‘It ain’t flat. People can argue with me all they want, but the chunky gnarliness of the Flint Hills is unmatched
-Emporia bar owner Rick Becker
It’s hard to think of a better place to embark on an alternative racing program than Dirty Kanza, where , Alex Howes, and Lachlan MortonTaylor Phinney will represent EF Education First on Saturday.
Like any great bike race, the event has a character all its own.
It’s not for nothing that the Garmin Dirty Kanza has established itself as one of the world’s best-known gravel events. In a little over a decade, it has grown from a ride for 34 participants to an event hosting nearly three thousand, offering multiple distance options beyond the marquee two-hundred mile race.
Dirty Kanza is about embracing an immense challenge, digging deep to finish a long, lonely race – and, somehow, enjoying the ride.
“I did my first DK200 in 2008, and I’d only been riding for about a year and a half, so two hundred miles of Flint Hills gravel was a tall order. But I finished and loved every minute of it,” says Lelan Dains, who knew he had to get involved with the event after he got hooked that first ride.
Now, he’s Dirty Kanza’s operations manager, part of the team that helps maintain the event’s unique vibe.
The course plays a central role in setting the tone. Dirty Kanza takes riders over two hundred miles on “roads” that are often hardly roads at all. The Flint Hills are so named because of the flint rock lying beneath the tall grass that covers the rolling countryside. It’s a hard, unforgiving surface to ride a bike over, and the topography makes it all the harder.
“People that think Kansas is flat, I challenge you to come ride the DK200,” says Rick Becker, who owns Mulready’s Pub in Emporia, Kansas.
“It ain’t flat. I’ve ridden in bike races all over the country. People can argue with me all they want, but the chunky gnarliness of the Flint Hills is unmatched.”
On top of all that is the sense of desolation the landscape cultivates. Riders can go miles without seeing signs of civilization.
“It’s just you and the prairie and the gravel roads you’re on,” Dains says. “That kind of remoteness can really mess with you.”
Dirty Kanza has the attitude to match the terrain. It’s a race for hard knocks, through and through.
WE WILL NOT COME RESCUE YOU, warns the race manual.
YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU.
On the brutal cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix or the storied hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, support is never far from the peloton, with team cars only a few seconds behind the race.
That’s just not the way things work at Dirty Kanza.
Riders have two checkpoints along the course for repairs and resupplying. Otherwise, they’re on their own. That challenge is central to Dirty Kanza’s character.
As race director Jim Cummins puts it, “You get out there in the middle of a leg between checkpoints and you’ll all the sudden have this realization, “Goodness gracious, this is up to me to get to the next checkpoint.'”
And then there’s the community. Balancing out the desolation of those remote gravel roads is the support riders receive from the handful of towns along the route. Emporia, home to around 25,000 people, hosts the start and the finish. It comes alive for Dirty Kanza.
Some fans and riders have already been in town for weeks. The excitement builds to a crescendo this weekend.
“The atmosphere is electric,” Cummins says. “Every marquee in town has been changed to welcome the riders.”
The excitement is infectious. It spreads from the course and onto the sidewalk, and into the bars and restaurants, which will be packed with riders and fans alike this weekend. The hard knocks that roll out from Emporia get a raucous send-off in the morning, and a warm welcome in the evening after a long, long day on the bike.
When tired riders walk into the bars and restaurants near the finish, they know they can count on a warm reception.
“They’ll see you in your cycling kit and they’ll cheer,” Becker says. “You’re covered in mud and dirt and grit, and they know what you just did.”
A hard-earned welcome awaits on Saturday night. First comes the race.
Howes, Morton, and Phinney have a long road ahead, a challenge not quite like any they’ve taken on so far this season – and that’s what it’s all about, really.
See you in Emporia.