Monday, June 6, 2016

Tears, Puke, Blood and Joy - "The Dirty Kanza"

     It is referred to as "The World's Premier Gravel Cycling Event". For those who dare take on the 200 miles of Kanza, it is possible that all things in the title above await you.

     Asleep before 9pm the evening before the race, I looked forward to a solid nights sleep. The air conditioner had been set to slightly above hibernation temps. An annoying parking lot light was no match to the taping shut of the curtains. 4 am would rear it's ugly head soon enough. I was doing everything possible to stay knocked out until the iPhone alarm, backed up by the hotel wake up call, rudely interrupted my dreams of dry roads, overcast skies and tailwinds. Mother nature had different plans. Although not in the forecast, she cut loose with her own wake up call. The occasional flashes of light interrupted my otherwise deep sleep. Not enough to completely wake me but more in that sort of in between asleep and awake place. The rumbles that eventually followed, in concert with the wind and driving rain confirmed the earlier flashes of light were not of my imagination. "No matter". I thought, as the storm moved through before first light. "It's been pretty dry. These gravel roads will eat that rain right up. Might even keep the Kanza dust down a bit."  WRONG.

     Ted "freaking" King?!?! Come on!!! Really?!?!? This dude has raced in the biggest bike races in the world, literally. The Tour de France, The Giro d' Italia, the Vuelta, he has toed the line at them all. And now he was being announced at the starting line of the DK200. There are few other sports, if any that you get to compete on the same playing field at the same time with some of the best in the world. Ted was not the first big name to race here, but with due respect to other greats who have raced here, Rebecca Rusch, Dan Hughes, Brian Jensen, Yuri Hauswald to name a few, he's the biggest. To follow in his tire tracks was pretty cool. The word is out and much like Leadville years ago, professional road riders are starting to realize the joy, beauty (and pain) that gravel racing provides. There are no big paychecks awaiting the winner's here, but I believe it reconnects them with the true challenge and individualistic nature of the sport that drew them to it as kids. The Dirty Kanza is as pure as it gets...a crystal clear mirror showing you exactly who you are.

     Ten miles into the race, just as quickly as things started moving, they nearly came to a halt. "Wreck", I thought. Fortunately that was not the case, although some might debate that. Mother Nature's early morning deluge had proved too much for the low lying farm ground of Emporia to absorb and we found ourselves riding...very slowly...through about a foot or more of water. It lasted only a hundred meters or so but it was enough to, like a magnet, attract the mud and gravel up into the drive train of every single bicycle. It could not have come at a worse time. Everyone jockeying for position, antsy, jittery, impatient and then one by one, ten by ten it happened. There may have been as many as 100 by the time it was all over...derailleurs were snapping everywhere, sucked up into the back wheel spokes and in just ten miles, ending a race, for many they had been training a year or even longer for. I narrowly escaped. The year prior, in very similar conditions, unwilling to take DK's medicine and be patient, I too had snapped my rear derailleur. There are few worse sounds to a cyclist's ears. It wasn't long until we were clear of the rain soaked lowlands and on our way to the first checkpoint some 40 miles down the road. I can only imagine that there were many like me, who's bikes hobbled into the first checkpoint, ridable, but not working entirely well. I pedaled those last 30 or so miles without use of my small chain ring. Joel and Mark , a couple guys crewing at Almonzo a few weeks prior had taken me in, and were it not for their skills I might still be out on the race course.

     The 2nd leg of the Dirty Kanza is where things get "interesting". Three years prior, on my first DK, I arrived in the first checkpoint pretty full of myself, asking a fellow rider what all the fuss is about...something like "That wasn't so bad, I expected more from what I have heard about this race." I remember like it was just yesterday, his coy grin and humorless reply, "your about to ride the toughest 50 miles of your life" and off he rode. I would amend that slightly after four years battling this beast. He should have said " You are about to ride the hardest 100 miles of your life". Perhaps he was thinking it but didn't want to break this greenhorn's spirit so early in that day. I invite my friends to ride the Kanza not so much because I want to see them suffer but rather so we can speak the same language. There is no way to convey the conditions of, I hesitate to call them roads, in that middle 100 miles.

It's angry, it's mean, it's as at least one fellow rider found out, break your jaw and knock out a few teeth mean. The climbs are steep and seemingly stretch out to the sky. Fist size pieces of rock make these hills punishing to climb and treacherous to descend. You lose it pointed downhill here, "road rash" is the least of your worries. At the same time, when able, look in any direction and the views , similar to the climbs, were breathtaking.

     I doubt, other than those who oversee the herds of free range cattle here, that many other humans have ever seen this part of Kansas. It is pure, untouched, undeveloped  beauty as the creator made it however long ago. We were the first settlers, the great adventurers, striking out to find the frontier before it was swallowed up. Our horses were pedal powered, fueled by Gatorade and Gu. We faced different challenges from the great adventurers years past, but the spirit I believe, similar. All of us wished to see not only what was "out there", but perhaps, more so, to see what we were made of inside. Dirty Kanza provides you that. Fast or slow are just hollow words here. Ted King to the final finisher. Everyone takes the exact same test, perhaps crying the same tears, certainly facing their own inner demons and in some cases even leaving some blood on the sun baked prairie. Very seldom, from competitor to competitor is it asked, "What was your time?" or "When did you finish?" The question more times than not is simply, "Did you finish?" and if the answer is "Yes", perhaps there is nothing more in return than a simple confirming nod. For they know what you did the only way there is to know, by taking the test and passing it themselves.