Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dirty Kanza 2011

At one point around eighty miles into Dirty Kanza I caught myself in one of my standard midrace trains of thought, thinking about how the race had been pretty uneventful thus far. Then I remembered that at that point I had already been forced to remove a moderately important part of my bike, had gotten lost for six miles, and at that very moment was about 4 ounces away from running out of water. Huh, I thought, I guess it hasn't been going that smoothly after all. But that was the kind of day I was having: even though things kept going sideways I still kept having a damn good time.

At the start line I felt more focused and rested than I usually do at 6am, and was generally in a really good head space. The roll out through Emporia was well-behaved, and I was sitting comfortably mid-pack as we got onto the gravel. There were some strong headwinds blowing, but the gravel was pretty well groomed and I rode in some very solid double pacelines. I was glad to be on my cross bike this year, as I think its more aerodynamic profile and narrower tires really helped a lot in sticking with groups and staying out of the wind.

  Short rolling hills, already windy, not too warm yet, early in the race. 
The groups break up on the climbs and reassemble after the slightly-sketchy descents. 

There is such a fine line in this race between finishing well, and just finishing. My only real goal was to significantly better my last year's time of 17h04, and I was pretty sure I was capable of knocking at least an hour off of that time this year. Once the race got started and I was feeling good and averaging speed higher than last year, I knew that was a realistic goal.

About 20 miles in, I started noticing my front derailleur was not shifting well. Looking down at the top-tube-routed shifter cables I could see that the one for the front looked sort of slack. I thought it might be interference with the velcro of my frame bag and planned to find a solution the first time I got off my bike for any reason. A few miles later, just after a cattle guard, I heard a racket from the drivetrain and looked down to see the front derailleur hanging freely from the chain. The shifting problems had not been from the frame bag after all, but instead from the clamp bolt on the derailleur backing itself out under the vibrations from the gravel. With the hard hits going over the cattle guard the bolt had finally ejected entirely and been lost.

On open range late in the first leg of the route.

I took the front derailleur off and wrapped the cable around the top tube a few times. I put the chain on the 39 tooth small ring. I was running a 36-12 ten speed mountain bike cassette (with a Sram X-9 rear derailleur), and I could cross-chain okay without a front derailleur cage on there. So I could even use the 39x13 and 39x12, which was probably not so great for my chain but meant I had more mid-range gears. I didn't want to keep it on the 46-tooth big ring, because cross-chaining to the 46x36 was much harder on the chain and was a little tall for a climbing gear.

Got to ride with Nashvillian Jeff Scott for a while!

The gearing was fine when I was climbing and usually fine when riding in the wind, so I could pull fine but was pretty spinny if I was in a draft. At one point I was drafting behind a tandem and glanced down at my Garmin. I was going well over thirty miles per hour, which was awesome, but I was spinning so hard to stay with them that my heart rate was about 20 bpm over where I wanted it. I fell off their draft, knowing that in the 95 degree heat maintaining such effort would dig me into a hole I might not get back out of.

Tandemonium! Rode and chatted with these fine folks for a few miles.

I rolled into the first checkpoint feeling great, and rolled right back out again. A number of people, myself included, missed a turn early in the second segment due to a parked car obscuring our view of the course marking flags. It was pretty windy and we were working so hard to keep moving that it took us a while to realize the mistake, and were about three miles straight into a headwind before figuring out something was wrong. Some quick backtracking got us back on track, but the second leg of the course featured a couple more turns with course markings that were missing entirely.

Echelon riding with a couple guys from Kansas City. These folks sure know how to ride efficiently in the wind, I have never been a part of such a smooth rotation before. I was spinning like hell to keep up, but damned if I was going to get left hanging out there in that crazy wind all alone.

Near the end of the leg I made a wrong turn with a guy from Witchita who recognized the roads but had gotten turned around, and we ended up getting a few more bonus miles.  Somewhere early on, I'd lost a bottle without realizing. I had tried to budget my remaining water carefully, but all these bonus miles meant I was pretty dry.  I rolled into the 100-mile checkpoint with 112.5 miles on my Garmin, the last 15 without water. I was feeling like I was on the edge of some pretty serious dehydration.

