Early to bed, early to shred! Waking up in a new place with the prospect of 200 miles of unknown is definitely a little daunting. But like the racing itself you compartmentalize things in order to do them successfully without. Ring overwhelmed. Wake up, check.
Breakfast needed to be a little more substantial than my usual oatmeal, cinnamon, almond butter, and honey; which admittedly is not insubstantial for the thousands of calories demanded by a normal endurance event. I opted for two microwaveable Kodiak Cake cups for this morning after trying them out for my pre-ride the morning prior. I eat kodiak cakes at home regularly a couple times a month. They’re righteously delicious with some peanut or almond butter and pack a serious protein punch. I knew my body would need all the protein it could manage today and so a Jake and a half awaited me. I aimed to be just a little full come start line. Plenty of time to digest. Breakfast had, coffee consumed, and morning constitutional…constituted. Check and check.
I had already packed my jersey pockets the night before so to thoroughly prepare and make sure I didn’t miss anything in the 4 AM hour. So I kitted up, socked out, and loaded up my bike with bottles and light. Riding down to the start line felt equal parts stoke worthy ride meetup and slow motion cinematic march to battle! Initially quiet and peaceful but as the Red Bull banner and music of the start line drew nearer the stoke and excitement elevated. The drama was building.
An unknown in the gravel scene I didn’t get a coveted call-up. So I positioned in the first corral behind the heros. Parked next to my friend and KTM racer Trevor DeRuise I was in good company. Trevor and I are both HandUp gloves ambassadors and had competed in LaRuta 2015 together. He’s a strong rider by all measures and a great wheel. I was glad to have someone I knew on the line and someone who was a gravel racing virgin like myself. The call-ups started as Ted King, Jay Petervary, Yuri Hauswald, Amanda Naumann, Ali Tetrick and so many other gravel champs were announced. A little daunting to be sure lining up behind this group!
Daunted or not we had a date with the dirt. The two takeaways I have been telling people about DK200 are the two things there are no getting around. It’s 200 miles. 206 this year to be precise. And it is nearly entirely dirt or mixed surface. This is not your usual gravel ride with lots of paved surface thrown in. We were on pavement for less than 2 or 3 miles all day. It was serious business. Standing in the start line this kind of mileage and course can be a little overwhelming. Again. Compartmentalize. Get to the first support station. Get there in good position and safely; without burning any unnecessary matches.
I had questioned fellow Blue Ridge Cyclery teammate Keck Baker a lot in the leading days about some of the road racing tactics I might be able to borrow from. “Sit in” he would tell me. Suck wheel. Don’t be a player. Not my usual mode. I don’t sit in well. But dk200 would require me to be. And I would abide by that rule. Telling myself to hide as often as possible. This was my game plan. I had a top 20 in sights, a top 10 as a goal, and anything else would be great. Pace well. Eat, drink. All the things I know to do from MTB racing were also present here.
Still dark but with the sun beginning to peek through the horizon clouds the police escort lights were a little blinding. My Oakley Prizm road shades would have to stay off for a while it seemed. Trevor and I chatted with our neighbors casually as the countdown begun.
Go. Dirty Kanza 200. Gathering of the gravel tribe. So many unknowns and so many puzzles to put together. I don’t want to sound cocky but I felt confident. Racing as many hundred mile mountain bike races as I have I was confident there were no issues I couldn’t manage. Broken derailleur. No problem, I don’t need one anyhow. Damaged wheel or tire? Not an issue. I had ample air and tubes, patches, plugs, the whole deal. This was going to be hard but I was going to finish it. And if all went well, finish it well.
And so we pedaled into a brisk pace of riders at the front. I tried to keep Trevor in sight and near him. I know he is a good bike handler. And the first miles of a bike race are always full of squirrels. I have myself a good position near the middle of the pack, rotating forward and back; practicing moving through and giving myself an escape path in the event gravity made itself known to a rider nearby. The opening 25 miles are a blissful blur. Calm enough. Heart rate manageable. Pace comfortable. Quick enough a front group of unknown size formed. I can’t say how many riders were present in that group as I maintained a seat in the top 20; unconcerned with how many were in the long tail of this fire breathing gravel dragon. I wanted to make it to the first aid station in a very good position. The Crew for Hire aid support was said to be decent but my race very much depended on the quality of their support. If I had to chase out of every aid station I was in for a VERY long day indeed. I wont soon forget the sound of loose flying grave contacting carbon and metal frames as that massive group lumbered along the back roads.
