Indecisive … maybe not the right word but one I could apply to my cycling history … I am never sure which bike I prefer riding or indeed what racing I prefer… so I don’t limit myself to any particular discipline or machine.
At the end of 2011 I was convinced that 2012 would be the year I stayed in the UK with no desire to attend some far flung challenge that would test me physically and usually financially … it wasn’t long however until I was called out on a passing comment on my desire to go and compete in one of the ever growing number of ‘Gravel Grinder’ races in the US … once the words have passed your lips and you have called it then you have to do it… that’s the law.
Gravel grinding is the name adopted to represent the practice of covering large distances travelling on the many gravel roads found within the US … events usually cover anywhere between 100 miles to 320 miles and attracting road and mountain bike riders to race head to head on a fairly level playing field.
With some internet research, facilitated by the excellent XXC Mag news (http://xxcmag.com/news) and the Gravel dedicated blog ‘Gravel Grinder News’ (http://www.gravelgrindernews.com/), I came across an event hailed as the ultimate gravel grinder… The Dirty Kanza 200 …. My race for 2012 had been found… sorry bank balance.
The first hurdle was to get an entry, easy I thought as with time differences in play I could leisurely apply online over a coffee whilst others were having to get up at 5am to try and get in. I knew the race last year sold out quickly so I was prepared to get my entry in… I even had time that day to do some base miles in the morning. Getting home after my ride I logged on a few hours after entries had opened .. ‘Sold Out’ !!!!!!!
The event had sold out in 2 hours !!!! 400 places gone … I was quick to get added to the waiting list and to contact the race organiser, Jim Cummins, to see how likely a ‘wait’ would be converted to an entry … luckily the organisational excellence of this event allowed them to grant every rider that was on the waiting list an entry… I was in.
Training began … in fact before I had my entry it had already began … I stopped cyclo cross racing at the end of December and on New years day I tagged my first road century of the year … which was followed near every weekend with a ride of at least 80 miles every Saturday and more usually over 100 miles. As I trained I was always conscious of my average speeds and trying to replicate a speed that would see me finish the DK200 in reasonable time.
Training progressed well … in March I was able to complete a near 200 mile ride on a mix of mainly road with some offroad sections in just over 13 hours … the event as a total unknown was difficult to train for so I just aimed to ride as many miles as possible.
Researching the event it was clear that equipment choice was also a key element to having a successful race … not only did the bike have to be set up well for many hours in the saddle but also the durability of the parts was a key issue tyres especially as some racers in previous years had suffered up to 8 flats in this race.. I guess the venue… the Flint hills … was an indicator of the challenge posed to the bikes rubber.
As always I had a pretty clear picture of the bike set up I wanted to race on… cyclo cross geometry… disc brakes… clearance for bigger volume tyres… comfort and durability being key… these desires could only be provided by a small number of companies. Those companies were approached in a hope that some may extend an offer of help and in most cases they did… a bike was born.
The build centred around a Salsa Vaya frameset, Salsa being one of few companies that have embraced gravel grinding and actually invest time into developing product for it as well as sponsoring events such as the DK200. The UK supplier of Salsa, Ison Distribution, kindly provided not only the Vaya frameset but also the Halo tyres and wheels to be used too. Other companies to offer assistance included the saddle manufacturer Brooks who supplied a saddle which even out of the box offered some reassuring levels of comfort to an area I had no desire to abuse on the bike.
Once the bike equipment was resolved then the nutritional side was addressed with help from Bounce Balls and Eat Natural bars … the calorie requirements of century rides every weekend was astronomical.
Close to the event I managed to squeeze in a double century on the Vaya which was a reassuring ride as everything felt just perfect and after 13 hours on the bike I had no untoward aches and pains … everything was set to go.
The day of travel started as usual with the usual gamble at the airport check in desk … will they charge me excess or will I blag it ??? Excess ... Luckily only £40 which seemed fairly reasonable as the bike bag weighed in a not so lightweight 28kg.
