Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dirty Kanza 200 :: 2013 edition

I've often observed that the most difficult ride and race reports to write are those about rides and races that went perfectly smoothly. It seems that every story worth telling  features a protagonist or two overcoming a great challenge or three on their way to a conclusion that is in doubt until the last breath.

While I can't promise a story with an ending of that magnitude, the 2013 edition of the Dirty Kanza 200 certainly didn't lack in challenges. Starting and finishing in the town of Emporia, Kansas, the race traverses 200 miles of gravel roads through the nearby Flint Hills. While your mental image of Kansas may conjour up visions of vast plains or, dare I mention it, a Yellow Brick Road, it doesn't apply to the Dirty Kanza route. Instead of endless flats, there are countless hills to admire and continuous gorgeous scenery to be endured. However, speaking of "endless flats," the Flint Hills are renowned at providing those too. The original inhabitants of the area, The Great Kanza Nation, made arrowheads from the flint that abounds in these hills, so tyres need to be chosen with care.

The Ride Studio Café Endurance team of Matt Roy, David Wilcox and yours truly had tossed around the idea of doing this race for several years. The planets aligned to make this possible in 2013 though, when team captain Matt worked some sponsorship magic and arranged support from Seven Cycles, SRAM components, Clément tyres and Rapha clothing. Thank you all for your generosity! Unfortunately though, Matt's PhD graduation ceremony ended up being the day before Dirty Kanza, so he had to opt out.

That left David and I catching the flight to Kansas City on Thursday, with Fixie Pixie Pamela, who very generously gave up a weekend to cater to our every whim. It was pouring rain as we landed, which promised interesting conditions for the weekend's race, as it appeared to have rained every day that week too. We seemed to bring good weather with us, though, as it cleared when we left the airport and the trip to Emporia went smoothly. Once at our motel, our brand new bikes went together quickly. Yes, being the experienced riders that we are, we were doing all the things we would recommend against anyone else doing, such as starting a gruelling 200 mile race on new bikes!

Next up was cramming for our weekend examination. We hit the road again, this time heading to the Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop, coincidentally located on Massachusetts Street in the town of Lawrence. The shop is owned by (now) four time Dirty Kanza winner, Dan Hughes, and they were hosting an informational evening about the race. Not only that, but last year's women's champion and endurance racing legend, Rebecca Rusch was in attendance too, so there was a wealth of experience and information to tap into. Incidentally, Rebecca will be running a 100 mile dirt road event in September - Rebecca's Private Idaho - which promises wonderful cycling and scenery.

Friday morning saw us taking a trip into downtown Emporia to sign on for the race. We were blown away by what awaited us. Virtually every shopfront on the Commercial Street featured a bike and race related paraphernalia, while Dirty Kanza flags fluttered in the breeze. Signing on took place in the beautiful Granada Theatre, a classy touch. Everyone we met was tremendously welcoming and bubbling over with enthusiasm. What a treat!

I traded in my Seven for the softer ride of the Steel Wool machine

So far, so good. David and I had received a map of the first 50 mile leg when we signed on, so we decided to check out some of that, before a racer information meeting later in the day. Pamela, meanwhile, went shopping for supplies.

A couple of miles took us out of town and straight onto gravel roads. It quickly became obvious that the opening miles would be "interesting," with 660-odd riders in the 200 mile race vying for position on narrow roads, punctuated with frequent 90 degree turns. Also quickly apparently - although perhaps "quickly" is the wrong word - was that my legs felt terrible. I could only put it down to all the travelling the previous day and the warm temperature - this after cycling in snow in Vermont just a few days ago! - and hope for the best.

@the_wilcox saves a turtle

Saturday morning, and the real test, came all too quickly. Seeking some pre-race caffeine, David and I found ourselves in line at Granada Coffee with organiser extraordinaire, Jim Cummins. Jim was very excited about this year's route, explaining that the race would be using some private roads for the first time, which would enable a nicer flow to the route.

Taking Jim's word about how well the route would flow (and, to get ahead of myself just a little, he didn't exaggerate), we lined up in the 12-hour group. The start is self-seeded, by expected finish time: 12-14 hours, 14-16 hours, etc., outside the Granada Theatre.

We must have also seeded ourselves by region, as we ended up beside Alby King from Rhode Island, with whom we traded notes and gallows humour while The Cowboy Junkies' "200 More Miles" played inside my head:

Jim sent us on our way with a flourish, with the first few (paved) miles, leaving town, neutralised. Then we took a sharp right onto gravel and the race was on! These opening miles were reminiscent of racing at Battenkill, but with rougher roads on which the only really viable lines consisted of two wheel tracks. The skilled cyclocross racers and mountain bikers were obvious as they found alternative lines and moved up the pack. Despite a crash, perhaps just five miles in, things weren't as sketchy as I feared they might be. A solid pace undoubtedly contributed, as the front of the pack thinned down quite rapidly.

