When I rolled out of the tunnel the grounds of Emporia State University opened before me. My first thought on recognizing the school’s campus was that the finish was imminent. I began to reel in two riders who had been ahead of me and just as we hit the final hill of the ride Casey Maier came around us, out of the saddle, gutting his way up the hill. I recognized Maier; we’d passed each other a half dozen times or more. At any other ride, I’d have suggested we ride together.
This was Dirty Kanza, half of it, at anyway. I rode the 100-mile version, known as the Half Pint. Riding with others, actually drafting other riders, really hadn’t worked except for maybe five miles. It’s hard to say why it didn’t work. The course was dry, so there was no real risk of taking splattering mud to the eye, and the dust stayed low enough for the most part that you didn’t need to sit back 20 feet if you wanted to avoid inhaling a metric tonne of Flint Hills powder.
So I’d spent the day mostly riding by myself. But that’s not to say I hadn’t taken note of other riders. Casey, who hails from Wichita, struck me as the sort of guy I’d ride with at home, share a beer with following a ride—in short of rider with whom I could share a colossal pounding. At one point, just as we crested a hill, I’d seen Maier pull over and put his head on his arms after clipping out. It was a reminder to me that it seemed to be easier, faster to dig a hole in this gravel than with a standard road event.
I can’t say that I thought I was stronger than Maier, but he exemplified the sort of rider in whose company I wanted to see myself riding. I wanted to know I was riding hard and because I’d never ridden the gravel roads of Kansas before that week, the only barometer I had was to observe the riders around me. So when he passed us on that final hill I knew I wasn’t finished with my day.
I’ve read about Dirty Kanza, watched videos of it, and have talked to people who have been there. Added up, they amounted to a preview of a film, not the film itself. To this point in my life, what I knew of the Great Plains States was informed by my (limited) experiences of Iowa and Oklahoma. They are largely flat. Largely, but not entirely. Hills can unroll out of the prairie, yielding surprising views, expansive vistas I rarely witnessed growing up in the Mississippi River valley.
I met up with a friend from Los Angeles, Cheryl Parrish (in the lead photo), just outside the throng. I met Cheryl through mountain biking five years ago and have found her a source of ongoing inspiration. She’s a three-time cancer survivor and takes on cycling challenges that women half her age would find intimidating. We hoped to ride together and give her training for Leadville a boost. As we rolled to the start I began to hear the call-ups for the 200 taking place. I could hear Yuri Hauswald’s and Dan Hughes’ names called. The fact that we were standing in the middle of the main street in Emporia, Kansas, with crowds cheering us in pre-dawn light reinforced my sense that we were taking on a real ordeal.
The Half Pint was released 20 minutes after the 200 departed. I wondered how long it would be before we began to overtake slower riders for the 200. An hour? Two? As we rolled through town I told Cheryl, “We can’t win this in the first mile, but we sure can lose it.” I wanted to wait until we hit the dirt and the worst of the jockeying had passed before I started to turn on the wattage.
The dirt roads in Lyon County Kansas are basically a single lane wide. There are two lines packed in and the difference in rolling resistance between the line that is packed and the looser parts of the road can be the difference between riding grass and riding asphalt. Passing riders meant riding into the margins, but only when it looked reasonably well packed. I would spend much of the day hopping between the left line and the right and that moment of hitting the looser gravel in the middle reminded me of changing lanes when driving in the snow.
Despite the fact that Cheryl was proving adept at riding through the loose stuff, the pace I set was wearing on her. I thought it was gentle enough for her to sit comfortably on my wheel, while also strong enough to move up through slower groups. Alas, at one point when I called back to ask how she was, I heard a slightly strained, “Okay.” That wasn’t the “pretty good” I’d gotten earlier. I sat up, backed off the power, but despite that she said, “When we hit the hills you need to go ahead.”
At the top of the first hill I waited more than a minute for her to arrive just to double check, only to realized she must have dialed back significantly. Reluctantly, I pressed on.
The day I registered, someone called the Flint Hills a roller coaster. It was easy to see why. After cresting a hill it was only natural to want to accelerate into the descent to capitalize on momentum to climb up the next hill, or to hold on to as much speed as possible when back on the flat. Of course, not everyone was comfortable with tearing down those hills at 30 or more mph on a line that was narrower than most singletrack I ride.
