The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.
Until recently, I had never considered the possibility that Dirty Kanza — the name of the most important gravel race in the world — could be a slur. Before Cyclista Zine and others began making the argument that the name was effectively ‘dirty Native American,’ it never crossed my mind that it could be racist. I thought of Kanza as an unfamiliar place name, if I thought of it at all.
Now, however, I support the name change of the event in Emporia, Kansas, and I have a proposal for a new moniker: Gravel United.
A bit of background for those of you getting up to speed on the controversy: There have long been ‘dirty’ rides or races in the U.S., with the adjective signifying the use of dirt roads. Here in Colorado, the Dirty Carter and the Dirty Morgul are two well-worn routes.
When Cyclista Zine began the name-change campaign in late April, race owner Life Time and the Kaw Nation — the Native American tribe also known as the Kanza people — responded by saying that the name Kanza honored the place and the people, and that Dirty signified gravel.
“It was felt that ‘Kanza’ paid homage to the region (the Kanza Prairie), to its rich history, and to all things associated with the region, including the Kaw Nation,” read the online letter, which was signed by Kaw Nation chairwoman Lynn Williams and race co-founder Jim Cummins.
The DK situation is now particularly tense after Cummins posted on Facebook calling the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks, an African American, justified, and race owner Life Time promptly parted ways with the co-founder. Many of those in the name-change camp saw this as proof positive of racism, while some of those opposed to a name change branded some vocal proponents as snowflakes or worse.
Part of the problem is that the sport of cycling overall and gravel racing are so white. If Dirty Kanza was run by Indigenous people, named by Indigenous people, and raced by Indigenous people, then who are the rest of us to complain, right? But that’s not the situation.
My friend Christie Soto stayed with us two weeks ago, and she talked about how she, as a Native American woman, jokes with one of her Latina friends. “She calls me a fry-bread flipper; I call her a tortilla tosser,” Christie said. Now, Christie and I have been teasing each other since kindergarten, but you better believe that as a white dude I’m not saying either one of those things.
Put another way, if a race was called the Dirty (insert ethnic minority group here), would you support it? It seems unthinkable in that context, doesn’t it?
Changing the name will have repercussions. People in the town of Emporia who have invested financially or emotionally in the race may feel slighted, like many of those in Stillwater did when the Land Run 100 changed its name to The Mid South. And those folks who got the race name inked on their bodies might book a tattoo-removal session.
Sure, there will be awkwardness, and a loss of brand recognition. But after a few editions, the race will just be whatever the new name is.
I was at The Mid South this year, and it was bizarre and different — but that was entirely due to the coronavirus. For the racers, all the positives of the event remained, regardless of the branding on the T-shirts, number plates, and stickers.
There is power in names, and there is power in symbols. If a name is seen as exclusionary or demeaning, we’re going in the wrong damn direction. So for a new name, why not something big that points in the direction of where we want to go? Gravel United. Inclusive of everyone is where we want to be, is it not?
Former pro and gravel vet Neil Shirley asked if I would go this year if it happens. Yes, I will. I want to believe that the original name was not generated out of racist malice. I understand that the organizers are working through a name change. And I also know that every human who has taken that start line in the past and will take the start line in the future is imperfect. Yet being there together at the start and out on course all day encouraging each other is part of the magic of our sport. And as the saying goes, the more, the merrier. Or in this case, the more diverse, the richer for all involved.
So what do you think, gravel riders, and Life Time organizers? United.