The road conditions were a factor in thinning the field too. Roughly 10 or 15 miles in, we rounded a 90-degree left-hander onto a farm track, finding ourselves faced with innocuous looking mud. Our first inclination was to plough through but the locals all immediately hopped off and ran around it in the fields to either side. Those who did attempt to ride through found themselves bogged down in thick, clingy, peanut-butter mud. Clipping back into the pedals was difficult too, our shoes have acquired a coating of thick clay.

Lesson one: Pay attention to the locals.

Several more muddy sections followed, thoughtfully interspersed with fords to wash off some of the mud.

Lesson two: Don't follow the wheel in front of you too closely when entering a ford, unless it's a really hot day, perhaps!

Several miles further on, as we swept around a right-hander, I thought we must have another ford coming, when a bystander yelled out, "You're going to get really wet soon!." However, I was in for a treat as this led to a full-on river crossing, knee deep with a strong current to boot. A big crowd cheered us on as we scrambled through the mud on the far side. I was loving it!

Lesson three didn't become apparent until I had a shower that night: Don't experiment with a new, lighter version of your favourite sunscreen on your first day with bare skin in several weeks. That new sunscreen got washed away during the river crossing and the dust that later collected on my legs wasn't as effective as factor 60...

David and I managed to keep track of each other through all this, although I was doing most of the tracking. @the_wilcox was flying, leading the pack, while yours truly was suffering from the early signs of death - rigor mortis [of the legs]. I was a little baffled. The pace was certainly fast given that we would be covering 200 miles that day, but I wasn't breathing hard or otherwise obviously working too hard. However, I couldn't afford further navel gazing and instead made a mental note to watch out for further signs of death, like bodily decomposition (with apologies to Father Ted). In the meantime, I tried not to get dropped by surges on hills.

I was still with the lead group, of perhaps a dozen riders, when the first checkpoint materialised, on the appropriately cobbled streets in the town of Madison. We had covered just over 50 miles/80 km in a little more than 2 1/2 hours, but I had decided that was enough for me. I informed Pamela and David that I needed to ride at my own pace and that David should press on with the leaders.

I didn't mess around though, and left town with eventual winner, Dan Hughes. Indeed, I will hereby claim to have propelled Dan to the win, as he appeared to drop his chain on the climb leaving town, and I gave him a quick push so that he didn't lose momentum.

It was with mixed emotions that I watched the lead group pull away. I knew it was the right thing to plough my own furrow, as it were, but it went against all my competitive instincts. I tried to concentrate on enjoying the gorgeous scenery instead. However, it became obvious that the lead group continued to get whittled down, as I picked off a steady trickle of riders who had been dropped.

I eventually struck up a conversation with Colin Mahoney, riding for the same Sunflower Outdoor and Bike team as Dan Hughes. Colin had gone to school in Dartmouth, in New Hampshire, and was interested in riding the Green Mountain Double Century. It is a ride which I refer to as "The Beauty and the Beast," and I filled him in on its gory and glorious details. In return, he informed me we were now on the biggest climb of the race, Texaco Hill, this at about mile 70.

Along with the good company and expansive views, this was memorable for another reason. All of a sudden, as if someone had flicked a switch, my legs started to feel good! The planets seemed to come into alignment at the same time too. We took a left onto a narrow, rugged farm track and David appeared, as if by magic.

There followed a wonderfully fun, twisty, turny, undulating section with several fords. One of them hid a hole though, which I didn't clean elegantly, causing me to jettison a water bottle. Stopping to retrieve it, I was passed by Rebecca Rusch and a Carmichael Training rider. I latched on, but not without asking myself if it was a good idea, as the Carmichael rider was riding like a man possessed. Just as I was wondering if he could keep up that pace for 200 miles, we caught back up to David and then, poof! the Carmichael rider was gone, perhaps puncturing, but I'm not sure.

It was about this time that the course started to head westward - and into a simply brutal headwind. I was now part of an impromptu foursome, consisting of David, Rebecca and a Salsa rider. I commented on how the wind was making it difficult to hold a conversation, only for the Salsa guy to reply that he had a great conversation inside his head!

Perhaps 10 miles from the second checkpoint, in the town of Cassoday, we hit a really tough section, with a challenging mixture of steep hills and a savage headwind. The Salsa rider and I pulled away a little, and I thought we could wait up at the top of the hill. A definitive top never came, though, so we rolled on together to the checkpoint. He introduced himself as Jay, and I eventually joined the dots and realised that this was none other than endurance and adventure racer legend, Jay Petervary. What an honour! We worked well together, reeling in another couple of riders before we reached the checkpoint, and Jay suggested rolling out together. I said I would wait for David at the checkpoint, but, as it turned out, I should have paid a little more attention to what Jay did...


David arrived shortly after me and Pamela efficiently took care of our watering and feeding at the checkpoint. She also passed on good wishes and instructions from Directeur Sportif, Matt, who was following the race closely back in Boston. I was carrying Matt's Spot Tracker, so both he and Pamela could see where we were at any point and Pamela was tweeting up a storm, keeping our legions of adoring fans up-to-date on our progress.

However, we were about to learn Lesson Four - pay attention to train schedules.

