Two hundred is a nice round number, it even rolls off the tongue nicely. Two… hundred… also the number of miles that competitors at one of the world’s biggest gravel races must traverse in order to finish. In reality, the distance is about 206 miles. The Dirty Kanza 200, a lilliputian event during its inaugural year with just 34 competitors, has become a full sized juggernaut just 12 years later. Gaining an entry into the race is a race in itself. Several thousand cyclists vied for 1,150 places on the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200 Roster – and another 1,000 or so riders for the DK 100 “Half Pint”, DK50 Lite and DK25. Once the online race signup was done and dusted some 13 minutes later, 200 women and 950 men of varying ages were destined to ride the 12th edition of 2017 Dirty Kanza 200 on June 3, 2017.
My second journey to Dirty Kanza began like anybody else who was successful in obtaining an entry, except that I’d waited patiently in the wee hours of the night in Adelaide, South Australia, to sign up. Different time zones and all that. When I can swing it, I head for my Australian homeland in January, mostly to escape the possibility of any wintry weather… even my USA hometown of Gainesville, Florida gets a bit too frosty for my liking!
Following my sojourn to Australia, many training rides and races in Canada, Minnesota, Florida and Georgia to name a few, followed. June of 2017 came around all too quickly, and the road trip to Emporia, Kansas, home to the Dirty Kanza 200 race, would begin. Joining me on the journey to Kansas was one of my closest friends, Rob, also known as “Nature Boy”.
Rob is an accomplished cyclist and has raced on the gravel from time to time, but some downtime from a recent crash has him on the injury bench, but in good enough shape to help with the drive. Rob won’t tell you this, but he’s also a talented runner. He completed his second ever marathon in a time of 3:09:48 at a lowly event known as the 2017 Boston Marathon! These facts aside, Rob’s parents live in nearby Lawrence, Kansas, his primary reason for joining me on the trip.
I’ll spare you the precise details of our drive to Emporia, but imagine two 40 something year old lads stuck together in a borrowed minivan for 17 – 18 hours. Books on tape, discussions involving world affairs, bad jokes and bad movies. When I say the minivan was borrowed, that’s because it was borrowed from the Gravel Cyclist duo of Mr and Mrs K-Dogg. They were traveling to Kansas City in style aboard a big old jet airliner, with their bikes safely ensconced in the comfort of the earlier referenced minivan. In their defense, I like to carry two bikes to most remote races and thus, I volunteered to drive. In all, the minivan contained five gravel bikes, clothing, cameras, computers, drone helicopter, pumps, spare everything and a tastefully decorated beer cooler, kindly on loan from my girlfriend.
Arriving into Emporia, Kansas sometime early on Thursday afternoon, I set about filming the town, drone style, stretching my legs on the town’s sidewalks and meeting and greeting with friendly locals and fans of the Gravel Cyclist website.
Mr and Mrs K-Dogg lobbed into town shortly after my arrival, and were keen to loosen their legs with a relaxing pre-ride.
The pre-ride to the early known trouble spots on the course, mile five and mile 12, revealed the heavy rain in the preceding days had compromised the dirt that lay beneath the gravel.
Mile 12 made its presence felt with soft and sticky mud, globbing itself to the tyres of Mr and Mrs K-Dogg, and the tyres of a few other lads pre-riding the same area. My Plan B bike for the race, the Lynskey GR250 shod with Panaracer Gravelking Mud tyres, shrugged off the mud and rolled through effortlessly.
With a weather forecast for race day comprising warm temperatures and the chance of scattered, afternoon thunderstorms, choosing the right bike and tyres would be important. These thoughts began hurting my brain.
Friday was a busy day. It began with the pleasantly short Gu Stroopwafel and Coffee slacker bike ride, followed by rider interviews, a local radio interview with Scott of KVOE-AM/FM, drone flights, rider’s race meeting, socializing and more thinking about which bike I’d race on Saturday. You can see my bikes in detail for the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200, HERE.
My much earlier than normal pre-race meal on Friday at 5pm meant I should have been in bed around 9:00pm. The Dirty Kanza 200 begins on Saturday at 6am, but my body wasn’t enjoying the upheavals to its internal timing mechanisms. Friday evening continued on in a busy fashion.
Load the beer cooler with a couple of beers, but mostly bottles containing hydration mix, sodas, food and ice for the race. This prized cooler aka Esky as we say in Australia, would later be given to Josh of Kuat Racks / #racklove. Josh and the Kuat Racks team van would provide the support for Don, Jim and Collin, who are members of the Kuat Racks gravel team. I was fortunate to be a guest of Don and the Kuat support crew for 2017.
Before bedtime, I wasted some unnecessary energy, worrying about the unpredictable weather forecast and anguishing over bike and tyre choices. This is what happens when you have too many choices… first world problems!
