As soon as I stand up out of my appropriately cramped airline seat I can feel the Midwest charm. I cruise to get my bag out of the overhead bin and meet smiling suntanned faces decked in turquoise every jewelry. I’m a born and bread southern man but soon as I open my mouth Ive met my match for charm and sweetness. Welcome to Kansas!
Passing up one of my favorite pastimes; the hundred mile mountain bike race, I chose this year to make the thousand mile journey to the 200 mile throw down known as Dirty Kanza. This race is on everyone’s radar nowadays. The “gravel” craze is upon us and rightly so! The primitive road surfaces that opened the West and riddle my home Appalachian mountains beckons with adventure and experience. It perfectly marries the efficiency of a modern roadbed with the primal draw of a well cut path in the forest, prairie, or back country.
2017 to me is about seeking new adventure so when I got the invitation to come to Dirty Kanza I took a look and figured two thousand people couldn’t be wrong! Lock and load Toto, we were headed to Kansas.
Getting off the plane, getting a rental car and getting situated Kansas City seems like about anywhere else in the world. Great American Hwy. system at work right there. I didn’t really have a perception of what Kansas would be like. I guess in my head I considered Ohio. Perhaps lots of theme parks and things to keep peoples energy occupied where there were mountains and the sea shores., sort of middle America, slightly flatter, and much Browner. My wife Emily and I laughed as we pulled into Emporia Kansas that we sort of half expected to hitch our rental car up to the post outside the local saloon. As Cowboys walked by with their spurs jingling with each step. Perhaps that’s very elitist of us but I guess in our heads that was what it was. Only rolled in a little before 9 o’clock to our host housing we found Emporia pretty agreeable. I was glad to see that we still had light up until about 9 o’clock because with a 200 mile race coming up we might need all the light we could get.
I’ve been really lucky in my days of racing to benefit from the hospitality of folks all over the world. This is become one of my favorite parts of bike racing; getting to know new people and new places and the privilege to experience things as the locals might. A friend of mine from Roanoke had heard that I’ll be going to do dirty Kanza and put me in touch with his brother; who as luck would have it lived in the town of Emporia Kansas. Along with 24,999 other individuals none of him unfortunately were spurs. We arrived at his house; greeted by him and his wife and immediately accepted into their family. He and several other friends make a big event out of the dirty Kanza 200 friends coming in from Colorado, Missouri, and other neighboring cities and states just to stay with him and his family. No matter how far abroad I go the atmosphere surrounding a bike race is always the same. And I’ve learned to thrive off of it.
I had shipped bike out the week prior and was eager to check it out and get unpacked. I don’t really build relationships with most of my bikes, I don’t really give the names I think or about them in special ways. But the bike that I planned on riding for dirty Kanza and I had bonded very quickly. Vonda; as I called her, and I had became quick friends. She had everything I could ever want in a road bike, or a cyclocross bike all wrapped into one. Pivot Cycles really did it right with this one and I was excited to spend all day with her. So our newly adopted family joined me and Emily in their garage as I unpacked her. We got to know each other, chatted about the event, about their lives an ours. We chatted about life in Kansas. How the event; now in its 12th year, had changed the town. As the rest of their company gradually trickled in and congregated in the pews of the holy sanctuary known as the American garage we found that no matter how far we traveled we were never that far from home in or cycling scene. Plus as someone who makes a living from bike travel it was thrilling for me to have an audience for the re-construction of my bike!
Bike racing always gets real the day before the event. Suddenly every choice you make affects your success on the following day in a very real way, and well I’ve come to learn that the same is true months weeks and days in a Vance and always seems to strike home the day prior. Waking up in Emporia the day before my 200 mile gravel race was full of excitement. Almost like a Christmas morning of sorts. I chose to skip the giant diner breakfast and joined my friend Yuri Hauswald for the Gu “stroopwafel and coffee” ride. I met Yuri at The Pioneer in the spring and had heard his name in connection with Dirty Kanza ever since. Yuri had won the overall in 2015 at DK. A year which was plagued by destroyed bikes and epic days as much of the course was covered in primordial mud from days of rain.
