Billed as the World’s Premier Gravel Grinder, Dirty Kanza is a bike race like no other. Started in 2006 with 34 riders, it has grown to over 2500 riders. It’s growth has paralleled, and in some sense been responsible for, the growth in a new bike market segment: gravel bikes and racing. These bikes are most similar to cyclocross bikes with larger tires. The races are held on the endless dirt, gravel, and unpaved roads found mostly in the mid and western part of the US. This race started with the 200 mile version and has since added 100, 50, and 25 mile options. This year they added a one-time high school race to promote Kansas establishing a high school league through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. They also added an even longer version, DKXL, a 350 mile bikepacking race, completely unsupported. For the inaugural event, they selected 34 riders who have experience racing this format.
The race is held in the tiny town of Emporia, KS. It’s about two hours southwest of Kansas City. Two things Emporia is known for. First, it has one of the last standing video stores in America.
But one of the most interesting things about Emporia is its award winning tap water. Who knew there were tap water tasting competitions. Seriously.
Now, on to the race. I had signed up for the 200 mile race and headed out with my buddy Gordon and his son. Gordon had finished the 200 last year and spoke highly of the race. Knowing I had several iron-distance triathlons coming up, I thought this would be good preparation.
For the race, I rode a Salsa Fargo (11 speed, 42-26 x 11-36) with drop bars and aerobars.
The objective of this setup was comfort (Brooks saddle and three hand positions) and a wide gear range. Most people think of Kansas as flat but it’s NOT. It has lots of rolling hills and very punchy climbs coming out of creek crossings. But it does have another kind of flat: tire flats: These come from both the rocks of the flint hills (hard and sharp flint = punctures) and the many bridges across creeks that are not well maintained (i.e. concrete edges = pinch flats). For flat prevention, I was running Maxxis Ramblers (700 x 40) tubeless wth a combo of Orange Seal and Stan’s sealants. I also carried two tubes, extra Stans, 3x CO2 cartridges, and tire patches. I was ready for the flats.
On the nutrition and hydration front, I was carrying about two liters of water, enough to make it between checkpoints, about every 50 miles. I’m moving away from gels, especially on the bike, doing more bars: Trader Joes fig and strawberry bars, Labara bars, and TJ’s peanut butter-filled pretzels. I had ~1000 calories in each of three bags fore each of the three checkpoints. To keep from having to unwrap the bars on the bike, I unwrapped the bars ahead of time and put them into a single bag.
Given this race was between two triathlons, I had decent fitness going in and topped it off with some long distance rides ( a 75 and a 125 miler) and several 25 and 50 mile sub-threshold intervals. The long rides were at a slow pace, mostly checking out equipment and dialing in the bike setup.
The route was figure eight with checkpoints and re-supply about every 50 miles. Riders leave southbound out of Emporia and ride to Madison, then to Eureka, then back north to Madison, and then home to Emporia. There are cut-off times at each check point with the final cut-off in Emporia of 3 am (that’s a 21 hour ride, folks!–and there are people still cheering you on if you arrive at three). There are three categories of finishers: 1) finish before the sun sets at 8:44 (Race Against the Sun), 2) finish before midnight, and 3) finish after midnight and before the cut-off (I met a guy on Sunday who had finished at 2:20 am–now that’s commitment!).
I flew in late on Thursday, drove to Emporia and checked into the dorms at Emporia State (great deal, great location). The next day we went for a group ride to check out our bikes. The weather was the topic of conversation as Friday was going to be in the low 90s and race day was gong to be cooler but how much was the question. During the day, we visited the exposition, looked at bikes, bought CO2 cartridges, sat in on some talks, packed our supply bags, and hung out. We also got to see the start of the DKXL race.
I got to bed around 9p and got decent sleep. Up at 4 am for breakfast (oatmeal and fruit), got on the kit and headed down to the start line (I was trying something different on the kit: wearing my triathlon shorts. With the Brooks saddle, I figured I could get away with less padding plus my theory is that more padding leads to more friction and more saddle sores via chaffing). Got down to the dorm lobby to find it full of riders. A band of showers was coming in so there was a 30 minute delay. We eventually got to the start line and I lined up mid-pack.
The announcements included the star-studded line-up of (former) pro riders: Ted King, Jens Voigt, Rebecca Rousch, Sven Nys, Jamie Driscoll, Matt Leito, Geoff Kabush, among others. Then the count down and we’re off at 6:30 am. All 1000 of us (DK 100 and 50 started shortly after).
After a short police escort, we were on to our first gravel road. I tried to join as many pacelines as possible, monitoring the heart rate to keep myself in check. Riding in a paceline on a gravel race, especially where there has been a recent rain, is challenging. Not only is there the grit and mud coming off the tire in front into your face, but the line frequently moves left and right around slower riders, across a thick and loose gravel medium. Also, the pacelines were frequently split up with with short steep climbs coming out of a gully or having to stop for a deep creek crossing.
During this stretch, there was gorgeous scenery, winding through green meadows, along ridges, with riders silhouetted against the deep blue sky. It looked like the MS Windows wallpaper.
I was able to grab enough pacelines and keep my enthusiasm in check enough to arrive at the first checkpoint (Madison, KS @ 48 miles) in decent shape and with a reasonable time (9:04 am, 3:04 race time, 15.75 mph pace). My body was covered in mud and grit and the drive chain creaky, but nothing a little water and lube couldn’t fix. The checkpoint was basically bedlam with bikes everywhere, people grabbing their bags and resupplying, lubing chains, and catching their breath. At each checkpoint you could either have your own support crew, parked in large lot, or you could hire a support crew (actually these were volunteers who were helping to raise money for kids with cancer). I did the latter and the volunteers were great: getting the food bag, filling bottles, holding the bike while you lubed it, etc.
