This is a little story about my experience at a gravel event known as Dirty Kanza or “DK.” DK was started in 2006 with only 34 riders. This year boasted approximately 2,700 cyclists from 49 states plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and 6 countries. For some crazy reason, or a multitude of reasons that I’ll try to explain, these people come from all over to ride their bikes on a really tough course through the Flint Hills around Emporia, KS.
Back story on me, in case you don’t know me, I’ve been riding bikes since 2012–or at least serious enough to buy a good bike and log miles since then. Each year I increase annual mileage and add to my adventure load. I don’t particularly enjoy riding fast, but I love riding long. I love being self-sufficient. And I really love taking in scenery I haven’t experienced. I have mostly stuck with paved roads, rails-to-trails, bike touring, and some very light mountain biking. I still very much enjoy this type of riding and will continue. But, in the last year, I’ve added gravel road riding to my repertoire.
Dirty Kanza has become a premiere gravel race and ride and it was only natural that I’d be drawn to it–it’s only about 2.5 hours from house. This year the registration was by lottery. My husband and I made the lottery, so we began to ride gravel more and more to get ready. We also purchased new bikes (Salsa Fargos, but I’ll gush about those in another post). The difficulty of the course is legendary. The course always takes riders down “low maintenance” roads and into some pretty desolate country. Also, there is NO course support on DK. Each person must have their own support crew and is only allowed to meet their crew at the designated checkpoint(s). Riders must be almost entirely self-sufficient as far as hydration, nutrition, and mechanical trouble. Oh, and these gravel roads are gnarly–they chew up tires and derailleurs, and just generally test your bike and your skills.
The morning of the ride, I was pretty nervous–the kind of nervous where you know this is going to be awesome, but what if you can’t do it? What if you can’t complete it? A storm blew up right before the start time, so we were delayed by 30 minutes. More waiting, more anxiety. Finally, we were off. You just cannot believe the town support that is out on the street at 6:00 a.m! All of downtown was filled with people ringing cowbells, whistling, and cheering. The mass start was a little unnerving, so many cyclists trying to find their space. I tried to line up in the middle of the pack, but still, there are always a certain amount of people trying to pass and hurry by.
Let’s talk about the Flint Hills. These hills feel like they stretch on forever. Like an ocean of rich, green grass. The view is both beautiful and barren at times–with the only life you see being the grass and the riders around you. No houses, no signs of settlement, just the wild that is the prairie. I now understand why people come back year after year to ride these beautiful and difficult hills. We went down some rough roads–at least I thought they were rough until I experienced the second half! But, I digress.
I want to tell you about the checkpoint. For the century riders, we get one checkpoint at about the halfway point. As I said above, you have to supply your own crew. We asked our college-aged son to be our support. He was awesome! When I got to him, he had a hose hooked up to rinse my bike’s drivetrain. He lubed my chain and wiped it down. I stayed busy stuffing my face and refilling my bottles. I reapplied sunscreen, used the porta potty, and after 20 minutes, headed out again.
The second half of the ride saw some real mud. At one point I had to carry my bike a ways because the mud was just too slippery to ride. (And I even ride 29×2.25 aggressive tires). I felt a little uncertain about when it was okay to ride the mud–I’d heard horror stories and seen evidence of broken derailleurs, chains, and such. At one point when I was walking a second part, another rider helped me to know when it was probably okay to get back on and I sure appreciated that help.
Some of the roads got beyond rough. I would compare them to jeep roads in Colorado. It felt a little like mountain biking instead of road riding. I’m not complaining though–I think I did pretty well. Well, really, my bike did amazing and I just tried to trust the bike and find a line and stay on it. I still braked way too much on downhills (friends that have ridden with me know that I’m a chicken on downhills), but I got better. I talked myself through some downhills that I thought were scary. I had fun in the water crossings. Have I mentioned how awesome my bike is? Having the right bike for me has made all the difference in my confidence on gravel and rough roads.
I felt pretty darn great until I got into the 80-85 mile range. There was a stiff north wind and even though I was eating and drinking regularly, I just got tired. Tired of the wind–it was killing my eyes. But an unexpected thing happened. The route started filling up with people–just neighbors out cheering us on. Several, several folks were handing out water, bananas, orange slices, beef sticks, etc. One rancher was out on his 4-wheeler building fence and had run his hose to the end of his driveway with a sign that said “Water, take all you want.” It was actually both humbling and uplifting to have this kind of support. It really helped buoy my spirit!
At about mile 94 I got a “surge.” For me, this is when my mind finally wins over my tired body and I start getting excited, riding faster, and anticipating the finish. Crazily enough, I dropped my chain while going through the ESU campus, about a half mile from the finish. One sweet soul stopped and helped me get it back on. And then I charged that awesome finish, with so many people cheering and yelling for me. What an amazing finish! When I crossed, I was so excited, I kind of didn’t want to get off my bike!
There’s been some necessary recovery from this ride. The quads are pretty sore from so much climbing. And I still feel like I’m getting caught up on my water intake. My bike had to be completely scrubbed down today. But, I’m already thinking about next year.
Some info and stats about my DK:
- I ride a 2015 Salsa Fargo, steel frame with carbon fork and thudbuster seat post. 2×10. Tires are Vittoria Mezcal 29×2.25.
- I have no idea how much I drank, but I know it was a lot. Approximately 68 ounces in the first half, but way more in the second. Plus I had a cup of sweet tea at the checkpoint and took a 6 oz. Capri Sun Lemonade with me.
- Things I ate: banana, gummi Life Savers, cashews & dried pineapple, peanuts & raisins, bare naked granola bites, go-go squeeze applesauce, GU, cold chicken strip.
- I had zero mechanical trouble (other than dropping my chain half mile before the finish). No tire trouble, no derailleur trouble, no trouble shifting (although I could tell my whole drivetrain was dirty and rattle-y).
- This was my 11th century, but my first gravel century. It was by far my slowest one. My gun time was 10:14 with my total moving time of 8:54.
- Emporia is awesome.
DK was definitely a test of my endurance. I have a theory and these are not my own thoughts, but some things I’ve read. We have an easy life. We really do. Our lives are convenient and easy. I think I’m drawn to doing hard things. Somehow, with such an easy life, it feels right to do hard things. It’s part of being genuine and really feeling your life. Sometimes the hardest things can be beautiful.