Opinion: A two-time Dirty Kanza winner’s view on the spirit of gravel racing
Once upon a time, following some controversial drama at the 2016 Dirty Kanza 200, a group of gravel enthusiasts took pen to paper and began writing down what they viewed as unwritten rules of gravel racing.
I was one of those gravel enthusiasts.
Spearheaded by Rebecca Rusch, the first edition was dubbed the “Rough Road Code.” It was a group effort to put our thoughts on paper about keeping the original spirit of gravel intact. One line stuck out to me: “Race as an individual in gravel events. While groups form organically in the field, do not compete as a team in support of one individual.”
Unfortunately we never got around to officially publishing these unwritten rules and it’s certainly our fault for not communicating them better to those looking to enter into such events with the intention of winning.
Kaitie Keough had an incredible debut at Dirty Kanza 200 this year. I finished second, 19 minutes behind her, and I honestly believe she would have won regardless of the circumstances — she was the strongest rider on the day. And in her defense, she likely did not foresee that there would be criticism of a team effort with her husband. They have since stated they did not ride together with the intention to win, and with that, it should be final.
The subsequent discussion below is in regard to team tactics as a whole in this discipline.
Before Dirty Kanza this year, Rebecca introduced the SHARK gravel code of ethics. SHARK is an acronym: Safe. Honest. Accountable. Responsible. Kind.
It’s a simplified version of that original code, and it still rings true. #BeAGravelSHARK is the tag she’s using and being a SHARK is open to interpretation. To me, being accountable means holding yourself accountable when you make a mistake, or holding others accountable, in a kind way, if you see them making a mistake.
A National Geographic story on shark habits claims, “Great whites do not live in groups, nor are they purely solitary creatures. Sometimes they congregate near food.” This is the most perfect reflection of how I feel about being a gravel SHARK. Gravel sharks are not purely solitary, not living in groups, but will work together when necessary or convenient. The individual efforts are what make these events so unique and inspirational. I don’t believe it will be any individual racer’s right to police against team tactics unless a promoter wants to distinctly enforce that in the future. Same goes for the hot takes on aero bars. Only promoters have the right to enforce rules they deem fit for their event.
If gravel racing evolves into group efforts and team tactics because the impending fame and prestige have forced that evolution, then so be it. It is well within the rules, and arguably a natural progression. The racing aspect of these events is evolving with the introduction of elite athletes from other disciplines, and while we’re all toeing the line for a variety of reasons, the common thread is we’re all there to have a good time.
I’ll maintain my position of being a little frustrated by the emergence of team tactics — particularly by those riding with the intention of winning the event — and wish the original formation of organic groups within the event would remain in place. This is my opinion, as a two-time winner and two-time runner-up at Dirty Kanza.
I have been on both sides of this debate. I have been accused of riding with a team in the past. The accusation was untrue, but I faced the wrath of those who presumed masters riders wearing the same kit were there solely to help me win.
In 2016, my boyfriend helped me fix a huge sidewall tear with a tire boot in a moment of panic. We spent 10 minutes on the side of the road fixing it; it was during the first hour of the race, when a majority of the event was still close enough together to see him helping me. I went on to finish 45 minutes ahead of him. Some assumed my teammates were there to work for me, because we were wearing the same kit, but they’ve always been there for their own races. Their efforts and stories were my main source of inspiration to sign up for Dirty Kanza in 2015. I have since made sure to stay as far away from my boyfriend as I can at these events, for fear of backlash.
This year I faced criticism for believing in the individual effort and organic group formation as more media and eyeballs turned their attention on the event. I also faced criticism in the way I expressed frustration. I’ve apologized for this.
I have not and will not ever compete as a team in support of one individual at a mass-start gravel event just to win, because I believe that’s not what these events are about. It’s well within the rules of the event to execute team tactics, but personally, I won’t do it. That’s my take. You’re allowed your opinion, and I welcome the conversation.
I appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit of my history, and my perspective on this year’s Dirty Kanza 200. Hats off to all the outstanding efforts this year, and I congratulate the work of every single finisher because that’s what this event is about. I will continue to value the friendships and bonds that I have made riding in groups at these events over a crown and title any day. This event is magical and should not be marred with controversy or drama. The winners are true winners and all the finishers are amazing. Please celebrate and lift them up.
Go out there, have a fun adventure, and #BeAGravelSHARK, whatever that means to you personally.
About the Author
Amanda “The Panda” Nauman can often be found racing on two wheels somewhere in the dirt or mud. She recently placed fifth at the US national cyclocross championship; other accolades include UCI podiums, California state titles, and UCI World Cup appearances. She races mountain bikes during the summer and gravel bikes in the spring, including two wins at the Dirty Kanza 200. Niner Bikes has published her 2018 Dirty Kanza 200 recap here.