Text: Joey Early | Photography: Joey Early & Mat Barlow | Video: Mat Barlow
Why do we say ‘yes’ when someone asks us to push ourselves?
I feel like there is an intrinsic urge to jump at an opportunity – peer pressure, maybe – but perhaps it goes beyond that, too.
We want to know where the limit is. It can be terrifying to commit to things like Dirty Kanza and accept your fate, but that is also the beauty of it. It’s an exercise in mindfulness: if you can come to terms with what lies ahead of you, it is incredible how far you can push past where you stopped before.
Dirty Kanza’s a big event, and plenty of riders structure their year’s riding around it. That wasn’t to be my path.
Eight days was all I had. Eight days to get myself from couch to Kanza. After I got the call up, I spent some time paralysed about how to approach this challenge. Eight days doesn’t give you scope for much physical preparation, so instead, I jumped to the other end of the spectrum.
I am no stranger to big dumb days on a bike, but Kanza is next level: 201.5 miles (324km) and 11,800 feet (3,600m) of climbing. Mentally, I tried to accept this for what it was – 15 hours in the saddle on some of the roughest roads imaginable, tackling relentless rolling hills.
Forget about going for a time – this was going to be a hard enough day just keeping the pedals turning over.
The brief time between call-up and Kanza passed quicker than I’d have wished. Before I knew it, I was on the way to my date with destiny.
The open road between Colorado and Kansas allowed for plenty of speculation and contemplation. Marshall Opel and I spent most of the drive trying to define this gravel ‘thing’; to fold some ‘why’ into what Dirty Kanza was going to bring for the two of us. We had different approaches, goals, and mentalities, but the same anticipation.
We agreed on one other thing: having fun (or trying to) was most important, despite the onslaught that Kanza was going to present.
There was another factor to consider in this scenario. I got this opportunity thanks to Viathon Bicycles; they were looking for someone to put their G.1 gravel bike to the test. The kicker? I wouldn’t see the bike, let alone ride it, until I arrived in Emporia and collected it in person.
We all know how important comfort is in riding a bike well, and the comfort of familiarity was out the window.
I needn’t have worried. The bike itself was rad, and I knew it would be a worthy ride for the day ahead. A few tweaks, some dialing of the fit, and a 20-mile (32km) shake-down ride was all I needed to regain some confidence.
The Viathon G.1 is a bike from Walmart. The brand may be somewhat controversial because of the big name backing it, but Viathon’s creations have the chops they need. The bikes are not merely open mold; they are instead designed from scratch by the company, with a focus on making well-rounded, approachably priced, and solid-performing bikes.
The G.1 was everything I could ask for in a gravel bike, with nothing left wanting, offering huge tire clearance, lots of cage mounts, geometry that works, and a threaded BB to boot. Talking to the folks behind the brand was pretty illuminating for me. I admit I’d come in with my own preconceptions, but Viathon really did put its best foot forward. The details are right with these bikes.
My Kanza steed was outfitted with an Ultegra R8000 group, 50-34 up front with 11-32 in the back. The folks at Reynolds were kind and put on some of their Carbon ATR Gravel wheels mounted with Donnelly Strada USH 40mm tyres, which made for an amazing ride. This is basically the same setup as my own gravel bike, and it proved perfect for Kanza. The gearing never left me wishing for more, and I was able to ride every single climb on the course.
A half-frame and handlebar bag carried the excess gear I rode with (which included four tubes and a rain jacket, just in case). Making these decisions blind was hard for me; I tend to overprepare for long days like this, and I may have gone too far, but I never regretted my choices, knowing I had what I needed to handle whatever Kanza threw at me.
The morning before a ride is always a little nerve wracking for me. My internal narrative becomes nothing but questions: Did I eat enough? Am I up early enough? Do I need to spin out my legs more? Then there’s a moment that all melts away, and I forget about everything but what is ahead. That moment is why I ride. I push on the pedals, I find a rhythm, and I go forward.
Kanza, however, had entirely different plans for how things were going to get underway.
The countdown seemed to stretch for an eternity. Marshall and I rolled up to the startline just five minutes before the bell rang and took our respective places. The timer dropped to zero and it seemed as though all 1,300 people rolled into the day as one enormous wheeled mass.
Almost instantaneously, the pace picked up and folks started jostling for position. ‘Chaos’ doesn’t cover the feeling; as we hit dirt for the first time you could feel the whole group collectively hit the gas.
I am sure there was a reason for this frantic state everyone was in – maybe it was the pro riders, maybe it was just sheer anticipation and nerves, but there was a wildness in the air.
For the first two hours, this energy did not falter.
At every turn, you could catch a glimpse of the lead guys in the distance, hammering along. There was surge after surge, near-pile-ups, and a pace that wouldn’t quit. It combined to make this first stage of Dirty Kanza unforgettable.
The cacophony of noises kept you alert, and pushed the energy higher. The hollow sound of rocks on carbon built a bassline, pings of projectiles ricocheting off spokes and rotors the melody, and the very human vocalisations of panic laid over as lyrics.
“THE HOLLOW SOUND OF ROCKS ON CARBON BUILT A BASSLINE, PINGS OF PROJECTILES RICHOCHETING OFF SPOKES AND ROTORS THE MELODY, AND THE VERY HUMAN VOCALISATIONS OF PANIC LAID OVER AS LYRICS.”
