Sunday, June 14, 2015

If You're Going to Race the Kanza: equipment for DK200

When I first thought about entering the Dirty Kanza 200 four years ago I had little idea what I would need. I had never ridden a bike, much less raced, more than 130 miles in a day. Ultra endurance cycling was to me a foreign land. I asked questions of my friends who were accomplished brevet racers such as John Jurczynski, Matt Roy, John Bayley, & David Wilcox. I read about the Dirty Kanza in articles, race reports, & forums. I mined these for details on bike set up, gear, & hydration options. I found much useful information in Dirt Rag, on the Salsa Cycles blog, & from the King of Kanza Dan Hughes. This post is my effort to share my hard won experience with others. I hope you find it useful.

I will admit that I am not the most experienced gravel racer nor the most accomplished. But take what I have to offer in a spirit of sharing. I have found what works for me to race the Kanza in fair conditions & poor.

the Bike:

All three years I've raced the Dirty Kanza on my cyclocross race bike with a few modifications. The first year I used a Seven Cycles Mudhoney SLX. The past two years I rode a Trek Boone. The Seven Mudhoney was built as a cyclocross race bike, so it is steep & quick. It also has only one bottle cage. But it's titanium down tube & stays resist damage from rock throw. The Trek Boone is lighter. It also takes a frame bag easier due to internal cable routing. I put Shelter tape on the down tube & stays to help protect from rock throw damage. Both have been comfortable for me over the whole distance.

On both I used a SRAM Force drive train with 50x34 chain rings & a 11-27 cassette. I climb many steeper & longer hills where I live in New Hampshire than anything on the Kanza route. But the rollers around Kahola after 160 miles are still a grunt. Many folks choose wider range gears. I used ceramic pulleys & bottom bracket bearings to improve efficiency. How much difference those make I can not say, but any small advantage adds up over 200 miles.

Can you race the Kanza on a hard tail mountain bike? Of course you can, but it will likely be slower than a gravel or cyclocross bike. I'd encourage a rigid fork & narrow 29" tires if you do. Do you need a purpose built gravel bike? If you want a longer more stable bike, or need more compliance to be comfortable then maybe so. But I have not felt any draw backs on a good cyclocross race bike with a few adjustments.

Contact Points:

The key to comfort on the bike comes down to position & contact. Your position on the bike will be dictated by the frame & fit. If you can not ride your bike for 6 hours without substantial neck, back or shoulder pain then you need to get a professional fit. A few tweaks to your position from stem length, saddle position, & bar height may make all the difference.

Contact points also make a substantial difference in comfort. The two primary points are hands on bars & your hiney on the seat. For handlebars I use the Salsa Bell Lap bars this year. I think that bar tape makes a bigger difference to comfort than the bar itself. For all three years I've used Bontrager Grippy Gel Tape with additional gel pads underneath the wrap. I like it because it is soft without losing grip control, and sticky without being slimy when wet.

Aero bars or not? The first year I put Cane Creek Speed Bars on my rig, I found that I used them very little. If you have a low angle stem & can get into a flat position on the bike then I think the aero bars are unneeded. Moreover bar extensions both add weight and take up valuable cockpit space. Aero position is important, but can be achieved as well by putting your hands inside the hoods & holding a flat position, like the ProTour racers do. Of course there are fast DK200 racers than me who swear by their aero bars.

Saddles are a whole other topic. I will tell what I like, the Selle Italia Flite, especially the older style with more curve in the middle. But everyone has a different shape & needs. That might be the reason there are more pages devoted to saddles in the Quality Bike Parts catalog than any other single component. My advice is to try lots of saddles until you find the shape, size, & firmness that works best for you. Then buy 4 of them so you never run out. Investing in high quality shorts & chamois cream will go a long way toward keeping your hiney happy


For the past two years I've used TRP 8.4 mini-V brakes. Again these are the same as my cyclocross race setup. I found them to be a good alternative to disc brakes. As long as your wheels are true mini-V brakes provide excellent stopping power. Rim brakes allow me to use lighter & slightly more aerodynamic wheels. The key to excellent stopping power is the pads. Every year I've used SwissStop BXP pads. On mini-V brakes those pads give me almost disc brake quality stopping power.

What about disc brakes? Certainly if you are a heavier rider disc brakes are going to work better. When you are fatigued hydraulic disc's will be easier to use. Disc brakes also allow for your rims to be out of true without causing rub. But disc brakes are heavier & typically require heavier wheels. In wet conditions disc brake pads can wear down very quickly. I have seen disc pads wear to the point of uselessness in a wet/sandy 2 hour mountain bike race. Know how to change a set of pads yourself before starting the Kanza.

Nothing is more important than staying hydrated at the Kanza. Most years the sun is bright, there is little shade, & the wind will dry you out. Getting even slightly de-hydrated will slow or stop you. Some racers rig 4 bottle cages to their set up. But bottles can shoot out of cages on lumpy roads, frequently from cages mounted behind the saddle. Others wear a Camelbak which was fine this year with cool temps. I do not like wearing a Camelbak in races, especially on warm days.

My solution is a frame bag with a 70oz. hydration bladder and 2 water bottles. Combined that gives me 125oz. of fluid at maximum. I wrap the hose around my feed bag and clip it to my stem for ready access. If you are a tall rider you may require a long hose & creative ways to keep it coiled. I drink from my set up without changing my riding position or fumbling to clip the nozzle onto the stem.

Bags & Fixings

Beyond my hydration frame bag, I have mounted a bento box on the top tube & a seat pack with my tools/ repair supplies. Each year I have used a different pack for each of these. I have varied the size & style of each until I found what is just right this year. The competing desires in the Kanza are bags large enough to carry everything you might need, but small enough that you don't weigh yourself down. It is a hard equation to solve.

The bento boxes I have used are the Lezyne, the Planet Bike Snack Sack, & the Fuelbelt Aero Fuelbox top tube bag. I like bags with a zipper closure, but it must be easy to open while bumping along gravel roads. The Planet Bike Snack Sack holds plenty, perhaps more than needed. I did not like the single top tube attachment strap of that model. The Fuelbelt Aero  was just large enough to hold 5-6 gels and electrolyte supplements. My other food I carried in my jersey pockets. It had the most secure straps of any bento box I've tried.

