If I am honest, I find bike racing pretty dull. We dress up like power rangers, strain and try our hardest, exercise some tactical intellect, maybe crash, and then one person gets to the end first. That, in a nutshell, is every race I have ever done, from pro to amateur and the smoothest road to the most rugged mountain bike trail. I was never a bike racer for the exercising, or even the winning, I was a bike racer to see the world—not for the world to see me.
I was invited to ride the Dirty Kanza race this spring in Kansas, and thought pretty hard about it. I like seeing new places, I like dirt roads, I like lots of the people who do the race, but I don’t like anything that requires me to pin a number on myself. Still, I was tempted because 200 miles is a long way and that’s fun. I read some race reports, saw just enough people describe the event as “stupid” or “ridiculous” and figured that the challenge alone made it worth my while. So I said yes, and I booked a flight.
At Dirty Kanza, everyone cracks, and most of us work it out and get to the end. Some people do it faster, some people do it slower, but everyone is on their own journey
The thing about Dirty Kanza, or “DK” as it is known, is that it isn’t really a bike race. Sure, some people are trying to win, and for a while I was trying to be competitive, but even the people who try to win are really just trying to survive. At Kanza, everyone bonks, overheats, gets a flat, and considers the prudence of continuing. Everyone cracks, and most of us work it out and get to the end. Some people do it faster, some people do it slower, but everyone is on their own journey through the plains and everyone is just trying to get back to the start in one piece.
Colin Strickland won Dirty Kanza in 9 hours 45 minutes. Some riders finished in 21 hours. Plenty of riders also finished in riverbeds, at aid stations, or in ambulances and local people’s cars. But DK isn’t about crossing the line. It’s about the minute when you think you can’t continue and realize you have to keep riding anyway because nobody is coming to get you. In a bike race, if you puncture, bonk, or in the case of one guy I passed, ride straight into a tree and break your handlebars, you just put your hand in the air and get into a car. Someone takes your number off, you feel awful about yourself, and you drive to a budget hotel and eat reheated buffet food alone. At Dirty Kanza, you can hug a tree at 30mph, or get 9 flats like Taylor Phinney, and you still have to get yourself to the finish.
That’s an expedition, and I like expeditions.
My ride went something like this. I raced for a while, punctured, chased for a while, punctured, overheated, sat in a river looking at pictures of my cat on my phone completely alone in the middle of nowhere, rode for a very long time, stopped at a water station in the only town on the route where I talked to an old man and drenched myself from his hose, ate four pop tarts chased with a beer, rescued three turtles, took a photo on a chaise in the middle of nowhere, found some old friends, pacelined the last ten miles, and then lay on the ground for an hour before eating everything that wasn’t nailed down.
Everyone’s ride is different, which is not what happens in a road race. In a road race you’re in the group or in the break. At Kanza you might spend hours on your own, inexplicably totally solo and lost as you hope your Garmin hasn’t glitched though you grow increasingly paranoid that it has. Sure, 2000 people start, but when it’s 90 degrees and you can’t see any of them on the long road ahead, number and times and positions don’t matter, you’re just on a journey and sometimes you share the road with fellow travelers.
The terrain is unique, that alone justified the trip to me. I last visited Kansas in RAAM, when we sped through the state at nearly 30mph, only stopping when pushing the biggest gear on a time trial bike in an aggressive position left our necks hurting more than our legs. Kanza isn’t flat. It’s a series of short descents, river crossings, steep climbs, and false flat roads paved with stones the size of fists.
The mark of a good journey, to me anyway, is that it teaches you something about who you are and where you are.
When you’re in the group, those stones hit your shins like rubber bullets but with sharper edges, when you’re on your own, they hit your tires like stone age axes and you pray that when, not if, you puncture, there will at least be shade. Sometimes, when there is shade, there’s someone under the tree wondering if they can make it to the next aid station (there are only two), sometimes you give them water, mostly you give them encouragement, but you can’t give them a ride and neither can anyone else. It’s a solo journey and you have to get yourself, and your bike, back to where you started.
The mark of a good journey, to me anyway, is that it teaches you something about who you are and where you are. Kanza did both. I learned that a part of the world I had written off as full of pickup truck driving xenophobes could not have been more welcome to a bike riding immigrant. I also learned that I can actually enjoy bike racing again, and that I need to carry more water than I think I do.
If you’re on the fence about Kanza because you aren’t a bike race person, you don’t have to treat it like a bike race. If you have the chance you really should do it. If nothing else, It’ll teach you where your breaking point is, show you where the best riders in the world break, and bring you together when both you have the same experience of toughing it out and getting home.