Living up to its name and not disappointing, Dirty Kanza was one of the hardest, single day events I’ve ever done.
Part I: Preparing the bike
At 4:00am Saturday morning, things began to get real as I was woke from a peaceful slumber by the sound of my alarm. Only two short hours remained before go time! It’s amazing how quickly time seems to speed up as race time approaches, and what you thought was ample time quickly deteriorates to minutes…….seconds!
But let me roll the clock back a couple days. We arrived to the expo area at the Dirty Kanza
in Emporia, Kansas late Thursday afternoon, and I was greeted with the task of building up one heck of a bullet proof bike: my “hot off the press” 2020 Jamis Renegade C1
! This was going to be one of the toughest, longest, most grueling gravel events I’ve ever done. So as I happily set about building up this new pup, I knew I needed to check and recheck everything because there wasn’t going to be any fix’n or making adjustments on course. So, headset installed, cables routed, brakes bled, bottom bracket pressed, derailleurs installed, wheels mounted, brakes adjusted, bar/stem/saddle/post all set and bars wrapped! This thing was beginning to resemble a race rig! And with that,
Thursday seemed to zip by!
On Friday, the plan was to get out early for a quick ride and make sure there wasn’t going to be any surprises to pop up. She worked FLAWLESSLY! What a relief! I was a little concerned since I had to pull parts from bikes back home and that the fit might be a little off, but I felt right at home, so things were looking good! Time to register, get files imported into my Wahoo
, some new tires mounted and my work at the expo would be done and then I could start packing nutrition, filling bottles and organizing supplies. Over dinner we formulated our game plan on how we envisioned the feed-zones would go and what I’d need at different points. The thing with racing is you can try and plan for so many different scenarios, but once you’re out there racing you have to be able to adapt… kinda like when you pre-fill hydration packs with one drink mix, and decide 150 miles in you’re burned out on it, and you’d rather drink plain creek water than subject yourself to anymore of it.
And before you know it, it’s bed time because Saturday morning is inevitably going to roll around waaaaaay to soon!
Part II: Race day
Saturday morning at 4:15am, we’re loaded up and rolling down the road towards Emporia, KS forty-five minutes away. I manage to choke down a couple PB&J sandwiches… because they’re delicious and nutritious… but mostly they’re simple and require no cooking; time is of the essence! After a quick gas stop, we’re unloading and it’s time to kit up. Check, check and recheck I have everything I need and that my packs are loaded up for exchanges. I roll over to the start line around 5:45am for a 6:00am start time and try and find a pretty good spot. BINGO! I am in place and ready to rock and roll with friends Kaysee Armstrong and Cory Wallace around me.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO! The clock strikes 6:00am and we’re off! This year the Dirty Kanza had over 2,700 registered riders, so it was a sea of cyclists leaving town behind the police escort. The first few miles through town were a neutral start, but no one wanted to drift too far back so the tension was so thick it could be cut with a knife. Once the Emporia police pulled off at the first turn for gravel, it was GO TIME! My primary concern at this point was to maintain my position and not drift too far back or get tangled up in some silly crash, which there were plenty of! I immediately started having flash backs to Croatan Buck Fifty
and how you were at the mercy of the rider in front of you not to lead you astray into a pot hole or rock, which is daunting considering you’re cruising down the gravel at pretty fast clip and in a cloud of dust.
The one nice thing about being at the front is most folks here have been riding a while and have pretty decent handling skills… other than the roadies… just kidding, I meant triathletes… so many aero bars! The miles seemed to zip by fairly quickly, and we quickly eclipsed my previous day’s pre-ride distance. This year’s course was said to be rougher and chunkier than last year’s, and it seemed pretty chunky to me (the course changes every 3 years).