Saddle bags come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes & features. Again I've used 3 different sizes, too large, too small, & just right. My just right bag is a Jandd mini mountain wedge. It is just large enough for 3 tubes rolled tight, a couple of C02 cartridges, and tools. The feature I like best about it is an external zippered pocket that holds my multi-tool.
Too big, too small, & just right

The more important decision is what fixings to bring in your saddle bag. Again, light is fast, but too little can mean an early end to your race. Here is what I brought: 3 inner tubes, patch kit, Park tire boot, 2-3 C02 cartridges, inflator head, Pedro's tire lever, Lezyne multi-tool, derailleur hanger, & chain link. I also carry a Lezyne Pressure Drive mini-pump mounted to my frame. I have not needed more than the tubes & air so far, but I know plenty others who have needed more.
Yes, I did fit it all in the saddle bag

Lights & Electronics

Never assume you will finish the Dirty Kanza 200 in the daylight, ever. The weather may be fair, you might be as fit as can be, but anyone can find misfortune on this route. A snapped chain or wrong turn can change a 12 hour podium ride into a 16+ hour slow roll. Always plan for riding the last 50 miles in the dark so bring lights up to the task. The first year I rode the Kanza I thought I would only need lights for an hour or so if at all. What I brought was far too weak for 3 hours of gravel roads & route finding while severely fatigued. This year I brought a Cygolite Expilion 680 for the bars and a Niterider Lightning Bug 120 on my helmet. I chose both because they are light weight, bright, & give 2-3 hours of run time at high power, more at medium. The NR Lightning Bug I mounted to my helmet by strapping it through the vent cross bar. At 40g it is as light as any other helmet or headband light of the same brightness.

I've used a Garmin 800 the last two years. The route map & cue sheet features work well to keep me on course. The Garmin 800 has a listed battery life of 12-14 hours, which might be barely enough. However the battery life declines over time. I've used an external cell phone battery to ensure my Garmin will have power for the full course. I plug in the battery & put it in my bento box at the last check point.


No topic gets more attention on Dirty Kanza preparation than tires. The Kanza is notorious for shredding tires with sharp flint gravel and hard cattle guard edges. While many tires are good for the Kanza the two that I like best are the Clement MSO and the Bontrager CX0. I ran the Clement MSO 32mm my second year. It is a tough, light, & fast tire. It may be the most popular tire for the Kanza in the 40mm size. I do not like the small side knobs of the MSO. I find that cornering on loose gravel takes caution on that tire. While secure cornering is only a factor in the first 40 miles of the race, it could be a critical factor. The Bontrager CX0 has a more prominent side knob & better traction overall. It is a heavier tire & does not have the kevlar reinforcement of the MSO. I do like the more flexible casing of the Bontrager tire for both traction & comfort. I find that the soft tread of the CXO wears down in the center to provide a relative fast rolling tire after 50-100 miles. On a hard pack day I'd chose the MSO but in wet or loose conditions I'd certainly use the Bontrager CX0 again.

bontrager CX0 after a few miles

The other tire choice is tubes or tubeless. I always run tubeless in mountain bike races. I have always run tubes at the Kanza & will continue to do so. Why? The Kanza again is notorious for destroying tires. Most years for most people it is not a question of if you'll need to fix a flat but when & how many. Tubeless only works better until one is forced to put in a tube. Once a tire is damaged enough that sealant no longer works, a tubeless tire set up becomes more difficult to deal with. I've read reports from several DK200 racers whose tubeless systems gave them those all sorts of problems once sealant fails. The weight savings & lower tire pressure advantages of tubeless set ups can be achieved by using latex tubes. I might even put some sealant into latex tubes in the future to further the benefits. While I may experiment with tubeless tires for dirt road events, I'd still lean toward latex tubes for the Kanza.

Understand that these are my gear preferences only. Dozens of other racers have different equally successful set ups for the Dirty Kanza. I hope you find some my hard earned experience useful in setting up your own ride across the prairie & through the Flint Hills.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

the Truest Grit: Dirty Kanza 200 decade of dirt edition

“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”  Charles Portis - True Grit

I wasn't planning to enter the Dirty Kanza 200 this year. I told my wife that I would not enter for a third year in a row. After all I had accomplished my goal of beating the sun in 2014, despite 2 flat tires & hamstring cramps for 75 miles. No sir, this was going to be a year off from the requisite long & lonely training. But as entry day approached, circumstances conspired against my best intentions.

My friend John Bayley told me he was going to take another run at the Dirty Kanza. He had finished on the podium in 2013. His resourceful & ultra cycling experienced wife Pamela would crew for him & me should I make the trip. Moreover the king of the Kanza, Dan Hughes, offered up a new prize: an engraved chalice (deemed the Gravel Grail) to anyone who finishes the race 5 times. If I could finish this year I would "only" have two more to go. It looked to be a very fancy trinket, and like most men I'm a sucker for fancy trinkets, especially if they are hard won.

So enter I did, despite my promise. My darling wife said "I knew you would". How she can know my mind with greater clarity than sometimes I do myself is a mystery.

Since this was the tenth Dirty Kanza 200 Jim Cummins (the founder & promoter) announced that it would be a special celebratory edition with a new route. He deemed it the "Decade of Dirty". Sponsors chipped in with extra prizes. The weather a week before was as if Mother Nature heard about Jim's plans and said "if you want something special, Jim, I can give you special. Heck, I'll give you extra special"

Getting Ready
“If you want anything done right you will have to see to it yourself every time.” 
Charles Portis - True Grit

Last year I had arrived fit enough to compete, so I would use the same self designed training plan again. Yet another long cold winter in New England meant I did more skiing than cycling to get into shape. Even the spring weather was frequently more like winter. I trained through the Rasputitisa dirt road race in April. That event included a 3 mile long hike on a  snow packed trail. It would prove to be better preparation than I could foresee at the time.

