Editor’s note: This summer we are covering four big gravel races: Land Run 100, Wild Horse Gravel, Dirty Kanza 200, and SBT GRVL. This coverage is made possible by sponsorship from Canyon Bicycles, Saris bike racks, Pactimo apparel, Stages Cycling, Quarq TyreWiz, Vittoria tires, and Zipp wheels.
With about 110 miles to go in the Dirty Kanza 200, I split my sandwich with a guy named Matt. I hardly knew him, we still had 60 miles to go until the next aid station, and it was the last bit of food I had at the time.
We were atop one of the green, windswept hills of Kansas, north of Emporia, near nothing more than an exit-less stretch of Interstate 70. Giving away this vital snack might seem like a foolhardy move. I’d barely made it to that point with the food I had. I definitely didn’t have enough for the next stretch over the infamous Lil’ Egypt road.
My mind was addled from the effort of the race’s first five hours, but intrinsically, I believe I shared that food because doing so was true to the core of what Dirty Kanza is all about: generosity.
Although it takes so much from you physically, the famed gravel race and everyone involved give so much in return, in ways both material and intangible.
Fans lined the start straight on Industrial Avenue in downtown Emporia in the dawn gloaming at 6 a.m. We 1,100-odd riders were nervous, maybe a little sleep-deprived, and unsure what the day would bring. The friends, family, and locals who cheered us on as we embarked on our 201-mile journey into the heart of the Flint Hills gave us that fleeting boost of energy you sometimes need to forget your fears, just for a minute.
As I anticipated, chaos ensued as we reached the rough gravel of Wabaunsee County, about 25 miles north of Emporia. The roads became deep with sharp flint gravel that emitted a piercing rattle as we flew along in a pack. I lost count of the number of riders who flatted on this gruesome section of earthen razorblades. Even the best riders fell victim — Geoff Kabush, Kiel Reijnen, Lachlan Morton, Taylor Phinney — seasoned pros with more experience than half the field combined.
I had my first scare around that time, as my front tire went soft. I hit it with my CO2, and thankfully it held. I suspected I’d just burped my Vittoria Terreno Dry on one of the chunky sections of stones.
The flat tires were only half the danger. Riders were crashing with alarming regularity, blowing corners, getting caught up on ruts, losing a front wheel in a surprisingly deep mud puddle. Thankfully, I found myself in the right place each time to flick my Canyon Grail around the carnage.
Things began to settle in when the first aid station came into reach, about 64 miles into the race.
As chaotic as the first 50 miles were, the aid station in Alma was perhaps even worse. I looked around as I rolled into town. Where was my feed? They weren’t there yet. What could I do? I was out of water and nearly out of food.
In a twist of good fortune, I’d stopped right near a Volkswagen camper van that looked awfully familiar. It was Bobby Wintle, promoter of Land Run 100. He could tell immediately that I needed help and raced me over to his tent. He handed my bike off to a mechanic he’d brought along from his shop in Stillwater, Oklahoma, District Bicycle, and set about filling my bottles and hydration pack.
“Do you have enough food?” he asked as I started to roll away.
“Not really.” I did a quick inventory to find a handful of gels and one bar. Not 90 miles worth of food, especially with 140 to go.
“Take my sandwich, I’ll just go buy something else,” he said, quickly grabbing the turkey pesto that he’d planned to eat for lunch. This was the epitome of gravel generosity. That’s just who Bobby is.
I rolled out of the aid station and entered the course’s most beautiful and remote section. For tens of miles we rolled over a sea of emerald hills that roundly disprove the notion that Kansas is flat. Along the way I linked up with my friend Yuri Hauswald, who won this race in 2015. Today was not like that magical ride he had four years ago. Instead, he fell victim to one of those early crashes I avoided. He was suffering. And his Garmin had broken off in the crash, making it hard to stay on schedule with nutrition. He asked if I could let him know every time 20 minutes elapsed so he wouldn’t bonk. Of course. How could I refuse?
We rode on for miles of endless gravel. Some of it rough enough to qualify as mountain biking. Other sections were dreamy two-track through a sea of prairie grass. It was a little too endless though. After losing a bottle on a bumpy section, I ran out of drinks well before the next water stop. Now I was the one asking Yuri for help, begging for a sip or two of his.
Finally, we reached a neutral water stop, where I split Bobby’s sandwich, which I’d been warming up in my sweaty pocket for the last couple of hours. The refill helped, but I realized I was behind on my fueling. I begged for more, for food this time. Another old friend, Nate Keck, who works for Quarq could spare a Clif Bar. A fellow Coloradan let me grab a gel out of his CamelBak. Jeff Winkler, a Boulder coach who I see on the group rides around town gave me his leftover gels when he dropped out at mile 121. Hell, I even took a Leinenkugel Shandy from some spectators on the side of the road — it has calories after all.
Once I reached the second aid station at mile 151, I finally got a reprieve. My wife Kate was there at the SRAM tent with all of my stuff. I loaded up on food, fluids, ice, chamois cream, and pretty much everything else I could find. My rear tire had gotten a bit soft along the way, so we checked my Quarq TireWiz then topped it off.
I rolled out refreshed and downright motivated, despite the fact that I was now well beyond the distance of my longest ride ever, on rough gravel in hot humidity no less.
Settling into my groove, I began picking people off. A tailwind had kicked up, which also gave me a boost. A little after that stop, I saw Yuri again. Earlier, he had left me behind, but now he was fixing another flat. I asked if he needed anything. “A pat on the back,” was his sarcastic response.
Not long after, there was another rider on the side of the road, another flat. What about this guy? Yes, he needed a tube. I had two with me, so it seemed fair to share one.
“It’ll be a miracle if I make it to the finish,” he said.
“See ya in another life, brother,” I said as I rolled away, my homage to Desmond from the TV series “Lost.”
Perhaps I let that Doritos- and Coke-fueled rest stop in Council Grove get the better of me. I rode with ferocity from miles 150 through 180. Then I started to pay the price. The tailwind somehow felt weaker. The crosswind felt harsher. I was bonking to the point that I felt narcoleptic.
I pretended the race’s final 20-odd miles were like an extended lunch ride, the type you’d take on a lazy Friday. That mental game only took me so far.
Then, in one final stroke of generosity, another fellow Boulder resident, Andy Caplan, rolled up on me with about 10 miles to go. Clearly, he was doing something right because he was riding steady and swift and feeling a bit chatty. I hung onto his wheel, sitting in the draft for dear life, answering his questions in gasping brevity. I knew that this would be the difference between finishing in the next 30 minutes or finishing in another 60… or worse. I had to hang on.
That last effort was worth it because he towed me all the way to the final, cruel uphill kicker on pavement through the campus of Emporia State University. From there, it was a straight shot to the finish, hugs all around from race organizers Kristi Mohn and Jim Cummins, from my wife Kate, from Andy, from anyone else I could find.
I was completely empty at that finish line, 13 hours after I’d started. Dirty Kanza had taken nearly everything that I had, including my voice and my usually voracious post-race appetite. But it had given me so much more along the way.
The gear that we rode: