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How will professional road racers fare at this Saturday’s Dirty Kanza 200, the Super Bowl of gravel cycling?
Reigning champion Ted King is just as curious as everyone else.
“I’m psyched to see the race get more competitive,” King told VeloNews. “I’m really interested to see the direction that everything goes with [pro road racers] there.”
King, who ended his own WorldTour road racing career in 2015 and won the Dirty Kanza in 2016 and 2018, believes the pro roadies hold a fitness advantage over the race’s collection of mountain bikers, gravel specialists, and elite age-group riders. Riding 200 miles presents a challenge for anyone, however riders who pedal long road miles for a living have a natural upper hand.
Are they guaranteed to win? King isn’t so sure. The key to victory at Dirty Kanza often comes down to a rider’s ability to overcome unforeseen setbacks such as mechanical failures, nutrition problems, and even mental stress.
“You can be WorldTour fit or a weekend warrior, and everybody goes to a dark place around mile 170, so it’s anybody’s guess how they’ll do,” King told VeloNews. “The leveling of the playing field is all of the unknown stuff, like being self sufficient, or the fact that you’re exposed to the elements that long. That could mitigate WorldTour fitness.”
The number of professional road racers participating in the 2019 Dirty Kanza has grown in recent weeks. WorldTour team Trek-Segafredo will send WorldTour riders Kiel Reijnen and Peter Stetina. Domestic pro riders Lance Haidet, Cade Bickmore, and former U23 cyclocross national champion Gage Hecht of the Aevolo U23 squad are also participating, alongside Noah Granigan of Floyd’s Pro Cycling.
The collection of pro riders joins the trio of Lachlan Morton, Alex Howes, and Taylor Phinney from EF Education First. In January the American WorldTour team announced its intentions to participate in the Dirty Kanza. Whether the riders intend to race to win is yet to be determined.
EF manager Jonathan Vaughters told VeloNews that the riders are not racing to win the Dirty Kanza, but rather to “be fun and relatable.”
“Trying to win is not the point,” Vaughters said earlier this year.
King said those intentions could disappear once the pro riders find themselves in the fast and competitive front group at Dirty Kanza. Since the race is one of attrition, the main bunch whittles down under the pace and pressure of riders. Those riders with strong legs and lungs should be able to make the major selections over the hilly terrain.
Whether a rider decides to race for the win, or soft pedal to the finish line, depends on his or her personal motivation once the group gets to be small.
Such a scenario played in 2016 when King made his debut at the race. He came in hoping to experience the Dirty Kanza’s legendarily hard, punishing course, and ended up winning.
“I had no expectation in  and the race just sucks you in—the camaraderie and competitiveness,” King said. “When you’re a professional athlete and you pin a number on and have those competitive juices flowing, being in it could mitigate some of those pre-race expectations that were put out into the media.”
King said his personal aspirations at this year’s Dirty Kanza could be shaped by his recent decision to move from California to Vermont (he is a New Hampshire native) to help oversee his maple syrup company. Rather than pedal long miles during the winter, King instead hiked, shoveled snow and went cross-country skiing to stay fit. He filmed a YouTube series to document his unorthodox training.
King estimates he has 30 percent fewer miles in his legs than he did in 2018.
“I’m setting power numbers that I haven’t seen in some years, which I think could be attributed to the diversity of training,” King said. “I’ve been eating really good and drinking delicious beer. I’m rested and recovered.”
How will this training approach impact King’s efforts on Saturday?
That, too, is anybody’s guess.