My chief concern was not physical fitness. My concern was mental toughness. I know well that I have lost more races by quitting in my head than from my legs failing me. Rebecca Rusch's book, Rusch to Glory, was published at a useful time. I had not known that she was an accomplished adventure racer before becoming a 24 hour mountain bike champion. She is very candid in the book about her frustrations & self doubts, especially in races where the finish line was not hours away but days away. The remarkable talent she has is to quickly acknowledge then put aside self defeating thoughts so that they don't stop her, indeed they hardly seem to slow her down. Her epigraph might well read "Rebecca Rusch: mentally tougher than you"
Rebecca & me

In early April my plans got overturned. Pamela was diagnosed with cancer & would start chemotherapy immediately. Understandably she & John would not be making the trip to Emporia. I am confident however that if anyone has the resilience to beat cancer, it is Pamela. I decided upon the recommendation of Alby King to use the Never Let Go "crew for hire" service rather than try to recruit some long lost friend from Lawrence to support me. But this meant a substantial change in my preparation. My tendency is to go to bike races over equipped. I'd rather have a few things too many than one critical item too few. Yet the "crew for hire" program limited me to a 14"x14" drop bag for each check point. I would not enjoy the comforts of spare wheels, a suitcase of clothing choices, or a cooler stocked with whatever I might particularly like to eat & drink. But as Mattie Ross says in True Grit: "You know what they say, "Enough is as good as a feast.”" 

My drop bags packed with all I could fit & all I hoped I would need

The greater turn for everyone's plans was the rain. Thunder storms soaked Kansas in the week prior to the race. Emporia received over 4.5 inches of rain in the 10 days leading up to the Dirty Kanza. Some parts of Chase County received more, flooding river crossings & washing out roads. Yuri Hauswald posted on Twitter how muddy the 1st part of the course was on Thursday. I replied that this looked like just another cyclocross race at Gloucester, but one that would last 100 laps. Would that I had not been so accurate in my estimation.

Yuri's preview did give me an important chance to prepare. I remembered the mud we had to run through in 2013. I imagined that instead of 100 meters like then this hike could go on for much longer. I practiced shouldering my bike with the frame bag on. I also strapped a cleaning brush to my seat pack. Then I fashioned a small fender onto the handle from a soda bottle & duct tape. 190 miles in bike shorts soaked with mud & peppered with sand is a ride I would not wish on an enemy.
cleaning brush & chamois saver all in one

Friday I woke up in Emporia to the sight of more rain. I tried to wait it out but as morning was quickly slipping past I geared up for a wet preview ride. I only went 7 miles into the course but that was enough to confirm Yuri's warning. Early in the route we would hit a bog of thick mud. As the old proverb says: forewarned is forearmed.

Volunteers marked the course on Friday, yup, it was muddy

To my delight when I went to register a friend from New Hampshire was at the CTS tent. Thom Coupe who I've known since he was a junior racer is now working for Carmichael Training Systems. He was there as crew support for the CTS clients & Chris himself. We had a chance to chat & he wished me luck in the race. Sometimes a friendly face from home is all the encouragement one needs.
Thom Coupe, the other New Hampshire cyclist at the Kanza 
Before leaving for Kansas I put a few books in my bag for the flight. Without deliberation I included the latest Thich Naht Hanh book, "No Mud, No Lotus". In it Master Hanh writes that suffering and happiness are not separate, that "If we can learn to see and skillfully engage with both the presence of happiness and the presence of suffering, we will go in the direction of enjoying life more." I knew that in the day ahead I would find mud & suffering, but could I actually find happiness on this terrible route?

Section 1: the muddy way to Madison
“You go for a man hard and fast enough and he don't have time to think about how many is with him, he thinks about himself and how he may get clear out of the wrath that is about to set down on him.” 
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

With almost 900 racers lined up for the long route, 300 more than the year before, I expected the first few miles to be furious. In slippery conditions it would be like pouring 20 lbs. of grease into a 5 lb. can. I made the acquaintance of Kris Auer on Thursday at the Sunflower Bike shakedown ride in Lawrence. Kris was known to me as a long time east coast cyclocross racer & promoter. An experienced wheel is always good to follow in a hectic race start. I had no shame in slotting behind him until we were a few miles onto the dirt roads.
The front group at mile 3, photo by Coverage Photography
Indeed once we turned onto the first dirt road outside of Emporia the pace became frantic. I pushed hard to stay in the lead group of 60 some racers. At mile 4 a slide out took down 7-8 guys. I narrowly avoided riding into the pile. Barry Wicks, hearing the incident behind him, hammered at the front to increase the split. He was pulling at 28+ mph, whittling down the lead group. I was satisfied to have made the split but knew we were only a mile from the bog. I deliberately backed out of the front group so as to avoid riding into the mud too deep. I followed 5 seconds back with a few others. Sure enough when the leaders hit that mud bog bodies & bikes were thrown in every direction. It was as as if they had charged into a mine field. Before getting into the worst of it, I dismounted & shouldered my bike. I figured we would be hiking for a while. We hiked much longer than I figured.
In the trench, photo by Chad Ament

carrying & pushing. Photos by Chad Ament

Even anticipating the mud, I was surprised at the desolation around me. Guys were desperately picking away thick chunks with their fingers, carrying broken parts in their hands, or staring in disbelief at their destroyed bikes. I kept marching ahead passing stopped others. The mud was so thick it clung to my shoes making them look like Mickey Mouse boots. Some racers were pushing their bikes on the muddy track, or worse, through the tall grass beside the road. Both options risked that they would shred their drive trains. The mud grew thin enough to ride for a few meters, then it became thick again and we would have to hike. This continued for nearly 5 miles. Yet I came out of it with an intact bike and 185 miles to go. 

Once I was riding more than hiking I saw that the race was shattered. Ahead of me I could see very few racers, behind me hundreds were still slowly working their way through the bog. In years past there were still large groups riding together at mile 20, but not now. I expected a lonely day ahead. This was not the only of my expectations that turned out to be wrong.

I was feeling strong around mile 30 when none other than Dan Hughes caught up to me. I was surprised that he was behind me at that point so I called out to him. He said that he had been taken down in the crash at mile 4. His jersey looked like he had wrestled a pig & lost. Spotting his damaged shifter I asked if he was alright. He replied that he was good enough & his bike still shifted. After a few miles he increased the pace to one unreasonable for me to match. He pressed on in pursuit of the leaders. Dan finished 6th overall & won his age group. There's a reason he's King of the Kanza.
Dan Hughes pushing on in a mud stained jersey. Photo by TBL Photography

The remainder of the first section was uneventful. I had one flat tire, but changed it quickly. I passed a few people & was passed by a few more. My goal was to survive the first section with enough energy to race harder in the second. I arrived in Madison still in the top 30-40 racers. I quickly reloaded my food & water. The crew for hire folks were superb. I ate a few chips & pickles. I saw Rebecca leave the check point a minute before I did. I had achieved my goal of finishing the first section in a high position. I thought now I could catch Rebecca and race for an impressive result. But fate, as if responding to my lofty expectations, was about to knock me down a peg or three. 

