By: Dyland Johnson of Leska Racing
As an ultra-endurance racer the idea of longer miles, more suffering, and new challenges is an exciting proposition. Enter the Dirty Kanza 200. The race consists of over 200 miles of gravel starting and ending in Emporia, Kansas. Racers have to battle rolling hills, sticky mud, 20 mph winds, and high temperatures. My specialty is 100-mile mountain bike races so the format of DK was a bit different than I’m used to but I was eager to give it a go.
The morning of the race, thunderstorms delayed the start by 30 minutes. That early rain soon dissipated but left us riding through sticky mud for much of the first 50 miles. Riding in a large group only made it worse. Mud was constantly being flung into drafting riders and after the first 30 minutes, every racer and their bike were coated.
The first aid station was hectic with a large group but it wasn’t long before the front group was whittled down to less than ten riders. With 90 miles to go Josh Berry and Ted King made an attack. I was left with the decision of playing it safe and staying back with the chase group or going with them for a chance at a top three. I chose the latter. In hindsight, this was the mistake of the race but I’m glad I gave it a shot. Sometimes in bike racing, you have to take chances. I rode with them for about 20 minutes hoping they would settle down the pace. It was clear I was in over my head and I dropped off their group. I was quickly caught by the next chase group of 4. I tried to work with them but was so gassed from the effort I’d just made that I soon found them slipping away as well.
Eventually, I settled in just as Craig Ritchey caught me. The two of us were able to work together for the second half of the race until mile 180 when a bonk started to set in. I knew it was coming too. I’d fallen behind on my nutrition after my fight with the front group. In a delirious state, hardly turning the pedals over I looked ahead at the gravel road and noticed something in the distance, a farmer with two coolers by his feet. “You look like you need some food and water,” he said holding out a pb&j. I don’t think truer words have ever been said. I must have spent ten minutes their sitting in the shade trying to force food down. I don’t know who that man was but I have him to thank for getting me to the finish line. It surely would have been the longest 20 miles of life had he not been there.
I couldn’t wait there long though. A group of 4 had caught me and now my top ten finish was in jeopardy. I worked with the group and found myself feeling better as we got closer to the finish. With two miles to go, I attacked the group and only Jamey Driscoll was able to follow. The two of us prepared ourselves for a sprint finish. Rolling into town I found myself in second wheel, the perfect position for a sprint. With the finish in sight, I was able to come around Jamey to take 9th place with a race time of 11:39:18.
Every new race is a learning experience and DK was an advanced course. I learned a lot about the gravel racing format but I also had some realizations about how hard I can push myself in the late stages of an endurance race. It’s clear that this race is about digging deep within yourself to keep making forward progress when the going gets rough and believe me there are going to be rough parts. Mechanicals, bonks, cramps, and both mental, and physical fatigue were all the name of the game out there.
One thing that didn’t give me any issues all day was my equipment. I ran a Niner RLT 9 RDO and I’m pleased to say I didn’t have a single mechanical out there which is saying something when you’re doing over 200 miles of gravel in the flint hills. The RLT 9 has been my training workhorse this year but has also allowed me to explore new roads in my home of Brevard, North Carolina that I would never have seen on my old road bike. The ultimate test for the bike was Kanza and I was more than impressed. I’m grateful to have this bike in my arsenal for gravel racing and long days in the saddle.
The atmosphere at the finish of DK feels like a giant block party with food and beer vendors lining downtown Emporia and racers, support crews and fans taking up every inch of the street. It’s not only a race but a celebration of endurance gravel riding. The event is as much about the 3 am finisher as it is the winner. Congratulations to everyone who competed in and completed the 200 miles this year. I hope I can join you again for another brutally long day on the bike.