I wish I was able to say this was going to be a tale of success at the Dirty Kanza, but instead my third DK200 ended up being a distinct opportunity for learning for me on a lot of levels. Unfortunately, as is often the case with such learning experiences, my eureka moments came in the midst of adversity and more than a little bit of suffering.
The race started off in a bit of a calamity, as I pulled a complete bonehead move and forgot my helmet at home. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it could (or should) have been, because when I mentioned to Gnat that I’d forgotten my lid, he casually handed me the helmet on the tailgate of his Element and said “here you go – it’s brand new. I’m going to ride in my old helmet anyway. I don’t want to wear a brand new helmet on a ride this big.” Seriously?! What an incredible friend and a truly selfless gift. Thanks Gnat.
OK, so bullet number one dodged, and five minutes ‘til the start, I locked my car up and rolled over to the start line, brand new Bell helmet on my head. I said hi to Guitar Ted, Cornbread, Troy and several of the Lincoln crew. It was about then that I took a glance down at my cages to see that I had no water bottles. Apparently my helmet fiasco got me so flustered that I forgot to grab my bottles from my cooler.
Now less than a minute from the start, I took off for my car to grab my bottles. With the temperatures projected to be in the upper 90s during the day, I couldn’t go without water. It was necessary. Somehow, I managed to get to the car, acquire my bottles, lock the car and roll back to the start of the race just as the police lead-out was starting to roll. Perfect… Bullet number two dodged successfully.
With the race underway, I figured it’d be smooth sailing from that point on. However, this being the Dirty Kanza 200, my logic was completely flawed. In fact, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to get myself into. I’d soon find out.
Salsa riders at the front of the pack just before my first flat at approximately mile 20. (That's me on the front/left.) Photo: Cornbread
Roughly 20 miles into the race, as my Salsa Cycles teammate Joe Meiser and I led the field on a two-track dirt road, I did a manual wheelie through a dip in the road. Unfortunately, right where I set my front wheel down, I hit a sharp edged flint rock hard enough that it sent reverberations up my fork and into my frame. Immediately latex sealant began spraying in multiple directions, suggesting that I had not only pinched through the tread on my tubeless tire, but also through the sidewall… Not good. I raised my right hand to signal I’d flatted and pulled off the trail. I was able to get the sealant to eventually seal both cuts in the tire up (with two CO2 cartridges), but by the time I was back on my bike the lead group was more than a mile ahead of me on the road.
It was here that I probably made my worst strategic error of the entire race. I was able to occasionally catch glimpses of the lead pack ahead of me and given the headwind, I could see the trailing riders were pedaling relatively easily. I desperately wanted to get back to the shelter of the pack, so I went to work in an attempt to chase it down. Unfortunately, while I worked for nearly 30 miles, almost all the way to the first checkpoint, I was never able to latch back onto the pack. But I burned a lot of valuable energy trying.
It was energy I should have saved for later in the event, in retrospect.
With each passing rocky section on the course, a couple of riders from the front pack would be seen on the side of the road fixing flats. Attrition was taking its typical toll, as it does every year at the DK200. A crash in the front pack took down several riders including Lincoln’s Troy Krause and Dennis Grelk from Iowa, who was clearly pretty injured when I rode up on him and Troy following the incident. After fixing his bike and cleaning his body up, Troy would soldier on to finish 7th, an incredible performance, while Dennis is suspected to have gone for medical attention. He had a bad cut on his chin that may have required stitches. I didn’t see Dennis again all weekend, but have since heard from him via email. He’s OK.
Running tubeless, my Schwalbe Marathon Extreme 40c rear tire sustained more than a dozen pinches and cuts from aggressive riding in the Kansas flint rock which were sealed by the tubeless sealant as I rode. Interestingly, while it was evident (from the dried latex on the seat tube) that sealant had blown out of the tire as it sealed, no air needed to be added to the tire at any point during the ride. Sweet... It works!
