The opening 15 seconds of this reel hits my thoughts regarding Dirty Kanza on the head. Let’s call it reluctantly euphoric…
I raced a lot of wild races in my previous career. Grand Tours are a roving circus of a spectacle, the Spring Classics are a jackhammer’s tour across Northern Europe, the deserted landscape of Dubai is as beautiful as it is austere. After ten years racing professionally on the road, switching careers and the direction I pedal a bike, on the heels of my 2016 victory in Emporia, it took me a long long time to agree to come back. Those aforementioned races are in the three to six hour range, so to commit to something that takes about half the lighted hours of the day pushing somewhere between tempo and threshold is a considerable undertaking. Naively arriving to what’s in store before my first and coming away with the victory in that same attempt, crossing the finish line in first place seemed like a good one-and-done kind of approach.
But even in the minutes afterwards, a whole lot of eager folks — many of whom with microphones and camera in hand — asked if I was coming back with the kind of excited tone in their voice that suggested, “You’re coming back, right?” much more than “Are you coming back to race Dirty Kanza?”
The number one race plate, reserved for the previous year’s winner, is something that alluded me most of my pro days. Helping serve Peter Sagan to his wins, our team was often clad in numbers one through eight which is still a sign of distinction, but number one is the most enviable. So just as the early moments of that video suggests, it took a while to agree to come on back, but subconsciously I knew that having won it the year prior, I’d be toeing the line in 2017.
BOP, BOOM, BANG, HISS! Those are just some of the noises that plagued me throughout the day in year two, largely in the form of air escaping the safe confines of my tires many times over. That’s racing in Kansas for you! Sharp, unforgiving flint rock that doesn’t just cause a small knick in the rubber, but an enormous rim to rim gash. Dropping out of the race crossed my mind a dozen times in the final six hours knowing that I was just pedaling and no longer racing for the win.
But that time suffering alone and ticking through other individuals and small groups out there, rolling down the finishing straight, that’s what really opened my eyes to the special culture that is Dirty Kanza.
Sure the adrenaline rush of racing is part of the adventure. Battling it out, seeing who has the best tactics, the speediest legs, who’s on a good day is all fun, but there is so much more going on than purely who’s winning.
Over my time experiencing this race, and especially over the past year, this grand daddy of gravel racing is drawing out bigger names and more horsepower. For a good long while in the months leading up to the 2018 race, I was told Svein Tuft was coming, fresh off nearly delivering a young Yates to a pink jersey at the Giro. That was a misunderstanding of who is Svein versus Sven; it turned out to be one of the most decorated cyclocross racers of all time, Sven Nys instead. Additionally, mountain bike legend who I’ve enjoyed banging the bars against in California for the past three years, Geoff Kabush, reigning DK champ Mat Stevens, recently retired roadie pro Joshua Berry, current cyclocross pro Jamey Driscoll, perpetually hard charger Jens Voigt, Canadian national cyclocross champion Michael van dan Ham, and plenty of others were lining up and bringing acclaim and professional experience to an already enormously popular event.
Amid an ever more powerful field, the 2017 edition opened my eyes to what this Dirty Kanza is about and allowed me to embrace it all the more in 2018. There are so many particular aspects that come together to make this race special.
Hmm, let’s see where to begin:
A huge part of what makes this race special is the individuals. Dan Hughes, the true King of Kanza, has taken me under his wing to teach me the ways. Introduced through the queen of pain herself, Rebecca Rusch, Dan owns Sunflower Outdoor and Bike shop down the road in Lawrence, KS and has a burgeoning community there. Already ninety minutes down the road from the race epicenter, you feel like you’re at ground zero for all things gravel. Dan’s the man and I’m lucky to count him as a friend.
It’s awesome that cycling media cares about Dirty Kanza. Gravel is not a flash in the pan trend, gravel is here to stay and DK is leading the charge. Fred Drier and I chatted beforehand, caught up more here afterwards, plus plenty of other news outlets made excellent stories and video coverage too.
