. There are groves of trees and lots of pretty river crossings.

Could you ride a road bike?

You could and not think twice about it, but there are a few chunky sections. The organisers are doing a different course this year, I believe. They have a north course and a south course. I think last year was the north and this year’s the south. There was a section called Little Egypt or something in last year’s edition, and it was pretty, pretty gnarly, with a lot of water erosion that created big ruts and exposed even bigger rocks. And that was the gnarliest part, if you will. But otherwise, it’s pretty fast for 200 miles. I have done a race that was half as long and took longer because it was just so technical. But with a lot of wind, if you’re alone or if it gets muddy, Unbound could be pretty treacherous. That being said, the winner at Unbound will not generally cross the line in under nine hours.

What’s more challenging, the miles or the endless hours in the saddle?

The hours, I think. So to prepare, it’s essential to focus on training hours, although you don’t need to go out and ride for nine hours each time. I think it’s just making sure you can go hard and then keep going. And going! For example, you might do a long ride one day, sleep, and then do another long ride early the next day. And during those rides, have moments of intensity.

Teaching your body to expect more, even after a long ride and high-intensity phases?

Exactly. Training your body to expect no rest and keep pushing. That is essential for top contenders and casual riders alike.

But there must be moments when you want to stop, even for you, one of the fastest cyclocross riders in the world?

You always want to stop. The trick is not giving in to the fear and knowing that you can do it, that you’ve done it before and that it’s within your abilities.

Marcus Aurelius in ‘Meditations’ says something similar. That if something can be humanely done, you can do it too.

As long as you’re in the ballpark of fitness, that’s ultimately true. Otherwise, it’s going to be quite brutal. You’ll finish, but you’ll be floored.

How do you keep going when you’re beyond the rivet?

I try to remember at the right moment, to keep calm. It’s an interesting balance of making sure you’re not so calm that you can’t go hard and remaining calm once you’re working at your limit. That in itself destroys the fear and unlocks your potential. In theory, anyway.

For rides like Unbound, what are your go-to 7mesh pieces and why?

Always the WK3 Bibs – either with or without the cargo pockets. They’re so comfortable, even after long hours on the bike. Plus, they have that natty feature that makes going for rest stops simple, so you don’t have to undress. There will be no disrobing by the side of the trail in Kansas! For the jersey, I’ll wear the Skyline. It’s supreme in the heat, with a heap of pocket space and a fit that melts away. The last thing you want in any race is apparel that calls attention to itself. As the final piece, I might well take a light layer for the early start, possibly the Northwoods, as it packs down small and can stow on my bike with those handy straps it now has!

Sounds like you’ve got everything dialled. Best of luck, Rebecca and thanks for your time today.

My pleasure, Pete!