I was always reminded of a saying from my elders when growing up… to “call up the devil” was to be too boastful of your accomplishments or show just a little too much confidence in preparation for a big event (such as DK200). To do so would most certainly bring about a course correction from the universe so as to re-introduce some humility and put you in your cosmic place. No… t’was better to keep your head down, don’t brag about your confidence in absolutely crushing your training or goals, and focus on the prep. Maintain a sense of just how much shit can go wrong and try to plan accordingly… In other words; hope for the best, plan for the worst.
All that sounds great on paper but, as Mike Tyson once said; “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” If you’re a DirtyKanza200 rider, getting punched in the mouth can come from a number of things.
Let’s talk weather… In the days leading up to the race, I would meet and talk to dozens of people around Emporia. With each and every conversation, I was repeatedly asked if this would be my first DK. I’d always reply that this would be my fourth time starting and that I’d finished twice. The one DNF was 2015; colloquially referred to by DK veterans and the officials as “the year of the mud”. I made it to mile 11 that year and, to quote Forrest Gump; “That’s all I’m go’n say ‘bout that”
Weather in Emporia surrounding the DirtyKanza race is always a crap shoot… It will run the gamut from torrential rainfall amounts that literally flood the area creeks and rivers up to biblical levels all the way to being a dust bowl of hot and dry conditions that make you feel as if you’ll just spontaneously combust as soon as you step out of the shade… This year was to be no exception. Personally, I’ve never had the pleasure of riding DK in moderate/temperate Spring conditions. Just once I’d like to have some consistency in pleasant weather leading up to and riding in that area.
Like so many other racers, I stalked all the local weather channels and online sites to gauge an idea of what to expect for race day conditions. Everything looked like it was going to be a repeat of 2015… another year of mud. To say anticipating that scenario set some anxiety in me would be a gross understatement. Tire choice, gear choice, mud cleaning tools, sketchy handling from newly converted roadies unfamiliar with the nuances of codeswitching their brains to off-pavement handling, and loads of hike-a-bike… there are just no redeeming qualities to a muddy DK200. Checking out my friend’s Strava files prior to arrival showed a lot of flooding again, standing water on the gravel roads and rutted B roads from the trucks and tractors trying to make it through. In other words; the most horrible conditions ever for a gravel race.
Tangent… if not for the grace, patience, and planning of Jay Price; I would not even be in the consideration for this year’s DK200; so all credit to him for his relentless efforts in planning and details of logistics. Ever since DK switched to the lottery system of entry, I’ve not been able to get in and I was truly elated that Jay was able to help me achieve a long sought-after goal.
Back to our regularly scheduled pre-race report…
My wife was unable to get Tuesday off completely so our arrival was delayed by a full day. In hindsight, that was probably for the best since, with all the pre-race rains (Emporia had 33” of rain in the month of May); it’s very likely I would have made some critical gear choice changes in the days leading up to the start and, considering actual race conditions; those would have put me at a fair disadvantage come race day. We left out Tuesday night and drove straight through to arrive Wednesday. A race with the logistical and course challenges of DK should be afforded an adequate amount of time to scope out as many concerns as possible prior to the start. I have a mantra left over from my days of endurance MTB racing… If it’s gonna break, make damn sure to do it before the race starts. Get your plan of attack sorted, then put the gear and yourself through as much stress as you’re comfortable with on the actual course and conditions. Gravel and B roads will jostle, shake, rattle, and vibrate loose even the most tightly secured gear.
So, gear choice… my bike isn’t the prettiest, most modern, whiz-bang, dedicated “gravel” bike out there. In point of fact; it’s a 22 year old Moots CX bike with canti brakes, a YBB spring on the rear and a spindly 1” threadless IndyFab canti fork up front. With only 38c tire clearance; I have zero doubt that the designers of my bike were ever considering its use under these conditions but, there is some hidden value and beauty of the design. The YBB out back combined with the flexy steel fork up front and the supple Moots Ti frame; all those combined make for one of the most comfortable and confidence-inspiring rides I have ever pedaled. There’s some intangible qualities there that just seem to be the perfect blend for my riding style and abilities. The fact that it has completed two DK200s before this year just solidified my choice. I’ll have to retire it eventually… but for this year, and until I do; it’s the perfect arrow.
The only changes I really made to the bike were to mount new tires to my set of HED Belgium+ wheels and to install a prototype set of Road TOGS on the drops of the handlebars. To be so inconspicuous, those little thumb grips proved to be an immense aid in bike control and hand relief throughout the race, but more on that later… As to tire choice; I’ve long been a Schwalbe fanboy and have been successfully using their tires under all conditions on all of my bikes until this year. Knowing how much gravel racing has grown and , as much as I hate to admit it, adopted as mainstream by the industry; I wanted to see what was out there in the tire market. So many choices… so much marketing hype… so many shoot-from-the-hip opinions on the gravel forums and message boards. It really is information overload and one could easily get overwhelmed with all the noise amongst so many signals. I considered the Donnelly MSO from previous experience but recalled how heavy they felt when rolling… not necessarily a deal breaker with Kansas gravel as that flint will shred a tire within minutes of touching rubber to gravel, but I felt there was more out there to consider. I’ve never really been an adopter of just using what past winners and pros choose, mostly because they typically have full support crews, domestiques, mechanics, spares upon spares, and don’t always put those tires under the repeated stresses of us privateers on a budget.