Section 2: a long ride to Cottonwood Falls
“We must each of us bear our own misfortunes.” 
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

Upon leaving Madison I spotted the familiar jersey of Essex County Velo, one of the larger New England clubs. I caught up to the racer and asked his name, Tom Catalano he replied. "Are you Cosmo's dad?" I asked. "No relation, but I know who you mean" he said. After a few more words I left Tom to continue my pursuit of Rebecca.

Tom was not the only racer I would get to know this day. Earlier in the slick mud I was riding with a guy on a full adventure race equipped Borealis fat bike. He was floating over the flatter mud sections but predictably slower going up hills. Each time I passed him I called out "Fat Bike Dude!" Eventually I learned his name was Joe, from South Dakota. I did not expect to see him again after Madison. I would end up crossing paths with him all day until mile 160. He was always a welcome sight. 

Joe Stiller aka Fat Bike Dude. Photo by Jason Ebberts/ TBL Photography

Only a few more miles on I had another front flat tire. I cursed myself by forgetting to use the floor pump in Madison to ensure my earlier tire change had enough pressure. Tom "not Cosmo's dad" went past me while I fixed it. I hurried to put the front wheel back in place & get back to racing. I hurried too much. Another few miles on I realized that my front brake was rubbing the rim. Again I stopped to adjust my brakes. A few miles after that I noticed my front skewer had come loose. I stopped to fix that too. All of these misfortunes were my own doing; there is no defeat like self-defeat.

When we left Madison I expected that we were through with muddy hiking for the day. I was wrong. At mile 90 or so we hit a section of farm track too thick to ride. It felt like a kick in the teeth. With no other option I shouldered the bike again to trot for half a mile. At the end of the mud there were some large puddles across the road. I stopped to clean my bike as did several others. It was the 3rd & mercifully final time I would unstrap my brush/fender. Dry roads were ahead and about 100 more miles.

More mud. Photo by Linda Guerette

The mud had not ended my race, but it did take a toll. My shifting had become as indifferent & unresponsive as a French waiter. I would down shift three clicks & the chain would move one cog, as if to say "I'm sorry monsieur, but zat is not ze gear for you, better to spin ze higher cadence, no?" When I tried to up shift it replied "Impossible! Can you not see I am fatiged, monsieur? You must wait" Eventually I discovered that if I tugged the housing after I shifted, the cable would move better. My bike wasn't running well, but it was running well enough.

A greater toll was paid by my knees. Miles of hiking and heavy pedaling with mud caked shoes made my bad left knee ache. I could not push as hard as I wanted to anymore. My pace slowed substantially. After an hour or so I remembered that I put 4 ibuprofen tablets in my bento box. I fished two out & eagerly swallowed them. I hoped these would be enough for a second wind.

Fate was not done with me yet though. I feared that my front tire was too soft from the earlier flat. Rather than use my last CO2 cartridge I put my mini pump on the valve. No additional air seemed to be getting into the tube. I threaded the pump hose onto the valve tighter, no difference again. In taking the pump hose off I unscrewed the valve core letting all the air out of the tire. I discovered that the pump's air chamber hole was clogged with mud. I used my last cartridge & prayed for no more flats before Cottonwood Falls.

In between my mechanical misfortunes and the groaning from my knees, there were moments of immense beauty. The misty weather gave a sheen to the landscape. Instead of the usual sapphire blue under an intense Kansas sun, the overcast sky allowed the tall grass to radiate vibrant emerald green. Few people ever get to see how pretty the prairie is away from the highways & towns.

the prairie was beautiful when I could notice. Photo by Eric Benjamin

I passed Fat Bike Dude again about 30 miles outside Cottonwood Falls. For much of this stretch I was riding with someone in a black kit & using triathlon seat mount bottle cages, aka Tri Seat Guy. He looked to be struggling as much as I was. We had been riding into a steady 14mph headwind for 50 miles. As the saying goes; misery loves company. We chatted for a bit. The roads began to be familiar to me from the past course. I told him we were getting close to the end of this section as we neared Bazaar. He seemed encouraged by that. I believe he said his name was Scott, but I did not find out where he was from, nor can I confirm it. That is a shame since he was good company.

As the ibuprofen began to work I was able to increase my pace. I rolled into Cottonwood Falls knowing that I would not finish before sundown. I had hoped at Madison to ride the 2nd section in 5 hours, it had taken me 7. Yet the thought of 43 familiar miles to go lifted my spirits. I only had to push hard for 3 more hours.

Section 3: charging to Emporia
“Lookin' back is a bad habit.” 
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

The "crew for hire" volunteers were even better in Cottonwood Falls than in Madison. Immediately they retrieved my bag, offered food & cold drinks. I was pleased to find a Red Bull in the cooler. The kind folks kept asking if I needed more. As I was attaching my lights, I told a volunteer in overalls about my clogged mini-pump. Without hesitation he said "I have a pocket knife, I might be able to clean it out". He did so in no time. I was so grateful I could have cried.

I took my last two ibuprofen and headed out. My plan was to steadily increase my effort until I could see Emporia. I knew that the final head wind section would be tough, 8 miles of rolling road with no shelter. I passed Fat Bike Dude a final time. He must have gone through Cottonwood Falls without stopping. But I no longer had time to chat, it was time to race.

I turned north into the long last stretch of headwind. A mile or so into it a pair of riders caught me, one wearing a CTS jersey. Recognizing a good situation I latched on to their pace line. After my turn at the front I asked "Are you Chris Carmichael?" Yes he was. I shared that I was a home town friend of his newest assistant, Thom Coupe. He said "Thom is a good kid". We continued to take steady pulls into the wind for the next 6 miles. Knowing Carmichael's strength & experience I feared that he would drop me. Still, if anyone could work a pace line it was him.

