by Matt Gersib
Images by Cornbread, Kyle Thompson, Dave Mable, and MG
Gravel grinding is getting pretty big in the Midwest, as evidenced by the nearly 1,000 combined entrants in the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200, “Half-Pint” 100-miler, and 20- or 50-mile “DK-Lite” fun rides. Held at the doorstep of the Kansas Flint Hills in the college town of Emporia, Kansas, the Dirty Kanza was first run in 2006. Since then, the event has grown from just a few dozen participants that first year to become one of, if not the, largest gravel grinder in North America.
|Since 2010, the Dirty Kanza 200 has started and finished in-front of the historic Granada Theatre in downtown Emporia. Photo: Cornbread|
In many ways, the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200 was a test – a test to see how much was too much. I can’t count how many times I was asked “is it going to be too much to have 750 people on-course at the same time?” prior to the event. Some folks had serious doubts as to how it’d be possible to avoid pile-ups, traffic jams and other calamities caused by too many riders on the same gravel roads.
I wasn’t one of the doubters, however, and whenever asked, I told them that I thought 200 miles was a lot of space, and that there would be plenty of room for everyone to ride. I even suggested there’d be times when we’d feel really alone out there, even with all the people we knew were on-course with us.
|Riders assemble prior to the 6:00a.m. start. Photo: Cornbread|
Fast forward to race day and while the start line was an awesome spectacle, it was really the only time (on the bike) that I felt like it was any different than the Dirty Kanza 200s that had come before. Perhaps the overall level of the field was a bit higher overall due to the increased numbers, but the quality riders only enhanced the quality of the event. I mean, who doesn’t want to go to a race and meet Tour Divide champion, Jay Petervary, the “Queen of Pain”, Rebecca Rusch, and a number of other cycling legends?
I knew that bettering, or even matching my personal best DK200 placing (fifth overall in 2008) would be extremely tough as I surveyed the riders on the start line. And with my recent failure at Trans Iowa fresh in the back of my mind, I wasn’t willing to risk going too hard in the front 100-miles of the race in a vain attempt to stay near the front.
|Racers roll-out onto the course just after the start of the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200. Photo: Kyle Thompson|
At one point during the first leg, I even thought I might have been going too easy, but I stopped thinking that after stopping to help Specialized rider, Garth Prosser (that after stopping to help Specialized rider, Garth Prosser (eventual 7th place overall finisher) with a flat rear tire. Garth offered to pull me into checkpoint one in return for stopping to help, but was clearly riding much stronger than I. It was a struggle simply to hold his wheel, so I let him go.
His strength gave me a glimpse into my own mortality if I chose to play with fire, so it was a good exercise, but it reminded me that I needed to pay attention to my game plan. I backed off and resumed a comfortable, but reasonably fast pace.
Checkpoint one came at about mile 50, and my wife Laura was amazing at taking care of everything I needed, often before I knew I needed it.
“You aren’t drinking enough,” she said to me as she topped my bottles off.
“It’s OK sweetheart,” I replied. “It’s not hot and I’ll be drinking a lot more on this leg, so you won’t be telling me that when I see you in 50-miles.”
We both laughed as I finished the smoothie I was drinking. It was just a couple more minutes and I was back out on the course, on the second 50-mile segment. As I rode away from the checkpoint, I thought to myself, “this is where the fun starts!”
I was thinking sarcastically, of course, as I knew that there would be a lot of head wind in the next 100-miles. Unfortunately for all of us on this day, the head wind was significant. Combine that with the fact that I was once again experiencing pain in my right knee (similar to what I experienced at Trans Iowa), and it made for some times of fairly slow going.
And then I missed a turn and rode a total of six miles off-course…
I realized the error in my ways when I saw corner markers set into a corner, only they were 180-degrees opposite from their standard orientation… “What is this?” I thought to myself.
It was an earlier section of the course (ahead of checkpoint 1) that, after missing the corner I was supposed to take, I’d ridden up to. As I perused my course map in an attempt to locate myself, two riders approached from the opposite direction and asked if I needed help. I politely declined and wished them good luck on their ride.
Surveying the map, I deduced that while I wasn’t exactly sure of my location (the location wasn’t marked on the map I was reading – for segment two), turning around was my best option and hope for getting back on-course as quickly as possible. As it turns out, I rode for three miles before I came upon the turn I’d missed, which was right before a water crossing in the road (located after the corner). I’d gotten so focused on the water crossing that I didn’t even see the turn markers (or the road itself, for that matter). I was super focused-in on figuring out if the water could be ridden, and if so, which line I needed to take.
Since the water crossing was about 50 yards long (my guess, no ruler in-hand), it required considerable concentration. Oh, and yes, I was riding alone. So much for the theory that it’d be “too crowded” out on the road! HA!
The head wind turned oppressive around mile 75, and I went into energy conservation mode. That said, the gnarly Flint Hills terrain combined with the wind to take it out of me from mile 75 to 100. I came into the second checkpoint eager to tear into the Valentino’s pizza we’d brought from Lincoln in the cooler. It actually made me go faster coming into the checkpoint, but coming into the Salsa tent to receive my new map and check-in, the ladies excitedly exclaimed as I rode up:
“Number 59… There he is. Are you Matthew?”