My rig for the day was the new Allied Alfa All Road bike equipped with the new Dura-Ace hydraulic Di2. The bike rolled on Stan’s Avion carbon fiber wheels and 38mm Specialized Trigger tires, the very tire that won the Dirty Kanza 200 from 2012 to 2016. I’ll have plenty to say about the Alfa All Road when I get to the review, but I can say that the bike performed flawlessly; on one of those pencil-width tracks I hit more than 35 mph and never thought what I was doing was dicey. And the bike was stiff enough and sensitive enough that I isolated the flex I felt during standing efforts to the tires. Despite plenty of admonitions to run more pressure, I went with 35 psi in the front and 38 psi in the rear. Mine was a flat-free day.
It’s hard for me to conceive of living in a house on a dirt road 20 miles from the nearest town. But that’s how a big chunk of America lived for most of this nation’s existence. That life still exists in Kansas. More remarkable was how often people congregated in front of those homes with bottled water and enjoying barbecues with friends. They cheered us like we were pro athletes.
When I rolled into Madison, which marked the roughly half-way mark for the Half Pint, I was amazed to see my elapsed time was 3:01. When asked that morning how long I expected to be out I responded, “I’m hoping eight hours, but nine wouldn’t surprise me.”
Long after I finished, Lelan Dains, one of the two organizers of the event, told me it was one of the two best days the event had enjoyed in its 12-year history. I wasn’t surprised after all the horror stories I’ve heard about Flint Hills mud and standing water, or brutal heat. This was a day that bluebird days envy. The weather was my favorite explanation for why I was riding so fast.
Whereas most mixed-surface events I do are made up of at least 50 percent paved road, Dirty Kanza was unique in that there fewer than three paved miles in my ride. You simply became accustomed to the ongoing gravel rattle. Whoever assembled my bike at Allied was thoughtful enough to double-wrap the bar top. I owe him a beer. Even so, the heels of my hands are hamburger meat two days later, and I wore gel-padded gloves.
I tried taking a couple of photographs on the fly, but didn’t manage it, and despite telling myself I would pull over to get a shot or two, the ride was hard enough I never gave myself permission to stop for pics. Professional duties notwithstanding, after the first 50 or so miles, I was unable to focus on anything other than riding, hydrating and feeding.
I lost track of how many gels I ate. Eight? Nine? Plus I had two GU Stroopwafels and a Clif bar. It wasn’t enough. I could have used another 200 to 400 calories. I drank somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 ounces of Skratch Labs, but probably needed another 20 to 30 ounces. There were times when I was on the verge of stomach cramps, so the only way I could have gotten more food and water in me would have been with more carefully spaced intervals of eating and drinking.
As we passed through campus there was a left turn between some bollards and on to a sidewalk. I have some vague memory of pedestrians diving out of our way. I closed the distance to Casey and then kicked with all the sprint I had. What was it he said as I passed? Whoa?
I realized I had no idea how far away the finish was. Could I hold this pace for 200 meters? Probably. For 400 meters? Possibly. Another kilometer? Extremely unlikely. At the edge of campus a police officer was stopping traffic and waved a rider through; I coasted a few seconds to let me legs recover and to make sure the intersection was still safe for me to sail through. I passed him and then got in the drops and put out whatever power was left.
And then there was the sound. The inevitability of someone going faster than me. We were into the chute now, which is maybe only eight feet wide. Once Casey came around I didn’t want to force a two-man sprint in a grocery store aisle with 50 foot stopping zone. I figured if he’d managed to claw his way back, then he deserved it. As it was we both had to brake hard in order to avoid running into Jim Cummins and his crew.
Casey and I finished with a 6:39:46, good enough to place us in he top 20 percent of Half Pint finishers.
And there he was, organizer Jim Cummins, with his hand out to personally congratulate me on finishing the Half Pint. I can’t recall another event in my life in which the organizer was standing in the chute personally greeting each finisher. That one detail, being greeted by Jim, is emblematic of Dirty Kanza. It’s personal, it’s intense, and it’s cared for by those it touches. The communities in and around Emporia take pride in this event in a way that is unfortunate in its rarity, and mind-blowing in intimacy. It is without a doubt one of the finest cycling events I’ve seen in my life. I’ll be back.