About 4 miles on a women bridged up to our group. She was churning the pedals at low cadence but had a mile wide grin. Her long blonde ponytail and strong pulls reminded me of my Swedish cousins, so I nicknamed her "Viking Girl". Just before the right turn toward Kahola our group caught 4 guys meandering up the track. One them recognized "Viking Girl" and said "her again! she's been wearing us out all day!" I replied "That's not what she said, I bet she's about to drop you". That was all the spark she needed, because as we turned onto a steep grade, she attacked. I came around for a dig of my own. As we crested the hill I saw that we had a gap on the others.
April Morgan (viking girl) & me at the finishers tent
The next few miles were a series of short steep hills with rocky descents. I wanted to be at the front to pick my own lines. Only Viking Girl was on my wheel on the climbs, though she backed off on the descents. We had dropped Carmichael and all the other guys. It was no time to slow down so I called back "keep the speed up Viking girl!". We passed a few more guys as we raced up & down the rollers.

She was off my wheel but in sight when we started around Kahola Lake. A family had set up a tent beside the road &amp offered up drinks to us racers. A young boy called out "Do you want a Coke?" "Sure I'll take that" I said. He seemed surprised as I snatched it from his hand without slowing. With under 20 miles to go there was no time for pleasantries.

About 4 miles outside of Americus I caught up to Tom "not Cosmo's Dad" Catalano and another fellow. As I came past them I told him to hop on my wheel. He jumped to it and replied "I'll try, but I don't have much left" I worked to keep the pace above 20 mph when the road was straight. I would pull for 3-4 minutes then follow him for a few. Just before town he drifted off my draft. I was stopped by a red at the lone traffic light in Americus. Tom caught back on there. We continued to trade pulls for another few miles out of town, but at some point he faded back. I did what I could to help him finish. I'm sure he'd have done the same for me.

At this point I could see the lights of Emporia in the distance. I pushed to keep my pace up while checking my Garmin for every turn. As I reached the ESU campus I stood out of the saddle for a final surge, but my legs were empty. Crossing onto Commercial Street the cheers from the crowd gave me a boost to pedal for the finish line. I slapped as many high fives with the kids lining the barricades as I could manage. I crossed the line & hoisted my bike above my head. I've never been so elated to simply finish a race.
In the finish tent, done & dusted. Photo by Eric Benjamin
Tom Catalano came in a little over a minute behind me for 5th place in 55+ men. April Morgan (Viking Girl) finished another 3 minutes back for 4th place in the under 39 women. In the finishing tent I learned April's name and that she's from Minnesota. Viking Girl may be the most fitting nickname I've ever accidentally coined. I hugged the race directors. I hugged Eric Benjamin. My 15h 48min. result was 92nd out of 427 official finishers, 19th in my age group. A little over half the DK200 starters dropped out this year. I was in disbelief that I had finished that grueling course. To a degree I still am.

"Was this what they call grit in Fort Smith? We call it something else in Yell County!"
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

I was ushered over to the finisher's banner where I signed my name & wrote "No Mud, No Lotus". I met Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey there. He won the DK200 once and has finished a record 9 times. I was happy to meet him this year simply as a fellow racer.

As my heart rate dropped I was quickly getting cold. I spotted Kris Auer & his new bride Amber in the crowd. Kris told me that he had held in the front group early on but destroyed his rear derailleur around mile 20. Amber had finished the 100 mile half pint. I begged them for a ride back to my motel. Although it was under 3 miles away I was so depleted it may as well have been 50. Kindly they obliged. 

Until now I have avoided any direct allusion to the book & films to which the title of this post refers. While I like the Charles Portis book & the Coen brothers film version as well, I have no love for Rooster Cogburn. Any man who claims to have "ridden with Quantrill" elicits  an immediate enmity from a lifelong Jayhawk such as myself.  In all honesty there is little in common between a story of two lawmen & a teenage girl seeking vengeance for her father's murder and an arduous bike race. But there is this: True Grit is not just a good western, nor merely a character sketch of the irascible Rooster Cogburn & the precocious Mattie Ross. The truth of the story is that only when Cogburn, La Beouf, & Mattie sacrifice the best of themselves to save each other do they find their true grit. I realized this year that no one finishes the Dirty Kanza by themselves. In the past I viewed this race as a solitary endeavor, strong legs & a stronger will was all that was needed to finish. But this year I was compelled to make new friends on route & in the end offer what little I had left to help others succeed. I was happy that Tom & April made the podium in their categories and proud that I had helped them in a small way. At the same time I could not have endured the challenges of this course without the aid of my fellow travelers. The truest grit is giving the best of yourself when it hurts the most without regard for repayment or reward.

The following day I was glad to meet my new friends at the awards breakfast. Both "Fat Bike Dude" Joe Stiller & "Viking Girl" April Morgan were seated near me. I congratulated the women's winner Amanda Nauman & encouraged her to come to New England during cyclocross season. That afternoon I stopped in Lawrence for lunch with my parents and to buy souvenirs at Sunflower Bikeshop. I was surprised to see Colin "Mechanic of Kanza Champions" Earhart already back at work. He spotted me and said "You were flying coming into the first check point, what happened after that?" I told him of the mechanicals & knee issues that unraveled my race in the next 60 miles. "Still you finished, and this year that's something" he replied. It took that as a high compliment.
Collin Earhart & me before the race 
I will race the Dirty Kanza again someday. The event is too tremendous to ignore or long avoid. I'd like to race for a better result, yet I know that it is only by the grace of God that I finished at all this year. The price of finishing the Kanza is not only sweat & tears, but fortitude, humility, & faith. At some point it requires grit.

I will likely not attempt it next year. But then again, I said that last year too.

P.S. I could not tell this tale as I would want without use of the photo's above, The professionals that shot them were very generous. Please take a look at their other work at the links below:

Friday, July 4, 2014

1st Grafton County Grand Ronde Report: when petite is enough

Last Saturday I held the first annual (I hope) Grafton County Grand Ronde. Originally I planned a 140 mile 13k ft. climbing loop in the vain thought of riding dirt roads all day. I spent the past year plotting and checking suitable roads. I also sketched a 99 mile "petite route" that would become the choice of the day. I hoped for fair weather. Thankfully the weather co-operated. We had clear skies and moderate temperatures all day. The morning was a touch cool, but a stiff 2 mile climb a few minutes into the start kept us warm.

We began with a group 6, expecting to meet up with another 3-5 riders along the route. The group included my team mates Jordan, Ryanne, & Andy, and the accomplished brevet racers John Bayley & Pam Blalock (aka the Blayley's). John & Pam were riding their custom Seven tandem to equalize their power against our more modest strengths.

