Linda Guerrette is a ski instructor and professional photographer who has helped shape the gravel community into the growing phenom it is today. Her photos have documented the diverse conditions and epic battles of Unbound throughout the years, and she is a friendly and familiar face to many riders who've tackled the Flint Hills of Emporia, Kansas. Through her coaching and images, she hopes to inspire all of us to explore the enrichment that cycling can bring to our lives.
UNBOUND is an incredible spectacle of endurance that allows anyone witnessing it a renewed faith in humanity. It’s an absolute privilege getting a front row seat, albeit in a jeep bouncing all over the place, to observe this spectacle firsthand. The race passes through one of the largest tallgrass prairies left in the world. Its breathtaking beauty and rolling hills that extend seemingly into infinity are accessed by a vast network of light-colored dirt roads, of which some are maintained while many are not. All are covered with alternating layers of shale and limestone. Where the limestone erodes, angular fragments of flint accumulate at the surface, giving the Flint Hills their name.
The dirt roads are covered with these angular fragments looking to slice as many tire sidewalls as they can. This is one of two nemeses of this region; the other is the elements. The region is mostly devoid of trees providing no shade or shelter. The riders are out there braving the elements that Mother Nature hurls at them, at times looking like they are pinned to a clothesline hanging on for dear life. This region has a profound effect on anyone who dares to endure the challenge. I believe those reasons are my “why.” In 2010 I experienced the Flint Hills for the first time as a racer. I was captivated by the course, the beauty, and the community of Emporia. I knew I would return. In 2015 I was presented with an opportunity to photograph the race. I jumped at the chance and look forward to returning every year to capture the bike racers' incredible display of strength, courage, drive, and maybe a bit of stupidity on a jaw dropping backdrop. UNBOUND is obviously an endurance event for the racers but let's not minimize the fact that it’s an endurance event for all those involved. Thomas Carlyle said, “endurance is patience concentrated." Pacing is an important element to obtain when we all look at this event.
My photo assignment is to capture the entire race from pre-race to the finish area. The all-important pacing begins with showing up a few days prior to the big day to do my due diligence. I do some course recon, checking areas where riders may be challenged more than others, potential water crossings, any cool historic sites, and where I think the race will actually begin. I also like to get up to speed with race rosters and get some intel on some of the favorites or developing stories that may already exist. I also imagine where racers may make some moves to put the hurt on other racers.
My next step is to meet with my partner in crime David Dinsmore. He’s my trusted jeep driver, navigator, strategist, and good friend. I couldn’t capture this event without him. A day prior to the race we’ll sit and discuss my wish list, and he magically makes it happen by making sure we’re not on the course any more than necessary as required by UNBOUND officials. The night before the race, it’s time to pack everything for the next day. The list is long: all batteries, charged electronics, cameras, and lenses loaded, laptop, nutrition, and hydration set aside, clothing for varied temps could range from 40° - 90°, and the all-important sunscreen. Up early on race day to double check everything and make sure I have all the necessary items to be gone for 10 - 14 hours or so.
Emporia knows how to make everyone feel welcome, with Commercial Street transformed overnight and ready to welcome all racers. Racers start arriving around 5:00 am to soak in the start vibe. The street will be lined up with people, coffee cups in hand, and kids still in PJs to send off a sea of racers at 6:00 am. These same people and thousands of others will line the ¼ mile finish shoot to welcome racers back starting around noon until 3:00 am.
The nervous energy of so many unknowns is pulsating everywhere. I remind myself that endurance is patience concentrated. I look around for moments that will lay the groundwork for my day. I try to remain curious and avoid the ordinary. When the gun goes off, I meet David at our previously agreed location. Our own endurance day begins. I love this time because he’s as much into it as I am because we’ve discussed our game plan. I like to see how many of the items on my wish list can come true before we roll back into Emporia.
UNBOUND’s mass start means men and women start together and ride together throughout the day. This makes it both challenging and exciting to forecast where racers may be during the day. We don’t have radio contact or cell coverage in most places so sometimes figuring out where racers are is like looking for a needle in a haystack. David configures a timeline within 15 minutes or so where the lead riders will be at any given time. So, with that info we move around with time splits and best guess scenarios. It’s actually super fun and exciting. I formulate a variety of shots in my head and then work on making them happen on the fly. This makes me feel connected to the entire race, which I like. My goal is to capture the race vibe from the beginning to the end, which includes the front of the pack of men, women, and racers that are racing the sun, finishing before sunset at 8:45 pm. Sometimes I get to reconnect with some of those riders at the finish, which is always rewarding.
At the end of the day David and I will return to Emporia with lots of great memories and shared laughs from a day spent chasing people in spandex spinning their two-wheeled machines over angular fragments of flint. We’ll be dusty, tired, red-eyed but satisfied because we just witnessed UNBOUND. Of course, the job is not complete until I sift through thousands of images and relive precious moments that make photographing UNBOUND worth every minute.