MONTEREY, California (VN) — After news broke last fall that Life Time had purchased Dirty Kanza Productions, arguably the most prominent gravel race in the world, fans of the 200-mile Kansas race were understandably concerned. Would corporate ownership spoil the race’s grassroots vibe? How would the race change? Would organizers LeLan Dains, Jim Cummins, and Kristi Mohn stay involved?
Both sides of the deal reassured media, fans, and riders that things wouldn’t change. But we were still curious. So we caught up with Cummins and Life Time’s VP of Operations Mike Melley at the Sea Otter Classic to hear how things are going in the lead-up to the 2019 event on June 1.
The event’s total number of participants in all distances has increased to 3,000 from 2,750. Now, all 50 states have riders represented in Kansas, and people from 28 foreign countries will race. Despite that growth, Cummins and Melley were confident the rider experience will be just as good as last year, if not better.
“Don’t let us screw it up!” Melley said jokingly to start the conversation. And Cummins replied, “They haven’t yet so everything is good.”
VeloNews: What is the most noticeable change a rider will see at Dirty Kanza this year?
Jim Cummins: Probably the most noticeable change is our expo is going to be over twice the size as it was last year. We’re really excited about that. Emporia is the place to be if you’re interested at all in gravel.
Mike Melley: That was a design you had in place. We walked in the door and he was like, “Listen we want to double this,” and we went, “Uh, okay, sounds good!”
JC: That was our vision, to double it. It’s one thing to have the vision it’s another to have the resources to make that happen. That’s one thing that Life Time brought to the table, the resources to make that happen.
VN: Do you attribute this growth to Life Time’s broader network and Rolodex or increased manpower that comes from the ownership?
JC: I think it’s a combination of all of the above.
VN: What other changes will we see?
JC: The other big difference is the brand new course. We’re really excited about it. The roads going up north into Wabaunsee County. One thing people are going to notice right off, they’re used to having three checkpoints, and we’re only going to have two That middle leg is an 87-mile leg. There will be a neutral water oasis midway through that leg. It’s not like you have to carry 87 miles worth of water but you do have to carry 87 miles of food. We’ll have this neutral water stop. It introduces a certain extra level of needing to be prepared for that. It also gave me a lot more freedom in designing the course. I had more miles to play with in that leg. I could utilize more of the cool roads that are up there. I think this is far and away my favorite route we’ve ever had, and I think it will become be a favorite route of participants. It’s going to be extra challenging but also extra rewarding.
VN: Anything behind the scenes that are changing in how Dirty Kanza is running?
JC: They’ll notice a little more polished look and feel. The finish line structure will be really pro-looking, the signage. We’re not changing who we are, we’re going have a little better presentation, dress it up a bit.
MM: We’re trying to dress up what they created, polish it a bit, but not change it materially from a rider’s perspective. We still want to have the same Dirty Kanza riders have come to know and love.
VN: Where do you see Dirty Kanza in five years?
JC: In another five years it will continue to be the premier event of its kind. We hope to continue to lead the industry, lead the genre of gravel. We’re making steps to — people often ask us how large can you grow this event — our focus is more on sideways growth, horizontal growth, not vertical. This is no longer a one-day event, this is a weeklong celebration of gravel and cycling. Bringing in additional programming. We had almost more people not get into the event as what got into the event. We can serve those people as well. We can do that with an expanded expo, with additional programing inside the theatre, tech talks, Ted Talks, programming like that. Whether you’re riding Dirty Kanza or not, if you love gravel DK is the place to be.
VN: I’ve heard that there eventually will be qualifying races for Dirty Kanza, similar to Leadville. Is that something you’re working on?
MM: It’s something that we’re looking into. It’s not something we have firm plans in place on. It’s a decent model to follow its the same one that Ironman has done, we have done. We want to do it smart, we want to do it right for the event, for any community we want to chase or look at. There’s nothing hard and fast. We want to be smart about doing this right. We’ve done some things in the fast a little too quickly. Do it smart, do it quick? Nah, let’s do it at the right pace that makes sense for us and for the team to put on a quality event for the athlete.
VN: Would you say that it’s inevitable that there will be qualifying events?
Jim: I don’t know that I’d say it’s inevitable. It seems to make sense, but we’ve got to flesh it out. We’ll do it if it’s the right thing to do. To say it’s inevitable is maybe getting ahead of ourselves.
MM: I agree with you 100 percent. Inevitable? I wouldn’t sign my name on it. I would say we’re interested in doing more gravel events. The space is there; we like the community; we like the vibe around it; we like the potential impact on the local communities; we think that’s where cycling is headed. The road, most people have migrated off that. So, it’s a space we want to play in.
VN: From Life Time’s standpoint does that mean creating new gravel events or purchasing more gravel events like Dirty Kanza?
Mike: I think my boss’s answer would be “yes.” We don’t like to shut the door on it. Green-fielding something is relatively painful at times, but it can also be amazing because you get to create whatever the heck you want. You don’t have to deal with historical problems. In this case, we’ve inherited a great staff. We couldn’t be more happy with Jim and his team, LeLan and Kristi and Treva. They can really help show us the way to make sure we’re doing it right.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.