The opening climb up East Rumney Road was just enough to keep the knee warmers off. We shot down the back side toward Campton Bog. Andy dropped his sunglasses causing Jordan to slow and Ryanne touched his rear wheel. She went down hard and we all stopped to help her assess the damage. Ryanne soldiered on bravely to Plymouth and on to the base of Bridgewater Hill. But the fall had bruised her shoulder too much for long steep climbs, so she departed with Jordan to ride home.

Paul Lohnes met us along the route to Plymouth. We apologized & explained our delay. We stopped in Plymouth long enough for a cup at Cafe Monte Alto to prepare for the vertical efforts ahead. I warned the group that the toughest climbs faced us in the first 40 miles. I don't think they entirely believed me. Bridgewater Hill is a beautiful beast of a climb. The first half a mile is paved but an average just shy of 15% grade. As we stomped up this wall Andy called out the spot grades from his computer, 16%, 18%, 19%. 14%. Once the road turns to dirt it flattens out to "only" 7% grade for the next half a mile. A small dip in the road leads to the next 8% section. The sight of the old Town Hall makes one think the climb is over, but it continues for a final steep ramp at 9%. The view of Newfound Lake at the top is spectacular. We all enjoyed a rest in the clear morning sun.

What goes up of course must come down. The descent on Poole Hill Road was tricky. The rain from a few days before left some spots on the dirt road tacky. Negotiating steep drops with occasionally wheel sucking wet spots took nerve. But we all made it down with out incident. We fortified ourselves with a few pasteries and refilled water bottles at the Newfound Grocery.

After a pleasant lakeside transition we started up the next challenge, Washburn Road. John and Paul were familiar with this climb from the Kearsarge Classic. The temperature was climbing as we were & the morning cool mist changed to humid sticky air. I took off my helmet in an effort to stay cool. Still, my head was drenched by half way up the hill. Paul was climbing better than all of us. He had time to take great photos from the view at the peak.

After a few minutes of enjoying the views of Mt. Cardigan & the Green Mountains to the west, we shot down Wild Meadow Road. The tandem lead the way. I quickly realized that I could kill myself if I tried to go the same speed as John & Pam on a familiar descent. We grouped up at the turn north around the west side of Mt. Cardigan. The road on this stretch bumps up & down, never climbing for long, but always going up. After descending from Tuttle Road, we bushwhacked a few steps onto the Northern Rail Trail for the pleasant flat miles into Canaan.

After climbing past Canaan Lake and down again, we stopped for more water. The humid warm air was draining us quickly. Andy seemed to be in difficulty. He was on antibiotics from a dental procedure a few weeks before. The heat & the drugs sapped much of his normal power. But he rallied after the stop, hoping that by lunch he'd find his legs. We continued to bump up and down the Grafton Turnpike. The slope sides at the Dartmouth Skiway were covered in purple lupines. It was a gorgeous alpine view.

We arrived in Lyme for our lunch stop a bit past 11:30. After 6 hours of elapse time, and over 4.5 hours of riding we all needed replenishment. The Lyme Country Store has everything we could want, from sandwiches & chips to cookies & ice cream. Rather than stand in a long line at the deli counter I grabbed a sandwich from the cooler & a big bag of potato chips. (turkey, cheddar, & granny smith apple on a croissant. what could be better!) I entirely expected to share the chips. But everyone else bought a bag of chips to share as well. Funny thing though, all the bags were finished before we left Lyme.

Now I had told the group that the worst of the climbing was over after we past Mt. Cardigan. We all decided to ride the petite route by lunch, Andy was still suffering from antibiotics, Paul wanted to get home for his son, and my knees where starting to complain. In my mind Bridgewater Hill and Washburn Road are the hardest climbs on the petite route due to their length. As we crested the 8% grade on Pinnacle Road Pam called me over: "You said the hard hills were over, Liar." I feebly replied that this was a shorter climb than the ones before, "LIAR!" she repeated. I knew there were more short steep dirt climbs ahead. My knees groaned in agreement with Pam's opinion.

We dropped down to Orfordville then up again on Dame Hill Road. I dislike Dame Hill only because it gives you a stark view of the back side of Cottonstone Mountain: a severe warning of the steep dirt road to Indian Pond. We churned our way up the hill and arrived at Indian Pond about 1:45. I was glad that I changed the lunch stop to Lyme. Paul shot ahead down the descent eager to get back to Plymouth. When I arrived at the turn to Piermont Heights Road I did not see him. I worried that he might have missed the turn on the fast descent. When Andy, John, & Pam arrived I suggested we continue down to Rte 25c to find him. Pam began to object as we quickly sped down the 8% grade after the turn, but it was too late. At the bottom, there was no Paul, he apparently had made the turn without stopping. I apologized but the damage was done. We needed to climb another mile and a half back to the planned route.

Once back on course we quickly found the most challenging track of the day. Piermont Heights Road becomes a Class IV "Summer Highway" after half a mile. This meant picking our way through baseball size stones and around craters on essentially a jeep trail. Fortunately John & Pam appreciate a good bike handling challenge. Once we descended to the smooth dirt road past Upper Baker Pond we all were fatigued. Paul was far ahead of us. I suggested we skip the final dirt road climb up Nichols Hill and simply take the paved road down to Wentworth. The group readily agreed. We arrived at our final stop weary but not broken. Each of us took in just enough water, food, & caffeine to ride the final 11 miles. In the end we all rode within our limits for the day but just.

Arriving back in Rumney was a joy. Ryanne and Jordan joined us for food & drink. Apparently Jordan had tried to ride the reverse route, but arrived much earlier at Indian Pond than we did. He still got his dirt century in, but solo. After changing clothes I grilled some burgers & sausage. We ate all the chips in the house and drank a few (many) beers. We talked about the day's ride, and past races & rides, and rides to attempt in the future.

It was a grand time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Just a few miles more: the week in New England Dirt Road Cycling

New England is enjoying an explosion of dirt road cycling in 2014. A few new and an old favorite event are now on the calendar for this year. But before I mention upcoming rides, there was a little race in the Adirondacks last weekend that deserves mention.

