In 2017, Alison Tetrick set the course record at Dirty Kanza. Her effort to claim the top spot on the podium in 2018 didn’t go as planned, but Tetrick heads back to Kansas this weekend to take another crack at it.
And her prospects are excellent. the former WorldTour road racer has dominated the gravel scene since she made the transition off pavement. But she also knows the gravel landscape has changed with the introduction of team tactics, more pro riders joining in on the fun, and rapid advancements in gravel-specific gear.
VeloNews tech editor Dan Cavallari chatted with Tetrick on the VeloNews Tech Podcast to get her take on gravel gear, prep for Dirty Kanza, and the mental preparation she does to steel herself for long, solitary miles in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
To listen to the full interview, be sure to check out the VeloNews Tech Podcast.
VeloNews: You set the Kanza course record in 2017. Do you think it will stand after the 2019 race?
Alison Tetrick: It looks like it will be muddy this year. So, it might still stand after this year. It was the fastest time done at Kanza, 206 miles in 11 40 min 41 secs, but who’s counting.
VN: What’s your go-to setup for Dirty Kanza?
AT: I will be riding Dirty Kanza on a Specialized Diverge, which fits 42mm tires. You’re looking for a geometry that’s similar to a road bike, but maybe a little more relaxed. Also, you’re looking for a different bottom bracket height. The Diverge has a FutureShock in the headset, which is now also on the Roubaix, which also won Paris-Roubaix. It does offer a little bit of shock absorption. You’re over this terrain for so long, and your body doesn’t get as beat up.
It so happens in the Flint Hills in Kansas, the gravel is flint rock. I imagine I’m in an old western and the arrow heads are being made out of this flint rock, or you’re making fires with it. It’s really sharp, you don’t want to walk barefoot on it, and it’s really hard on sidewalls. So you’re looking for a tire that has really tough sidewalls, and you’re obviously running tubeless. I’m running 38mm Trigger Pros with Orange Seal, tubeless, and those sidewalls are hopefully tough enough to handle that flint rock.
I carry pretty much everything I own at Kanza. I carry a couple tubes, some CO2s, a pump, and I do carry an immediate tubeless fix kit. I have all of that with me and more, and I hope for the best. If you don’t bulldoze too much and you can pick your line accordingly, you should be okay, but it’s hard out there. And I tend to bulldoze.
VN: What are your thoughts on bar extensions? Do you think they should be allowed?
AT: If you do aero bar extensions, it’s more aerodynamic and you’re faster in that position. And you need to make sure you’re going fast enough that it matters. Anything over 12-13 mph it starts to matter. Hopefully you’re doing Kanza at that pace or more.
Personally, I will never put them on. I think it looks dorky personally. I’m trying to hide my inner dork. It is faster, but I think it’s unsafe in groups. I don’t want to do a group ride with people on aero bars usually.
Also, gravel is fickle. It’s not like you’re on a paved road where you can see a pothole or branch. All gravel might look the same, but you don’t know where it’s loose. You have to be really comfortable in it. I try not to follow people on aero bars because I don’t know when they’re going to hit—I mean, what if they flat, or if something happens, then you don’t have control of your bike.
From a technological standpoint, yes, they’re faster when you’re in your aero bars, but you’re looking at a few setbacks as well. They do weigh more. You’re going to spend thousands on your light carbon gravel bike, then you’re going to add a pound of extensions.
And when you’re not in them, you’re creating dirty air. You need to be pretty confident that you’re going to be in those aero bars to outweigh the costs of having them on your bars when you’re not using them. For me personally, I won’t be in them enough to counteract having them on there.
VN: What’s your one piece of gear you absolutely won’t go without during a race?
AT: Besides a the obvious, like, I need gears and a bicycle… [Laughs]
A lot of these races, the courses aren’t marked. That makes it fun and a little bit of an adventure. Kanza’s not marked. So, I use this Lezyne GPS; you download the map, you get the turn by turn, and you follow the breadcrumbs along the course and hope you don’t get lost in the Flint Hills. For me it’s not so much about my heart rate and power as it was in road racing. This is more like, where am I going and how close is the beer to the finish line?
Also, if it’s self-supported, or if it’s a course where neutral support is few and far between, I use a Camelbak Chase vest. So, a hydration pack is really important for these events, especially the long ones where you’re fifty or sixty miles before you hit an aid station, and you’re in 100% humidity and 85 degrees in Kansas. This one’s made purely for gravel racing.
VN: What does your prep for Dirty Kanza specifically look like?
AT: I don’t specifically prepare for Kanza. Sorry to disappoint everybody! I ride a lot and do a lot of events; Belgian Waffle Ride is a seven-hour day in the saddle, Rock Cobbler…I go as hard as I feel like I can that day and hope that’s called training.
I think one of the mistakes people make in training is getting intimidated by Kanza because it’s so long. Say, on your best day, it’s a 12-hour day. That doesn’t mean you have to go do a double century prior to Kanza. Yes, you should have several hundred-mile rides under your belt, yes you should work on your nutrition and endurance and pacing, but I don’t think you need to simulate the course just to know you can do it.