Arriving at the midway point Chicago we filed through another security check and filled in forms stating we hadn’t brought a selection of fruit and veg into the country eventually reaching the luggage collection … easy, collect bag, re check in bag, go catch next flight.
First bag comes through no problem ... go wait for bike at oversize baggage … belt starts… pushchair, pushchair, some kind of ornament.. cardboard box… pushchair… belt stops. NO BIKE !!! … checked other areas of luggage hall and asked as many people as possible all who were slightly less informed than that last. Eventually we gave up waiting for it and went to check in our remaining bag and report it missing.
Arrive at Wichita… final destination only to find bike still missing and only a day to find itL
We caught a ride to the town of Emporia, home of the DK200, with a wife of one of the local racers, we were immediately struck by how helpful everyone was… the word had got out my bike was missing and for the next mornings social ride I had already been loaned a bike, a little small but it mean’t I could turn some pedals and loosen my legs.
At this point I had got word back to Pat at ISON distribution in the UK that the Vaya was missing and I guess he just sent a cry for help across all contacts at Salsa in the US as sitting in my motel room the afternoon before the race I get a text to say that Salsa have a bike for me ... a few hours later I am at the High Gear Cyclery in Emporia meeting Bobby from Salsa and he is handing me a prototype Salsa ti gravel bike owned by Ryan Horkey, another Salsa rider … thank you very much !!! a bike I had never ridden but I was back in the game. After a quick supermarket sweep to replace my missing shoes, hydration pack etc I was fully kitted up and ready to race.
Race day …. The race started at 6am so myself and a friend from Oregon, Tom Letsinger, rolled out the motel at 5.30am and joined the procession of blinking led lights to downtown Emporia … the entire main street had been closed for the event and the 400 riders due to start had begun to amass organised by projected finishing time banners held by women on roller skates.. Rock and Roll !!! After a pre race coffee I optimistically jumped up the front and lined up with the 12 hour guys.. after all I was hear to race not ride
The first 3 miles were neutralised … or as neutral as a pack of nervous riders could be as everyone constantly jostled for the best position in the pack before a right hand turn onto gravel would see this race get underway.
The pace was brisk … well it was bordering on fast .. I had been warned that the start of the event would be fast as people tried to get out the front out of the dust and form some early groups … I wasn’t lied to as this is exactly how it played out and like racing a road race I was always mindful of my position in the group and stayed within the first 20 or so riders so as to be best placed for any eventuality.
As it turns out that eventuality was that everyone in this lead group of 20 or so was so pre occupied with racing that navigation had taken a back seat …. The event route is mostly way marked but this isn’t a given as things move so each rider gets a route card to the next checkpoint of which there are 3 and as you arrive at the checkpoint you get the route card to get you to the next one.
So we arrived as a swiftly moving pack into a t junction then the realisation of the navigational error set in …. We had ridden maybe 2 miles passed the turn off we needed … so now we needed to ride 2 miles back to it …. What once was a fast pace then became insane as the lead group then became the gruppeto with 380 or so riders ahead of us.
Quickly that lead 20 riders had become maybe 10 or 12… the quality of the group was good with 2 previous winners and the winner of the annual Gravel worlds race and we were cutting a path through the riders in front fighting our way back to the front … with still 170 or so miles to race there was no consideration of the effort that was being invested in this chase, as every minute passed the temperature had started to rise.
50 miles into the race we had finally regained the lead but the pace had just become too much and I decided ... although my hand was being forced by those around me… that to continue riding this quickly would soon see me exploding spectactularly so I eased back and as I watched the front group ride away I found myself on my own.
Mentally this race is very tough … the terrain is undulating you get very little reprise from the effort of racing … the temperature this year was around 30 degrees celcius so for a Brit it was very hot and it is very dry … what can be soul destroying is that you can see the line of riders strung out over miles ahead of you and to look back the same …. This also becomes very disconcerting later in the race when you can’t see riders ahead or behind as the doubts of possible navigational errors creep in.