I watched my clock and my mileage tick by, making sure I had sucked down both bottles of hopped up Carbo Rocket by the time we made it to Aid 1. Some flats and other issues had thinned our group but mostly we were still quite large and quite strong. All the hitters were there. The surface thus far had been solid. Great crushed gravel. Smooth and not too deep. Some bumpier farm road but mostly state maintained dirt road. Fast and smooth. My 38c Bontrager LT2 tires had been eating it up. My pre-ride the day before must have opened up the casings a little because the night prior I noticed a touch of frame rub on my Pivot Vault. The industry nine AR25s have a fairly wide rim and it’s conceivable they opened up the tire when properly seated. I was forced to trim some knobs here and there to ensure smooth rolling the next day. No time to be stressed about it. That won’t make me faster. Roll on.
Nearing Aid 1 I made sure to be near the front. A couple of zig-zags around the support stop as our group snaked its way into Aid 1 around mile 50 and I made cornering my job to get into the Aid early. I popped through the checkpoint and into the aid pit 2nd rider. I politely called out my Number and asked for my bags while grabbing some neutral food. Riders zipped by, this was taking too long. More riders. Where are my bottles?! Come on guys. I know this was a donation but I’m not into pulling volunteer hours waiting on some bottles! Bottles showed up. I had noticed a slightly loosened headset from the early hours and so I rode my way through the pit until I saw an open tool box in another competitors aid pit. I asked very quickly if I could borrow 4 and 5 mm Allen keys and was granted the tools. A quick fix and even a torque key by the astute mechanic on duty and I was rolling. Albeit at the very back of the group I had led into the pit. I was in a chase position now. I caught Ali Tetrick who would go on to win the women’s race. I told her to jump on my wheel but as we moved into a technical section of mud and rocks she was unable to hold the same line and dropped. As the group ahead met a large mud hole they slowed and I made quick contact without much more than a 5 minute total effort. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to do this on every checkpoint exit!
I rejoined the group and made my way gradually back into the front. I met with Yuri Hauswald there and he welcomed me back into the fold. Yuri is a previous winner of the DK200 and a proper legend in this circle. Yuri and I had met at The Pioneer in the spring and were well acquainted. He’s a solid guy and I was glad to see him. It meant I was in the right spot. About as soon as I made it back we started into some proper racing.
The group had formed as we exited the aid. This was the front of the race. Our efforts and pace had been more than just completion efforts. We weren’t here to play around. A couple of attacks started. A couple of real squirrels were in our group too. I saw some dirty hips and scuffed bar tape where riders had already mixed in with the Kansas gravel. Steer clear of those guys Wadsworth. Steer clear.
The next section of the course is known as the cattle grates. Expansive cattle ranches where regular grates separate property lines or pastures to keep livestock from wandering across. But also substantially different surfaces. I made it a game to surf the narrow bands of metal that joined the round poles of the grates as we passed boundary to boundary. Sort of gravel “skinnies,” for the mountain biker. This game was occasional but the game of meeting the high pace of our group of fifty was regular. This group worked hard and occasionally would lose a rider out the back, but most stuck together.
The characteristic of the cattle grates area of the course is both that it has the most regular climbing and descending but also that the surface alternates between good gravel surface and absolute farm road. This was MTB terrain to be honest. Large baby heads, sharp shale and flint shelves, and random holes or rises which made a smooth pace and ride a challenge. Riders began dropping like flies with flats or mechanicals. It was like a Spielberg movie. This part was sketchy. I was grateful for MTB skills and the Lauf Grit front fork which allowed me to really flow the downhills safely and effectively. I only had one good rear rim strike which made me pay caution to my pressure for a while. Seemed if I did have a puncture that the Stans Race Sealant had done its job in short order. That stuff is as advertised!
