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Change is on the horizon for the world’s premier gravel race, the Dirty Kanza, and three past winners support the event’s new direction.
Alison Tetrick, Yuri Hauswald, and Amanda Nauman told VeloNews that the race’s decision to seek a new name and do more to make members of underrepresented communities feel welcome at the event represents a positive step forward during uncertain times.
“I applaud the work that the DK team is doing to move forward and use this as an opportunity to evolve,” Nauman told VeloNews. “We’ve been presented this moment in history to examine our thoughts and actions, listen to other perspectives, and be open to change.”
So far, 2020 has proven to be a challenging year for the organizers of the Dirty Kanza. Like other event promoters responding to the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, in early April Life Time postponed the event from May 31 to September 12. With coronavirus cases currently spiking in the United States, including in the state of Kansas, even that date feels like an impossibility for the event which brings almost 4,000 riders to Emporia.
Shortly after the postponement was announced, a petition circulated on change.org, requesting Life Time change the name of the event. The petition author described the race’s name as a racial epithet that impacts the Kaw Nation, an indigenous tribe that lives in Oklahoma and Kansas that is also known by the name “Kanza.”
Race organizers responded with an open letter that indicated that they had previously met with representatives from the Kaw Nation to discuss the implications of the name. The letter was co-signed by Lynn Williams, chairwoman of the Kaw Nation.
Then, on June 20, Life Time issued a statement that said it had parted ways with DK founder Jim Cummins in response to an inflammatory post on his Facebook page that described the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer as “justified.” Later, race co-director LeLan Dains confirmed that the decision for Cummins to step down was mutual. Although Life Time and Cummins moved swiftly to sever ties, renewed demands for the company to change the name of the race sprung up immediately in its wake.
All of this has left cyclists, industry leaders, and others in the gravel community uneasy.
A major complicating factor is the lack of in-person events and meetings where conversation about the Dirty Kanza’s future, and past, might take place. The lack of in-person dialogue has allowed social media to become a platform of choice for discourse.
“Maybe this leads to some sort of forum or summit or gathering where maybe these things can be discussed,” said Hauswald, the 2015 champion. “These are uncomfortable, hard conversations we need to have. We’re digging up 400 years of history that this country was founded on. It’s not easy at all. But having inflammatory conversations on social media is not working.”
Given his numerous experiences in Emporia, Hauswald said he has been distressed by the divisiveness and vitriol he has seen on social media around both Cummins’ departure and the name change. While he says he fully supports a name change and agrees with the decision to have Cummins step down, Hauswald said he worries that anger about both is deafening people’s ability to hear each other.
“When everyone is yelling, it’s just noise, and there are no constructive conversations that come out of it,” Hauswald said. “I’m not discounting people’s right to yell, but we need to take it down a notch to have constructive conversations.”
Both Hauswald and Nauman cited the process that Bobby Wintle went through to change the name of The Mid South — formerly Land Run 100 — and hoped that people would grant the DK team the same patience to rebrand its event.
“This was a process that took Bobby a few years to complete,” Nauman said. “I wish the team luck in fast-tracking a similar process and believe they will do it with the utmost respect and acknowledgment of the community.”
Throughout its 14 years, the Dirty Kanza has become known as a leader in the gravel scene for myriad accomplishments: it gives over $100,000 to charities in Emporia and the surrounding communities annually, and in 2016 it established the #200women200miles campaign to get more women to the start line. Tetrick, who won the 2017 edition of the race and credits it with breathing new life into her cycling career, believes the race organizers have another opportunity to lead by example.
“This is the time to be a leader, and the most bold leaders are not silent about the hard things,” Tetrick said.
In addition to creating a process to change the name of the event and foster a more diverse and inclusive field, the race organizers, who are all based in Emporia, are also dealing with the local community’s response to Cummins’s departure and the name change.
Last year, the race had a 5.5-million-dollar economic impact over the event weekend. Nevertheless, Hauswald says that he has heard the news coming from Emporia that people are upset about Cummins’ departure and are currently unable to see the forest for the trees.
“I’m so bummed to see how polarized the town of Emporia is right now,” he said. “Literally ripping itself apart with friends pitted against each other.
Whether the race continues as the marquee event in the growing global gravel scene is yet to be seen. Co-owner Dains said that the race organizers have already weathered past criticism and challenging decisions.
“Obviously we received criticism when we sold to Life Time, but we’ve always strived to do what’s best for DK and to move it forward,” he said. “We’ve made changes long before Life Time acquired us. Changes that weren’t easy, we were criticized. We’ve experienced change and difference before. This is just a new different to move forward with.”
Nauman says that the DK has to be willing to have hard conversations with people of diverse backgrounds before change is possible. She said that her mother is Indonesian and faced discrimination because of her Chinese ethnicity. If the name ‘Dirty Kanza’ makes someone feel discriminated against or excluded, then Nauman wants that voice to be heard.
“This has been a simple lesson in the significance of considering all perspectives, taking the time to have tough conversations, and being open to change,” she said. “It is important to learn from the past. It lets us put our own present in context, and make better decisions for the future.”
While better decisions going forward may be the greatest takeaway for the Dirty Kanza this year, Hauswald believes that organizers can make them within the context of their past.
“It seems like a rebrand does not have to abandon the history of this awesome event that has grown to what it is,” he said. “Rather use this as a historic moment to move forward, like Bobby did with The Mid South. Take the torch, lead with a name change. You don’t have to cancel your legacy as an event. Maybe the fact that bikes and events and riding together brought us together originally, hopefully, that equips us with some skills to have these hard conversations.”