I knew I needed to drink up before I got back out on the course. And even though I knew I could still finish, I was also feeling a little frustrated from all the extra effort and time I had expended out there, not to mention the missing derailleur. I lay on the grass for a couple minutes and drank about a liter of water while working on letting go of the frustration. I had planned to avoid the convenience stores because I feel that negotiating the heat is much easier without popping in and out of frigid air conditioning. But I needed to replace my missing bottle, and besides, there is no better attitude adjustment than ice cream. I got 2 pepsis and a sports bottle of gatorade I could drink while riding. I was pleased to find they had my favorite gas station ice cream treat, the Blue Bunny strawberry shortcake ice cream bar.

Stopped at the second checkpoint: my bike and the gallon-jug of water I'd just killed. Race promoter Jim Cummins gave the women the low race numbers, and since I won last year's women's division he gave me number one! 

I got back outside away from the AC as quickly as I could and stood there drinking Pepsi and eating my attitude-adjustment-on-a-stick. I realized that all the riders around me looked pretty trashed. But I was ready to blow that town, get on the bike and out of there! The third leg of the route started with a tailwind, which meant the riding was very hot. I seem to do pretty well riding in very hot weather and was able to keep on top of my food, salts, and water needs. Overall I do not think the heat was quite as bad this year as last year. There was a little scrim of cloud cutting the brightness of the sun, and it seemed to be a couple degrees cooler as well, about 94 or so.

Dust-covered but feeling good as the third leg of the route begins.

The course opened up some and without trees obscuring the horizon I could see a prominent storm had formed not far away. The rain was coming down in an almost opaque sheet of gray that was warped to the side by strong wind. If that came over here, things would get interesting, I realized. I came up on another racer and we rode together for a while spotting lighting strikes out of this growing thunderstorm. The rain came suddenly, a strong windy downpour that dropped the air temperature down to about 70 almost immediately. It felt great but we wondered just when or if we would need to take cover from the lightning. When there was a ground strike close by we pulled under a grove of trees only to find about six other riders already sheltered there.

Shortly, the lightning passed, and we all jumped back on bikes ready to go. Sadly the dirt double track had been deeply soaked by the storm. The clay soil stuck to everything, DSG'09-style. The grassy ditches on the sides of the road were waterlogged but okay for walking bikes. As I sloshed along the marshy ground I realized it was a rare bike race indeed that held the possibility of picking up leeches. It was possible to ride in the long grass to the far side of the ditch, but the energy it took was significant and there was a good chance of hitting some hidden hole or obstacle.

One thing I like about Dirty Kanza is how big and exotic the plains landscape feels compared to the steep-sided, heavily wooded mountains I usually ride in. On something as airy and rickety as a bicycle, you are just a tiny speck of animal enveloped by the vastness of the plains. Once the bike is rendered useless and you are on foot, that feeling of tininess increases tenfold. It was almost hallucinatory to stand in the ditch, gazing at the flat yellow wheatfields on either side stretching off toward the horizons. Time collapsed, the distances became monumental.

I was pushing my bike through the grass and noticed some overgrown strands of barbed wire just as my wheels rolled over it. Sure enough, a second later I heard the hiss from the front tire. Who flats their bike while walking it? I was running these 32mm Small Block Eights set up tubeless with Stans Alpha rim, and so needed to try to get the Stans fluid to fill the hole. But at walking speed, the tire was not turning fast enough to get centrifugal force working in there! I lifted up the front end of the bike and spun the wheel like I was in the Price Is Right. Incredibly, it worked and the hissing stopped. I aired it back up and everything was fine. Yeah, this was a fantastic low-maintenance, fast-rolling setup for this race. [You can get some too, this guy will build them for you]

At first it seemed like the very rough doubletrack section we had been on might be the worst of the worst, and maybe once we made the right turn a couple miles further conditions would get better. But we got there, made the turn, and it was just as unrideable on the next road. More pushing. How long could this last? I felt pretty good, and still in a ridiculously cheerful mood, but really, just how many miles of walking in a ditch could one person do before calling it a day? And how much more of the course would be this muddy? 

The wheat fields along side the doubletrack eventually gave way to pasture and a couple guys decided to try riding in it. We passed our bikes over the barbed wire and found the grazed-down grass bumpy but rideable.  We all got excited again just to be on bikes and not staggering around in ditches. Yay! We rode slowly but surely through the wet field, trying to steer around cow poop.  

After riding through pasture for a little while, we encountered a couple driving to their nearby ranch. They kindly stopped to chat with us and to find out why all these weirdos were riding bikes in a cow pasture. The man took a look at our course map and pointed out at least five or ten miles of the remaining roads on this leg of the race that he knew based on his decades of local knowledge would impassable mud. We didn't know what the path of the storm had been, and didn't have the route for the final leg til we got to the last checkpoint, but there could have been many more miles of mud in the last section too. A racer could be out there all night.