I cast a look back at one phase during the cattle grates and saw our dragons tail of over a hundred riders had suddenly dropped to a thin chasing line. Riders were being dropped. The first selection was happening. And I remained comfortable near the front but never at the front. Oh, except a couple of the downhills ;).
This sharp end of the race however had ALL the firepower. Ted King had rejoined us after a flat early in the cattle grates. Several teams still had multiple riders. The race was not yet over. It had just begun truthfully.
As we banged our way through the baby head fields and across the choppy hidden dangers of the cow pasture grass this group continued to ebb and flow. We may have made a selection but we were not losing most of this group easily. Around mile 75 I reached down to Swap the a LESs full front water bottle for a full rear bottle. As I pulled it from the cage it seemed entirely too light. Startlingly light. I took a deep squeze of the bottle into my mouth and heard a wheeze of air. This bottle had been compromised. Sure enough my bb and downtime were soaking wet. Hope #VondaTheVault also ran on carborocket because she had been getting a steady dose for who knows how long. I was around 30 miles from checkpoint to at Around mile 106 and here I was down to less than a half a bottle total. I could spot a hole in my bottle like a BB had pierced it. Either the Viet Cong were out in that tall grass or a flying piece of gravel had pierced my bottle! Never even heard of something like that happening!
Alas. I had no choice but to roll on in full conservation mode. Don’t chase. Be smooth. Ease back in the climbs. Stay in the drops and on the wheel when able. As earlier: hide and conserve. You’ve got to be kidding me, a hole in my bottle! Still. Better than the tens of bottle I’d seen either come out of cages completely or a teammate handoff botched. Those were preventable but this was totally freak. Just one more challenge to manage!
The sun hadn’t really started blazing yet. And there was some rain in the forecasts I was probably lucky as conditions for a nutritional concern like this to be managed. I was able to bum a slug off one riders bottle of what tastes like Heed as the course began to mellow. However just as soon as our group of about 35 or so saw mellow gravel things turned nasty again. Bumpy and with one long climb affectionately; if not creatively, called “The Bitch.” The bitch was tamer than most of our climbs back home. But was a trick to get over for some folks. Deep gravel and a winding climb meant our group of 35 had another selection made. I was smart. Staying on the wheel of one of the 3T gravel tram riders right near the front.
Over the bitch and we knew we had a group. About 15 or 20 or us had made the cut and we were gonna press it.
On the open roads and finally our grupetto was working together. We had lost Ted King again as we were not about to let his motor back in. I’m proud of how our group worked. It was also an excellent opportunity to gauge my fellow riders. Some had made the selection but were flagging. Short pulls, pull throughs, or nothing at all. We rode well. And nearing Aid 2 I was sitting on the front. I spoke to my fellow 3T rider and John the editor from Road Bike Action magazine and pitched a soft rolling regroup to the group? They all confirmed. We still had near a hundred miles of this left. It wasn’t time to attack each other yet. We were stronger as a group.
The Crew for Hire at checkpoint 2 were not only MUCH faster; and excited to see a rider in the lead group using their service, but also much more efficient. I was also able to garner a little assistance from a new friends pit crew in the form of a mini coke for my pocket and a few snickers.
My drop bags and nutrition strategy were simple. My approach had been to leverage what I know about endurance MTB racing into this experience. I carried two tubes, two Big air cartridges with a 24g cartridge in reserve, a tool, chain link and small bolts and other things in my pockets or back country research “Oh Shit Kit.” I also had a fuel tank on my top tube with all my solid foods. Ali bars, perpetuem solids, and some extra snacks. Packing and fueling for war is something I do well. Eventualities happen. Eventually.
But my needs had been blissfully few so far. I didn’t need my spare tubes, chains, air or derailleur hangers in my drop bag at Aid 2. I figured if it were gonna go bad, it would go bad by then! So I ditched my vest and arm warmers there and rocked on out of checkpoint 2.