Yuri, myself, and several hundred others all pedaled along past scenic back roads enjoying a casual pace and breathing in the heartland. The ride was swell and I met many new faces. Over coffee post ride some of these new acquaintances offered to take me on a pre-ride of the first several miles of gravel the course would offer. The Racer in me knew these miles would be important and the tourist in me couldn’t pass up another hour or two of Kansas sunshine! We pedaled across the cottonwood river out of town, chatting and enjoying the company of new friends. Ive said before and I mean it that in the context of something so daunting as a long bike race folks become quick friends. And our group of 6 chatted along side by side. Veterans of the event sharing stories and tales with the newbies like me. Two in the group recognized my name from mountain bike endeavors but it was a little refreshing to be an unknown in this world. Especially since I planned to make an impact.
The first miles of gravel were smooth. Fast. Troubling in how they seemed to pass without drama or event. Within the first handful of miles we passed a roadside farm house with a sign out front inviting passersby to their water pump. That made me more nervous. 200 miles is a long day. A LONG day. 200 miles of rough surface? That’s an even longer day. I’m 5 miles into the route and already folks will be stopping for water?! What kind of death March did I get signed up for?!!!
I didn’t pay it that much mind. Death marches are sort of my thing.
After the pre-ride I parted ways with my company and and headed back to our host housing for a nap and to prepare for the next days death march! First things first, nap time. In around 40 hundred mile events and several stage races and epic bike days I’ve learned that a quick snack and a short nap after a pre-ride is a great way to make sure race day a success. It also helped keep the stress level low and keep my energy topped off on what could easy turn into a busy day. Shortly before dosing off I posted on the ol Facebook that I was looking for lunch company. I awoke a half hour or so later to tons of invitations to grab a bite. I ended up meeting two friends from Florida for Mexican and a breakdown of what I was to expect! TJ and Jen are both Kanza, Leadville, and La Ruta veterans. TJ later told me that if the race gives him “nightmares two weeks out, it goes on the calendar!” These guys don’t mess around with their epic! TJ and Jen were both chasing the sun this year at DK200. The event has three finisher patches for those who 1, beat the sun; finishing before dark. 2, finish before midnight, and 3, those who finish before Breakfast. That third one just makes me feel tired to think about!
After lunch TJ, Jen, and I went to check in and get our race numbers. After being greeted with a free box of Girl Scout cookies (I like this race already!) we were sent up three flights of stairs (did I say Girl Scout cookies?) To get our number plates, our swag, and put our names and emergency contacts down on paper. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to put this task on the third floor, but fortunately they knew a bunch of Girl Scouts with extra cookies. So all is forgiven.
Checked in, plates ready I grabbed my steed and pedaled back waving and smiling at friends yet to be as I rode to our host housing. Stopping on my way for a “Dirty Kanza Special” nine dollar haircut at the local clip n snip.
Back at the house I regrouped with the group of old friends who all assemble with our host for this event every year. They had opted for the silver diner breakfast where I went a little more mellow and we hadn’t seen each other since. I don’t think I’m betraying anyone by saying their race goals and prep were a touch different than mine! Also #KodiakCakes.
Dirty Kanza is as much a festival of adventure and the American spirit as it is a bike race. And as such Rebecca Rusch’s new film was going to premier during the event. We decided a cold movie theater was as good as anywhere that afternoon and were excited to see what was billed as the best cycling film ever. Rebecca didn’t disappoint. Her journey to find her fathers resting place along the “Blood Road” Ho Chi Minh trail of Vietnam was incredible. Perhaps a touch harrowing for us considering our stress levels regarding the following days journey. Post film we hit up the super duper Mart to gather some pre race goodies then headed back to the house for supper.
The pre-race supper for my adopted friend group was a heart pasta with salad on the side. I added some fats in there in the form of avocado and I was locked and loaded for a long day! Bags were dropped off with the “crew for hire” pit crew and the mornings kit pockets were loaded so all I had to do was eat, drink, and be merrily along my way!
Little but peaceful rest laid between me and a long long day on the bike.