The Dirty Kanza is the premier gravel road bike race in Kansas and one of the more popular ones in the midwest. It is based in the Flint Hills about halfway between Kansas City and Wichita. I had crewed my brother Todd in 2012 when he made his first attempt at the grueling 200 mile course and decided it might be a fun race to try.
The 200 miles was 95% gravel roads and followed a loop from Emporia to Madison to Cassoday to Cottonwood Falls and back to Emporia. There were 3 checkpoints (at each of the towns above) where your crew could meet you and refill your supplies and look over your bike. Other than that it is completely self supported. Use of a GPS devise is not allowed and you are given a map to navigate the course. That said, they also mark the course very well so it’s fairly easy to navigate the course (in the daylight anyway).
Here is my Garmin’s recording of the ride which has the map, my speed, etc.
I completed the race in 15 hours and 28 minutes putting me at 98th place out of about 450 riders who started and 31st in my age group. The winning time by Dan Hughes was just over 12 hours for reference. Not really having any idea how fast I’d be riding I rode most of the ride solo. Many people rode in groups taking advantage of drafting from other rides in the group. This would have been nice on the second leg but other than that it was kind of nice to be able to focus on the ride.
Crew My crew consisted of my wife Erica, brothers Todd and Austin, my sister-in-law Angela, my dad Jerry, my uncle Sam and his girlfriend Simone. They met me at each checkpoint on the course and had all my extra food, drinks, bike tools, etc. At each stop they lubed the chain on my bike, checked tire pressure, refilled my water bottles, filled my food, re-applied sunscreen, and cooked me grilled cheese sandwiches later in the race. I wouldn’t have made it without my awesome crew.
Below is a little more information about the ride broken down by each leg of the course:
Leg 1 (Emporia to Madison)
The race started at 6am in downtown Emporia. When it started everyone started out pretty fast and it was very crowded. I had a couple near collisions with other bikers over the first 10 miles or so. There were a few crashes in other groups from people riding so close together. After the initial congestion, the course opened up.
We mostly had a tailwind for the first 50 miles so it was very fast and there were few big hills on this section. There were several muddy sections of the course where people had to get off their bikes and carry them through the ditch to avoid the muddy road. There was also one creek crossing just before Madison that ended up being about 3 feet deep due to recent rains. I just carried my bike over my shoulder and crossed without issue.
I arrived in Madison in exactly 3 hours which was about 30 minutes faster than planned. My crew filled me up and I was on my way within 5 or 6 minutes.
Leg 2 (Madison to Cassoday)
This leg was the worst of all of them. Feeling great after the first 50 miles, the course then turned to the west. There was a 20 mph wind out of the WNW which made this leg tough. The course went straight into this headwind, on a much rockier road, and slightly uphill for about the next 10-15 miles.
Once we finally got a break and turned to the south, it was time to climb Texaco Hill, one of the biggest climbs in all of the Flint Hills. There were several more steep hills on this leg, one of which I had to walk a short distance on because my bike wasn’t getting a grip on the steep gravel. This was the only spot I had to walk (other than the mud and river crossings) on the course.
I finally arrived in Cassoday about 1:26pm, 26 minutes behind where I’d hoped to be. I was pretty tired at this point. Erica made me a grilled cheese and I took about a 10 minute break at this point.
Leg 3 (Cassoday to Cottonwood Falls)
This leg started out with a 10 mile ride straight into the east so the wind was at my back and I was able to make up a little lost ground. After that first 10 miles though, the course then turned to the NW again so the wind was back (though not as bad) and the roads we were on got quite a bit rockier again.
I had my only mechanical issue at about 115 miles when my seat came loose. I stopped for a couple minutes and tightened it up though I didn’t get it adjusted quite right so it wasn’t as comfortable until I made it to the last checkpoint and Todd adjusted it for me.
The rest of this leg was pretty uneventful and I finally rolled into the last checkpoint at Cottonwood Falls at 5:46pm. I was still pretty tired at this point but almost felt better than after the previous leg. I took a break for about 10 minutes or so and had another half of grilled cheese sandwich and restocked all the supplies.
Leg 4 (Cottonwood Falls to Emporia)
The last leg started out heading north for about 20 miles which wasn’t too bad. The wind had died down quite a bit and the roads were in pretty good shape for most of this. When then turned east and finally south and the last 20 miles or so I averaged about 17 mph pushing hard to make it back to Emporia in good time.
I had to turn on my light with about 10 miles to go meaning I missed my stretch goal of getting done before sunset but I was happy to know that barring some sort of breakdown I’d be finishing the race in a decent time. I rode that last 20 miles with a guy I met out there named Don from Lebanon, MO. As we headed towards downtown Emporia there were hundreds of people lined up along the street cheering for every racer that came through the finish. My crew was there cheering as well. It was quite a rush to finish the race like that.
After the race, they had a shower set up at the theater for racers so I cleaned up and then had a well earned DK Rye ale that Free State Brewery here in Lawrence brought down for the race. We hung out for a while and watched more racers come in then eventually headed back to the hotel to sleep.
The next morning was the awards ceremony and breakfast. The breakfast was terrible if you were a vegetarian (PB and biscuits?) but on the bright side, I won the largest raffle prize of the day which was a new bike rack!
I rode a Felt FX4 carbon fiber cyclocross bike on the ride. I rode Panasonic Panaracer T-Serv tires which performed great. They were a brand new set I put on before the race and had my old ones in the crew vehicle just in case.
For hydration I carried 4 insulated Camelbak water bottles on the bike. Since it wasn’t too hot I didn’t use more than about 2.5 bottles for each 50 mile leg.
For hydration, I stuck mostly to Nuun while on the bike. I spent a ridiculous amount of money at The Merc on things like nuts, dried fruits, chips, pretzels, hummus, etc. not knowing what I’d feel like eating after that many hours of riding. For the most part on the bike I ate Clif Shots and Clif Blocks.
At each checkpoint, I drank some coconut water, a vegan protein shake, and a fruit smoothie drink. I never drank all of these but consumed some of each since they worked well for recovery on all my training rides.
Probably the food that saved me the most is a vegan beef jerky product called Primal Strips. There were a couple points where I started to feel gross from all the sugar I was consuming and these brought me back to a balance and allowed me to keep pushing on. I highly recommend them!
It was a great race, in a really unique and beautiful part of our state. It was hard but probably not as hard as I expected. I’m sure if it were 20 degrees warmer as it had been in previous years it would be way more difficult. Maybe I’ll get a chance to find out next year…