Know your equipment, trust your equipment, be prepared for any and all scenarios, and when it hits the fan, have the flask or something to not take yourself so seriously. Remember to have fun out there.
You need to work on your mental strength. Know that when you’re out there, you’re going to feel really bad sometimes, and you’re going to feel really good sometimes, and no matter what, that’s not going to last. Those waves of emotion are going to come and go, and it’s a long day.
I’ve stolen this in my life now to figure out relationships and work, but Selene Yeager gave me this mantra the first year I did Kanza: “Forward progress, take care of yourself.” You get out there and you need to make sure you’re having a bad time or good time, you’re like, what am I doing? Is it going forward? Maybe you’re walking your bicycle. Am I moving forward? Okay, check.
Sometimes when you feel really good, you think, I don’t need to eat or drink, I feel great! That goes back to the second part, which is take care of yourself. Make sure you’re eating calories every hour, drinking water every hour, and taking care of your emotional, mental, and physical needs at the time. And keep pushing forward. Because there is beer at the finish line and you’re only going to get there if you keep moving forward. Whatever motivates you, find it.
You go through all sorts of dark places out there. You become a nut. I’ve hallucinated out there. I saw Storm Troopers, tropical oases, I heard weird music coming from nowhere. Mentally when you’re out there in training, you can practice visualization, you can practice being in all those places of hurt, but I think it’s about mentally preparing for the challenge and staying calm.
For me, I still feel impending doom. What version of Allison am I going to meet out there? I’m trying to pump myself up because it’s dark and lonely out there. But that’s part of the reason why I love endurance sports. I find it fascinating. I learn so much about myself. And I’m looking forward to meeting whoever’s out there.
VN: As a former road pro, what was it like to transition from pavement to dirt in terms of riding style and mentality?
AT: I have joked that I spent nine years racing at the WorldTour to train for gravel. I did a lot of time trialing, I rode a lot off the front, a lot on the front. Those that know me from my road racing, I used to say drafting is cheating. Why draft? I’ll ride alongside the peloton and I won’t crash!
It turns out you have a lot of high steady power and that transitions really well to gravel. I was always really good on cobbles anyway. Maybe not the chaos of the spring classics, but once it blew apart, then it’s just high steady power with high rolling resistance, which seems to be one of my fortés.
I think just being self-supported was an interesting thing to learn. Navigating yourself, finding feed zones…you don’t have a follow car, you don’t have someone to change a wheel for you. There’s still the pack mentality, but due to the duration of some of these endurance events, you end up by yourself or you most likely should end up being by yourself for some time of it. You need to get ready to own that power. In road racing there’s places to hide. In some of these gravel races, there’s just not.
VN: You struggled a bit during the 2018 Dirty Kanza. Talk about your experience last year. What happened, and what did you learn from it?
AT: I did not have that great of a day. Gravel racing is changing in a lot of ways. WorldTour riders are showing up. It’s a road race now. There’s strategy and there’s teams. And that’s not why I do it. I need to remember that.
Kanza helped me with that. I went as hard as I could that day. You never know what that’s going to look like. What I learned from that was reminding myself to have fun. I tell people to do gravel because it’s fun, and then I’m out there getting upset. I’m having a bad day, I’m cramping. Okay, are you having fun? No! Well then start having fun because you signed up for this.
Pushing forward and having a big mishap toward the end was okay. I had to be okay with that. You have to go to these events with no regrets and know that anything can happen and it can hit the fan, and that’s why you have the flask. Be hard on yourself when it matters. But don’t spend the next 50 miles beating yourself up over it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to go as hard as I can this weekend, but I’m also going to have fun. That’s why we do this, to do it together and have fun.
Last year I learned a lot about that because there was a lot of pressure. People want to beat you, and I have a lot of obligations to sponsors and everybody that makes this possible for me. I’m very invested in the gravel community and I want to give so much back to these people and be everywhere and everything for them, and you’re out there having a bad day and I’m like, “They’re going to hate me for this!” You have to be ready for that all. Last year’s Kanza was unique in that way. It will be a whole circus again this weekend.
VN: Beyond Kanza 2019, what are your goals for the rest of the year?
AT: I’m just super excited to go to some new gravel events and adventure more. Last year I did this crazy bikepacking trip through Kyrgyzstan on my gravel bike, which was insane. This year after Kanza I’m headed to Oregon for that Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder. I’m really excited about a five day, point to point, gravel thing. It involves camping, and beer, and even showers in between.
An event in Iceland called the Rift in July…at this point when someone throws down an idea for something gravel, whether it’s something for gravel, or to race or see something new, I’m invested in the gravel community and want to support events all over and see what it’s about. That’s what’s cool about gravel. Each community and terrain offers something unique and scenery’s different, gravel is different, the people are rad. I don’t think it gets much better, riding gravel bikes around the world. I have a good job.
This interview has been edited for space. To hear the full interview, be sure to check out the VeloNews Tech Podcast.