SWALLOWING THE DIRTY KANZA HALF PINT GRAVEL GRINDER
First appeared on Road Bike Review here.
EVENT: Dirty Kanza Half Pint
LOCATION: Emporia, KS/Flint Hills/Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
WEATHER: Mid 50s to Upper 60s
START: 6:15 a.m.
RIDE TIME: 8.5 hours
RACE DISTANCE: 109 miles
MY ACTUAL DISTANCE: 125 miles (oops)
ELEVATION GAIN: 4,820’
SUPPORT CREW: The Notorious Molly Van Campen
Having hauled myself, my ‘cross bike, my girlfriend/support crew Molly, and a war chest of tools, spare tires, eight tubes, gear and sundry other supplies halfway across the country from San Francisco to Emporia, KS to compete in my first ever gravel grinder, the Dirty Kanza Half Pint, I felt reasonably confident I had everything I needed to make it through the race. But as I sat on the floor of my Comfort Inn hotel room at midnight the night before the race putting my bike together, a waking nightmare unfolded before my eyes.
The overhead light off, I’d strapped my headlight to my helmet so I could see the front wheel I was trueing without waking up Molly who had spent the two prior weeks dealing with my anxious, neurotic preparations. While gravel racing has blown up in 2013, there’s still relatively little information about optimal bike setup and training to be found on the topic and I’d had to scramble to shoehorn all of my prep and tinkering into the little free time I’d had prior to departing for the race. Now I observed that somewhere between California and the aged carpet where my 2002 Ridley ‘cross rig now sat upside down resting on the seat and bars, a few spokes had gotten bent, including one that had taken on a nauseating J-shape and appeared to be on the verge of snapping. I had brought everything I thought I might possibly need--but not spare spokes.
My wheel had a huge wobble in it and there wasn’t much I could do except try to straighten it out and hope for the best. As Molly can attest, I didn’t actually handle it quite that calmly and after dropping a few F bombs and stirring her from her light slumber, I hit the rack at 2 a.m. to try to steal a few winks before the long day I knew I had ahead.
Yes, I agree with you. I am an idiot for not getting to Emporia earlier, putting my bike together sooner, not bringing a spoke, not being prepared for the unknown and unknowable, for not being a better packer. Yes, I am positive you would have done a better job and that this wouldn’t have happened to you. But it happened to me. As the bush pilot said in Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, though, no matter where you go, there you are.
And there I was.
I tossed and turned until 4:30 then got up, had coffee, ate and headed for Commercial Street, Emporia’s quaint main drag, where a thousand racers lined up to face the day’s challenge.
I’ve participated in bike racing in various forms at a modest level for 26 years. I covered RAGBRAI for Bicycling magazine once then did it again for fun and have a love for dirt, gravel and the great plains. Gravel’s in my blood too--three generations of the Vontz family have built roads and I spent many childhood vacations playing at the family gravel pit in Ayr, Nebraska. Six years ago, I wrote a short piece about the TransIowa race and ultra dirt racer Jeff Kerkove, now a Topeak-Ergon pro (then an Iowa bike shop employee and racer), for Mountain Bike magazine and have wanted to try a gravel grinder ever since.
Now in its seventh year, the Dirty Kanza 200 has emerged as a classic in the gravel grinder genre. Forged in the heartland and imbued with a libertarian, underground ethos you won’t experience at a NORBA race, office park crit or gran fondo, there’s no neutral support provided at the Dirty Kanza and no outside assistance allowed except at designated checkpoints. Racers take care of themselves and each other, and that’s it. It’s a hardman’s event and has come to be regarded as the crown jewel of the emergent gravel racing scene, an event so popular that it sells out within hours of registration opening.
I’d scored a slot and that’s how I ended up on Commercial Street that morning. Fifteen minutes after the DK 200 racers rolled out at 6, my ride started--and then stopped three blocks later at a railroad crossing where we sat behind a cop car while a slow-moving freight train rolled by.
Once the train passed we hammered out of town then hung a right to launch onto the gravel at speed where we quickly formed a smooth paceline of about 20 riders that took turns drilling it. I forgot my jacked front wheel, pedaled, and between heaving breaths took in the scenery as it faded from farmland to spectacular rolling prairie. I’d expected a brutally bumpy ride akin to the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix, which left me with the feeling I’d just been thrown into a VitaMix when I’d had the opportunity to ride them. Floating on 40-mm tires pumped to 62 psi under my decidedly undainty 195-pound frame, the Kansas gravel didn’t feel horrifically punishing at all.
After an hour and change, the gravel turned into a mud bog for a brief stretch and our group had to get on and off to portage several times. That’s when one super fast cat on an S-Works Crux with deep section carbon wheels and shaved legs drilled it into the distance as the course hit serious rollers. I chased after him and left the group I’d been riding with behind and tried to keep a visual on the guy in front as we caught up to packs of riders who’d started 15 minutes before us. I tucked into dodged the wind in a few different pacelines as I kept leapfrogging forward. I kept an eye on my odometer because I knew from looking at the map the night before--which I now realized I had left with Molly back at the start--that the point where the 200 (actually 205 miles) and the Half Pint (actually 109 miles) courses split would be coming up soon. But then it didn’t come.