As the roads got sketchier, the available lines through the carnage got fewer. I had a few near-misses during this time, and almost ran into someone when they braked too late, pushing me into the grass.
Soon, maybe 45 miles (72km) in, the hills and rocks began to take their toll. Every rough patch had a few lonely souls changing flats, and the climbing pace broke up the group. The roads transitioned from smooth white gravel to reddish rutted clay and back again, over and over. And then, everything changed about the day. I was no longer riding with anyone; my Dirty Kanza had became a solitary battle.
As the day rolled on I found myself battling to maintain my mental acceptance. The hills stacked up, quickly becoming relentless. It seemed like at the top of each one I crested, I could see the next seven I would have to climb.
I tried to settle into a rhythm, to maintain a pace, but that reprieve never came. Aid station one was a small relief with some real food, but the energy from the initial push had not fully faded yet. I took a quick break, before pushing on into the hottest part of the day.
At this point, like some sort of magic trick, my bike disappeared. All my pre-ride worries about this unknown bike and how it would ride evaporated away with the sweat rolling down my face.
All I want in a bike is to not have to think about it; a good bike should not be on your mind while you ride it. There is something amazingly confidence-inspiring about a bike that does this. I found that with the Viathon G.1.
I focused on the road in front of me, drifted off into the zone, sunk into suffering, and grasped acceptance of my fate.
I knew going into this that I had to finish. It was never an option for me to drop out – but that does not make it any easier with what feels like Kansas itself bearing down on you.
There were 94 miles (151km) between checkpoint one and two, with a couple of water stops in between. This was the hardest part of the day. I felt lonely at times, but the people I met were suffering just as much as I was. The high morale that had enveloped the event throughout the day felt like it had dipped into an odd lull. I would try to ride with different people or groups at times, but eventually things would surge or dip and things would break up.
There is not a moment of consistency to be found at Dirty Kanza – just a sort of endless, shifting struggle.
Dirty Kanza is not about physical prowess, or overall preparedness. It is made up of these three things: luck, mental acceptance, and a little determination. I saw strong riders struggle, and normal people crushing it with a huge smile on their face.
This is not a ride to take lightly, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say it was the hardest ride ever. The balance to Kanza is heavily weighted toward the mental side.
This realization was what took me to mile 151 (kilometre 243).
Rolling through the last couple of stretches before the final aid station, I found myself surrounded by some of the prettiest landscapes of the day.
I knew relief was just around the corner; a PB&J was waiting for me, and a moment off the bike was in dire need. I immediately put my feet up to try and reduce the swelling of being stuck in the same position for the last 11 hours, and get down what food I could. I sculled most of a beer, and a few delirious comments later, I knew I needed to get moving. It was already late in the day and I still had 50 miles (80km) to go.
For some reason, proximity has always been a motivator for me. Going into the last quarter of the day, I knew I just needed to hammer it out and be done. I could not stomach any more sugar and my body was not asking for much food. As the sun dipped, I caught a wave of momentum.
There was still a bit of climbing left, but I knew I was almost done. As dusk moved over the plains I reached for my lights, only to find they’d fallen off somewhere along the miles of farm roads. I picked up my pace in an attempt to beat the sun, but soon found myself in darkness.
Without lights, I could faintly make out the tracks that had been bedded in throughout the day. I was feeling good and still riding the wave I had caught earlier. As I found people on the road, I would use them for navigation, ride their wheel, then pull a bit until I could see the next person with lights. I’d say thanks, and push on.
As Emporia approached on the horizon I could see the spotlights coming from the finish line, a beacon of finality to the day. Still in the dark I caught a ride with one last person, an older man with what I think was a French accent. As he approached me he simply said “No lights? Hop on my wheel!”
We zig-zagged the last few turns and soon found ourselves in town. My companion let me know there was one last climb to the finish, and I should save a little bit for it.
I took the last kicker with a smile, and knowing the finish was just around the corner I burnt the last couple of matches I had left.
Closing on the finish was like walking on stage at a sold-out show. Kids lined the road asking for high fives; everyone was cheering, bells were ringing … and then, you hear your name booming over the speaker.
A cold towel and a beer at the finish line were the sweetest possible nightcaps to the biggest day I have ever had on a bike.
During the day people kept asking me about the Viathon. How did it ride? Was it comfortable? Was it laterally stiff yet vertically compliant? You know – the usual questions from curious bike nerds.
I’m not the most techy dude when it comes to bikes. Generally I do not know how to answer these questions – but in this case, I was giving folks a huge thumbs up. The bike just rode well. The Reynolds ATRs and the Donnelly USHs let me skate by without a single flat; I had no mechanicals, and experienced about as little discomfort as you can have on a 201.5-mile (324km) gravel ride.
I can honestly say that I didn’t worry about the bike once, and that in itself is something pretty amazing.
Dirty Kanza is not a race, except for the 50 people out front. For most, it is just a bike ride.
The truly rad part about events like Dirty Kanza is that it is not really about the winners. Yes, there are podiums, and prize money, and winners, but in the end it really is just about finishing. The glory comes from completing the thing you set out to do.
No one has asked me how I did at Kanza. Instead they have just asked, “How was it?”