Eventually I made my choice (with a little help from Mrs K-Dogg) – Plan A bike – Orbea Terra with the latest Panaracer Gravelking SK tyres in 38mm and enhanced sidewall protection.
I relaxed my mind and went to bed.
Saturday – Race Day
3:30am is the time one sometimes wakes for a middle of the night visit to the facilities. In the case of Dirty Kanza 200, it’s the time I began my pre-race ritual. Breakfast, double check the bike, inhale deeply a few times, visit the facilities and finally, get dressed and load the jersey pockets for the long day ahead.
Around 5:30am, I rolled from my accommodations to the Dirty Kanza 200 start line in front of the Granada Theatre. The street was filled with gravel cyclist types, the sidewalks lined with friends, family and photographers. In my usual manner, I headed to the front row, mostly to film the gun riders who’d received a call up to the front.
I snuck myself into a primo start position on the front row, far left side. Gravel cyclist types are so friendly. Plopping myself into that spot so late into proceedings would raise the ire of everyone, if this was a criterium or road race… glad that is in my past. 5-4-3-2-1 and we were off. 333 kilometres to go, according to my trusty Garmin 800. For now, enjoy the draft of the neutral rollout to the first gravel sector.
The weather forecast was still a bit unpredictable, but the high temperature of 82F, and somewhere in the mid 80’s F on Friday, ensured the gravel roads were very dry, and very fast. As the locals call it, “Hero Gravel”. Hidden somewhere towards the tail of the large front group, I glanced down at my Garmin and noticed speeds of 25mph – 27mph / 40km/hr – 44km/hr… with only a few miles of the 206 covered. Bloody hell.
There was a lot of yo yo’ing in the front group. Brakes were inexplicably applied, causing a concertina type effect to those behind. Brake hard to avoid crashing, then accelerate hard again. Repeat several times.
This madness settled down a little bit at around the seven mile mark, mostly because I’d decided the group was too big and too fast for my liking. I was playing my usual conservative start to a race like Dirty Kanza 200, hoping I’d finish strong later. As I suggested to many first timers over the weekend – ride your own tempo – not the tempo of others. It is way too easy to get sucked in, redline, and crack later on.
Thus, I set about riding my own tempo, hoping I’d find a good group riding about my own speed. Sometimes, I’d get lucky, and ride with lads and ladies who were riding perfect tempo on the flatter roads. But on the endless hills, they’d roll a bit too hard for my liking.
Reminder, Kansas isn’t flat, let’s get that sorted out right away. Up, down, dodge the tricky rocks and allow plenty of room to any riders ahead. Repeat over and over. There were so many riders experiencing flat tyres, picking the right line was important, as was being “light” on the bike. Allow it to float over the dodgy terrain.
Somewhere not far from the “cattle pens” section of the course, I came across Allen Wheeler. Like many other riders who said hello to me during the day (thanks for the encouragement!), Allen reads the musings of this website from time to time, and remembered my penchant for singing songs on training rides. I sing pretty badly, as discussed in Episode #7 of Ask the Gravel Cyclist Crew a Question! These facts aside, we struck into song with the ever popular “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. It was going off! My voice was mostly recovered from the sickness I’d nabbed between Almanzo 100 and Dirty Kanza, so I could sort of sing the words, while Allen busted out the chorus line.
JOM: “I was caught, in the middle of a railway track” (appropriate for Emporia being a railway town).
JOM: “I looked around and I knew there was no turning back”… (yep, no turning back once you start).
This continued until I was out of breath, mostly from giggling. We passed a photographer / volunteer / local who pointed out we were having way too much fun. We were! We weren’t working in an office, we were riding our bikes for 12+ hours with nobody to stop us. Whee!
I reached the first checkpoint of Madison, Kansas in much faster time than 2016. Granted, the water crossing that slows everyone was considered impassible this year, and thus, bypassed, but the weather and gravel at the 2017 Dirty Kanza were near perfect. Even mile 12, a bit messy during Thursday’s pre-ride was hard as a rock and gave no trouble. The 4mph northbound wind was insignificant, a nice break from the winds of 2016 and advantageous to riders during the second half of the race. What a difference a year can make!
After scaling a very steep climb on the outskirts of Madison, I arrived into the checkpoint at the Madison High School at 8:41am, averaging a tad over 18mph.
Finding your support crew among every other support crew is a challenge. Crews are arranged into colour coded parking lots, unless you’re one of the lucky few who has access to a crew who was part of the Dirty Kanza expo. The Kuat team van was parked on the outer, but easily accessible. I tore into swapping my bottles and grabbing food, while Josh of Kuat, playing support crew for the day, got busy cleaning and lubing my chain – with Dumonde Tech, for those who are curious what my preferred lube is. Thank you Josh for all of your support during the race!