A few miles later I saw course volunteers and stopped to ask them if I’d missed the turn. They said no, so I hopped back on my bike and kept pedaling. A few miles later, still no sign of the turnoff. This couldn’t be right. And wasn’t. I asked the next group I rode up to if they knew where the course split to which the lead rider replied, ‘Dude, that was seven miles ago. I’m not fucking bulshitting you, you have to turn around now.’ I did, and when I encountered the volunteers I’d stopped to ask about the course they said they’d realized after I rode off that they’d sent me the wrong way. Oh well, my bad for not paying closer attention.
As luck would have it, the seven mile detour I’d taken had been tailwind-aided, so now I had seven mostly uphill, rolling miles back into what felt like a 20-mile-per-hour headwind to get back to the Half Pint course. The ride sucked, for a moment, but the vast blue sky, cotton ball clouds and beautiful but punishing rolling prairie terrain made it a bit easier.
By the time I got to the single checkpoint in the race at mile 59 of the Half Pint course where Molly had now been waiting for more than five hours, I had ridden 75 miles and it felt like at least 45 of those miles had been into that unrelenting headwind. But this had been one of my favorite rides I’d done in months. The weather could have been brutally hot, but we’d lucked out and the temps had ranged from the mid 50s to highs in the mid 60s with some cloud cover. I’d seen less than five cars in all those hours and miles of riding and the cars I had seen had given me a wide berth and waved. The other riders had all been friendly and encouraging--no starting line stinkeye, no elbows in the bunch, no mean mugging while passing.
After downing some coffee, half a Coca Cola, a hardboiled egg and a handful of chips and reloading my Camelbak with fluid and three Nuuns, I took off again. I made it four miles before I came across a guy on an orange Salsa Vaya on the side of the road having a mechanical. I asked him if he was okay and he said he was but I could tell he wasn’t, so I hopped off. Indeed, he wasn’t okay and didn’t know how to fix the derailleur hanger he’d severely bent after shifting into his spokes. He needed a hand, so I gave him one.
For me, part of the appeal of gravel grinders and events like them is that participants seem to embody a spirit of radical self reliance, toughness and stick-to-itiveness coupled with a willingness to assist each other and provide mutual assistance even if it means having to stop. Assisting each other and getting through the event is part of the appeal of the DK and events like it. Riders I saw at the DK ran the gamut from people in t-shirts on bone stock low-end mountain bikes to folks who looked like pro racers with bikes and kit that likely exceeded the cost of a new car. In a bike culture where everyone’s a cat 5 pro, the cost of fitting in is a thousand dollars of designer faux-dandy lycra couture and having just the right tattoos and elaborate mustache often supersedes what riding bikes is all about--riding bikes and having fun--I found the vibe at the DK to be a breath of fresh air with none of the cynicism, cattiness and too-coolness that pops up all too startlingly often in the insular, cliquey bike culture that’s come to be a significant presence across all disciplines of our sport.
I wanted this guy, whose name I didn’t and still don’t know, to be able to finish his race, so I had to help him be able to achieve his goal. I didn’t have the tools we needed, so I flagged down two other riders from the folks pedaling by who did have what we needed. In a few minutes, we worked together like a NASCAR pit crew to remove the broken derailleur hanger and derailleur.
We shortened his chain, converted him to a single speed and as a finishing touch, I used the duct tape I’d wrapped around my pump two days before the ride--because you just never know when you’ll need duct tape--to keep the loose derailleur cable and housing in place and out of his spokes.
A few miles of undulating hills later, I came across another rider facing the wrath of the gravel. She said she wasn’t okay, so again I hopped off. She’d blown through her Stans setup, three tubes and all of her CO2s and said she wasn’t good at repairing flats. I am, so I got her up and rolling in under two minutes. In return, she gave me a bag of cookies.
They tasted great and coupled with the wonder gels and engineered food jammed in my jersey pockets, I did my best impersonation of hauling ass to get to the finish in downtown Emporia where I crossed the line and got a handshake and a DK half-pint beer glass for finishing from Jim Cummins, the DK’s creator and race director.
“Did you have fun out there?” he asked. I looked down at my computer--125 miles, 8.5 hours, 4,800' of climbing. “I had a great ride,” I said. “I went off course a little bit so I got to have 16 extra miles of fun. Awesome event. I’ll be back.” He smiled, slapped me on the back and I pedaled off to find Molly and realized that my blownout spokes had held up. Miracle. A day later back in San Francisco, I put my bike together and an hour into my recovery ride, it finally gave way with a pronounced twang. But it had gone the distance when I needed it and that’s all that mattered.