After distilling through all the reviews and real-world feedback, I finally chose the Vittoria Terreno Dry with their Graphene tread technology. It kept bubbling to the top as a very capable tire that flew under most people’s radars. Everything I read stated that they shed mud better than expected, with lower rolling resistance, increased puncture resistance yet inspired full confidence in cornering and descending sketchy doubletrack B roads. Knowing the width limitations of my frame, I opted for the 700×33 version of the tires and mounted them up to the wide HED Belgium+ rims. That mounting stretched them out to a more comfortable 37c width and, combined with tubeless mounting, proved to be the right choice for DK. I put them through their paces on my local Umstead “gravel” (it is WAY more sandy as compared to anywhere in the Midwest) for the two weekends prior to DK so as to get a feel and feedback for pressures, handling, and try to break them before departure. I settled on a pump pressure reading of 42psi but my trusted Topeak digital gauge said 36psi.
…Pro tip for running low pressure tires with multiple pumps in rotation; use a second handheld gauge to maintain a consistent tire pressure across all of them. I have three floor pumps and at least 3-4 handheld frame pumps across all my bikes and none of those pump gauges will read identically on the same tire. They are all high on the gauge by at least 5psi and up to 7 in the worst case. I typically go by feel and feedback of the tire’s grip on the surface along with a verification of that pressure after finding that desired balance of grip, speed, and handling confidence with the handheld gauge.
Okay, the road TOGS. I’ve been using MTB TOGS (Thumb Over Grip System) for years now and they’ve been invaluable for reducing hand fatigue from gripping bars for hours and hours over the course of a race. When I caught a news blip that TOGS was testing a road version for drop handlebars, my first thoughts went to the fatigue of my hands throughout the other DKs and gravel stage races I’ve competed in. I scoped out the site details, then jumped on the email list for their Kickstarter launch and hoped they’d be launched in time for DK. I waited, and waited, watched the launch date get bumped to April, then late April, then mid-May… and finally contacted them to ask if they’d be launched and delivered in time for Kanza? They replied that Kickstarter had been repeatedly delaying the launch but that they could not imagine doing DK without a pair so they sent me a set of the prototype road TOGS with an agreement that I’d show them off while in Emporia. I agreed and before I knew it, they were in my mailbox. I mounted them to the Moots and trialed them on Umstead’s relentless rollers and steep descents. Had to tweak their position along the curve of the drops a couple of times to really dial in the grip and retain shifting/braking. The TOGS proved to be a formidable tool for bike steering and control on descents. Even one-handed, the added grip and stability of having a slight thumb hook inspired loads of confidence. That stability freed up my other hand on loose and choppy surfaces to reduce numbness, ease my death grip on the actual bars, and still maintain necessary steering control when eating and drinking. Coming from a MTB racing background, I get a genuine rush from descending loose and chunky routes and I was game for anything that added control and confidence when ripping a descent. Those few moments while simultaneously scanning for the cleanest line and feeling the bike float and dance underneath me is a visceral thrill unlike anything else. The road TOGS were invaluable when it came time to let loose the reins in the flint hills.
Nutrition… where to begin… don’t underestimate it. I will expound more later on my nutrition, or lack thereof, for this DK but, suffice to say; it’s a critical and oft-ignored component of any event. I didn’t really change anything up for this year’s running and stuck with my tried/true Tailwind liquid nutrition at 300-400 calories per bottle. I did set up an alert on my Garmin to chime at me every 15 minutes as a reminder to drink. It worked… when I had something to drink. I supplemented the liquid nutrition with boiled and heavily salted fingerling potatoes, some dill pickle slices w/ brine, and a piece or two of leftover bacon. In my emergency stash in the frame bag were a pack of salt stick capsules and a pack of Sportlegs. Those too would come into play later in the day… as would other “found” calories.
I spent Wednesday and Thursday pre-riding the sections between Emporia and Americus which would be both beginning and end of the route. While I considered pushing out further and/or driving some of the course; there were so many people in my Strava feed that were pre-riding, as well as listening to the conversations around town, and then the dinner with the NC crew that I felt parlayed all the necessary dirty details of those outer sections. The brontosaurus in the room was the unknown and blatantly incorrect elevation for the route. Garmin’s route had the elevation calculated at only about 5600 feet. I knew from years past that was an outright falsehood. Every year I’ve done DK has been well over 8k feet of elevation for the course and with the route running North this year, the actual elevation should be closer to 10k and Jay’s conversations said closer to 12… The pre-ride reports coming in from the field sounded about par for the course for a DK route; fast at the start with a bottlenecked B road that would shatter the group about mile 25-30, then rolling hills until mile 160 or so. It had not rained since my arrival in Emporia and the weather forecast showed only minimal chances of pop-up storms late in the day so, hopefully all those mud sections everyone was pre-riding would be dried out… though still rutted and chunky with rocks, tire treads, holes, etc…
The 12 miles between Americus and Emporia were pan-flat with the only real rises at one bridge across the interstate, and the final kicker hill just before entering the University. This would mean a crazy fast and tight start though with a nice ease into the finish… ‘cept for that kicker hill. I participated in a couple of the big organized group rides since quite a few of my Military Endurance Sports team were in town for the event. They were organizing some photos as well as trying to work out any group strategies but that’s such a difficult thing to put into practice over that much distance with everyone being self-supported. In the end, it really boils down to having as much fun as possible while suffering… odd as that sounds.
The NC crew met for dinner at a newly opened Asian/Vietnamese restaurant to catch up on the week’s activities, compare strategies to deal with the impending leg and gear shredding gravel, and share some much needed laughs. I’ll admit; it was really enjoyable and eased my anxiety to have some familiar faces in town and to see old racing friends tackling such a big event. I tried to relate as much as I could from my previous runnings of DK but it’s just so damn big that it’s almost impossible to relay everything without going into information overload.