The first rule I gave myself in retirement was to not ride in the rain. I’ve slogged through enough muddy spring classics and frigid pre-season New England training days in my previous career that voluntarily suffering when I’m no longer calling it a job is inane.
Then I moved to San Francisco. Next came the rain. Before long I found myself out riding in it.
As it pertains to racing, I settled on allowing myself to participate in competition that doesn’t require a license. If that rule ever needs to be skewed, the offshoot new one reads: only participate in events that offer ornamental awards to the top finishers. While I’ve been taught the value of a hard earned dollar and I don’t snub money, a trite double-digit paycheck doesn’t hold value against a one-of-a-kind trophy made by a local artisan. That’s priceless.
I’m fresh back from Kansas and with that trip I brought home a win at Dirty Kanza and with it the eponymous title “Gravel King” conveniently emblazoned on a beautiful handmade belt buckle. 200 miles spanning the unequivocally not flat Kansas countryside, 98% of it on viciously sharp gravel roads, the DK200 shows no signs of slowing down as it enters its eleventh year.
How it Feels to Win
Admittedly, the margin of victory was sizable. Am I proud of that? You’re darn right I am! I’m a retired pro bike racer just like the 2014 DK champ who cut an hour off the previous record. In fact, he was my biggest rival in the race, right up until the sapping heat took him out of the competition with just a quarter of the race remaining. You can count the number of intervals I’ve done since retirement on one hand, so I found success on the ever-slowing momentum of WorldTour fitness that I honed working as a domestique for the previous decade of my life. During my pro bike racing career, I sacrificed my own ambitions for the success of others and I’m the first to say that it is nice to put my hands in the air on the podium.
As traditional American bike races struggle to find sponsorship and their racing clientele anonymously swoop in and out of town in the blink of an eye, Emporia, KS becomes the epicenter of gravel racing for an entire week. 2,000 eager racers come from around the world, families and friends in tow, all competing for their own different reasons while the biggest party kicks off stretching from the 6 am start gun to the 3 am cutoff time. There are food trucks and beer gardens, organized reconnaissance rides plus camps months in advance. More than anything there is hospitality, camaraderie, sportsmanship, and an element of fun unlike anything else found on two-wheels.
And no one is racing for a single dollar.
What’s Harder, Paris-Roubaix or Dirty Kanza?
The brutality of the Dirty Kanza, pummeling yourself for twelve-plus hours across the farmlands of middle America, draws immediate parallels to Paris-Roubaix. Before, during, and after the race that question inevitably was directed my way since I believe I’m the only person to have competed in both How does Kanza compare to the Hell of the North? My answer: DK is a totally different animal — and magnificently beastly in its own right. Roubaix is unnatural. It’s inhumane. It’s riding a jackhammer at 50 kph while fighting tooth and nail for every spec of pavement beneath you, against an angry cadre of locals with knowhow that dwarfs your own because your last name isn’t gutturally Flemish.
By the same token Roubaix isn’t Kanza. It’s not nearly 10,000 feet of climbing. It’s not almost entirely off-road, not 2,000 competitors, not self-supported, and not 90 degrees with a return leg featuring 100 miles into a seething headwind. And Roubaix certainly isn’t 200 miles.
Roubaix is physical. That pave isn’t pave; it’s bike racing through a football team’s defensive line. At day’s ends, you feel brutally damaged. Meanwhile Dirty Kanza is mental. Despite amassing 2,000 people anxiously champing at the bit on the start line before dawn, over 200 miles and especially with demanding conditions found within the first few minutes, the peloton is quickly blown to smithereens. There is no breakaway and traditional racing tactics like those I practiced the previous decade of my life. It unfolds with a flurry of attacks, continually diminishing the peloton until it inevitably becomes a solo time trial.
How The Race Was Won
Our lead group was 100, then 50, then 20. Around mile 80 yet another attack from our group of twelve splintered things some more; I countered that creating a lead group of just three. That solo time trial moment for me came at mile 95 into a 206-mile race (yes, it’s called the DK200, but there are six bonus miles thrown in for good measure) when I dropped the hammer a bit more. A 111-mile time trial ensued.
The course is shaped like a figure-eight. When I reached the southern-most point, I was devastated to discover there would be a headwind for the entire return trip north. It was dumb optimism that led me to hope that that the winds would shift. Surely it wouldn’t be a headwind for the entire return leg. Yes, dumb indeed. The clock ticked by, I knew the distance still to be covered, and was painfully witnessing my average speed slowly ticking down. The inkling of doubt was slowly seeping into my mind. Suddenly I questioned my ability, my drive, my breaking point.
This race is hard for so many reasons — the distance, the heat, the level of preparation required — and is virtually impossible to prepare for the actual race situation. It’s not a race as much as it is a test. You can focus all day on the big details. But everyone shows up fit, everyone has double, triple, quadruple-checked their equipment. It’s a test of one’s will and desire to plod on in spite of the trying circumstances. That’s what a time trial is too. Do you want to keep suffering or just let off the pedals a bit? No one is there to judge you, it’s just you and your mind. That’s the test.
Dirty Kanza and Leadville
Obvious parallels are drawn between the DK and Leadville. What started as an underground competition naturally spawned into something so much bigger as racers, professionals and amateurs alike, descend upon an otherwise sleepy town for an unworldly competition. 2,000 mountain bikers tear across 100 miles of skyscraping Rocky Mountains despite the near inability to find oxygen. At the Kanza, two-wheeled Darwinism quickly splinters the field. In Leadville too, the event is as much about mastering a mental challenge as it is an alpine out-and-back time trial.
And yet these races are growing and represent a significant chapter of American racing. Their staying power is self evident. Just drop in on the finish line and there’s a tangible energy as thousands of fans, fellow competitors, families all welcome back each racer despite the time of day. These non-UCI sanctioned gravel events — Grasshoppers, Tainthammers, trans-name-your-state-gravel-grinder, Leadville — have long been a draw for professionals and super elite teams. I’m not new to the game, but I love what they represent.
Go Head to Head with the Greats
It’s one thing to compare yourself on a climb that a professional tour races through, be it the Alps, the Rockies, or the Sierras. Yet more often than not, these segments are raced many days into a stage race and with hours of draining racing beforehand. When they’re tackled by non-pros they’re an all-out effort entirely fresh like a time trial. Comparatively, dropping in the likes of me, my friend Laurens ten Dam* or guys with the last names Leipheimer, Kabush, and Wicks,** allows a direct side-by-side comparison that’s nearly unanimously embraced by non-pros with an incredibly strong competitive spirit by all involved. Social media lights up and fans are thrilled with our presence. This isn’t said nor do we compete to stoke our egos. It’s for the thrill of competition. It brings broader attention to events and it’s guaranteed that the fact we race these events is used as substantiation of their credibility and to bolster their reputations. We’re good advertising.
But you better believe we’re having fun.
Photos by Gravel Guru
These races, like Dirty Kanza, are seemingly endless suffering with a euphoric Yes the moment you cross the line and think about coming back the next year. There aren’t a lot of things I’ll suffer through for nearly twelve hours. But apparently a belt buckle is one of them. Hopefully my Leadville, though, is closer to half that time.
* winner of Tainthammer, racing Leadville
** all compete in Grasshoppers. Wicks did the last two Dirty Kanzas