The salvation from the mental anguish this event can place a rider in is the checkpoints, of which there are 3, where a rider can have a support team with supplies .. in my case this would be my girlfriend Grace and Tom’s girlfriend Cassie operating out of a motorhome… these checkpoints were a welcome break to take a moment off the bike get some cold fluids and try and eat which in the heat was difficult.
As the race continued I found myself less and less able to force any real effort through the pedals as I was constantly battling to replenish the fluids my body was expelling through every pore on my body and the effort of riding alone on these roads was mentally tiring, it is never good to have a lot of time mid race to contemplate the wisdom of riding these endurance races as invariably the question of sanity arises.
Every now and then I would ride past an unfortunate racer with a flat and customarily offer assistance which unfortunately was mostly not required … fellow Salsa rider Tim Ek I passed on 3 occasions with flats later learning he eventually had to change both tyres due to sidewall cuts… other than these brief encounters the occasional rider or group would catch up but I would find it difficult to settle into a pace other than the one I was riding at so eventually I would be out on my own again… even the iPod wasn’t helping as I never realised how very similar every AC-DC track is.
Not long after the second checkpoint with around 80 miles left to ride I was caught by another rider ... I think I had seen him coming for maybe 10 miles and this time instead of passing we seemed to be riding at a similar pace, Shane from Boulder, Colorado.
Shane was also appreciative of the company and we settled into a similar paced ride each waiting if the other needed a quick stop or was slightly slower on any section as to ride together was a great mental preserver.
My hopes that the temperature would start to fall off in late afternoon never materialised and coming into the final checkpoint with less than 40 miles remaining I was hotter than ever … rolling out saw the first 7 miles of the final section ridden on shaded disused rail path … a real treat after baking for so long we were quickly however back onto gravel and into the sun to cruelly ride past not only the shaded track we had been on several times but also a large lake to watch people enjoying numerous watersports … at this point the idea of riding straight into the motels pool on return to Emporia had started to seem quite reasonable.
A final missed turn 12 miles from the end added another few bonus miles to the days travels and I was thankful that only 2 navigational errors had been made the whole race as I had read of huge errors being made by previous years racers and at that point it would have been difficult to force myself to backtrack any huge distance.
The welcome sight of paved road saw us enter the final few miles of the race as we passed through the centre of the University campus then entered the finish straight … the whole town it seemed had come out to party and cheer the finishing riders over the line. As myself and Shane rolled over the line together we had time for a final knowing handshake in recognition of the tough day on the bike we had just endured and eventually overcome then I was greeted by Grace and local rider Shawn Honea who quickly furnished me with a cold beer. The bike was returned to Salsa’s finishing line stand and I got to sit on the pavement and reflect the days ride …. First international rider to not only complete the DK200 but also any US gravel grinder hopefully highlighting the challenge of these events and the worth of travelling to race them… a true physical and mental challenge.
The event blew me away on all fronts .. the organisation.. the local people.. the tough challenge of just completing this race. The drama of losing my bike never seemed to matter as the help I received overcame any obstacle that arose from it.
Huge thank you to especially the following people in no order;
Grace, my long suffering bike widow girlfriend, for letting me again take up our holidays with crazy races and still having the patience to support me well during the event.
Jim Cummins and the Dirty Kanza crew for such a fantastic event
The kind people of Emporia for making me feel so welcome.. especially Shawn, Rick, Amy and Lynette.
Pat from Ison Distributiion for the bike and parts.
The guys at Salsa in the US for the replacement bike.
Brooks for the saddle I never got to race on but in training proved excellent.
Eat Natural for all the great bars I consumed preparing for this great event.
Bounce Balls for all your product that helped me recover after every crazy training ride.
Matt Brown and the rest of the guys at High Gear Cyclery, Emporia, Kansas for their help in setting me up with what I need to race.
My friends Tom and Cassie from Oregon, Tom raced well to a 2nd place singlespeed finish and Cassie was the means to get Grace to every checkpoint and help to support my race.
Finally and maybe most importantly Rick Perry, this crazy fool convinced me to enter this event and also entered himself … he worked hard to secure sponsors and logistics only to have life and work conspire against him so he himself couldn’t make the trip.