The Ultimate Gravel Grinder Road Race
This is the 10th anniversary of the Dirty Kanza 200, a gravel road race through the Flint Hills in and around Emporia Kansas. The Flint Hills were once the home of the Great Kanza Nation, and remains as a good representation of what the Great Plains once looked like. The Dirty Kanza traverses this area on gravel and dirt roads. First run in 2006 with 34 participants it has grown to a field of 1500 competitors with 900 trying to complete 200 miles and 600 entering the 100 mile version. The dropout rate is not insignificant, of last year’s 1200 entrants, only 465 finished. The last finisher came across the line in 22 hours 55 minutes. Yikes!
The race allows support at only two location, one at 75 miles and one at 150 miles. In between the competitors are on their own and must manage any and all issues that arise. The Flint Hills are notorious for (wait for it) gravel made of flint! This results in a very sharp edge to the stone and cut tires and flats are apparently rampant. Bike choice is usually a cyclocross bike built up with fatter tires tubeless. I’m using a Giant TCX Advanced with disc brakes and Clement MSI 40mm tires.
Race was Saturday May 30 at 0600 hr and the winning time last year was 10 hours 42 minutes. Think about that… an average of about 32 km/hr… on gravel!!!! Our customer John Ramsden being the power house that he is was participating in this treacherous race and will be reporting back shortly on the outcome and his experience.
UPDATED!! Words by John Ramsden
Well that was downright nuts!
I arrived in Emporia, Kansas late Thursday evening to find that the area had been inundated with rain for several weeks. The temperature was a very cool 15/16 C with high humidity / light rain / heavy rain occurring on and off. The expectation was that Friday and Saturday would be quite similar except that they expected to have 20-25km/h winds from the north both days.
The word on the street was that the organizers wanted to make the race harder because last year someone had scorched the course in less than 11 hours. To do so, for the first time they had incorporated B roads and farm field access paths that were really nothing more than two wheel tracks across the prairie. With limited drainage they were apparently holding water, and of course deep mud. Expectations were that this was going to be a very different DK200 than any that had gone on before.
From my point of view I really felt great. The shitty (no pun intended) conditions were definitely going to be to my benefit as I knew it would be mental block for a large number of competitors. My experience riding in similar conditions on a regular basis was definitely going to be an asset.
Friday, I met my support team and we went out for a quick hour spin to check out the road conditions and to make sure there were no last minute bike issues. The conditions were atrocious. Riding in a pace line any further back than third wheel resulted in a blinding spray of sandy grit. Glasses were quickly of no use. It was hard to imagine how we were going to manage 200 miles of similar conditions.
Saturday breakfast rolled around at 0400hr. The rain continued to drizzle down and with the wind from the north the temperature felt well south of 15C. It was clear that this day was going to be a war of attrition. To finish, racers were going to test their physical and mental fortitude as well as their mechanical skills.
The field rolled out promptly at 0600hr behind a pace car and about 2 minutes later pulled up full stop as a train come barrelling through the outskirts of Emporia at about 90 km/hr. Once it was by, the pace car pulled off, testosterone took over, and the race was on.
Forty five minutes of gravel grinding brought us to the first of the field access paths and we were promptly hike a biking for 3+ miles. The mud was several inches deep and clung to everything. Each shoe weighed about 5lbs, and if you tried to push your bike it took about 2 minutes for your wheel to be carrying 2 inches of mud. The spaces between your chain stay and seat stays quickly clogged up as well as the space between your derailleur and cog set. Your 22lb bike quickly became 35lb plus and attempting to change gears resulted in torn off derailleurs and broken drop outs. I am betting the field lost over 150 riders here with torn derailleurs and other mechanical issues. (They tried to ride it)
We eventually finished the hike a bike and aimed mostly south heading for the first aid station in Madison, Kansas at about 75 miles. With mostly a tail wind the miles quickly disappeared, and I felt like I was totally ripping it. I was riding with the pro’s or what was left of them, and in the top 75. I was keeping up with hydration and nutrition and did not feel I had burned many matches. I rolled into the first aid station in Madison after 5 hours and 24 minutes to find the entire main street lined with cheering spectators. I handed my bike off to my support mechanic, had the bike checked, restocked my supply of food and hydration, and was back out on the road in less than 10 minutes.
The second 75 miles proved to be much, much, much more difficult. There was more mud to traverse carrying your bike and as we headed back north, we began to fight the headwind. I started to feel tired and began making stupid mistakes in bike handling. In the slimy mud, these often had the consequence of an unintended body wash. I probably wasn’t eating enough, and bonked once or twice. This slice of the race took just under 7 hours and everyone in my vicinity was clearly having the same issues. No one seemed able to “get away” and we just seemed to keep exchanging places back and forth.
My big screw up of the day happened as I was coming into the second aid station town after 12+ hours of riding. I lost concentration for about 30 seconds and missed a course turn. I was about 100m behind the racer ahead, and in a moment when I had my head down, he must have made the turn. I merrily went sailing by the turn and although I quickly knew I was off course, in my screwed up state, I couldn’t tell which way to go. Eventually, I had to get out the written cue sheet to find the actually name of the street I needed to turn on, and then backtrack until I found it. Mulberry Street was my downfall. I spent around 15 minutes trying to find the proper way, and that silly mistake moved me from 1st in my division to 4th. Once again the town was rocking as we headed down the Main Street. It was really quite amazing that all these people were hanging in some little town in the middle of the Kansas prairie at 6 o’clock in the evening. I resupplied, had the bike checked, but was out of the second aid a little bit slower than the first time around as I took the time here to actually eat some real food. Ahhh, the wonders of a chicken burrito after 12 hours of riding. No more bonking for me.
The first 15 miles out of Aid Two were straight as an arrow right into the head wind. Picture this, seven hills in sight, each hill slightly higher than the one before and stretching into the distance as far as you can see. That really hurt; both physically and mentally! The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. Night arrived and I started riding with lights. For the last 50 miles, I basically rode all by myself. I think I maybe saw 2 other riders. I could see the occasional light behind me but it was hard to tell how close they were and if they were gaining or falling back. Eventually, quite un-expectantly, the Emporia city sign came out of the darkness.
Riding into town was just outright insane. For three blocks, they had set up a barricaded path right down the middle of the street. The barricades were lined 3 and 4 deep with cheering, cow bell ringing spectators reaching out to give you high fives. The energy was crazy… and it was already almost 10 at night. Beer tents, food trucks, live music… you name it, the place was going off. It was easily the biggest finish of any race I have ever been involved in.
I finished in 15 hours and 40 minutes, 82nd out of the 900 starters, and 4th in my age group. Looking back I probably should have tried to draft more, but as a group came by I kept telling myself that each one was either moving too fast or too slow. I kept thinking I had to just ride my own race.
Immediately post-race I had super sore back but that improved with some ibuprofen. I felt awesome on Sunday after such a big effort, but by Monday I was a lot sorer! By Monday night, I had a fever and was wondering if I was coming down with some sort of bug from all the cow shit I consumed off my water bottles. I guess we can call that an occupational hazard in a race like this. Would I do it again? I’m not too sure, but if you are looking for a challenge in a different locale with a really cool vibe, get on it next January and register. www.dirtykanza200.com