Photos by Jason Ebberts
The first time I visited Emporia, Kansas, was in 2012. Obviously it was to ride a bike, and Dirty Kanza was my first taste of true midwest gravel grinding. Back then, just over 400 riders took the start, and my day was done in 14 hours and 22 minutes.
My lasting memories of that year’s race are riding at the front of the field at the start, steadily being dropped, enduring the heat of the day, and then finishing up riding with a cool guy from Colorado. At that time, it was a box ticked and I was ready to look for my challenges elsewhere. Or at least that was the plan. But there is something different about Dirty Kanza, and especially Emporia. It’s an infectious atmosphere and culture of riding, and once you have been and seen, it will always pull you back.
I made some great friends that first year, though it wasn’t until four years later, in 2016, when I returned for my round two. Arriving back in Emporia felt like an old familiar saddle you love…comfortable, welcoming, and a place you could happily stay for a long time.
In 2016 I was ill-prepared physically, having little training ahead of the day, but I was a bit better prepared mentally, having some existing insight in to what was likely to happen. I rode quickly at the start, though avoided the front guys (they were a lot faster this time). I knew when the oven was turned up midday I would need to ease right off and survive until in the evening, when the temperature would drop to allow a quicker pace again.
I finished in over 15 hours that year; a better riding plan compensated for my lack of training. The event in 2016 had already grown to 1000 riders taking on the 200-mile course, with close to 2000 registered across the multiple distance options.
This year, the opportunity came to ride Dirty Kanza again through Brooks Saddles—I would be preaching the good word of Cambium. This time some earlier events, notably the Jeroboam 300, would ensure I got to the start with at least the ability to ride 200 miles in one sitting.
Now, across all distances the event pulls in 2200 riders, and at the time of registration opening, over 4000 riders were logged on seeking a spot. That is an indication of how special this event has become in the hearts of those who gravel. It is easy to scale an event, but what truly differentiates Dirty Kanza is that it has still maintained its personable feeling. Every rider comes to Emporia to visit Jim, Kristi, LeLan, and Tim, the promoters…and of course to ride their bikes, too.
Game plan for 2017 was simple: hang with friends for as long as possible. There was no aspiration for a particular finishing time, although to finish before sunset, Racing the Sun, is always on people’s minds.
True to form and as per my previous two editions of Dirty Kanza, I borrowed a Salsa Warbird to get the job done. The kind people at Salsa Cycles enabled me to travel lightly and also use what is still one of the finest gravel bikes on the market. I never worry about the bike during the day, mostly just my ability to operate it.
Six a.m. start. I love the DK roll-out. Everyone is so excited and the streets are lined with spectators. Even a reserved Englishman can’t help but get caught up in the good-luck hugs, high fives and fist bumps. This year the spectators on the sidewalk stretched almost the mile and a half to the first turn on to the start of the gravel. You can’t manufacture that kind of atmosphere—it’s purely organic.
Once you hit the gravel, that’s the surface you will ride for near 99% of the rest of the day.
With so many riders out on course, you are guaranteed never to be truly alone; if not in a group, you can generally always—reassuringly—see the guy in front. Navigation here is easy, as even the dirt roads are mainly just a series of straights and 90 degree turns—no hassle following the GPS here.
The plan to ride with friends is working just fine until my first flat. It happens. During the ride to the first checkpoint, the course is always littered with riders fixing flats. No drama, a few minutes out in a day of 200 miles is no big deal. I let my friends, Bobby and Jeff, roll on at their steady pace, fix my flat and then set out to catch up. Rolling in to the first checkpoint, my support crew (family and friends of the guys I am riding with) lets me know I am not far behind. The first section of 48 miles from the start to the first checkpoint has taken just under three hours. On a long (by DK standards) climb, as we near the top, I catch back on to my group. Back into a steady pace.
During the second leg, I am braced for the lift in temperature but it doesn’t come. Cloud cover is keeping the sun at bay, and though the increase in humidity is evident, not being baked is welcome. Strangely, in our group I seem to be the strongest climber (thank you Jeroboam 300), but on the flat the other guys drop down onto the aero bars and often steadily ease away.
On this second leg our group of three part ways…I am left in the middle, riding my own deal and really enjoying my day on the bike. With the heat of the day not materialising and carrying more fluids than ever before, I can push on without any nagging doubts.
At the second checkpoint we regroup and roll back out again together. Soon the group of three turns to two, and then again as before, I am back in the middle of this split, happy in my own thoughts, catching more riders than being passed. I remember this leg from the previous year, feeling like I was riding backwards, suffering in the heat, and not able to ride at a similar pace to anyone…that’s a lonely place to be.
Checkpoint 3, final check and chance to grab enough food and drink for the final push to the finish. Jeff is just about to leave as I arrive, so he gives me a few minutes to grab what I need so we can leave together. A mile after leaving the checkpoint, Jeff drops onto the aerobars and again I am riding alone. There is no sense when riding this kind of distance to try and ride a matching pace to someone else. Invariably you end up progressing slower than you would like, or worse still, digging deep to eventually blow up. Aim to ride alone and in your own happy place—should you find company here, that’s always a bonus.
One advantage of riding back-to-back years was that I managed to get two years where the course remained unchanged (every two years they mix it up), so I knew broadly what was coming. During the final leg I checked off the sections I remembered…railway crossings, brief road sections, passing Bobby’s house. As we got to just outside town, I knew exactly what was left to ride, so could empty everything left into the legs. This may have looked like an attack (albeit a very slow one) aimed at the riders around me, but it signified more an effort to just get the job done.
Two hundred and six miles had been ridden, 13 hours and 40 minutes had elapsed, and the sun was still in the sky as I rode down Main St. of Emporia and into the finishers’ chute.
A congratulatory hug from one of the promoters, LeLan, soon followed by a beer and a Coke being placed in my hands by good friend Shawn Honea, and I was done. Another DK under my belt.
Stop at three finishes? Well, it just so happens that should you get to five with 1000 miles ridden, you get the Gravel Grail. I need that in my life. Maybe after five I will drop to the 100 mile distance and enjoy more beer (unlikely).
See you in 2018, Emporia—my love for your fair town and people grows as quickly as the popularity of Dirty Kanza. You are truly the home of gravel.
Thanks to Brooks England, Salsa Cycles and the Dirty Kanza Organisers for another fine event.