Love at First Ride: Bitten by the Gravel Bug

In 2015, Yuri surprised the field and topped the podium at the Dirty Kanza 200. Unfortunately, multiple mechanical problems in 2016 forced him to drop early. This year, he’s back to mix it up over 200 miles of gravel.

I wasn’t looking for a new cycling love but that’s usually when IT finds you, right?! Not sure if it was the serenity of the remoteness, the expanse of the tall prairie grass, the punchy little hills that rolled off into the horizon, or the chunks of menacing flint that littered the roads, but it was love at first ride when I set tires on it. I’m talking about gravel, endless miles of it, and I’ve fallen head over heels for it since that fateful day back in 2013.

Dirty KanzaIn the grand scheme of my  love affair, I’m a late comer to the gravel phenomena that’s been sweeping across parts of the United States for the past decade or so. I didn’t discover gravel until the first year I did the Dirty Kanza, a 200 mile slog through the Flint Hills of Emporia, KS, a ride considered by many to be the toughest gravel race in the world. The way Dan Hughes, 4 X Dirty Kanza winner and, arguably, the King of the Kanza, remembers it, he started riding gravel in the early 90s because those were the safest, and coolest roads to explore. “Gravel racing represents the opportunity to push your own limits, usually due to the length of the events, and do so in a relatively car-free experience. Plus gravel roads in the Midwest are the coolest roads. They’re the twistiest and turniest and have the best vistas.”

There are no National Parks in Kansas, there’s no BLM land, and there certainly aren’t any mountains, so gravel gives people a chance to see the landscapes just a few miles outside of town and get away from it all. And the landscape that’s outside Emporia, KS, the birthplace of the Dirty Kanza 200, well, it’s stunning. Yeah, I know, most folks don’t put “stunning” and “Kansas” in the same sentence, but they obviously haven’t experienced the geography that makes this part of the state unique and beautiful. The Flint Hills, also known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills, are a region of eastern Kansas and north central Oklahoma that contain the largest intact tallgrass prairie in North America. Less than 4 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains—and most of it is in the Flint Hills of Kansas. One of the other distinguishing features of  this region, and the bane of those who dare to ride bikes through it, is the sharp, flint rock that has survived eons of erosion and is what prevented the tall grass prairie from being plowed under for farmland.  

Speaking of farmland, it was my third flat of the day during the 2014 DK 200 and I was sitting in a ditch along the side of the course fumbling with the fix, maybe 15 miles out of town and the finish, buzzards circling overhead, when I saw an oasis of hope. It was a handwritten sign, in kid scrawl, and it said: DK riders stop here. I stumble shuffled my way down there after fixing my flat and plopped myself on their lawn. I was shell shocked from the heat and the 180ish mile effort that I’d put in so far, and wasn’t very conversant, but I did nod my head in agreement when one of the kids asked if they could spray me with a hose. After the refreshing dousing, they filled my bottles with ice and water, and handed me a Coke, which tasted like a million bucks and drastically helped my sagging motivation. After about 10 minutes I struggled to my feet, thanked them profusely for their kindness, and soggily got on my bike and made my way to the finish.

This is but one act of community kindness that I’ve witnessed out on course, or in town, during my four years of doing Dirty Kanza that epitomizes the love that locals have for this event, and is one of the many reasons that this race is near and dear to my heart. Now I know Dirty Kanza isn’t for everyone, and that my adoration for it might seem odd, but if you’re looking for a new challenge, and possible a new love when it comes to cycling events that are more about place than placing, check out the Flint Hills of Kansas, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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