We all decided we had had about enough of the impassable mud and it was time to bail off the course. What a bummer! It was really a beautiful landscape surrounding us, and it was clear the route would have been really nice to ride if it had not gotten soaked. The rancher also showed us the best way to navigate to the checkpoint via paved roads. 

Once we got on the pavement, it was about 30 miles more to Council Grove, right at and after sundown. I rode in with two awesome guys, Eric who runs the Adventure Monkey website, and Malcolm from Lincoln Nebraska. They both were in good spirits and we were all riding about the same speeds. As the sun got low, the fields turned pink with magic-hour light. The road had little traffic and fireflies came out as the darkness took over. This was actually one of the high points of my race. 

Malcolm's friend CVO came by in a van, looking for him. He stopped and gave us Budweiser and fried chicken. I am starting to get convinced that Nebraska has the coolest bike riders in the entire nation. Is there anything better than standing in the middle of a road in the dark, covered in mud, and drinking a beer after riding your bike for 14 hours straight? No. The answer is no, there is nothing better. Fortified, we got back on our bikes and rode the rest of the way into Council Grove in good moods.

My mud-covered bike at the last checkpoint. Contrast this photo with the nearly identical pose from checkpoint two. A lot happened out there in the Kanza doubletrack. Final mileage tally including detours and bonus miles was 177 miles from Emporia to Council Grove.

It turned out that the rain had not hit much of the last leg of the course, so folks who had been an hour or so ahead of us had not been stopped by the mud. For a little while, this really tormented me, thinking about how if I hadn't lost almost an hour to wrong turns in the second leg of the course or hadn't lost my derailleur I could have missed the rains and finished. But, if I had done that, I wouldn't have the wonderful and unique memories of the race experience that I do have.

Thanks to all the great folks I got to ride with out there for making this a great experience. Thanks as always to the Nashvillians, especially Hilary, for being awesome support crew, and Thad for toting my sorry self back to Emporia. Thanks Dirty Kanza for another great experience and some epic fun times, I will be back in 2012 for sure.


  1. Good read. What do you think of mtn bike v cross bike out there now that you have ridden both at Kanza? Plenty of times I was wishing for little tires out there.


  2. Hi, I rode a mountain bike last year and thought the race was nicer on a cross bike for sure. The only way the mountain bike had the advantage over the cx was preventing hand fatigue. my hands still havent quite recovered from all that time on the hoods saturday.

  3. Awesome read Emily! Nice job!

  4. Great write up, Emily, and it was great to see you again down at the Dirty Kanza. One of these days, we'll be triumphant in this event together! Oh well, I guess that'll be for next year, 'eh?


  5. It was nice meeting you Emily. We were riding together in the double pacelines early on in the day. I remember you were having chain issues, but you weren't sure what the problem was. That stinks about loosing the front bolt. It wouldn't be an adventure without drama like that though.

    Here is my recollection of this year's ride.


    Ben :-)

  6. Nebraska does indeed have the coolest riders in the nation! Nice ride Emily!

  7. Hi Emily, great to meet you and ride in with you and Eric. The fireflies were a great night cap, and I couldn't think of better company to enjoy them, chicken and beer with that evening. Hope to ride with you soon. Nebraska does have some great riders of the bike. Gravel Worlds?


  8. Hey Malcolm! Yes to Gravel Worlds, sent te postcard a couple days ago. I need some redemption after DK and Trans Iowa!

  9. Nice read, Emily. I rode the pastures with you, Malcolm and Eric for a while. We had chatted earlier, but then I rode on just before the rain hit. Those muddy B roads just took the fight outta me. A little bad luck for anyone caught behind them before the rain, but now we all have some great memories. I slipped off the back after we left the farmer's truck. My tube-change-in-the-mud didn't work and I didn't wanna hold you guys up. The guy on the MTB came back and literally rescued me (I had a wee mental breakdown). Funny about the chicken and beer; somehow I missed it, even though we were on the same Hwy., but my friend Andy got some, even though he was on the course. CVO must've been searching far and wide for ol' Malcolm. CVO saved my life last year at Gravel World's, so he's still my homey-for-life. See you @ G.W.

  10. ah! I wondered what had happened to you but assumed you'd stopped and called someone from that tiny hamlet we rode through. I should have let you keep that inflator head and a CO2 since I also had a pump with me.
    long day for sure. good to meet and chat out there, and see you next time!