“Ummm. I think so,” I think I uttered.
“Laura’s car broke down on the highway…”
(Thinking to myself “Holy Shiiiii”)
“…but she did send this Monster and water for you, and we have some food we’d be happy to give you.”
Cue the appearance of Joe Reed, the checkpoint coordinator and my host for the weekend. “Matt, why don’t you sit down here and we’ll just take care of you,” he said. “No problem.”
Joe and I sat down and chatted while one of the checkpoint angels, Ingrid, offered up some of the summer sausage and Colby Jack cheese she had in her cooler. Meat and cheese during a bike race? I’m from Nebraska – bring it on! Thank you Ingrid – you single handedly saved my 2013 Dirty Kanza. For while that might not have been the pizza I was expecting, it was exactly what I needed.
Thank you to everyone at checkpoint two – Amanda, Amanda, Jen, Ingrid, Joe and everyone else involved with the stop. Without your generous support, I wouldn’t have been able to continue, but after leaving the checkpoint, I had no choice but to finish. You all were key to my finish. Thank you doesn’t seem like enough.
|Still smiling in the first 100 miles of the event. Photo: Eric Benjamin, AdventureMonkey.com|
As I left checkpoint two with a belly fully of meat and cheese and questions swirling in my head about the status of my wife, our dog and our car, I pedaled out onto the course. We had 13 miles of a crossing tailwind before turning into a constant headwind for the remaining 37 miles of the leg into checkpoint three at Cottonwood Falls. Though the crossing tailwind was pushing me along, I was careful to meter my effort, as I knew what we were about to face.
About four miles into the leg, three riders pulled up on me – Salsa’s Tim Ek, and the Cycle Works/Moose’s Tooth duo of Scott Bigelow and James Blake. All were looking strong and for a minute I upped my tempo to ride with them. It was at about this time that the Salsa-sponsored film crew pulled up in a Jeep and, almost as if on cue, Eki raised the pace about five miles per hour. All of the sudden we were doing 23 mph…
Homie wasn’t playin’ that, so I dialed it back to a more reasonable pace for my legs and watched Eki quickly gain a hill on me as he picked off rider-after-rider for the camera. Meanwhile, I tore into a package of Honey Stinger drops with the abandon of a raging hyena. That cherry cola flavor is to die for and I hadn’t gotten many carbs during my stop at checkpoint two, so I had a bit of a hankerin’.
So, here’s where the DK200 gets a little bleak, as the turn northward into the wind was a doozy. As we rode among the nodding donkeys in the oil fields of the Flint Hills, the sparse terrain provided little respite from the sustained 20+ mph northwest winds. The same winds we’d flown on in the earlier stages of the event were the same ones that now forced my speed below ten miles per hour regularly.
Each ten miles of the leg seemed magnified by the wind-fueled slowness. It didn’t help that my knee was giving me consistent shooting pains, which concerned me, but I decided were something I just had to live with. “Grin and bear it,” I thought to myself as I pedaled through the veil of pain.
As I rejoined the race, two riders approached – singlespeed rider, PA single speeder, Mark Elsasser and Kansas cycling icon, Keith Walberg. It was great to ride with these two guys, if for too short a time, as after ten or so more miles I again had to stop and stretch my tightening IT band. In retrospect, when I stopped, I should have tried raising my saddle 3-4 millimeters, as that may have helped the situation, but I didn’t have the presence of mind at that point in the event to think of it. Hindsight is 20-20 however, so I’ll save that one for future reference.
The final 20 miles of the race were largely with the wind, as we rode familiar roads through the small town of Americus and into Emporia. The sun set as I rolled through Americus, dashing my hopes of scoring one of the limited edition prints that were being given to those who finished before sunset, but I decided it didn’t matter and pushed to the finish with a steeled resolve to catch as many racers in-front of me as possible before the line.
|Thumbs-up at the finish. Photo: Eric Benjamin, AdventureMonkey.com|
here). It wasn’t my fastest Dirty Kanza 200, but given the challenges we had during the race, I was happy with the result and feel like it’s due to the work of a lot of folks, some of whom I’ll never be able to thank. But I’ll try, and the first person I’d like to thank is my incredible wife, Laura. I don’t know who had it harder on race day, but she came through it and was the rock I needed when I needed her. Thank You! And to everyone involved with the Dirty Kanza 200 – Jim, Kristi, Tim, and everyone at the checkpoints – Thank You all! And thanks to our host for the weekend, Joe Reed – an awesome person and good friend. And finally, thanks to Marty Larson and Sam Alison at Singular Cycles, and Rob Versteegh at Oakley for their support in 2013!
See you down the road!
|Image: D. Mable|
A gravel rider well before gravel riding was cool, Matt Gersib has sought the adventures gravel roads could bring for more than 20 years. He is a multi-time Dirty Kanza 200 finisher, finishing as high as fifth-place overall in 2008. MG has also finished Trans Iowa (8th place at TIv5) and has earned top finishes at a number of other gravel grinders in recent years. He is a member of the Singular Cycles International team.