Some rain clouds circled the Kansas prairie as I pedaled out of town. Past half way and with a good group established. Nutritionally I felt decent but was still playing catch up after the busted bottle. Fortunately my pit was one of the fastest and I was able to soft pedal a little. We had two riders ahead, Menso DeJong from team cliff bar and an unknown rider from SDG. Both had muscle. One had a beard. I saw Trevor from KTM coming up behind me and so sat up. Matt from 3T who had been animating the race all day was in a group of 3 behind him. We were happy with our company. It seemed some of the slower more distressed riders hadn’t exited the pits yet. Jake wells also joined us before long.
I couldn’t be happier with this group but I also knew that this meant some rounds were soon to be fired. At this point it was a race. We were all at peace when we could be but any weakness was going to be taken advantage of. Poker face time.
We had two older men join our troupe. One actually had bridged up solo while we were motoring. He wore a neatly trimmed beard and hailed from Kansas City. Another had been fairly quiet but was also clearly in the older age ranges. Dirty Kanza is funny in that while we watch the open race there are no Open rewards or categories. Just age group. Ted King was in mine…. of course. Good riddance then. 😉
This group rolled strongly and smartly through gravel of all types. More chunky farm path, bumpy B road, and occasionally blissful crushed gravel that makes this race so scenic and iconic. This was fun man. How cool is this that we had a group of riders rolling this strong and this deep through this kind of terrain. Truly my happy place. A pecking order was definitely. Wing established thought. Menso and the SDG rider had come back to us. And Matt from 3t; while without additional firepower from their formidable team, was very much running the show. He was able to; and frequently did, zip to the front and get a few bike lengths before falling back again. Unsure how to perceive this we all focused on just riding our own races around him. He wasn’t unsafe, but clearly commanded some respect in this group.
I had spent time learning everyone names, where they hailed from, whether this was their first Kanza, and everything else. This isn’t a game to me, it’s just my way. But. And this is a big one. I do listen and watch and am attentive to the conversation. You can gauge a lot about a rider from their replies to simple questions.
There was a planned course rerouted which was not on our gps guidance. Every rider was alone when it came to course. There were no markings, no marshalls. Just you and your map. I made sure my Wahoo had two copies of the race file. I made sure it had sufficient battery. And I even packed a backup Garmin in my checkpoint 3 bag. So when we suddenly encountered a rerouted we were all highly attentive. I had elected to watch the racer meeting with my legs up. And was glad I did. We rounded a section of course that the GPS were directing us through. As a group we were stressed. Uncharted territory which we navigated well.
Shortly after that reroute the attack came. Matt, Menso, Jake and I were leading and as we began up a short climb on the course we looked back to see a gap. We did not slow down. We sped up. We continued to speed up. We were racing. Suddenly the survival mode switched off and the race mode kicked into gear. Do not lose these wheels. This was the move. And it was early at around mile 135 but it was the move.
We hammered. Through rollers and across open gravel we pounded pedals in a mostly organized fashion. This section of the corse was ideal for sneaking away and building a gap. I don’t know if anyone knew that but we could see it as we snuck away. Relatively undulating terrain with good coverage from the road behind. We just had to get out of sight. And then we were out of mind. Hide.
And then as our pace continued, and raised a little into some exposed rollers, I could feel it. Substantial fatigue. 145 miles. Substantial distance. And one less bottle and several hundred less calories than planned. This pace was high. These riders still relatively unknown. I didn’t think this was sustainable and so I backed off. Matt and Jake both looked at me like they needed the push. Matt said “come on mustachio! Lets do this!”
My goals had. Even to land a top 20. Top 10 and I’d be thrilled. Top 5? Wildest dream for me. I knew that if I backed off about 5% I could roll in real strong. And with 1 checkpoint left I could probably even refuel and be ready for a fight. Also, I really had to pee. Like really.
And so I did. Despite some urging from Matt and Jake I pulled it over and had the most glorious whizz of my life. Incredible prairie scenery, already an incredible accomplishment managed, and a race still yet to complete. I saw one of the older riders in the distance heading my way. He stopped for a pee on my hill too. Obviously it was my hill. I had just marked it.