My stomach was feeling a bit dodgy, but before the checkpoint, I had managed to down two, one litre bottles of Gu Roctane mix, two Lara Bars, and most of a Gu Roctane gel flask. Inside my cooler were some sliced apples, the only thing that really appealed at that moment. I tucked into a few of those, downed a Reed’s Ginger Brew (the extra ginger version) chased by a small Coke, and set off onto the next leg.
Checkpoint #1 to Checkpoint #2 – Eureka!
There were plenty more hills to come between Madison and the town of Eureka, Kansas, but there are some wide open and flat spaces that are good opportunities for a resident Florida flatlander, to make up a little time. During this sector, I found some very good groups to work with, or hang onto the back of.
I especially want to give kudos to the three man crew of Summers Electric. These lads were riding together like clockwork and setting a good tempo, if a little hard at time on the hills.
Somewhere a little before the renowned climb of Teter Hill, I swore I spotted teammate K-Dogg out of the corner of my eye, heading backwards towards the first checkpoint. K-Dogg won the 60+ category for Dirty Kanza 200 in 2016, and had been riding well in training leading up to the event.
Corey Godfrey of Gravel Worlds fame, riding in the Single Speed category and on my tail as I struggled up Teter Hill, confirmed my fears. K-Dogg had crashed and was out of the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200. On the positive, his injuries are gravel rash and mostly disappointment he was unable to finish.
Approximately 10 miles from Checkpoint #2 came a nasty, steep climb that curves to the left, then to the right. On Strava, I believe the segment is named, “The BE-YOTCH”. Several riders were hike-a-biking when it was my turn to scale it, including one lad who had the misfortune of puncturing a tyre near its base. I had perfect gearing on the Orbea Terra for this race, namely, a yet-to-be-released FSA K-Light carbon crankset with 46 / 30 chainrings, paired with an 11-32 cassette.
The 30 x 32 low gear was sheer perfection up that climb. I turned over a nice cadence, and avoided any potential triggering of a leg cramp. Even though the skies above were overcast, the warm temperatures had everyone perspiring hard… my jersey was soaked while the bill of my cycling cap was a steady drip, drip, drip of sweat.
County Road 13, which ran south, depositing riders near the west side of Eureka, is a mostly long, flat and straight road. If conditions are windy, this is one road that could be a potential suffer fest. I was forced to take a quick stop along CR13 – my saddle bag had relieved itself of its grip on my saddle rails – it was probably quite tired of the relentless pounding it had been taking over the gravel roads of Kansas. Not long after, I was caught by a group containing one Mr Paul Errington, promoter of the Dirty Reiver, the UK’s premier gravel event. Watch soon for an interview with Paul…
Paul’s group was riding the perfect tempo, meaning I could integrate, and enjoy the ride into Checkpoint #2 in Eureka!
In 2016, I rode into the Eureka checkpoint a little after 1pm. In 2017, I was 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Sensing I may have a chance of beating my time from 2016, I stopped only for a brief respite, to swap bottles, and enjoy another ginger brew, coke and some apple. My food plan between Checkpoint #1 and Checkpoint #2 was already in improvisation mode – I consumed two packages of Gu gel chews, two litres of Gu Roctane mix and almost a full flask of Gu Roctane gel – no real solid food, the thought was still unappealing.
Checkpoint #2 to Checkpoint #3 – The Return to Madison, Kansas
In 2016, this was a tough leg. It was no different in 2017, except the winds were much more favorable. A light tailwind was pushing riders along, anytime the course turned north. I left the checkpoint solo, and began riding east along County Road 154. Behind me, I spotted another rider, and decided it wise to wait for him, and work together.
Pictured above, I didn’t catch his name or a rear camera view, but I rode many miles with this lad, swapping long and even turns. Eventually, we were caught by the Summers Electric trio. I managed to jump onto the back, until they and a few other riders with them, rode me clean off their wheel on one of the many hills of this sector.
I formed an alliance with #406, Jamie Henningson of Manhattan, Kansas. Jamie was riding a very strong tempo which at times, had me clamoring hard to her wheel. I did my best to swap turns, but eventually had to let her and a few others who joined us later, ride away. When a rare opportunity to grab some water along the course presents itself, I usually don’t think twice about it.
Approximately 130 miles into the race with 32 miles to the next checkpoint, I experienced my “dark place” of the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200. But I wasn’t alone. So many riders were suffering during this sector of the race. I passed several riders, sitting at the side of the road, looking for a respite from the effort. I refused to stop, I was all about forward motion.
It is difficult for me to admit this publicly. I was feeling so bad, I intentionally bit my lower lip, enough to draw blood, just so I could distract myself a little while. Thankfully, this temporary moment of insanity was the only low point of my day, and my Garmin was doing a stellar job in motivating me to reach the third checkpoint in Madison. I ride in kilometres, always have, always will, and the Garmin countdown to Madison kept up my motivation.
