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Sofia Gomez Villafañe has never done a training ride longer than five hours, and she didn’t ride any gravel in the off-season. She is a professional mountain biker, and with Haley Batten, she won the 2022 Cape Epic mountain bike stage race. She is also a multiple-time Argentinian Mountain Bike National Champion, and Tokyo 2020 Olympian.
The 200-mile gravel race begins and ends in Emporia, Kansas, and Gomez Villafañe thought that it was 40 percent road. That is, until she drove the course, and thought, ‘what have I let myself into?’ She said she only trained in the TT bars on the road — but when the rain came down part way through Unbound, her mountain biking and cyclocross skills came to the fore, and she gained minutes on the competition. But first, we have to rewind.
Unbound Gravel, like many of the world’s biggest gravel races, is a mass start event with many different groups, ages, and genders all starting together. Eventually, the field whittles down to the fastest 100 riders, and then to the top 10. The vast majority of the time, these lead groups are made up of men, traveling at a much higher average speed than the fastest women on course. But if a woman — or two or three — can make it into the front group, they can gain minutes on their competition.
At the beginning of Unbound, the pace picked up as soon as the field hit the first few climbs. In the first few hours of the race (which would take 10 and a half hours in total), the field whittled down from thousands of riders to less than 50. Approaching the race’s halfway point, Gomez Villafañe was the only woman left in the lead group. Her main rivals, including defending Unbound Champion Lauren De Crescenzo, were several minutes behind, and losing ground.
Gomez Villafañe – Super hard start in the first three hours of Unbound Gravel
Average Power: 205w (3.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 229w (4.2w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 175bpm
Max Heart Rate: 191bpm
Gomez Villafañe’s FTP: 250w (4.6w/kg)
It is hard to comprehend just how hard these first few hours were — Gomez Villafañe had a normalized power of229w through the first three hours of racing. That is an intensity factor (IF) of 0.92, according to TrainingPeaks.
In other words, Gomez Villafañe held a normalized power that was 92 percent of her threshold for the first three hours of Unbound Gravel. That is an incredibly hard start, and most riders would be completely cooked after an effort like that. It’s amazing to think that Gomez Villafañe still had over seven hours to go.
In terms of pacing, Gomez Villafañe was doing what most coaches would tell you not to do: go out way too hard and way too fast. Because eventually, you will pay the price. But Gomez Villafañe knew exactly what she was doing, and that she had the fitness and experience to handle such a hard three-hour effort, and then go straight into another seven hours of riding.
In fact, Gomez Villafañe’s heart rate steadily decreased all the way until hour 8, where it stabilized around 150bpm. That takes a special cardiovascular engine, one that can handle a multi-hour effort near threshold, and then recover while pushing 3-4w/kg for six more hours.
At this point of the race, Gomez Villafañe had a lead of nearly ten minutes on the next group of women’s riders, as she began to settle into a more comfortable pace around 175-190w. Despite her power drastically dropping from the first few hours of the race, Gomez Villafañe is still averaging nearly 19mph on the rugged and hilly gravel roads, and maximizing her efficiency by only stopping for 15 seconds in a five-hour span.
Gomez Villafañe – Middle part of Unbound Gravel
Average Power: 177w (3.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 191w (3.5w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 159bpm
Max Heart Rate: 186bpm
Gomez Villafañe also said that the rain and mud changed the race. With De Crescenzo minutes behind, Gomez Villafañe was not yet content with her lead as De Crescenzo is known for her incredible diesel engine. While Gomez Villafañe had gone out hard, De Crescenzo had dropped off the pace, yet settled into a strong rhythm that she would use to reel Gomez Villafañe back in.
A few days after the race, Gomez Villafañe went back to look at the Strava Fly-by’s, which show riders’ positions relative to one another on the same course. It’s a way of seeing real-time gaps between riders, every second of the entire race. At one point, Gomez Villafañe had a 13-minute lead, but it was as close as two minutes in the second half of the race.
Reflecting on the race, Gomez Villafañe said it was “super fascinating how our time gaps would change constantly depending on when we were working with men or not, and then when we got into the two muddy sections just how much free time I got from being able to handle my bike.”
On a fast day in the Kansas gravel country, Gomez Villafañe and De Crescenzo could gain minutes on one another by working with a group of fast men’s riders.
Gomez Villafañe said it is interesting, “to show how much men can influence the women’s race and through my eyes I do not see it as there truly being a ‘women’s race.’”
After the rain came down and many gravel sections became slick and muddy, Gomez Villafañe’s confidence grew, and so did the gap to De Crescenzo. In the end, Gomez Villafañe won Unbound Gravel by over nine minutes, with De Crescenzo earning the runner’s up spot, and Emily Newsom rounding out the podium 22 minutes behind Gomez Villafañe.
Similar to what we saw in the men’s race, Unbound is no longer an ultra-endurance race of attrition. Instead, it is a 200-mile gravel race that is full-on from the first mile. Gomez Villafañe’s winning margin was built in the first third of the race. De Crescenzo once got within two minutes of Gomez Villafañe at mile 120, before the gap ballooned again and Gomez Villafañe was gone.
The Argentinian’s endurance is one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. She was able to maintain a steady effort of 3-4w/kg for the last 100+ miles of Unbound after riding the first three hours at an average heart rate of 175bpm.
Here is a full breakdown of Sofia Gomez Villafañe’s ride at Unbound Gravel, a performance that solidified her lead of the Life Time Grand Prix.
Hour 1: Average Power: 205w (3.8w/kg) Normalized Power: 234w
Hour 2: Average Power: 204w (3.8w/kg) Normalized Power: 230w
Hour 3: Average Power: 205w (3.8w/kg) Normalized Power: 226w
Hour 4: Average Power: 188w (3.5w/kg) Normalized Power: 200w
Hour 5: Average Power: 178w (3.3w/kg) Normalized Power: 193w
Hour 6: Average Power: 169w (3w/kg) Normalized Power: 185w
Hour 7: Average Power: 180w (3.4w/kg) Normalized Power: 189w
Hour 8: Average Power: 175w (3.3w/kg) Normalized Power: 194w
Hour 9: Average Power: 170w (3.1w/kg) Normalized Power: 194w
Hour 10 (and 27 minutes): Average Power: 177w (3.3w/kg) Normalized Power: 188w
Gomez Villafañe – Unbound Gravel 200
Average Power: 185w (3.4w/kg)
Normalized Power: 205w (3.8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 162bpm
Max Heart Rate: 191bpm
Average Speed: 30.8kph (19.1mph)
Energy Burned: 6932kJs
Elevation Gain: 2674m (8773ft.)
Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava
Strava sauce extension
Sofia Gomez Villafañe