The local community. This aspect can’t be echoed enough, the town of Emporia and surrounding community is what makes this race the cream of the crop. Take the morning of the race, with a passing magnificent lightning storm overhead, storefronts are already open and letting us indoors for a few minutes of protection. A dozen of us took refuge at the local tattoo parlor, Maud’s. Hanging out with bearded, flannel clad tattoo artists who welcomed us wholeheartedly I had to think: what’s the opposite of nerdy, stickly figures in spandex? My guess is something similar to our kindly hosts in at Maud’s (thank you for welcoming us in)! A small testament to the welcoming community.
Look at these numbers, above. Yes, the middle of that crowd are the cyclists, of course, given that we’re on bikes. But at 6am when you already have a thousand or more people out and about to take in the entire day that is a downtown festival, that’s the sign of success. While most race promoters are fighting tooth and nail to have their local criterium not be eliminated by local businesses, Dirty Kanza is the polar opposite.
Then fast forward twelve to twenty hours and the ride back into this finishing straight is one of the coolest in the sport of cycling. It’s a long stretch down Commercial Street after 205.5 miles of open prairie that’s ultimately divided by barriers being banged on and a screaming crowd. Some are cycling fans while some are seeing a bike race for the first time, but everyone is a fan of Dirty Kanza. In a geography that one might not expect a big outpouring of support, but there you are thinking you’re riding down the Champs Élysées.
Heck, if you’re not a cyclist don’t even come to race a bike, come for the downtown party! Food vendors, the local 4H, high school teams, Cub Scouts, huge family gatherings are all front and center. It’s games and neon lights and fried dough and everything in between. It’s a spectacle.
Those aforementioned downtown businesses don’t point up their noses at the event like you often see at cool downtown criterium coast to coast, they welcome it wholeheartedly!
Mulready’s Pub, for example, is one of those businesses that doesn’t just accidentally see a steady string of thirsty cyclists coming through their doors, they welcome them with open arms (sometimes quite literally).
The crowds are huge and the number of racers is incredible. 2700 I think is the number I heard most recently. It’s a sign of the times when pre-reg in most races are in the single digits and gravel sells out in a matter of minutes. That popularity speaks for itself.
Cycling is a team sport. Go to a pro road race and you have 8 riders, 2 soigneurs, 2 mechanics, 2 team directors, and often 1 or 2 or 3 other staff. So call it 1:1 rider to staff ratio and a grand tour is often 1:2, rider to staff. A similar story takes place at Dirty Kanza, but also can swell much more than that. Friends, family, someone to drip oil on the chain and hand off the food, Dirty Kanza’s three checkpoint/feedzones and the corresponding team work are an enormously cool element of the race.
Because we’re racing all day Saturday, DK reserves the awards ceremony for Sunday. A packed house at the downtown Emporia Granada Theater is another element of the weekend’s festivities that can’t be missed. This photo, for example, captures those brave souls who have ridden five Dirty Kanzas and therefore are in the thousand mile club (or more likely closer to 1,025). An ever growing group, this is just the 2018 recipients.
Yeah yeah, Aero What, Aero Who. I actually love the comedy here. I’m a leading proponent of removing aerobars from the race, but I still get a kick out of the fact that news outlets throughout cycling covered this hot button issue.
And this: we kicked off the awards festivities with something that’s as personal, special, and cherished as it comes, an engagement. Based on that smile, you can guess accurately that she said yes. That is the culture that DK breeds. Everyone is part of the tribe and everyone is part of the party.
So that’s the story, folks. Dirty Kanza is something uniquely special that these words and photos don’t even begin to capture. I look at the riders who have earned their spot in the thousand mile club and I want that. I see the guys who have raced ten Dirty Kanzas and I want that! Sure, I’m now nearly two months removed from the suffering so sometime in about ten months from now I’ll reconsider that choice as I’m suffering across the hills of Kansas. But that’s because it’s taken the past two months to take a step back and grasp what Dirty Kanza is all about. This day in age all cycling events are big, fun, challenging, and have a huge element of camaraderie. But DK somehow lands on a pedestal of what this new age of gravel cycling should be. If you get a chance to go, jump at the shot because it’s definitely one of a kind.
I started a podcast, King of the Ride, and recently recorded episode number ten. Still the most listened to is my conversation the day after Dirty Kanza with DK organizer Lelan Dains. Check that out here.
Photos courtesy two photographic all stars Linda Guerrette and Wil Matthews.