Part III: Disaster strikes
This leads me to my next bit: being prepared and not quitting! Unfortunately with pack riding it’s hard to see what’s coming and avoiding something can be virtually impossible. The rocks here are
flint… hence the nick name, “Flint Hills,” and they’re sharp as razors! When we got to the first really rough section it was a yard sale! Crashes everywhere with people getting caught in ruts and washing out, going over the bars, and flatting! Total mayhem! In preparation the day before, I mounted up a new set of Maxxis Ramblers
with Silk Shield to try and thwart the “razors”. If this was a paper-rock-scissors match… well, “rock” beats “rubber” every time! And unfortunately I fell victim to them, as so many other folks did, at mile 30. It wasn’t even a matter of taking a bad line or hitting something I should have avoided. Everything looked the same; unsuspecting gravel. But man, catch one of those rascals at a bad angle and it’s game over! When I flatted I thought, “Crap! Too soon for this nonsense, we’re barely into this race and it was too early to lose the lead group now!” But I knew it was a good one (aka really bad one) because the tire went flat immediately, and it was everything I could do to keep from going down on the descent and getting run over. When I stopped to fix it I thought, “Oh, that’s a doozy, I hope my boots/patches are going to be up to the task!” The gash in my sidewall reached from the center of my tread to a nick in the rim! I was about to put this tire up to the ultimate test… for a 170 miles!
I put two 5″ boots inside the tire, the tube partially inflated to hold them in place and then hit it with the CO2. I was golden and back rolling, but the number of folks who passed me seemed to go on FOREVER! I “reassured” myself I still had 170 miles to make up time… but that didn’t make me feel all that much better to be honest. 170 miles sounded pretty rough considering I had only been 30! So I got back into a rhythm and paced myself; this race wasn’t going to be decided anytime soon for me… or anyone!
I soldiered on with 35 miles to go to the 1st aid station. When I got there, I was met with my support team and swapped out bottles and took my hydration pack with fresh supplies. This next leg I knew was going to be a long one because it was now 9:30am, the sun was up and getting hotter, and the next aid I would see my support crew at would be at mile 150. There was a neutral support at mile 120 where only water would be available so I packed drink mix to add to it.
After the feed-zone at mile 65, it felt like the heat had been dialed up to “high,” and I was getting baked! There’s absolutely NO shade whatsoever to hide in, and the sun’s rays were brutal! Whatever sunscreen I had put on was long gone from the sweat and water I’d been pouring over myself, and the miles seemed to barely roll over. I was beginning to think this race had been a terrible idea: “I am 87 miles into this thing and still not halfway!” I was starting to go through fluids pretty quickly too, even though I had stayed on top of them really well earlier. How was I going to stretch my fluids another 30 miles?! And then around mile 90, the gods smiled down on me and an unplanned, unexpected aid station appeared before me! Was my Wahoo lying to me about mileage? Had they changed mile points and moved the neutral feed? NOPE! The EF (Team Education First) guys had set up a water tank for the racers, wahoooooooooo!!! Man was that AMAZING! I was given a cold towel while I filled my bottles, drank as much as I could, topped off my pack and poured some cold water over myself. As I left the aid I felt like a new man. This stop was an absolute life saver.
Part IV: Just when you think you’re safe
I wouldn’t say the next 30 miles zoomed by, but they certainly went by a lot quicker and a lot less painful than had the aid station not been there. So after 30 miles of motoring along, I reached the “official” neutral aid I had planned on. I refilled my bottles and pack again, added my drink mix and cooled myself with water. One of the volunteers offered to put ice down the back of my jersey, and I happily took them up on it! While there, I took the time to inspect my front tire; I couldn’t believe the cut hadn’t spread any further, and somehow the casing was still holding its shape! I’ve cut tires similar to this in the past, and usually when they’re this severe, the cords fail and the tire loses its structural integrity and tears apart or flexes into a weird “s” curve. Not this joker! Like a dang ROCK! Other than a huge cut in the side, it looked good, Silk Shield was holding her together! The one thing I did notice was the boots had migrated up and exposed a portion of the tube. I knew there was no way that was going to last, so I decided to deflate the tube, unmount the tire, and reposition the boots. Disaster averted! With all that done, I was ready to get rolling again! Roughly 35 miles until I’d see my support crew!
… And then disaster struck again! TUBES! Can’t live with em, can’t live without em! On another “mystery flint” (because ya never see ’em), I flatted
again! I pulled over and went about my way fixing it. However, when I dug through my pack I couldn’t find my extra tube and CO2s that I had gotten at the aid station with my support crew. Then I remembered I still had one mounted to my bike but that meant once I pulled it, I’d be running without supplies for the next 20 miles. This was a scary thought considering every a couple miles I would pass someone fixing a flat, and that could easily be me! And at this time the only thing worse than riding the Dirty Kanza would be walking it! I took the time to eat some food and then begged my legs to cooperate and loosen up again. We could stand around all day! Needless to say, I tried to tread extra lightly as I navigated the remaining miles to the aid station. A few miles down the road I saw Tony, one of my support crew members, snapping pictures of the racers, and I yelled to him to tell TC to get my tubes and C02s ready… and maybe wrangle up a Coke!
