Dirty Kanza 200 was the only unanimous selection to our Monuments of Gravel list, and it’s easy to see why. The 206-mile race in the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas has become gravel cycling’s Super Bowl, not to mention the only event on the ‘alternative racing’ calendar to generate headlines across the international cycling press.
To win Dirty Kanza is to immortalize a rider in the growing history books of gravel racing, and to justify sponsorship and appearance fees, as well as media attention for years to come.
“I don’t think I need to explain why Dirty Kanza is on my list,” says Amity Rockwell, the 2019 champion. “Dirty Kanza made gravel a thing. Dirty Kanza is why I have a career.”
The race’s origin story has become its own legend of grassroots American ingenuity sprouting into a lucrative industry. On a warm morning in 2006, 34 riders gathered in downtown Emporia to try and complete an unmarked 200-mile course on gravel. The challenge was an homage to the 350-mile Trans Iowa challenge which had been staged the year before.
The 18 riders who actually completed the inaugural Dirty Kanza celebrated their feat by eating pizza in the parking lot of a local hotel.
“It was a dirty hotel—not the type you’d take your significant other to, ever,” said Dan Hughes, who was one of the 18 to finish. “It was a very grassroots experience. Nobody knew if we were even capable of riding 200 miles on gravel.”
In subsequent years it was Hughes, a local bike shop owner, who blossomed into the multi-time champion of the bizarre new race, winning it on four occasions. Meanwhile, the race’s reputation for physical punishment beneath the baking Kansas sun captured the imagination of thousands of riders.
Dirty Kanza pushed riders’s bodies, brains, and bicycles to the extreme—shredded tires and snapped frames were just as common as cramped calf muscles and broken wills to continue. To simply finish the race became a badge of accomplishment.
And so, as the event’s legend spread, its participation soared. Fifty entrants raced in 2007; 200 in 2010; 1,000 in 2013; 2,200 by 2017. There were scorching editions and muddy ones; editions when only a handful of riders finished, and others that generated controversy.
Ultra-endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch became synonymous with the event after she won three in a row. Retired WorldTour rider Ted King helped boost the race’s popularity even further after he won two editions.
“I had no expectations my first year, and the race just sucks you in,” King says. “There’s the camaraderie, the competitiveness, and in the heat of the moment, anything can happen.”
With each year more gravel races popped up on the calendar, many of which tried to capture that same grassroots appeal and punishing, personal challenge. Bobby Wintle, founder of The Mid South (formerly Land Run 100), started his own race as an homage to Dirty Kanza.
Two things happened in recent years that helped boost Dirty Kanza even further into the mainstream. In 2018 the race’s co-founders LeLan Dains, Jim Cummins, and Kristi Mohn sold their event to global fitness company Life Time, which brought its international power of promotion and media to bear on the race.
Then, in 2019, five professional riders from pro cycling’s WorldTour raced the event, further boosting the event across the pro cycling landscape with a heavy dose of PR and social media exposure. While cycling fandom watched to see how the WorldTour riders would fare, they saw a dramatic battle between a seasoned pro, Peter Stetina, and a gravel specialist, Colin Strickland, with Strickland eventually taking the win. It was a battle that confirmed the Dirty Kanza’s difficulty—even WorldTour riders suffered and were beatable by the race’s specialists.
So, what does it take to win Dirty Kanza? The race combines the punishing bumpy roads of Paris-Roubaix with the great distance of some Tour de France stage from a century ago. The rolling and flat terrain requires a rider to maintain constant power into the pedals, and the great distance forces riders to race conservatively and refrain from careless attacks. Gusting winds and the heat often turn the race into one of attrition, rather than a game of cat-and-mouse. And, the razor-sharp flint roads cause countless flat tires and mechanicals; almost every single rider will suffer a mechanical problem.
Riders cannot receive outside assistance during the course and must instead fill up their bottles and food stores at four feed zones along the course. So, top riders often meticulously prepare their gear setup, their feeding schedule, and their plan for the feed zones.
The route changes from year to year, and organizers reveal the route just a few days before the actual race, so riders cannot gain an advantage by pre-riding. Riders must download the information onto their bike computers, as the route is unmarked—it’s not uncommon for riders to get lost along the way.
“The conditions create a level playing field,” King says. “There’s the unknown of the course and the self-sufficiency aspect and being exposed to the elements for that long. All of that can mitigate someone with WorldTour fitness.”
In short, the Dirty Kanza isn’t just a test of one’s fitness and leg strength. Riders must master a whole range of skills—and overcome a long list of discomfort and setbacks—along the 200-mile journey.
And, that’s why Dirty Kanza truly is a Monument of Gravel.
Steve Guetzelman and Leslie Hiemenz
Cameron Chambers and Kristen High
Corey Godfrey and Emily Brock
Dan Hughes and Betsy Shogren
Dan Hughes and Rebecca Rusch
Dan Hughes and Rebecca Rusch
Brian Jensen and Rebecca Rusch
Yuri Hauswald and Amanda Nauman
Ted King and Amanda Nauman
Mat Stephens and Alison Tetrick
Ted King and Kaitlin Keough
Colin Strickland and Amity Rockwell