Paul Errington crosses the pond to grind through some gravel on the world’s premier gravel bike race, the Dirty Kanza
If the mid-west is the home of gravel grinding, then the hub of this movement is a small city in Lyon County, Kansas called Emporia. Nestled in the Flint Hills Emporia plays host to the Dirty Kanza (DK), the largest gravel grinding event in the world.
What is gravel grinding? The clue is really in the title – it’s all about covering large distances by bicycle on gravel roads. The concept is simple, the execution unsurprisingly is fairly painful, the term “grinder” is therefore very apt.
From its humble beginnings in 2005 when just 36 riders took to the startline DK has now grown to over 2,000 riders taking part. Although DK has expanded its distance offerings for riders, I believe there really is only one distance to go for, the main event… 200 miles of the Flint Hills’ finest gravel. Part of the success of the DK has to be the people of Emporia and how invested the whole town is in the success and growth of the event. Not only has DK grown in numbers as the years have passed but now the whole show takes places over close to a week with a number of differing events and ride outs which build on the now famed hometown welcome and cheer. The stores put up signs welcoming riders and enter one around DK time and you’ll no doubt see a rider offer or better still a DK poster capturing one of that year’s interesting entrants.
Rider sign-on and briefing is even special and it takes place in the historic Grand Theater in the centre of town. The plush venue is packed full to capacity with nervous and excited riders all in good spirits prior to race day.
Come the start, Emporia’s main street is shut down for the DK as riders gather and the local roller derby ladies skate with marker boards indicating expected finishing times. I look at the boards. How optimistic do I feel? I start looking for a board that indicates “Just happy to survive the day”. I assume that places me firmly in the middle of the pack. I remember riding this event in 2012 in much better shape with bigger expectations and being overwhelmed by the ferocity of the start. The same mistake would not be repeated, the trick is to find a comfortable pace and hopefully find a good group riding at it.
The objective for those of competitive spirit is to race the sun and achieve a daylight finish – this is the target for most of the DK riders and it was initially for me. Let the grinding commence.
The first mile is led out by race officials at 6.00a.m. Emporian locals are out to see the riders off. We make the right hand turn onto the first gravel section of the race and find ourselves hauling on brakes as the road surface disappears under water. A rain storm earlier that morning has sunk the first section of trail. As the water recedes the resulting sticky clay and gravelly surface begins claiming victims as derailleurs are torn from bikes all around me. I pedal as carefully as I can but fate still befalls me and I end up in a ditch at the side of the trail cupping water over my cassette and derailleur. Back on the bike I continue to ride the section with even more care. I don’t want my race to end after just five miles.
Looking ahead the riders are now bunched into surviving groups whilst others head back to town for an early shower, beer or coffee.
The event is punctuated by a series of checkpoints – the first at 48 miles, then 102 miles, followed by a final one at mile 160. At each a support crew of your choosing is on hand to aid with supplies and bike maintenance. This allowed for strategy, even if the unpredictability of the event aims to prevent too much planning.
Ask race director Jim Cummins about the terrain here in Kansas and he will tell you “There aren’t many hills in Kansas. Lots of valleys though.” Preconceptions of large flat expanses of prairie land are instead laid to rest by short and sharp climbs on the whole, with a few long and sustained.
The Flint Hills and its surrounding prairie land are famed for its expansive vistas which quickly swallow up the large number of riders. I settle comfortably into this first section surrounded by the vibrant green grasses and the beautiful landscape enlivened by the early morning sun.
As expected the first leg to checkpoint 1 is fast. The energy of the riders is yet to be tempered by the heat. Rolling into checkpoint 1 under three hours, racing the sun seems a possibility. After a slick transition, thanks to my adopted support crew, I’m quickly back out on the trail with freshly filled bottles.
The next leg is where the challenge of DK really kicks in. The temperature rises and so too does the frequency of the rolling climbs. Where I was once racing I am now just progressing. The friendship within the world of gravel racing is the best I have ever experienced throughout my many years of racing. The adversity of the terrain and the conditions form a bond between riders as we all try to get to the finish. Every pass or catch is met with a positive exchange, everyone is willing each other on to get through the day.
