Ted King: Team tactics change the spirit of gravel

Former WorldTour pro and Dirty Kanza winner Ted King talks about the spirit of gravel racing, tactics, and yes, aero bars.

EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — Ted King has fond, albeit painful, memories from his 2016 victory at the Dirty Kanza 200. It was a hot, windy day in central Kansas, and King, then a few months into his retirement from WorldTour road racing, simply rode away from a field of top gravel riders. He spent nearly 100 miles riding solo in the swirling Kansas winds and crossed the line 42 minutes ahead of his nearest competition.

Performances like that are rarely seen in top-end gravel racing these days. The long, painful gravel races have attracted stronger riders, as well as organized teams that employ road racing tactics. Some riders compete with clip-on aero bars to gain an aerodynamic advantage.

What does King think about this change in dynamics? VeloNews caught up with him in downtown Emporia to find out.

VeloNews: How have you seen the dynamics of gravel racing change in three years?

Ted King: Even in my short period of time — this is my third Dirty Kanza — I’ve seen it become something of a road race. Even going from my first to second year, you now see a pretty big group. It’s just a peloton that rolls away. I had some bad luck last year. I was on the side of the road changing my flat tire and I see a group of 15 dudes roll up the road. That is the challenge. It’s getting a lot faster. You see a ton of hitters here this year — current pros, former pros across all disciplines. Dirty Kanza is definitely getting fast.

VN: There seems to be an effort to keep Dirty Kanza grassroots and preserve the original racing dynamics of the event. Yet there is media attention and sponsorship cash and glory at stake. That could change the spirit and dynamics of the race.

TK: I’m delving into this exact dynamic on my own podcast. What is the direction the sport is going? The general of gravel is getting faster, and my take is that it’s a good thing. What is really cool about gravel, compared to road racing, if that if you get dropped in a road race on the first climb, your day is done. You may as well go get in your car and go home and commiserate. In gravel, if you get dropped, you find your people. You find your tribe. If you’re in the fifth group, you probably belong in the fifth group. If you’re in the first group, you probably belong in the first group. If gravel is getting faster and bringing in more people, that is great. We can get into details. I’m not a huge fan of prize money. I don’t think that’s where it’s at. I think its cool to race for belt buckles and cowboy hats and bottles of booze. As an industry, it’s enormously catching on. The number of events is booming. It’s like starting a microbrew 10 years ago. At this point, you’re still ahead of the game.

VN: How do you preserve that original racing spirit? There’s a lot of talk about road racing tactics coming into these races. 

TK: Road tactics change the spirit. I’ve been in a few gravel races where team tactics are playing a role, and its curious. For the time being it’s nice that there is still the Darwinism effect. You might have a big team, but the strong will still survive. Then it is less of a tactical game. It’s like, ‘You dropped your teammates, so its just you and me pal.’ That’s helpful, but I think that will change as more people get into the gravel scene. Without prize money, it keeps it fair. You can’t share a belt buckle. You may have two domestiques, but where is their cache in winning? I don’t have a great answer for it yet, and that’s why I’m trying to explore it myself.

VN: What does Dirty Kanza look like five years from now?

TK:  I had an interesting talk yesterday with the organizers about aero bars. It’s a hot topic right now. I’d be happy to see that banned [read Geoff Kabush’s take on aero bars here -Ed.]. Of course [aero bars] are legal in the rules, so, for the time being, we play by the rules. Will that be the case in five years? I don’t know. But we’re in downtown Emporia, and on Saturday evening, as people are rolling in, you will see so many people come out here. The town becomes a festival. It’s unlike any event I’ve been to. That will always continue, even five years from now. The infrastructure of the town caps this race at 2,500 people. I think it will grow a bit as people open their homes. So let’s let DK Productions do whatever they want. It’s cool that it is 2,500 people and its capped out. I think Dirty Kanza will preserve a cool feel that you won’t find at a typical criterium or road stage race.