It was 2017 and Tetrick was still racing full-time on the road. After years on the international racing circuit, Tetrick had become disenchanted with road racing after two debilitating head injuries. Tetrick had heard about Dirty Kanza from her friends Rebecca Rusch and Yuri Hauswald, both of whom had won the event. They dazzled her with stories about the bizarre challenge across Kansas’s Flint Hills. Tetrick decided to give it a try.
“I had raced on the road for a very long time,” Tetrick told VeloNews. “I told my team I’ll race for one more season but I wanna race Dirty Kanza. They said it was a horrible idea, but they let me go.”
The longest ride she had ever completed was 120 miles, and Tetrick had never ridden, let alone raced, a gravel bicycle before. So, when Tetrick found herself in the lead group of men, she let her road cycling instincts guide her: sit in, follow wheels, conserve energy. At one point she was 12 minutes ahead of the next woman, defending champion Amanda Nauman.
But things took a turn after Tetrick exited the final checkpoint. She took a wrong turn, got lost, and began cramping. Nauman caught her with 20 miles to go, setting up a dramatic finish. Tetrick got a gap, then took another wrong turn, only to chase Nauman down and win in the final push to the line.
After the victory, Tetrick’s image was published in magazines and on websites across the industry. She was given the title ‘Queen of Kanza’ for her win. She hadn’t gotten that much media attention for any road victory, ever. She took stock of her racing career. Gravel racing was her new calling.
“Winning Dirty Kanza sealed the deal,” she says. “As a pro road athlete I was still looking for ways to engage with the cycling community. Dirty Kanza brought me off the pedestal to ride with people.”
Tetrick’s story is hardly an outlier. Across the gravel community, elite and back-of-the-pack riders have had life-changing experiences at Dirty Kanza. For many riders, Dirty Kanza is the bucket-list race that serves as an entry point to gravel. For others, it’s the big challenge that deepens their passion for the sport. All riders are sucked in by the course, the conditions, and the event’s community.
For elite riders, winning Dirty Kanza can transform their careers, due to the prestige and worldwide media attention that comes to the champion. Dirty Kanza is no longer an oddity within the bike racing world—it’s a mass-media juggernaut that attracts dozens of reporters, photographs, and videographers from across the globe. Cycling sponsors descend on the event to showcase new events
Even Rebecca Rusch, whose storied career includes victories at Leadville 100 MTB, saw her career transformed by the race. After winning the 200-mile edition three times, she won the 100-mile and 350-mile editions. She’s now synonymous with the race.
“I went there kicking and screaming—a sponsor made me go,” Rusch said. “And I was inspired by it. I thought it would be more road racing and it was more technical.”
When Ted King retired from the WorldTour in 2015 he became an ambassador for Cannondale bicycles, a role that usually involves signing autographs at bike shops and taking dealers on bike rides. When King won the 2016 and 2018 editions of Dirty Kanza, more sponsors flocked to him, offering to pay him to race gravel and represent their brands. Somehow, years after retiring, King was back to professional racing.
“In my mind I’m still retired, but I have these performance goals at Dirty Kanza and other races,” King says. “It’s funny to see how this seismic shift has changed everything.”
Amity Rockwell still worked part-time as a barista when she arrived at the 2019 edition of Dirty Kanza to try and improve on her 2018 outing. That year Rockwell had suffered a shifting mishap that left her with just two gears for much of the race.
Rockwell got out to a slow start on the dusty course and was in 14th place at the first checkpoint. But she kept plugging away at a consistent pace, as the heat and course gradually slowed her competitors.
Rockwell rode her way into second place, and then, the first-place woman Olivia Dillon suffered a puncture. Suddenly, Rockwell rode into the lead, and she held it all the way to the line. Before the event Rockwell had been a relatively anonymous rider. After winning Dirty Kanza, her name was printed online and in publications across the globe.
So, when it came time to negotiate new sponsorship deals for 2020, Rockwell was surprised by the new reality.
“In a very literal sense, I have been able to negotiate enough money for myself that all I have to do this year is ride bikes,” Rockwell says. “That’s the most obvious and coolest thing to come out of winning. All that I’ve been wishing for. It’s like wow, OK, I’m doing this now.”