The Black Fly Challenge bills as a mountain bike race, but since it's beginning 20 years ago, most winners have been on cyclocross bikes. Indeed the organizers now divide out the categories between cyclocross, expert mtb, sport mtb, ect. The race draws over 700 cyclists to the start line for 40 miles of upstate New York gravel road. Most notably several of New England's top masters & junior cyclocross racers made the trek to the Adirondacks. Colin Reuter chose to "sandbag" the expert mtb field, with predictably hilarious results. You can read about his race here. Meanwhile, Al Donahue (coach of the NECX all stars) won the cyclcross category & set the course record.

Back here in New England proper, 2 more events have popped up for September 27th. Actually one new event and the confirmation of an old event.

The new event is the Hills & Hollows 50. It's listed as a 50 mile race or a 25 mile tour in Poultney VT. The course is described as mostly dirt with some class IV roads & 4000ft climbing. Vermont is truly the center of New England dirt road cycling as of now. Information on the event is linked on the calendar page or you can find it here

The old event is the New England Randonneurs Fall Classic. Staring in Burlington VT this course heads east to Stowe and Jeffersonville then back. Two routes at 114km and 200km. The routes are approximately half on dirt road. Full brevet rules with control stops & timing. Find out more or register here

That's this week in New England dirt. Go out and ride somewhere less traveled.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Prairie Monumental: the 2014 Dirty Kanza 200

The Start, photo by TBL Photography
"only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go"  - T.S. Eliot

The Dirty Kanza 200 is a huge endeavor. Racing a bike on the 202 miles of gravel track through open prairie is as overwhelming as a clear blue Kansas sky. If I wasn't born & raised in Lawrence KS I would never have seriously considered attempting it. But I am a Jayhawk, an idealistic, & stubborn Kansas native. The chance of spending a day riding through the tall grass prairie was part of the draw. I also understood how severe the heat, the hills, and the wind could make this race. The other draw is the simple question "can I do it"? Yet this is no fevered hallucination, no Oz story, it all happened just as I recall.

Last year was my first attempt at the Dirty Kanza. I barely had enough time to train properly. I broke my foot in early March. I was forced to play catch up on my training in April & May. I was also woefully naive as to the mental challenge of a race this long & hard. I finished last year, but well into the night. When I finally got back to Emporia I was emotionally empty, mentally crushed. My early mistakes cascaded into further delays from mile 75 to the end. My poor hydration in the first 50 miles lead to extreme cramps, which lead to an hour stopped at the 2nd check point, which lead to a missed turn and another hour off course, which lead to riding slowly in the dark & getting lost again. I decided to return if only to prove to myself that I was capable of learning from those mistakes and finish in the daylight.

This year I made an ambitious training plan, but again it was postponed by a long New Hampshire winter. We enjoyed some of the best skiing in a decade, but I was not able to ride on the road until April. Dirt road riding would wait until mid May. During our long cold spring (or "still damn winter" some days) I was able to nordic ski & do strength work. The whole time I kept in mind that I needed to hit my weight goal, endurance goals, & power numbers more than ride a bike on dirt.

The plan seemed to work. I was lighter & more fit by May than last year. More importantly my old climbing partner Jamie agreed to crew for me. His expedition planning experience & attention to detail gave me a big boost of confidence preparing for my second Dirty Kanza.

my DK200 race ready rig

We arrived in Lawrence on Thursday with bags & bike intact. After a quick gear check, we went downtown to the Free State Brewery for dinner. We dropped in on the Sunflower Bike shop event, Rebecca's Rendezvous. Rebecca Rusch gave a lecture on preparing for ultra distance events including her mental strength tips. Her advice that "there will be good times & bad times in a race like this, neither will last" would prove valuable. Sunflower Bike is where as a boy I drooled over celeste green Bianchi's. The shop is now owned by Dan Hughes, the 4 time winner, a.k.a. King of the Kanza. Rubbing elbows with Dan, Rebecca, & some of the other heavy hitters already in town got me excited for the race ahead. The vibe in the room was Lawrence casual but there was an under current of nervous tension. We all understood that the Kanza is a serious event for every rider.

Friday Jamie & I gathered groceries at the Merc, Lawrence's great natural food co-op, then high tailed it to Emporia. After registering I went out for a preview spin of the first 25 miles. The track was dry & dusty, much more so than last year. I was a little concerned that my Clement MSO 32's would not corner well enough in the tight racing in the first 20 miles. On the other hand, I remembered how much I had to adjust my cornering speed a year ago on different tires. We just don't have the loose gravel roads in New England that are frequent in the Midwest. I decided to try to corner smoothly rather than change tires.

lined up, photo by Dustin Michelson

Race day started at 4:30 a.m. after a fitful night of sleep. Jamie had the bike running well, the gear sorted out. I had the route loaded onto my Garmin & a back up map in my pocket. The Garmin 800 routing worked perfectly. I was thankfully able to avoid any wrong turns this year. I lined up on the third row at the far right, next to a couple of local shop guys. I hoped for a clean start through the first 15 miles; no wheel touches, no slide outs, & most of all no crashes ahead of me.

The race started a little faster than last year, but considering the top contenders top speeds, it was a controlled pace. While people were riding 3-4 wide into corners, I noticed less shaky bike handling than 2013. One guy asked me as I maneuvered into the middle slot on a turn if I was going to wipe out on him. No sir, not this New England cyclocross racer. By the time we crested the first real climb the front group was still 60 or more strong. I rode next to Rebecca for much of the first 15 miles. The low mist & cool temperature made for a beautiful start to the day. I shuffled to the back in order to eat at mile 21. That turned out to be a minor mistake. Just before the Olpe Tower climb the front group split. I moved up at the base of the climb, but the leaders were pounding up the hill. Rather than burn several matches to bridge up I decided to race my own pace. I did not want bury myself in the first 50 miles only to be empty in the last 50 miles.

riding with Rebecca Rusch, photo by Eric Benjamin
I got into Madison a few minutes behind the leaders. Jamie had me refueled & chain lubed in seconds. I left confident I could ride strong to Cassoday. Unfortunately my belly had other ideas. Only 5 miles into this leg my gut started to rebel against the buffalo jerky I had eaten just before Madison. I had to make a quick stop to relieve myself, but felt good afterwards. Nutrition, it turns out, would be my downfall all day long. Yet I remembered to avoid my big mistake from last year, I drank plenty & rode a steady pace in the second section. I was riding with a good group of 5 when I made another little mistake. While crossing a cattle guard in the pace line, I failed to bunny hop high enough, thus pinch flatted my rear tire. I got it changed quickly but the speedy group was long gone. I was surprised that more than a dozen racers passed in the few minutes I took to change the flat. Compounding that mistake, I also under inflated the new tube, so flatted again 8 miles up the road. Another quick change, this time with more air in the rear tire. On the Kanza course there are good hard packed gravel roads, and there are bad chunky tire detroying gravel roads, neither will last.