And then I was off on leg two, 58 miles till the next check point. This is where things got real…real fast. A few miles outside of Madison, I was moving left to pass a rider, crossing a grass median when all of a sudden, WHAAM!, I was down. My knee hit a patch of gravel and was banged up but luckily the side of the road was grass, perfect for a relatively soft landing. Other than shifters, handlebars and pedals jammed with dirt and a dropped chain, no bike damage. A number of riders slowed to ask if I was ok, which was nice.
Back on the road again, this time giving the road a little more respect. Now we were out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but fields and cows. The sun was up, the temperature rising into the mid 80s and the wind was building from the north. Since we were heading south, we had a good tail wind. The downside of a tail wind, however, was the decreased cooling of your body.
During a race where the terrain is new, you learn fast. Since you could see miles ahead,
you learned to look for groups of riders standing by the side of the road. This meant “tire flats ahead” and it was wise to slow down. Given the rolling terrain and the often “unimproved” nature of the roads, if the road sloped down where you could not see it, you needed to slow down. It could be nothing more than a sweet, smooth descent or it could be a flint/limestone rock monster looking for some tires to eat. On one of these drops, two riders on tandem had crashed badly. Several other riders had stopped to help. One of the injured had blood streaming down his face. OK, I thought, this race is the real deal (they guy was ok but had to be helivac’d out). The three EMTs that passed over the next hour reinforced the concept that this course was not to be taken lightly. Other than the rock monsters, creek crossings, and concrete culverts, the narrow track was the other major challenge. With hundreds of riders following each other, a narrow, almost gravel-free track had developed on most of the roads. This was great but a few inches to either side was thick, loose gravel. Taking your eye off the road for a moment meant you might end up in the loose stuff, losing traction and balance.
About mile 75, the race started to fall apart for me. The short, punchy climbs were getting more difficult with my legs fatiguing and starting to cramp. I was getting a headache and having sharp, shooting pains in my head (dehydration?). My nutrition was challenging since my great idea to unwrap the bars ended with a massive ball of bar filling and bar crust. I was able to grab large chunks of the bar mass and stuff them into my mouth, leaving fig and strawberry filling-coated hands, all the while trying to navigate the gravel narrows at high speeds. This is when the mental battle started. A fight to death in my head on whether to quit at the next checkpoint (mile 104) or push on. To calm the warring factions, I agreed to get to the checkpoint and take a 10 minute break to gather my thoughts. In the meantime, despite the 25 mph tailwind on an ultra-smooth road into Eureka, I was pedaling squares. And being passed by 20 riders didn’t help. After I got to the checkpoint, I shot this video:
I gave myself the requisite 10 minutes. During that time, I chatted with a guy who was re-supplying:
“Have you done this race before?” I asked.
“Sure, several times.”
What’s the next segment like?”
“You don’t want to know. It’s a lot more “B” roads with more of the up and down stuff.”
“And the headwind”
“Yeah, it’s going to be hell, but you’ve got plenty of time to finish.”
Well…that pretty much settled it. Here’s the calculus for the dropping out decision:
- 9-10 more hours of riding north into a stiff headwind.
- An already exhausted body trying to stay on course and not crash.
- The challenge of navigating this course at night (add another hour or two).
- The real risk of injury that would end my season.
- I’ve gotten a real taste of gravel racing. And I’m full!
Quitting is never easy but the return on this investment was going to be low. So I found someone who could arrange a ride back to Eureka. They got a young kid with a pickup truck (super nice kid!) to take me and three other droppers. What I thought would be a quiet ride back, as we all reflected on what could have been, ended up being a chat-fest. To a person, they were ecstatic to be riding back in a truck and not pedaling. “The best decision I’ve ever made.” “Worst conditions I’ve seen in years”. Turns out we were in good company. Over 275 riders DNF’d as well, including the multi-time CX world champion, Sven Nys. After three flats, GI issues and losing the front group, he’d had enough by the mid-point and threw in the towel.
“My stomach didn’t work and it’s possible that it’s the jet lag,” Nys said. “I felt that every mile I felt myself more empty, and then I throw up.”
The final numbers:
- Mileage: 104 miles
- Time: 7:48
- Pace: 13.28
Clearly I was not mentally or physically prepared for this race. I didn’t appreciate the mental concentration required. And having “decent” triathlon fitness was no match for this beast, especially with these conditions. To conquer this, you need more focused training and more time on gravel roads (hard to do in NC since they launched a program in 1989 to pave the more than 15,000 miles of dirt roads in the state).
On the positive side, my nutrition was good and hydration adequate (probably needed another liter between stops). My bike was absolutely flawless, rider incompetence aside. The drop bars were fantastic on the sketchy stuff and they were high enough that I could ride in the drops for long periods. I was able to use the aerobars quite a bit but had to be judicious since navigating bumpy roads in the aero position was tricky. The tires were great. No flats! And tri short kit worked well. I had some minor soreness but much less than expected, given the bumps. Finally, it was a great experience hanging out with Gordon and Sam, seeing a new part of the country, watching a small town come out to celebrate the riders, and learn about this gravel phenomenon.