The highlight of the day wasn’t any of the gravel roads. Rather it was a quarter mile section of multi-use trail into aid station three that was shaded! I wanted to go sooooo slowly through that section just so I could revel in the shade; anything to make it last longer, but seeing as how this was still a “race” I thought it was best not to. There my savior, TC, was standing, waving for me. We went over to the truck, and I restocked tubes, CO2s, food, swapped bottles and added water to my pack. I had originally planned to swap hydration packs here but the thought of more drink mix didn’t sound too appealing, so I stuck to water and kept my current pack. There’s nothing quite as good as pouring cold water over yourself, except maybe having ice packed under your jersey on your back… which I did again! Talk about feeling like new! Oh and TC did have that Coke ready, thank god! So after pounding back a cold Coke and feeling like a million buckaroos, I was ready to put the hammer down! As I set out on my final stretch of the race I had an optimistic feeling! In my mind I was trying to divide up the remaining miles into little blocks. I pre-rode roughly 6 miles of the end of the Dirty Kanza, so I knew what those would be like. I had just traveled five miles. That left me with only 39 unknown miles! And that’s close to 30 miles, and that’s a cake walk!
Oddly enough, between mile 150 and 200, I actually felt really good. I had plenty of supplies with me so I could fix anything, plenty of food and water so I could kill the pack on the first thirty and have 10 miles per bottle… things were looking good. Or maybe I felt so good because I had the tough part behind me and the end was in sight! Either way I felt great, and I was catching people! I think some folks that went out hard were beginning to crack, and I was starting to reel them in. Up to this point, I had been caught in “no mans land,” and soloed from mile 30 to around mile 185. But now I was catching people riding at similar speeds which was nice. We had a small group of 4 that stuck together all the way to the finish. As we motored along and knocked out the miles, I couldn’t help but think, “This sure would have been nice 120 miles ago!” One of the riders in our group had paint sticks in his pack, and I asked what those were for. He said they were for scooping mud off tires when they would become caked with it (previous years issues). Fortunately we didn’t have to contend with mud, just a couple tiny sections around creeks and sections of dried car tracks in old mud. The dried car tracks in old mud actually posed a real threat because it was easy to get caught in one and high-siding became a real issue.
Part V: So close I can smell the BBQ
As we hit mile 194, I knew where we were! I was starting to recognize things, and this signaled the end was in sight! We turned onto the pavement with a couple miles to go and the pace quickened ever so slightly. However, by the time we hit main street it was back into a RACE! I wasn’t sure how these guys were feeling but I wasn’t really sure what I had left in the tank either. I went early, hoping I might be able to dissuade a sprint or a counter attack, but I guess they were feeling froggy too. It was a sprint! To us it felt fast and we were FLYING, but maybe to the spectators it was in slow motion. After all, we did have 200 miles in our legs! But no matter what, when I crossed the line I knew I had given it everything; right up to the end. That’s racing and that’s what makes it fun… “fun” being the operative word.
I wouldn’t describe DK as fun, but maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment or the satisfaction of seeing it to the end that’s “fun”. DK200 was an absolutely incredible experience, one with so many high and low points. It’s a race where anything can happen for 200 miles, and often a lot does happen. You can plan and plan and plan, but it comes down to experience and one’s ability to adapt and overcome. DK teaches you a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of. The thought of racing 200 miles on gravel didn’t sound that appealing to be honest, but it was something worth trying. For so many of the almost 3,000 people who do DK, I believe that’s what they are there for: not to podium, but to survive and have a great experience. My only two suggestions to make DK better: fewer sharp rocks and more shade!
And yes! That crazy Rambler tire managed to ramble on for 170 miles with that huge cut in the sidewall! I wasn’t sure if it was up to the task, but the Silk Shield did it’s job and held that tire together. INCREDIBLE!!
Words and photos by Thomas Turner