Important for my frame of mind, I passed the point where a year ago doubled over with cramps I nearly tossed my bike into the weeds. I cheerfully shouted out "better than last year!" and upped my pace. I caught up to the lead tandem about 7 miles outside of Cassoday. I jumped into their draft with one other rider. We cruised in at 23+ mph to the mile 100 check point. Jamie & I spent extra time getting the saddle pack reloaded, checking tire pressure, & fueling up. I had lost 30 minutes or more between the flats & my "bio-mechanical" on the 2nd section. But it was still in much better shape than in 2013. I knew the leaders were out of reach after my 3 stops, but also felt I could make a run at a sub 14 hour ride. Jamie urged me to eat & then eat some more. After a sandwich, bag of chips, a few pickles, a handful of M&M's & a ginger ale I was plenty fueled.

Shawn Omara earlier in the race
I left Cassoday into a steady head wind on the long straight road out of town. I rolled out with a local rider in an Adventure Monkey jersey, Shawn Omara. We were soon trading even pulls on the 8 miles of rolling road. Once we hit the first hill I found that my legs were dead. I had eaten too much at lunch. All the blood that should have been in legs was working to digest that meal. Nutrition lesson number 2, you can't eat too much when you're racing for 12 hours, but you can eat too much at once. As Shawn  and others eased away up the hills I soft pedaled & kept in mind what Rebecca said on Thursday, "there will be good times, there will be bad times, neither will last". I hoped that by the time we turned north into the bigger hills on Madison Road my belly would no longer be an anchor. In fact with a little tail wind I did start to pick up the pace. The cross breeze had kept us cool, but now the sun was on our backs, it started to feel hot. But I was finding my race legs. I started picking off guys heading toward Matfield Green.

riding out of Cassoday, photo by Neil Shirley
Then I felt the familiar twinge of hamstring cramps. My left leg started to seize every time I pushed on a seated climb. I drank as much as I could stomach, soft pedaled for a while then tried to ramp up the pace again. A few miles later the hamstring cramped again. I un-clipped my left foot & shook the leg out. That helped for a few more miles, but as I came to the lumpy climbs outside of Cottonwood Falls, the cramps came back. This is my favorite section of the course. I enjoy the twisting roads and hills south of Cottonwood Falls. But I was nervous that each push would lead to more cramps. Eventually I had to get off the bike to stretch. I hoped that some rest & more intense stretching at the 3rd check point would alleviate the issue. The mental battle now was holding off the frustration of only riding my race pace half of the time.

I pulled into Cottonwood Falls more worried than tired. I felt like I had pedaled hard for only 20 of the prior 50 miles. I was consumed by the mental calculations of time & speed & distance to Emporia: what pace could I maintain? was it enough to make the finish by sunset? Jamie got to work straight away getting fluids into my system. But it wasn't dehydration that thwarted me, I needed salt. I ate chips, I took electrolyte tablets, I asked for more sea salt in my drink mix, and finished the jar of pickles. Yet I was already depleted and cramping. I could only remedy the situation so much.

With earbuds in & agro music on high, I charged into the last section hoping I could make up time and keep the cramps at bay. At very least I expected to beat the sunset & finish in the top 100. The first 10 miles I felt so amped I almost sprinted up the road. After 30 minutes both of my hamstrings decided they had enough of that pace. For the next 35 miles I could ride hard tempo for 10-15 minutes then I would need to soft pedal, shake my legs out, or stop & stretch. I played leap frog with a dozen riders in the last section. I would fly past 5-6 guys, only to stop then watch them cruise past me again. My cyclocross skills proved useful in finding "free speed" on the bigger downhills. By 5 miles outside of Americus I was in the middle of a solid 6 rider pace line when cramps hit my legs again. I had to sit up & wave the rest of the group on. When I could pedal hard, I did. When I had to stop I stopped. I  focused on making as much speed out of what my legs would give me. I kept up my positive attitude by saying "better than last year" each time I passed another challenge.

After Americus I had the giddy confidence that I was close to finishing before sunset. A cool water bottle handed to me by a local family on the road side boosted my spirits too. Several houses outside of Americus had free water bottles set out for desperate racers; the oasis of the Dirty Kanza.  I began to catch a few stragglers from the pace line I had waved on before town. The rush of being close to Emporia gave me new energy. Still, I was afraid my hamstrings might seize up & I'd flop over like a turtle in the road. I pushed carefully to the finish, a little faster each mile. The cheers of the crowd in Emporia were overwhelming, humbling really. I finished in 14 hours 17 minutes, good for 155th place overall out of 469 finishers.  Jamie quickly shepherded me to a seat for water & rest. The organizers had recovery tents set out with couches, water, food & ice packs. I saw dozens of weary dusty salt streaked bodies in different depths of exhaustion. Several blocks of Emporia's main street were closed off for the race. I was even more humbled by the number of local residents who congratulated me and asked with genuine interest about my race .

Downtown Emporia blocked off, photo by Dustin Michelson
As much as the distance & terrain, the energy in Emporia makes the Dirty Kanza an extraordinary event. Jim Cummins runs a great show, but the participation of the whole town makes this race very special. Personally I think I can ride a better race at the Kanza. I figure I lost an hour or more working through hamstring cramps. I realize that good nutrition for a 10 hour bike ride in cool New England weather is very different than the demands of a 13 hour race in the Kansas sun. That is my critical lesson for next time. I imagine that the Dirty Kanza will always have new lessons to teach, new challenges to overcome. Whether a racer is at the front, wringing themselves out to win, or another grinding away in the dark to finish before midnight,
the big Kansas horizon, photo by Eric Benjamin
this course tests each person that lines up. Everyone struggles sometime, whether it's the heat or the wind or another blown tire or just pedaling hard after 12 hours. It is the hundreds of cyclists racing their bikes toward the far off prairie horizon, hours from the start, hours away from the finish, that makes the Dirty Kanza monumental.