Rick was his name and he was the one who bridged solo up to our group while we hammered before checkpoint 2. He was obviously on a mission and obviously not my age group. Rick it was! I was gonna ride with Rick. For as long as I could then try and ditch him for 4th. No shame in that.
Rick and I rolled strongly together for a while. I would take a long pull, then Rick would…kind of let off the gas and gradually move to the side. Not pulling. Then I would pull, and Rick would sort of not. He wasn’t chatty either. Not social at all. Which I can handle. But unsocial and unhelpful. Forget that. Nevertheless his presence encouraged me to keep a good pace. And so we rode on. We neared the second checkpoint and he said “hey wanna wait at the exit of the aid for me? Were riding good together.” Well. Part A-true, part be-false. But sure. I’d hang out for a bit at the exit of the checkpoint and we can roll together. Checkpoint was at mile 164. That’s a long ride. Finish line was 206 this year.
I pit. Crew for Hire ecstatic their rider was in the lead groups. They fed me, cleaned my glasses glasses, swapped bottles and even refilled a second bottle for my pocket so I could try and refuel for the finish. Candy bars, soda cans, dirtbag fuel was in effect. I ditched my front light (which had supposedly been required on the start line) and my spare tube and big air. Whatever happened now it was time to go for lightweight. Time to race as best as I could. I departed the aid after a pretty quick pit stop.
Casually navigating out of the aid station I didn’t see Rick pitting and so i exited. Perhaps he was taking another pee out of the checkpoint. Perhaps he was a longing for the open road. And as it turns out it was option 3. I was looking for Rick as I rode out of the checkpoint but never saw him. As I rounded into a wide open stretch of the course I could see Rick in the distance. Glad he waited…
I caught Rick and had some words with him. Ive never been once to monde words and so I called him a knucklehead and said he owed me a beer. Rick and I rode along together for a little while longer in the same rhythm of me pulling and him sitting before I made the first mistake of the day. In the sequence of 200 miles I get pretty sick of the most efficiency of the small stuff. Things like braking. I decided I was done braking for a while and as I ducked hard into a 90 degree downhill right handed went right into the deep gravel. Served me right. It was a hard hit. Kinked my shifter a little and had me bleeding clean into the Kansas air. No Lycra between me and Jesus anymore. And that’s alright.
Rick rode clean around me (I was in the lead of course) and then asked if I was OK. I said yeah. But needed to stop and collect myself. He confirmed he would wait at the top of the hill. I can understand that, nobody likes to get restarted on a hill. Summiting the short but well tree shrouded riser I looked for Rick. Nope. Long gone a wee red shadow in the distance.
So now bleeding, tired, and alone in Kansas wilderness. Exactly how every Saturday should go! I took stock of things and pedaled a little working out the kinks of the crash. Totally preventable. Silly man. Alas! That’s how it would go isn’t it. As I settled back in another rider appeared in the distance behind. I can’t tell you why I sat up other than camaraderie is in my nature. I also know I’ve got a decent late race kick! 😉
And so Ian Tubbs and I became friends. Ian rode up on me looking pekid! He looked as tired as I probably did but was riding strong and clearly knew his way around a bike race. Things had fallen apart after the attack I backed off from. Clearly it was every rider for him or herself. Ian and I became quick friends. Actually working together. I shared with him my story and he his. He was a NICA coach and any kid would be lucky to have him as theirs. Ian clearly had riding chops and like me this was his first Kanza. I shared with him my love of dirt, passion for community, and how I was DYING for a doctor pepper. Literally.
As we hit the 180 mile mark we rounded a corner and there was paradise. A cooler FULL of “Dr Thunder.” Now any distance rider worth their salt can tell you Dr Thunder is exactly the same as Dr Pepper but half the price and twice the sugar. Two down the hatch and one in the pockets with a third in the back of my jersey for later and because it had been proper warm that afternoon. That was Ian’s first Dr Thunder. Believe it or not.