Too late, we heard a rumble and turned around to notice a long train approaching and about to cross the road we would leave town on. Jay, on the other hand, must have noticed it a little earlier that we did and we watched him clear the crossing before the barriers came down. It passed quicker than I feared, only taking about 2-1/2 minutes, but it seemed to last forever. It did give us some time to oil our chains, however, so all was not lost.

David and I started off again with Rebecca, enjoying a brief tailwind section, but we soon found ourselves alone. That didn't last for long though, as we caught Joe Fox, a one-time third place finisher. Joe had run the Boston Marathon with his sister six weeks before and they had crossed the finishing line just minutes before the first bomb went off, happily escaping unhurt.

We took a left onto another rough section and the status quo was restored - yes, more headwind. Unfortunately David hit a rock hard and got a pinch-flat, so we lost Joe. In the time it took us to get rolling again, we were passed by three riders, Rebecca, Velonews' Chris Case and the Carmichael guy (Jim Lehman, I think).

That gave us some good motivation though, and we worked very hard together on the next section. We caught both Chris Case and the Carmichael rider, over more climbs made tougher still by the ever present headwind. I suppose our slow speed gave us time to admire the beautiful scenery, but I think we could have appreciated it just as much at a higher speed!

We found ourselves alone once more, but about to be reminded of Lesson Four. Or, perhaps, this was really Lesson Five - watch out for bizarre town names. It was with no small amount of disbelief, as we passed through the town of Bazaar, that we spotted another level crossing up ahead - with a long train approaching again. This can't be happening! The next 2-1/2 minutes pushed the limits of the space-time continuum, as time appeared to stand still. Doctor Who, where were you when we needed you?

As it turns out, though, this may have been time well spent. I studied the map carefully while praying for a change of direction which might give some relief from the headwind. That wouldn't happen until just outside the next checkpoint, but I did notice that we had a right hand turn coming up soon. That would transpire to be a turn that many people missed, so it is actually conceivable that every cloud has a silver lining!

Silver linings were not obvious at that moment, though, as a group of half a dozen riders caught us just as the train passed. While we set off at a good clip, Chamois Butt'r rider, Andrew Chocha, not only stayed with us but also attacked hard on several hills. We had a little back and forth going on for a while, but we did manage to get away from Andrew at some point. We then caught up to Roctane ride, Yuri Hauswald, who had been riding with the leaders, Dan Hughes and Daniel Matheny, until he punctured. Yuri seemed very happy to have us for company as we steamed into the third checkpoint, in Cottonwood Falls, with my much anticipated tailwind. 152 miles/244 km down, in 9:31 hrs., with "only" another 50 miles/80 km to go.

Pamela excitedly told us that only two riders were in front of us - what, only two? - with JayP, not too far ahead of us, despite our trainspotting habit. The final map indicated that we still had another 25 miles/40 of northwest headwind awaiting our predilection, before we would finally swing east and south towards Emporia - WITH A TAILWIND!

We rolled out of the checkpoint with Yuri but soon found ourselves alone yet again. This section included a gorgeous road with grass growing up the middle, reminiscent of a wee Irish boreen, perhaps one of our favourite sections of the entire route.

We could occasionally see Jay up ahead of us, silhouetted as he crested a hill. Try as we might, though, we didn't managed to reel him in before the finish and he rode into a well deserved second place. We came in 2-1/2 minutes later - yes, that number again! - crossing the line together in joint third place, to a deafening welcome. Commercial Street had transformed into a huge block party and we were determined to use what energy we had left to join in!

Results from the 2013 Dirty Kanza can be found here.

I will follow up with an equipment post in a few days.


  1. Your ride and report are just so impressive. To hit the ground running with a new bike and after a long flight & tiring travel and then to perform so well under difficult conditions is amazing. You are a writer, too! Loved the links, so clever. Thanks so much for such a generous treat to share in your perspective and experience. An amazing account. Jim Duncan

  2. Well done! Both to you and Mr. wilcox. We may not have mountain ranges to climb, but the Midwest has unpaved roads in spades.
    You'll have to give the Trans Iowa a try next year. It's too bad they don't literally ride across Iowa anymore, logistics and liability got to be an issue I think.

  3. Nice description of what, for most of us, would be a brutal ride. You guys rock. I calculated your average speed when I saw the results. I can hardly do that pace over 60 miles over smooth roads. Wow!

    I hope the Fixie Pixie is healing quickly.

  4. Worth waiting for! You and the Pixie are both giving me inspiration, or aspirations (for longer and longer rides). Happy trails -- and quick recovery to P! -- Teresa

  5. What a ride! I'd think the cross winds with the Zipps were interesting. Did you have to dismount much on the early southern section? Will you return?

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Jim.

    Trans Iowa is on my wish list, Nathan. One of these years...

    NEB and TS, the Fix Pixie is recovering very well, I'm happy to report.

    Anon., the Zipps were actually troublefree in the crosswinds, believe it or not. I think I dismounted twice or three times because of mud and once for the river crossing. I would love to go back but would need to make some kind of sacrifice to the weather gods to ensure a repeat of the cool weather!

  7. Great post. Looks like am awesome ride. When will we be treated with photos, descriptions, and your comments on the new custom Seven ridden during this race?