I pulled into checkpoint one feeling strong, but the day was really just starting to heat up, literally and figuratively. And when it did, my earlier efforts quickly began haunting me. As the daytime temperatures climbed into the mid-90s and the course began traveling with the wind, I began to suffer badly. And while I was able to use my Vaya’s stable handling to make up time on the downhills, I was just riding along on the uphills.
I took a longer stop at the second checkpoint. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cold towel on the back of the neck (courtesy of Debbie Sue and Tyler Dockhorn) brought me back from the red zone and revived my spirits. As I tried to get myself back into order, I felt for Troy Krause as he worked on his road rash sustained in the earlier pile-up. His spirits were still good and he was still riding strong — impressive.
It was “only” 38 miles from checkpoint two to checkpoint three, but it was a tough, demanding 38 miles including two flat tires (that were perpetuated by the tire problems caused by my first flat). I was forced to stop no fewer than four times during the leg, and as I rode into the town of Alma and the third checkpoint, I swore there would be no more racing for me that day. But as I sat at the convenience store in Alma, it was less than five minutes before Gnat walked in. He’d made up some serious time on me during the third leg of the journey. I confided in him that I was worried I was going to get 20 miles into the 60 mile segment and have a meltdown similar to the one I had coming into the checkpoint we were sitting in.
But against my better judgement, I continued on alongside Gnat. The next 20 miles of the race would have us travel through some of the steepest, most remote hills on the entire course before the conditions began to level out a bit in the final 40 mile stretch to the finish. Mile-by-mile, Gnat and I painfully ground our way up and flew down the Kansas B-roads, hoping the sun would set and take the day’s heat along with it. Unfortunately for me, the heat issues I was having before checkpoint three were reemerging as we rolled into the town of Eskridge, at approximately mile 165. I was literally falling asleep as I rode, which isn’t a good sign. And as we rolled into the gas station at Eskridge, there was Anita Gammell (wife of Lincoln racer, Aaron Gammell) at one of the pumps, fueling her vehicle. I asked if I might be able to get a ride with her back to Emporia if I pulled the plug, to which she said yes. With that, the quest to complete my third Dirty Kanza 200 was done.
While I wish the end result had been different, I can’t say that, given the circumstances it could have ended up any better. I have to realize why I failed to complete the race, and quite simply I pushed too hard too early. Once I had my first flat tire, I should have continued to ride a pace I could sustain, instead of trying to catch back up to the leaders. If there was a fatal flaw in my race, that was it. My haste was my downfall. What’s funny is that it even occurred to me while it was happening, but I couldn’t help myself to stop it. I was like a dog chasing a big, juicy steak. I had to try.
My Salsa Vaya following the Dirty Kanza experience. Considering the substantial amount of abuse the frame and wheels took, it survived in very good shape.
Hopefully I’ll take away lessons from this experience that will help me succeed at the Dirty Kanza next year, as well as in other future races. I guess we’ll see when the time comes, but it’s important for me to say that I had fun while it lasted this year. Thank you to Jim Cummins and Joel Dyke, the Dirty Kanza 200 co-promoters and to the city of Emporia, for welcoming us with open arms. Thanks also to Eric Benjamin, the Adventure Monkey, and his wife Jen, for their hospitality in giving us a great place to stay during our time in Emporia. Congratulations to Eric on his epic finish in the event, as well. Great riding, my friend! Thanks to Gnat for not only lending me his brand new Bell helmet and quite literally saving my day, but also for riding the last, and hardest, 25 miles of my Dirty Kanza with me this year. I know we’ve had some other, more graceful miles together, but these are the ones that make us stronger. I’d also like to thank Kid and the crew at Salsa Cycles for the support this season and for building the awesome Vaya for me to race in the Dirty Kanza. It was the perfect bike for the event. I rode 165 miles and didn’t even have a blister or sore hands the next day! Amazing…
I’d also like to give a big thank you to Debbie Sue and Tyler Dockhorn, as well as the Gammell family (Anita and kids). Without the support of Tyler and Debbie Sue, I would not have made it as far as I did this year, and without the Gammells I wouldn’t have made it back into Emporia after my day on the bike ended. Thanks again to all!