What a sight we must have been! Pedaling and chuckling to ourselves at the front of the worlds premier gravel race. We worked through the last several miles of technical gravel and dirt. I traded some of my bonk proof goodies with Ian for quality conversation and sound pulls. Ian saw me nearly bite it again after I sat up to enjoy a bottle of water handed up from a local with another full cooler. But SAFE! Close call.
Ian and I pedaled into the distance together. Wishing well the hundred mile riders we were catching. I gotta be honest. THAT would be demoralizing. But man they were finishing strong! And cheering us along. What a community we had stumbled upon gathering in Kansas. We approached what had to be the final miles. We ticked over mile 200. 6 more we knew. Ian and I didn’t discuss any final mile plan. Mine was to get to the finish and kick with everything I had. We circled the baseball fields, heard music, smelled barbecue, felt close. Entering a tunnel under the interstate and emerging into pavement on the other side we knew we had to be close. Up over a substantial hill and I genuinely thought about attacking. Ian was struggling. And for a guy with legs like these I can climb. Was this my shot? No not here. Too many other faces congratulating us. Too many walking the alp d’ 3rd street!
However as we cleared the last mile or so and entered the back side of the college Ian and I both knew it had to happen soon.
And just like that. Road cones, traffic light. Straight shot to the finish. Years of crit racing have me an instinct for a finish line and as if out of a canyon I grabbed the drops and clicked of gears till the 11 came. Powering towards the line listening to music and cheers getting louder and closer. Re-emerging into civilization I could see Matt the winner still sitting on a chair in the finish zone. He was still sweaty but clearly relieved. Proud. He deserved a win. A hearty fist bump and a “way to go Mustachio” from matt and then I rolled onward out of the gate. Off course. Done. Completed.
First face I saw was Chris our host, and his wife. I remember the look on Chris’s face. Ha! His brother Troy knows me fairly well and knows that I can win a bike race. I’m sure he communicated this to chris but still his face told a story of profound surprise. In a race full of hitters on a course full of danger I’d bucked some odds and. Thought home a pretty solid finish. Chris congratulated me indeed!
Then Ian. He pedaled past and gave me a hearty hug. These guys are amazing to me. Ian is a master racer if ever there was one. And I was so glad we shared the last bit of our journey.
And then emily. My sweet wife. She is wildly supportive and proud and while she had her own duties that morning she was so full of light and love when I saw her. She was also clean. And didn’t smell like death. Which is more than I could bring to the table! She snapped a picture and held all of my regalia as I wandered around looking g for a place to sit. Any spot would do but even the decision of where was overwhelming. And so she guided me up to a brick wall and I sat. For probably an hour I sat! As other friends came through and we congratulated so many I could barely move. What a journey.
I pedaled back to the house for a shower. Boy WHAT a shower. And then back to the start line to celebrate some more with friends.
Eventually, mercifully that night, sleep. Sleep like only endurance athletes know. Absolute fatigue.
I was stoked the next morning to get up and pack my bike! No I wasnt Not in the least. Whatever excitement I had when I unpacked it was now fully dissipated… But pack I did. Clumsily. Next step was to attend the awards gathering. Kanza; because of the distance and resulting finish times chooses to do their awards banquet the following morning. Back into the awesome theater space we had viewed Blood Road in two days prior but this time with more lights, and a much worse smell, some riders were still in their kits having only just finished in some cases. Wow.
Kanza acknowledges overall placing but awards age groups. And so while I took home 5th overall I was 1st in my age group. Above a certain maple-toting King. Ted is a swell guy, but hes easy to rib on from a step above him. I was stoked though for that because it added some serious legitimacy to the result! Wont be standing above a Tour finisher on any podium again soon I dont expect.
I also picked up my “race the sun” patch and would later be mailed an amazing hand done lithograph (is that the right word?) bearing my finish place as the number in a limited set of 100. I cant say enough good things about the swag at the Dirty Kanza. Well done guys.
And one more THANK you. The folks at Lauf Forks and I have a colorful history but they were kind enough to extend an entry to me. One which I was thrilled to take as I think the gravel racing scene is the perfect place for their design. And it was. I wouldnt do Kanza without one now that I know how good the Lauf Grit fork is. Thanks for the opportunity guys!