As Madison drew ever closer, I began feeling better. For a while, I was on the wheel of Harry Johnson, eventual winner of the Men’s 60+ category. Harry was flying. Later, he rode me clean off his wheel on one of this sector’s many hills. Regardless, I was glad to be in better spirits.
Pictured above is an old friend from Gainesville, Steve Heal. Steve is University of Florida alumni, and I spent several miles glued to his wheel, until he too, rode away from me. Somewhere along this stretch, and earlier, I yo yo’d back and forth with Chris Knight, another rider out to collect his 5th Dirty Kanza finish. Nice work Chris, fab riding with you.
By now, Madison was less than 10 miles away. I was going to make it, and way under my best projected time.
If I didn’t waste too much time at Checkpoint #3, there was a real chance I could beat the sun, beat 8pm, and destroy my 2016 time! At the Kuat support rig, Don Buttram, a good friend, was about to roll out towards his 5th finish of Dirty Kanza 200. Don had caught and passed me earlier in the day. He was riding very well, and I figured I’d have no chance of catching him in the final 46 miles of Dirty Kanza 200.
Don’s teammate Collin rolled in a few minutes after me. After a very quick stop, I headed out in the company of Collin.
Checkpoint #3 to the Finish Line in Emporia, Kansas!
I have a history of feeling very strong once mile 150 – 160 passes during my silly long gravel training rides. Saturday, June 3, 2017 was no exception. I felt A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.
Collin and I took long turns, catching and passing several riders as we inched closer to Emporia. We weren’t racing for an age group placing or even a Top 100 overall. We were racing to beat our best time and the sun!
All that could stop us was an untimely tyre puncture on the Kansas B road with approximately 25 miles still to ride. Collin and I carefully tip-toed our bikes through this sector, praying the gods of gravel would smile upon us.
With approximately 15 miles still to ride, the tall and slender figure of Don Buttram came into view. I had no interest in attacking Don, rather, I hoped he could join Collin and I in the race to the finish.And so it came to be. Riding a three man team time trial in the presence of Don and Collin of the Kuat gravel team, the very team who was supporting me. I couldn’t wish for a better scenario than this. Don was feeling a bit rough, but took his turns.
We shut down the pace a little within the final 10 miles. We were going to beat the sun and we were going to be finished before 8pm. Superb! A trio of riders including #64, Mr Steve Bell, formerly of the UK, caught and rode with us for a while. After a while they jumped away – the temptation to grab their wheel was there, but I really wanted to finish my race with Don and Collin.
With less than five miles to go, we were joined by Heidi Rentz of The Cyclists Menu, Matt Curry and single speeder, Derek Prior. There would be no sprint, everyone was elated just to finish.
Sure, we could have ridden faster in the final 10 miles, but it was important for me to finish with Don and Collin. We crossed the finish line, three abreast, in a time of 13:34:22. I had crushed my 2016 time by over two hours and beaten the sun! I thank the weather and some decent legs at the 2017 Dirty Kanza. I like to think June 3, 2017 was a great day for every rider at the Dirty Kanza 200. Many riders rode a personal best time – and beat the sun.
To the towns of Emporia, Madison and Eureka, and the residents and communities in between. To the event organizers (Jim and LeLan) and massive team of volunteers – without the volunteers, Dirty Kanza would not be possible. To Josh of Kuat Racks. Without your support and attention to my bike, I would have ridden a lot slower in 2017. To the photographers and videographers (Gravel Guru)… it isn’t a whole lot of fun, standing around all day, taking photos.
To Orbea, American Classic, Panaracer, Orange Seal Cycling and Shimano. I raced a review bike which performed flawlessly. Thank you also to SRAM (Mike Spilker) / Quarq – I was one of 50 athletes tracked during the day at Quarqrace.com
To Bob Cummings of the Panaracer Gravel team. His insights into the course were extremely helpful, especially when you live 1,200 miles away.
And finally, thank you to my fellow gravel cyclists. They say gravel cycling brings everyone together as a tribe. That’s how it was for me for much of the day. Riding together, suffering together, looking out for each other.
For those who were wondering, Mrs K-Dogg of Gravel Cyclist ended up taking 4th in the Women’s 50+ category. She beat her 2016 time by almost three hours!!! Congratulations! Making this feat even more admirable, was the fact Mrs K-Dogg was riding a brand new bike with only one pre-ride on it – the Lynskey GR250 fitted with hydraulic brakes and Shimano Di2. She LOVES her new bike.
For those so inclined, you can see what I got up to at 2017 Dirty Kanza 200, HERE.
The Dirty Kanza 200 race video, interviews, featured bikes and coming in July, Crusher in the Tushar.
Watch this space.