Ride Report: Swallowing the Dirty Kanza Half Pint

Cyclocross Race Coverage
Bent spokes + Missed turns + Gravel + Mutual Assistance + Community Support=Great Time at Dirty Kanza Half Pint

This bike had so much fun participating in the Dirty Kanza Half Pint that it insisted on kissing the gravel.

Dirty Kanza Gravel Grinder

When: 6-1-13, Saturday
Event: Dirty Kanza Half Pint
Location: Emporia, KS/Flint Hills/Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Weather: Mid 50s to Upper 60s
Start: 6:15 a.m.
Ride Time: 8.5 hours
Race Distance: 109 miles
My Actual Distance: 125 miles (oops)
Elevation Gain: 4,820’
Support Crew: The Notorious Molly Van Campen

Having hauled myself, my ‘cross bike, my girlfriend/support crew Molly, and a war chest of tools, spare tires, eight tubes, gear and sundry other supplies halfway across the country from San Francisco to Emporia, KS to compete in my first ever gravel grinder, the Dirty Kanza Half Pint, I felt reasonably confident I had everything I needed to make it through the race. But as I sat on the floor of my Comfort Inn hotel room at midnight the night before the race putting my bike together, a waking nightmare unfolded before my eyes.

The overhead light off, I’d strapped my headlight to my helmet so I could see the front wheel I was truing without waking up Molly who had spent the two prior weeks dealing with my anxious, neurotic preparations. While gravel racing has blown up in 2013, there’s still relatively little information about optimal bike setup and training to be found on the topic and I’d had to scramble to shoehorn all of my prep and tinkering into the little free time I’d had prior to departing for the race. Now I observed that somewhere between California and the aged carpet where my 2002 Ridley ‘cross rig now sat upside down resting on the seat and bars, a few spokes had gotten bent, including one that had taken on a nauseating J-shape and appeared to be on the verge of snapping. I had brought everything I thought I might possibly need–but not spare spokes.

My wheel had a huge wobble in it and there wasn’t much I could do except try to straighten it out and hope for the best. As Molly can attest, I didn’t actually handle it quite that calmly and after dropping a few F bombs and stirring her from her light slumber, I hit the rack at 2 a.m. to try to steal a few winks before the long day I knew I had ahead.

Yes, I agree with you. I am an idiot for not getting to Emporia earlier, putting my bike together sooner, not bringing a spoke, not being prepared for the unknown and unknowable, for not being a better packer. Yes, I am positive you would have done a better job and that this wouldn’t have happened to you. But it happened to me. As the bush pilot said in Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, though, no matter where you go, there you are.

And there I was.

I tossed and turned until 4:30 then got up, had coffee, ate and headed for Commercial Street, Emporia’s quaint main drag, where a thousand racers lined up to face the day’s challenge.

I’ve participated in bike racing in various forms at a modest level for 26 years. I covered RAGBRAI for Bicycling magazine once then did it again for fun and have a love for dirt, gravel and the great plains. Gravel’s in my blood too–three generations of the Vontz family have built roads and I spent many childhood vacations playing at the family gravel pit in Ayr, Nebraska. Six years ago, I wrote a short piece about the TransIowa race and ultra dirt racer Jeff Kerkove, now a Topeak-Ergon pro (then an Iowa bike shop employee and racer), for Mountain Bike magazine and have wanted to try a gravel grinder ever since.

One of the many dozens of rolling climbs that added up to 4,800′ of climbing over the course of the day.

Now in its seventh year, the Dirty Kanza 200 has emerged as a classic in the gravel grinder genre. Forged in the heartland and imbued with a libertarian, underground ethos you won’t experience at a NORBA race, office park crit or gran fondo, there’s no neutral support provided at the Dirty Kanza and no outside assistance allowed except at designated checkpoints. Racers take care of themselves and each other, and that’s it. It’s a hardman’s event and has come to be regarded as the crown jewel of the emergent gravel racing scene, an event so popular that it sells out within hours of registration opening.

A few blocks down the road from the start, this train decided to show off by rolling by and stopping the ride for five minutes. It was a handsome train.

I’d scored a slot and that’s how I ended up on Commercial Street that morning. The entire Emporia community gets behind this ride in a way I’ve never seen an entire city get behind a bike event before. They turned out en masse to watch the start and unreservedly show their support for the people who show up to race in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else except RAGBRAI. Fifteen minutes after the DK 200 racers rolled out at 6, my ride started–and then stopped three blocks later at a railroad crossing where we sat behind a cop car while a slow-moving freight train rolled by.

Once the train passed we hammered out of town then hung a right to launch onto the gravel at speed where we quickly formed a smooth paceline of about 20 riders that took turns drilling it. I forgot my jacked front wheel, pedaled, and between heaving breaths took in the scenery as it faded from farmland to spectacular rolling prairie. I’d expected a brutally bumpy ride akin to the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix, which left me with the feeling I’d just been thrown into a VitaMix when I’d had the opportunity to ride them. Floating on 40-mm tires pumped to 62 psi under my decidedly undainty 195-pound frame, the Kansas gravel didn’t feel horrifically punishing at all.

Continue reading for more on the Dirty Kanza and complete photo gallery.

About the author: Andrew Vontz

Andrew Vontz is a writer, trainer, cycling coach and adventurer based in San Francisco. He writes about people, places and things at the limits of human experience. His work has appeared in Rolling StonePlayboyOutsideBicyclingMen’s Health, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the UFC magazine and many other publications. Find him @vontz on twitter and instagram. Find more of his stories at www.andrewvontz.com.


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  • Learux says:

    Awesome write up. Almost makes me want to go do it,

  • Pierre says:

    Very nice report – didn’t even know there was such type of ride, long distance flat-ish gravel rides. The help-other-riders-in-trouble attitude sounds great!

  • Greg says:

    Great read and story! One of the best things about these kinds of events is the camaraderie that develops out on the trail! People are racing, but they are also not leaving anyone behind.

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