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Inside Ivar Slik’s momentous Unbound Gravel victory

Relatively unknown on the American gravel circuit, the Dutchman claimed a huge win in Kansas.

The Unbound 200 is cycling’s marquee event, and all eyes are on the biggest names: Ian Boswell, Pete Stetina, Laurens ten Dam, the list goes on. But a Dutch rider named Ivar Slik? Not so much. 

Tucked relatively anonymously into the 2021 results in 14th place, over an hour back on winner Ian Boswell, this little known rider would go on to win against all the established players just a year later. But how?

Ivar Slik leading the main group of contenders as they chased down a break. (Photo: William Tracy)

Most people would be ecstatic with a 14th place result like Slik achieved in 2021, but Slik knew he could do better.

“I wasn’t very well prepared,” recalled the 29-year-old former Continental level road racer about his first attempt. And after a rough day on the bike, he didn’t see another one in his future. 

“In that moment I thought that I’m never coming back here.”

It’s easy to say that right after an event as demanding and draining as Unbound Gravel and its 200 rolling miles through Kansas. But he would digest the lessons learned and return with a plan, including a new nutrition strategy — one that he trained with so that his body was acclimated by race day.

Fans cheer on riders early in the day. (Photo: William Tracy)

He also walked away with a better appreciation of just how long of a race Unbound is and the importance of taking things a bit easier in the first three to four hours, leaving something in the tank for when the race heats up in the latter part of the day.

Another area he worked on? The rest stops. It’s a bit of a misleading name in a race like Unbound. Despite the 10 hours of racing in the day, there is no resting going on, and in fact the race gets a little more stressful as every rider tries to refuel, fix mechanicals, and hop back on as quickly as possible to take an advantage. 

“The first year, we hadn’t prepared the checkpoints so good,” he recalls. But working with his same AirBnB host from last year at the feed zones, who was now more experienced, Slik came in with a refined plan that seemed to do the trick. “Every moment to take advantage on competitors you have to take.”

Slik late in the race chasing to catch the leadrs. (Photo: William Tracy)

Slik got some help from his gear as well, choosing the best equipment he could find, from his bike to choosing aero bars — something he would like to see banned from the sport but which he will use to his advantage so long as it is allowed.

And for his tires, he chose the Schwalbe G-One RS, a brand new tire this year that takes design elements from both the brand’s road and gravel models to create a product that is a whopping 20% faster than the previous benchmark, industry leading gravel tire.

“It has good grip — felt just like a road bike,” said Slik. “My gravel bike is not much slower than a road bike.”

But no matter how hard you train, and how good your equipment is, Unbound, with its razor-sharp Flint Hills gravel, is notoriously unforgiving. “You also have to be a little bit lucky,” said Slik. 

Luck favors the prepared, and on June 4, 2022, Slik had plenty on his side. “Everything worked well for me,” he recalls. No mechanicals, and no flats either on his semi-slick G-One RS tires. 

Flats abound at Unbound. But Slik escaped any on his Schwalbe G-One RS tires (Photo: William Tracy)

The day started out fast, and a large main pack of favorites stayed together for far longer than Slik anticipated, helped along by cool weather. 

As others fell off in the race of attrition, the big names remained. “Swenson, Finsterwald, Boswell, Payson…” his voice fades as he rattles off a list of who’s who in gravel. 

Slik remained around as the group dwindled. And eventually, he decided it was time to put in an attack of his own. 

At Texaco Hill he went full gas attacking the rocky climb. “Push, push, push!” he remembers thinking in his head. And the effort felt good.

Unbound Gravel features a rolling terrain. (Photo: William Tracy)

“From that moment I knew I had good legs — that this was a good move.”

And though the leaders would split up in the waning kilometers of the race, a small group came back together before the end. Slik was part of it.

It was now time to figure out the best chance of eking out the win ahead of an elite select group including Boswell and Swenson. Try to drop them, or take his chances in a sprint? He may not be a sprinter, but true to form for a Dutch hard-man, he has a good finishing kick in reserve after hard days. 

“I trusted my sprint,” he said.

“I trusted my sprint.” (Photo: William Tracy)

The rest is history. Slik out-kicked his rivals and became the first non-American man to win Unbound Gravel 200.

“The feeling was indescribable,” he said. 

Now Ivar Slik is an Unbound unknown no more.