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Monuments of Gravel

Commentary: A Dirty Kanza dispatch from downtown Emporia

What's the buzz at this year's Dirty Kanza? Tire choice and weather conditions surpass pro participation and corporate ownership

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When I went out for my final shakeout ride in Boulder Wednesday, I came up on two cyclists in splashy pink jerseys, trailing a photographer hanging out of the tailgate of an SUV.

I rolled up. “Headed to Kansas?” I asked.

Alex Howes grinned.

“Yea! You too?” he replied.

I nodded.

As we parted ways, he threw me a Shaka. “See you in Kansas!”

It’s not often that I’m headed to the same start line as a WorldTour pro. Then again, gravel racing encourages the unconventional—something I see again and again at Friday’s pre-race expo in downtown Emporia, Kansas, the official headquarters of the Dirty Kanza.

During Dirty Kanza weekend, you see handlebar mustaches mingle with Ironman tattoos in Emporia. Conversations toggle between various aspects of the 200-mile race. Everyone is worried about the potential for mud. It’s someone’s first race and someone else’s seventh. Starting a conversation with strangers is easy.

This is my first attempt at Dirty Kanza, and strangers from the far corners of the globe dole out advice. I meet a Kiwi from Los Angeles on the on the GU Energy + Salsa shakeout ride Friday morning. In twenty minutes, we cover everything from tires and tire pressure, to what goes in the drop bag, to what we thought of the Alison Tetrick interview on the podcast. We share similar levels of excitement, nerves, and a whatever will be, will be attitude.

I talk Land Run 100 with the couple from Oklahoma who have the campsite next to us. Land Run was their first gravel race and ours, too. One of the Oklahomans, Natasha, is racing tomorrow on a singlespeed, the same one she took the win with at Grinder Nationals in Lawrence, Kansas last month.

Everyone talks tires with everyone, and weather and wind is another favorite topic of conversation. Trevor, a three-time Dirty Kanza 200 finisher, is here to crew for his dad this year. “It’s windy even when it’s not windy,” he says as we watch the prairie hay bend in the breeze.

Although people are aware that there are pros in town, the topic of pro riders racing the largely amateur event is a minor talking point, when compared to the topics of tires and wind. As we drink coffee Friday morning, Tommy, a self proclaimed roadie from New Zealand, says he’s stoked that the pro riders showed up. “It brings them, and the sport, down to a relatable level,” he says.

While waiting to pick up my packet on Friday morning, I see Payson McElveen posing for pictures that will later show up on his Instagram and the Orange Seal website. I look around. No one seems to notice the photoshoot but me.

The Dirty Kanza expo area straddles five blocks this year, which is about five times larger than it’s been in the past. This is certainly a result of the new ownership, but if you’re like me and didn’t sign up for the drop bag service (which promptly sold out), you’re happy to find hydration backpacks for sale from multiple vendors.

Jim, a doctor from Missoula, Montana, who’s also camping at the fairgrounds, believes that having new owner Life Time Fitness’s stamp on the event guarantees it will be well run. Life Time’s ownership has not supplanted the Dirty Kanza’s co-owners as managers of the event.

“After that, it’s anyone’s guess,” he says.

What doesn’t seem to be in question, however, is the original mission of the Dirty Kanza, which is to showcase some of the country’s best gravel roads in an event where riders of all levels of experience and ability come to test themselves under moody Kansas skies. Corporate ownership, pro roadies, and other changes will not change that fact.

Perhaps that’s why the thousands of people here in Emporia are still talking mostly about gravel road conditions, tire choice, and wind. You can change elements of the Dirty Kanza 200, but the challenge will remain the same.

Saturday might feel different for Alex Howes and myself, but that much will be the same.