Saturday, June 3rd 2017 marked a day that I have very much been looking forward to. It was the day that Jim Cummins and the other beautiful people in and around Emporia, Kansas had chosen for their running of the 12th year’s rendition of the Dirty Kanza 200 mile bicycle race. The Dirty Dozen.
I was very lucky to get a spot in the race, and like so many other cyclists was staring at my smartphone at 7:45am several months previous in the hopes of being logged in on time to get a spot. The race sold out in something like 13 minutes this year for 2300 spots, give or take. I can only relate that in my mind to a Widespread show at Red Rocks type insanity. Somehow, in the process of signing up the BikeReg app didn’t let me down, and I even got a support crew for hire known as the “Never Let Go” staff within about 30 seconds of thumbs flying.
The race is 206 miles of gravel goodness through the Flint Hills of the region, and it is a beautiful course. Winding up and down some quite bumpy double track that would occassionally drop off unexpectedly on the downhills, or have a small shelf on the hills that required navigation. Along the route there are innumerable spectators cheering us on from farmhouses, and roadsides. Their motivational tactics are immensely successful, and I believe they are what makes the race such a huge draw from around the world. The town comes alive for us. They treat us like gold, they have sales in their stores, and invite us in with open arms to their small city. It was heart warming to see them all out at 6 am, as we rolled out of town, cheering and ringing cowbells like Blue Oyster Cultists. I felt honored to be on the receiving end of their energy, and the better cyclists in the group seemed to surge ahead with the encouragement of the crowd.
The course was in spectacular condition for riding, with the clay absorbing some of the gravel creating fast tracks. It was pretty quick early on, and by the time we got on gravel the leaders were about a mile ahead of where I was. There were awesome water bottles littering the first miles where they had jarred loose, and I had to keep resisting the urge to stop and retrieve one just out of principle. Obviously, I had a limited race mentality out of the gate, and was sort of half in awe, and observing everything more than I was race prone. Am I a good cyclist? No. I am a guy that had this on my bucket list for a couple years, and went for it. I got my butt kicked and it was a learning experience, to be sure, of which I hope to tell of some things I learned the hard way.
The tires I went with were Teravail Cannonballs, and they are awesome gravel tires. I had them for about a week before the race, and had tested them, but not enough. I was running the recommended 70 psi, but didn’t like it. I probably would have gone with my Clement USh’s if I had to do it again. The Cannonballs at 60 Thread per inch, or TPI, compared to USh’s 120 TPI made a lot of difference to me, especially in the hill sections. I had no issues with punctures, traction, or speed as they ride very fast, but they weren’t great climbing tires in my opinion. Too mushy, but that’s correctable.
In terms of bike I went with a dropbar Surly Karate Monkey from about 2013. It’s a singlespeed beast, and I geared it to a 36×17 thinking I was being cagey with a little chainring for hills, and a bit tougher than I would normally run on the cog to make up for the 36 up front. I’m usually at a 40×18, or 42×18 if I’m not running 44×18 fixed (yeah Fixed!) I read that the second place singlespeeder this year, Thomas Adams, was on 44×19, (learning experience for me) and he also used to run fixed, but had a serious accident last year on the DK course, so rides freewheel SS now. Big props to that guy for coming back out and crushing one year later. My particular ratio on the course, 36×17 freewheel SS, and was awkward at best. In practice, I had just cruised around and not felt too spinny. It was fantastic on Singletrack. Race day I was too slow on the course’s flats to keep pace with peloton type groups I kept falling through, and I was too fast on hill situations where everybody went to granny-gear and started spinning, but here I come standing out of the saddle and executing passes of the masses. There I am, going “Excuse me”, “On your Right!”, etc. It wasn’t pretty. Flat comes after, and there they go braaaaappp… pissed at me, and commenting left and right. Sorry guys, I just wanna ride, too. And next time I won’t be as stupid…
The chain and it’s interaction with the cog is where I really took a bite of a shit sandwich. Somehow, I thought that a stronger chain would be had by going to a 1/8 inch width chain as opposed to a 3/32. I have since read that this is stupid, and a misconception at best, but that’s where I was race day… Running a 36×17 ratio in 3/32 width of chainring and cog, with a 1/8 inch chain. Like a moron. Within 10 miles I heard clicking from my brand new shiny gold heavily lubricated KMC Dropbuster Z bicycle chain. NOOOO!!!! But yes, I was having a “mechanical”, as do all of those guys at some point, and within 20 miles I decided that I had to scoot off a bit and deal with my mechanical.
“Mechanical” really means your shit just got pushed deep by this race course, but that is technical cyclistic jargon. I decided that I would go off course to the West at my first chance to get in a low drop where I could be alone and work on repairs. This was probably another mistake, as I had already ridden past a dozen riders working on their bikes on the course, so there was no need for shyness. Also, if I had remained I may have gotten some assistance, or a tensioner, if it was needed. In my case, I had a chain breaker that I trust, and took out a suspect link section that was stiff from the last time I had messed with the pin. Also, I had a old school bmx style chain tensioner I was bending to make work before, and now I couldn’t use because it was too short to reach where I had just needed to move my wheel in relation to having a shorter chain. The bike has rear facing dropouts, and the wheel has a quick release axle that doesn’t hold spot with that low range gearing, so if I put the axle all the way to the front where it wouldn’t slip, then I had a bit of slack. There I was, a half mile off course, with a Karate Monkey, a slack chain that didn’t fit in terms of width or length, and a decision to make about continuing the race in that shape. In the end, I decided that I had just been too damn stupid this year, to even attempt as a newbie with a SS, and took my ass back to Emporia the long way home. Tail between legs, and chain kicking off on every hill that I put tension on it. I started feeling it was comical until I got passed by an ambulance doing 80mph on the old deserted highway with another cyclist inside. Hope they’re ok, whoever they are.
There were many failures on my part at this years race, but I had a few successes. I was able to meet my heros of gravel, Dan “Triple Crown” Hughes, and Rebecca “Gravel World Champion” Rusch, inside of the beautiful Granada Theatre, in the heart of Emporia, Kansas. I was able to start the course, ride some of it, and make it back uninjured, so that’s nice. I learned that sleeping in a truck the night before a race doesn’t help your back much, and I learned that food is a necessity in riding, where as I ride to avoid eating too much. Weird. The skinniest guys were cramming the most food in their mouths while riding, and I’m all sipping my water like, “WTF?” I have a lot to learn about cycling, but I am very appreciative to the good people within the Dirty Kanza for teaching me some of the hard lessons, and I hope to try again without some of the rookie mistakes.