So far I have not found anyone of a similar pace so it’s just me and my Garmin to pass the time. My decision to ride with just two water bottles sees me out of water many miles before the next checkpoint. I need a third bottle in the jersey. Approaching checkpoint 2 at mile 102 I manage to get a welcome tow behind some faster riders and ease myself out of the wind for a short while. I have another great checkpoint stop; a quick sit and a reapplication of sun block, and once again I’m back out on the gravel… importantly with another water bottle and a Redbull tucked in my jersey.
This section has a number of creek crossings, some chose to ride though them, I opt to offer my bike a reprieve and minimise any possibility for a mechanical by walking. In all my years of cycling I have been of the opinion that a headwind was a negative and a tailwind a positive but as the temperature continues to rise and shade is a rarity I think twice. Every tailwind exposes me to the breathless full force of the heat being driven into the gravel… every headwind though sapping a few mph provides a welcome reprieve from the heat. As the event wears on, any speed I have gives way to just survival pace. The goal of racing the sun has now been replaced by a simpler one, of finishing the event. I make no attempt to latch onto any passing riders and my ride is definitely one of solitude. I’m content at my own rate of progress and I enjoy the simplicity of just turning pedals.
The third section proves to be the toughest. The surface seems to be the least maintained of all road surfaces and this when combined with fatigue starts to beat up my body. Finding a hand position that is comfortable is now challenging and I constantly shift between hoods, flats and drops. Rolling into the third and final checkpoint at mile 160 the routine is now perfected and my only desire is to rest a few minutes longer there. I swallow some preventative ibuprofen and then I’m off to close out the day.
Racing the sun is back on my radar for a moment but the maths simply doesn’t work out, after such a long day I can’t muster the required increase in pace. The positive to this scenario though is riding the last leg as the sun sets. As the heat of the day subsides, the temperature is now far more bearable and my legs start to function again. With the finish in my mind my pace increases and the miles start to come and go a lot easier. Two-hundred-and-six miles have now passed as I am on the drops cranking through the outskirts of the city. One final sharp climb on Tarmac and I’m staring down the main street again only this time on the longer side of the start/finish line. The main street is closed to traffic, the centre of the road is funnelled for riders, and either side the town’s inhabitants line the route welcoming home every rider. I cross the finish in 15 hours and 20 minutes. I’m welcomed immediately by race director Cummins – he personally sees each and every rider home.
The DK again afforded a unique opportunity for riders to push themselves and relate to the event’s hashtag, #Findyourlimit. The terrain and temperature provided a huge challenge for all and I am happy to have secured a finish. For a true test of your limits on a bike DK is right up there.
The 206-mile epic was crushed by first place male finisher Ted King in an outstanding time of 11 hours 50 minutes. In the women’s race, proving that her 2015 win was not by chance, Amanda “Panda” Nauman put in another brutal ride to finish in 13 hours 11 minutes.
The purest view on the right bike for gravel riding is simple … any bike. The gravel scene is formed by a huge diversity of riders and bikes. However, if you were to ask what is the fastest bike for gravel then that would have to be a gravel bike. Representing what is in short a progression of cyclocross thinking, the gravel bike offers some distinct advantages for long distance gravel grinding. Firstly, acres of clearance allow a larger volume tyre for comfort, not to mention increased mud clearing capacity. Next, the geometry affords a bottom bracket height greater than that of a road frame affording off-road clearance – it’s lower than a CX frame and has a taller front end to generate a more comfortable endurance position. Finally, disc brakes, okay they are not so out of place nowadays, but gravel bikes forged ahead with drop bar disc brake set-ups long before they were considered common place on CX bikes and road bikes. For the event I rode a Salsa Warbird, considered the original and still the benchmark by which all gravel bikes are measured. Paired with a Brooks Cambium it was a comfortable place to be for the duration.
- Emporia, Kansas is logistically a reasonably easy place to access. Many flight options exist from the UK to either Wichita or Kansas City airport and the freeways are easily navigated in a hire car.Accommodation is always at a premium and though there are numerous options, the scale of the event requires booking almost the same day as your entry
- All your bike shop needs are well catered by Gravel City Adventure & Supply Co. in Emporia, only a block from the Grand Theater sign-in
- Those looking to extend their visit to this part of the world would do well to check out travelksok.co.uk (or travelksok.ie) for both cycling and non-cycling tourist options
- Any further event queries can be sent to directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
More info Dirtykanza200.com