We caught up with Dylan Johnson after he finished a big volume block in preparation for the major event of the summer, the 200-mile gravel classic, Unbound. Last year, he set a tactical goal of going under 10 hours. What’s his plan this year? We chatted about his leadup to race day—and his best tips for other riders heading to the start line in Emporia, Kansas.
It feels like it's all I've been doing but now I'm headed out to Texas to for Gravel Locos. Last year, I was just too busy racing during this time—I did way too much racing, so I knew I needed to make some changes.
Last year around this time, I think I'd done five or six race weekends in a row, which meant that my training volume went down a lot because I was essentially just racing and recovering. Now I'm trying to do the opposite. Unbound is a high-volume race. So I'm putting in a lot of volume, really prioritizing volume over intensity. I just finished up the two biggest weeks that I've actually ever done consecutively: I did a 28 hour week, and then I did a 35 hour week. So 63 hours total!
There were days where it felt like I was just waking up eating, riding, eating, sleeping. And that's all I did. My big focus was staying on top of fueling on the bike, so I didn't have to eat quite as much off the bike. I like to eat food, but you almost can't eat enough off the bike to make up for if you don't stay on top of fueling while you're on the bike.
I was trying to train my gut to handle a little bit more carbs per hour than I normally do. Most of my rides, I was doing over 100 grams of carbs per hour, mostly in Flow Formulas drink mix and gels. It wasn't like a lot of fun stuff. I was trying to stick to like what I would be using during a race. I know if you don't have some sort of nutrition sponsor, that can definitely get expensive, but it’s necessary to train with what you’ll eat in a race at least some of the time.
I'll definitely need some intensity, which is why I stopped this high volume block three weeks out from Unbound. It’s not a three week taper because I will be throwing in more intensity than I've been doing recently, though. These last three weeks are sort of a tune up, and Gravel Locos is part of that. Right now, I’m feeling surprisingly good, but we’ll see how I feel on race day there. If I'm still feeling fatigued from this block, it won't be the end of the world. It’s more of a dress rehearsal for Unbound. It has similar temperature and terrain, though the gravel is a lot mellower and it is 50 miles shorter. But the winner of Unbound last year is going to be here as well a lot of the heavy hitters that will be at Unbound.
I'll try to recover as best I can, then hopefully get in one more solid week of training before I start a one week taper into Unbound. I usually don't like tapering more than one week, I think if I taper longer than a week, I don't feel good on race day.
Two major rule changes have basically made last year’s sub-10 hour pacing strategy a bad idea this year. The first change is that they are separating the Pro and Amateur start. So even if I get a couple pros to agree to this strategy with me, like I did last year, the problem is that if we let ourselves get dropped from the pro race, which starts 10 minutes before the amateur race, we're essentially getting dropped into nothing with no one help us. What was very helpful about that strategy last year is when we got dropped, there were so many other people in the race that that could help. We won’t have that. The other rule change is that they're not allowing aero bars this year. I personally think that aero bars was super helpful for that pacing strategy. With that strategy, even if you recruit people to do it with you, you're going to be breaking a lot more wind than if you're trying to stay with the pack. So my strategy this year is probably just going to be the typical strategy, which is stay with the lead group as long as I can. And then when I eventually get dropped, just try to limit losses.
There’s the most hype around Unbound. There's a lot of there's a lot of thinking involved. It's nota race where you just go in casually and do well. There are some races where I think if you're strong rider, you can just show up and hope for the best and the best is probably going to happen. I don't think that's the case for Unbound. I think there's a lot a lot of things that you have to get right and you have to think about going into Unbound. I personally like the preparation and technical aspect of it, figuring out the the pacing and the nutrition and and all the equipment.
The biggest topic of conversation going into the race is tires. It is for every gravel race, but I think particularly for Unbound. My recommendation with tires is go with something puncture-resistant, and just put the largest size tires that you can fit on your frame. Bigger is better at Unbound, it's going to help you not get flats and it's probably going to be faster because the gravel is quite chunky.
The number one mistake that people make for Unbound is that they go out too hard, and they end up dying in the second half of the race. I've looked at so many power files from so many endurance races and it's almost a universal law that your power is just going to drop throughout the race. Unbound in particular is hard to page—you're going to be all hyped up at the beginning and your your legs are going to feel great. You just need to keep in mind how your legs are going to feel ten hours in.
For sure. I compartmentalize my season in three parts now: There's the lead up to Unbound, then there's the lead up to Leadville and then there's the rest of the season.