I’ve traveled all over the country to do cycling events. I’ve done events that were better than their reputation, and some that were much worse than theirs. I’ve ridden in town centers, universities, farm fields, state parks and anonymous industrial parks. Because I believe there is no better way to become acquainted with a place than from the saddle of a bicycle, I am perpetually ready to go to some place new for a bike event. That curiosity has served me well.
I first heard of Dirty Kanza three or four years ago and at the time it was described to me as riding a bunch of dirt roads through corn fields. Not the greatest sales pitch. But then, I first heard of it from someone who hadn’t even ridden the event. Second-hand information has always been pretty low value, huh?
What changed my interest in the event wasn’t even Yuri Hauswald’s win at Dirty Kanza. My thinking was something along the lines of, “Cool, I always knew he was a badass. Nice to see him get a win.” My interest in the event? Still low. It was Kansas.
Allow me a brief digression, please. I love the state of California. I deeply love this flawed place. It’s the sixth largest economy in the world. It boasts beautiful mountains, world-class coastline, some of the planet’s best wine growing regions, is the nation’s bread basket—without California produce, most Americans would be on a paleo diet—and is a place where dreams are made (and destroyed) with the rapidity of a passing second hand. Whoever you want to be, whatever you want to do, you can chase that in California, and you simply can’t say that about every other spot on Planet Earth. As a result, it takes some doing to get my attention. That’s not snobbery; this place just makes me swoon.
But when I saw video of Hauswald taking the win on Commercial Street in downtown Emporia over Michael Sencenbaugh, I was amazed by the three-deep crowd and the stadium-loud cheering. What the…? Could Emporia really care about cycling?
I’m here to report that no event has ever surprised me more than Dirty Kanza. And that’s even after concluding that it was interesting enough to get me to skip Wente, an eight-hour mountain bike race in Mendocino County, an event of which I wrote last year was my favorite mountain bike race … ever.
As I drove into Emporia in my rental car, I began noticing signs welcoming Dirty Kanza participants. First, the gas station, then a restaurant, a super market, another restaurant, a coffee place. On and on it went. This was their first distinction; Dirty Kanza was celebrated by more local businesses than any cycling event I’d ever seen. Even the Tour de France isn’t as celebrated in small towns. To have a business in downtown Emporia and not have some nod to the event in your window was to be an outlier. Hell, the local coffee roaster is called Gravel City Roasters.
Emporia’s residents welcomed us with a grace that was utterly disarming. Sure, there was the small-town folksiness that people expect in a Midwestern town, but they were curious about us.
On Friday I went to the True Value Hardware store to buy a small screwdriver to make an adjustment to my bike. Upon walking in a man with strawberry blond hair and patchy beard asked, “What are you looking for?”
“I need a really small screwdriver.”
“Our tool section is right this way. Are you here for the race?”
“Yeah.” How’d he guess? My Vans sneakers?
“Where are you from?”
“Northern California, a town called Santa Rosa.”
“My brother is in San Francisco. I went out to visit him last year.”
“Cool. How’d you like it?”
“So many people. All that traffic. It was too much for me. Are you doing the full 200?”
“No, I’m just doing the 100.”
“Just? You can’t say that. You say, ‘I’m doing the hundred.'”
It was pretty much the same at Billy Sims Barbecue, where I was encouraged to get the barbecued turkey, not the pulled pork. People were curious about us in part because they were just fine people, but also because they wanted to know who they were showing off to. This was a high-school girl in her prom dress.
After hanging out for a bit to greet others and trade tales of our dark spots, I rode back to the GU house with RKP reader Daniel Jaber. He’d been out for the Dirty Kanza Training Camp held this spring and had been looking forward to this day for months. The mile-long ride gave us a chance to share one amazement after another, from the volunteers at our one sag stop, to our frantic efforts to eat and drink constantly, to the beauty of the open prairie, our only disappointment was realizing that because I’d only finished eight minutes behind him, we should have tried to ride together. Alas.
Following quick showers we drove back into town. First order of business: food, then beer. I grabbed a sandwich less than 50 feet from the finish line and watched riders roll between the cones to the finish every few seconds. With a pile of capicola and salami in my belly, we then wandered over to the beer tent where we got pints of the Dirty Kanza Kolsch from Free State Brewing Co. I mean, we had to, right? To get a Budweiser would have been an affront.
I spent some time talking with John Armstrong of Maud’s Tattoo Company, so named for Maud Wagner, who was born in Emporia in 1877 and was the U.S.’ first female tattoo artist. He had a very stylish VW rat rod parked in front of his shop. One of his kids had concocted a crazy tricycle with Roller Blade wheels arranged in an arc in back, rather than the usual two wheels. Apparently Xander had been grounded from riding his bicycle and he concocted the rig as a work-around. It was hard not to respect his ingenuity.
I’m sure there were other spots in Emporia where life continued as usual, but in downtown Emporia the whole of the town seemed to be present and there to support the finishers. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Dirty Kanza asserts that it is the premier gravel event in the world and they’ve got the substance to back it up.