They raced (and finished) the 200-mile Unbound gravel race on bikes from Walmart.

Riding the 200-mile Unbound gravel race is hard. Riding it on a $200 beach cruiser is... fun?
All photos provided by Stephen Fitzgerald / Rodeo Labs.

There were some exciting finishes at the Unbound 200 gravel bike race in Kansas this past weekend, with eight of the elite women finishing within two seconds of one another and a breakaway in the men’s race that had Lachlan Morton going mano-a-mano with Chad Haga for nearly 50 miles. Rosa Klöser ultimately won the women’s race and Morton finished first among the men.

And if you were hanging around the finish line after midnight, you would have seen three riders roll through on colorful cruiser bikes — tired, but clearly triumphant. Rodeo Labs founder Stephen Fitzgerald told me the idea of racing Unbound on cruiser bikes started out as a joke between him and his friends Nick Gilroy and David Hornick.

“But as it got closer and closer, Nick and David were like, if you’re in, I’m in,” Fitzgerald said.

After consulting with one of the bike mechanics at Rodeo, Fitzgerald chose the Kent Seachange beach cruiser, priced at $197, and ordered four of the bikes to be picked up at a Kansas Walmart. The fourth bike was to be used in case of any mechanical issues with the racers’ bikes, though in the end they didn’t need any donor parts, and they returned the un-ridden bike before leaving Kansas.

“When we ordered them, we had some pretty extensive conversations about, ‘are we putting our bikes on the back of the car, just in case?'” Fitzgerald said. “We were just like screw it, there’s no other way. Either this is happening or we’re spectating.”

Prepping the bikes

Right out of the box all of the bikes needed their wheels trued, and all the bearings were packed with extra grease. Or just grease; Fitzgerald says some of the bearings were completely dry.

The trio opted to bring their own saddles rather than risk the wrath of whatever comes stock on a Kent Seachange. The cruisers, with 27.5″ wheels, are designed to be one-size fits all and Fitzgerald, at 6’2″ tall, needed to fit his bike with an extra long seat post to get enough extension for his legs. They had hoped to use their clipless pedals for the race, but the pedals didn’t fit the 1/2″ diameter threads on the Seachange cranks. So, the group rode with flat pedals, but upgraded to metal ones purchased at Walmart instead of using the stock plastic pedals.

Officially, the steel-framed Kent Seachange weighs about 34lb, and by removing the fenders and chain guard they were able to save a little weight, though not a lot. Still, Fitzgerald is clearly a glass-half-full kind of guy.

“They were really heavy, and that made them feel planted. And they would coast forever.”

With a few cans of spray paint — purchased from Walmart, naturally — the team customized the bikes for a fun look, and added Rodeo decals to the Kent frames. They also added their own touches like a basket for Fitzgerald’s bike, and a Class 4 Designs frame bag for Gilroy.

And what about the tires? Obviously, the bikes don’t have tubeless tires or rims, so to minimize the chance of flats, the guys filled the tubes with Orange Seal.

And in case you’re wondering, the Kent Seachange cruiser bike has just one speed with 40×16 gearing.

Starting (and finishing) the race

Aside from spinning a few miles on the bikes the day before the race to shoot some photos, Fitzgerald, Gilroy, and Hornick didn’t do any training or testing on the bikes ahead of time. They lined up at the back of the pack for the start of the race and hung there to make sure the bikes were going to work. Once they had made it to the 50-mile mark, they felt confident the bikes would last until the finish and began to push the bikes harder.

“By the last like 150 miles, we were just kicking ass. It had cooled down, and we just started passing people, and we had his paceline behind us drafting us and I thought it was hilarious. So through the day we gained confidence.”

Perhaps even more surprising than the fact that the bikes held up to 200 miles of gravel road racing is how Fitzgerald’s body held up to the abuse. He told me he has had had lower back problems in the past but when we spoke a couple days after the race, he said he felt like a ten out of ten.

“I had no back problems all day long [during the race]. I don’t really know what the medical explanation for that is, other than I think sitting upright, with flat bars, it’s more comfortable.” Hearing this, it’s hard to imagine a more ironic statement from the founder of a brand that sells drop bar gravel bikes like the Flaanimal and Traildonkey.

And yet, perhaps riding an inexpensive bike from another brand in a challenging bike race makes sense in a way.

“We were never trying to be the over serious bike company,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re curious about bikes, and how fast you can go. We want to do hard things, but we’re also just having fun.”

The three friends eventually crossed the finish line before the official race cutoff at 3am. Though they started at the back of the pack, they were able to pass many racers throughout the day and into the night.

This was Fitzgerald’s seventh time racing Unbound, and his finish time of 16 hours and 50 minutes on the cruiser bike was more than three hours slower than his finish in 2023 when he rode the race on a single speed bike. But ultimately, he tells me, Unbound “really isn’t about the bike. It’s really a mindset thing.”