Who? (Are you a retired racer or not? Who is Ted King and why did he race the Dirty Kanza?)
We were asked to write our personal palmares and a quick blurb for the start line call-ups. There were a good 20 or more venerable riders who all earned a place at the front of the start peloton of 2,000 Dirty Kanza racers. I mentioned that after ten years of racing in the pros, after retiring at the end of the 2015 season I decided to come out of retirement just for the Dirty Kanza. There’s plenty of truth to that.
This style of event is what I want to do now and into the future. I’ve raced more stage races and criteriums and what I’ll call traditional races than I could ever recall. The DirtyKanza style of race doesn’t require an (expensive) annual license and months of monastic lifestyle. I love competition that features challenges on and off road. These events have so much more passion from the participants, an energetic camaraderie throughout, and sweet party atmosphere at the finish. It’s racing for fun and to toast a frosty beverage at the finish line more than anything else.
What? Where? (What is this race? Where does it go? How long is it?)
Prior to this year, Dirty Kanza lived somewhere in the nebulous world of “crazy gravel race” in my mind. It was somewhere in the realm of RAAM, something that sounds slightly ridiculous on two wheels, but isn’t high on my to-do list. Then I heard my 200 mile partner in crime Tim Johnson and his wife Lyne were doing it. I’ve became friends with Rebecca Rusch over the course of this spring and she’s a three time champ. Then I saw this video:
...which really clinched the deal. It’s a quick five minute video that showcasing a particularly horrific and muddy 2015 event. But there are some raw emotions that you won’t see anywhere else besides drawn out on a bike. Anyone who’s ridden a bike and think they’ve done something truly epic, they’ll get the video… and just might want to do DK as a result.
So, right, what is it. I did a little research and got on the coattails of my buddy Reba. She’s been really helpful and then I was linked to four time winner Dan Hughes. Dan runs Sunflower Outdoor and Bike in Lawrence, KS which is nothing but community. I learned the ropes, was brought into their little platoon. There are so many details you need dialed over the course of a 200 mile race where the only support comes at three pit stops. I learned the ins and outs, learned the course as best I could, and discovered that Kansas might look flat as a pancake from an airplane’s vantage point, but 10,000 feet of climbing later, I don’t think there was more than a single flat mile!
It’s a course that’s shaped like a figure eight rolling across massive expanses of Kansas farmland. Wide open link countless miles of gravel roads occasionally broken up with a river crossing or the occasional tree. There are the sporadic towns, but not a single convenient store or gas station is seen when you’re in the thick of it. Wind? Yeah, there’s wind. And given the shape of the course, you may be blessed with a tailwind but that just means a headwind awaits. Oh and it’s 206 miles.
Why? (Why did you win? Give us the anatomy of your tactics, gear, etc. What did you do? What did you use / wear?)
Admittedly, I have a respectable background in professional racing and some sort of ProTour physiology to back that up. But winning is hard in any circumstance and it’s something that took secondary precedence for most of my career as a domestique. In most of the pre-race interviews I explained that it’s hard to be confident for an event in which I really know nothing about it. Sure, I have experience in 200 mile rides, I know how to be patient, how to draft, how to monitor eating and drinking, how to be smart and conserve in a bike race. But to race 200 miles? To change a flat mid-race… with a through-axle?! To take the competition off road, to navigate mud that tore the derailleurs off a significant portion of the 2,000 starters. To take river crossings at speed. Each bit of those presented entirely new territory.
I tried to cover my bases as best I could. Control the controllable was my mantra. I knew my bike was great and in hindsight it was perfect. I used the Cannondale Slate which combines the best features of a road, mountain, and cyclocross bike into one. I had the front Lefty suspension open and closed probably 100 times over the course of the race. The 40c width tires with just a tiny bit of tread was perfect to soak up the rutted course and still give traction and control I needed. My drivetrain was a SRAM 1x, with a 44 tooth front chainring and a massive 10-42 as a rear derailleur. I was never over or under-geared, and by the end when I was creeping up some river ravines, I used every bit of that 42. I saw a few people geared up for speed using road shoes and pedals. That was clearly a poor decision. I’m a lifelong Speedplay user and went with their SYZR mountain bike cleat and pedal which was flawless in the mud.
I went with a Velocio Ultralight Jersey which was quickly worth it’s (minimal) weight. The 6am start time was already toasty and it only got smoking hot throughout the day. Trips through mud and what seem light small lakes spanning the width of the road made the Signature Bib Short a necessary (and durable) choice.
I had a great pit crew in Colin from Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in Lawrence, Kansas. He’s pitted for both Reba and Dan on numerous occasions — probably noteworthy to point out that the two of them are the only multiple time winners, male and female. A pit is almost like a car race. It’s a small circus with every rider having a little tent and refueling space. So Colin was always starkly obvious when I’d roll into the pit and quickly have my bike cleaned, lubed, and aired up while I’d grab all the food and fuel for the next segment. In and out never took more than two minutes.
I’ve never raced with a Camelbak so that was a fun new addition to my race lineup. Even with two bottles and one 50oz of Camelbak’ed water left me metering it out closely towards the end of segments because it was so hot and dry. Maple was especially on the menu. I would grab three UnTapped packets and an UnTapped waffle per feed zone. I'd alternate one Rice Krispy Treat or Almond Snickers bar. In the final pit stop I was happy to see a jar of pickles. A little sweet, a spicy shot of salty piquant, a small handful definitely helped that final push. Mind you, my winning time was 11:50. At about 900 calories per hour, that’s a whole lot of fuel to be consumed.
It’s a harsh race of attrition where 2,000 people continually is dwindled down further and further. Around mile 80, there were still about twelve of us. 2014 champ Brian Jensen attacked and drew out a few people. That was slowly drawn back and I countered his attack. I tried my best to be patience, but Brian and Neil Shirley are the only two guys I knew well — both former professionals themselves — and I didn’t want to find myself 100 miles later still in a big group, not knowing the talent level of my competition. Brian and one other came with me, but soon it was just Brian and me as Brian smashed up each punchy hill. I suffered a pretty massive puncture from a sharp rock, notorious in this area, and Brian soloed ahead. I was pretty fired up seeing the race roll away from me, so with a pretty quick change I charged through about ten guys who had in the meantime passed me. I was quickly back up with Brian and we went pull for pull until I found myself rolling away from him on the rutty, rocky downhills - again the Slate was proving it to be the perfect bike, since it took energy for Brian to claw back to me once the road flattened out. Approaching the halfway mark, I saw the gap was big enough on a descent and hammered ahead. Out of sight, out of mind was my goal since you’re otherwise just a carrot dangling in the distance. That ended up presenting a 105 mile solo ride into a headwind, but thankfully proved the right more. You never get time checks, you never know just how close or far ahead you are to the charging peloton so it was not an easy nearly 6 hours home.
When? Will you go back? How do you feel?
Oh man, this question went through my mind one thousand times, 98% of which in the final twenty miles. Those are tough, draining miles when you’re already completely depleted. Every finisher is asked to sign an enormous poster and as the winner I was immediately escorted to the poster to sign. The first thing that crossed my mind, pen in hand was “First DK200. I THINK I’ll be back…” Next stop was a recovery chocolate milk and then a recovery IPA.
It’s now been two days. I still feel really sore, head to toe. I’ve thought about it a lot since then and it’s such a tremendous event, such an incredible community, and I really want to honor the number 1 race plate I’m due to receive in 2017. Yes, I’ll be back.
Want more Ted King? Catch up on the origins of our partnership with the former Pro Tour rider here.