I was choking up, and I wasn’t sure why.

I sat in the cool darkness of the Granada Theater in downtown Emporia, Kansas, watching a short film documenting Lael Wilcox and her recent exploits: Her time home in Alaska with the GRIT program and her ride from Colorado to Kansas for the DKXL. The film was part of the Women Ride the World Forum, an event for female riders held the evening before the Dirty Kanza.

The film was lighthearted and fun, so why I was I welling up?

Was it because I knew Lael, and had gone on my first backpacking trip with her? Was it because Alaska simply brings tears to my eyes? Or, and this is a point I rarely stop to consider, but one that I contemplated for this column: was it because she is a woman who does amazing things on a bicycle?

Two hundred miles gives you a lot of time to ponder questions of this nature. During my recent ride at Dirty Kanza 200, I forced myself to reflect on the female experience at the event. That is, in those fleeting moments when I wasn’t worried about running out of water or flatting or trying to catch the pack ahead of me.

In the days leading up to the race, I sought out other women in Emporia, but I failed at being explicit in my line of questioning.

“What does it feel like to be a woman at the Dirty Kanza?” was a question that, to me, felt too canned and driven by PR. Instead, I looked around. Women were everywhere—at the coffee shop and the bar, on the group rides, at the pre-race expo. I listened. At the women who ride forum, I was greeted by an engaged, curious, and experienced group of female riders. And, during my ride along those 200 dusty miles, I thought about my own experiences on bikes, and, whether or not being a woman had anything to do with them.

It’s important to note, though, that being a woman had everything to do with why I got into the Dirty Kanza. Almost every woman who signs up for the 200-mile race will get in through the #200women200miles campaign—not all, but most. Although the Dirty Kanza management does not release exact details on lottery numbers, co-owner Kristi Mohn shared some interesting finisher data with me. The total finisher rate of the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200 was 73 percent (91 percent for the 100 mile race), women completed the race at a higher rate.

Women finished the Dirty Kanza 200 at a rate of 79.6 percent, compared to 72.3 percent for men. There were 141 total female finishers, and 705 male finishers.

Mohn is committed to increasing female participation by promoting the event specifically to women through training camps and campaigns. In my opinion, the individual experiences that women come away with, and the personal stories they tell back home, are more powerful than any campaign.

Thus, somewhere out on the dusty plain I realized that my own Dirty Kanza stories would have nothing—and everything—to do with being a woman. Just before mile 100, I met two guys who enthusiastically called me a badass before we’d even exchanged names.

“Well, you guys are badass, too!” I replied.

The author at the finish line. Photo: Betsy Welch

I couldn’t help myself. I’m always a bit defensive when getting unsolicited compliments on the bike. I mean, isn’t everyone who does a 200-mile gravel race a badass?

In Emporia, I had conversations with people from all over, men and women, and we talked about bike-centric issues, among other topics. There was never a line for the women’s showers at the campgrounds, and of course it crossed my mind—it’s about time something’s easier for women.

At the Expo, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the Osprey tent, trying on a hydration pack I really didn’t want to buy, and talking about Mancos, Colorado with the friendly rep there. Same goes for Maxxis: after doing a shake-out ride on Thursday, I realized that my front tire had a wobble, and Ross, the nice sales guy, said he’d warranty it right there. In this case, it’s the tire, not the rider, that makes a difference.

Even though I know that I’m a minority at the Dirty Kanza, my experience never felt strange. Perhaps it’s because I’m accustomed to the overwhelmingly male bike race scene. Or, perhaps it’s because nobody makes a big deal out of how many women are—or are not—present at the event. There is no time, and everyone is focused on their own gear, nutrition, and pre-race nerves. During the race, despite some unsolicited kudos after a river crossing (note to guys: better to just bite your tongue rather than give a “nice work little lady”), I think that the fact that I was a woman went largely ignored.

Unless, of course, I was gliding by some guy deep in the pain cave. That never goes ignored.

Glibness aside, the Dirty Kanza is hard. It was hard for the WorldTour pros, it was hard for the guys that called me a badass, it was hard for all the new friends I made, the ones from Miami to Missoula. It was also a huge adventure, which is what I signed up for and why I signed up.

I have a lot to say about the topic of women on bicycles, and to an industry that is trying to cultivate a female-friendly culture. I have things to say to the guys who tell us to “keep up the good work,” and to the women who aren’t sure where their place is at an ultra-endurance bicycle event.

What are my words? At the Dirty Kanza, we’re all badasses.

I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone got choked up at some point during the long, lonely race.