Keeping Dirty Kanza fun: Five tips for 200 miles of enjoyable gravel riding

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In 2019, CyclingTips is hitting the gravel roads of America in a custom VanDoIt van, taking a deep look at the sport of gravel riding, grinding, racing. Behind the wheel is Marshall Opel — our chief gravel correspondent — who will provide updates from the road, plus as much pre-ride coffee and post-ride beer as CyclingTips fans can handle. He filed this report after finishing Dirty Kanza, 200 miles across the flint hills of Kansas. Those 200 miles gave him quite a lot of time to think.

I didn’t even see the rock. But I heard the air hissing out of my rear tire through a futile gurgle of sealant.

It was around mile 25, of 200, at Dirty Kanza and I had just made the initial selection after the pace was forced in the front group. Very much the wrong moment for a flat.

I pulled to the side of the road and set my bike down to pee. Whilst standing there relieving myself, hundreds of riders stormed past me. A full stampede. Eyes focused. The race was on; rocks, bottles, and wrappers flung through the early Kansas morning.

Was I pissed? Yeah, for a bit. I stood there as an initial wave of frustration passed through me. My race was over, and my day had only just begun.

After a few minutes, I spotted my buddy Joey in the crowd of riders. Joey and I spent the next few miles joking with each other about the ferocity of the first hour. We would spend the rest of the day meeting people, gazing at the prairie and surfing dirt.  

It was, dare I say it, fun?

I’ve been lucky to experience some incredible events in my Endless Gravel Summer season so far. I’ve made a conscious effort to enjoy the full experience of each event. I’ve also noticed that some people don’t seem to be sharing in the stoke. Like me, for a minute there at Kanza.

I spent some of the 175 miles that followed that untimely flat thinking about fun. How to find it, specifically. So, here are five steps that might help you gravel better. As I define it, that means having more fun more of the time. None of these are earth-shattering, but they are surprisingly difficult to execute in the heat of the moment.

A rider fixes a flat tire by the side of the road.

Five steps to keeping gravel fun

Step 1: Keep the lid on, almost all day. If your goal is to enjoy your day, opt out of the temptation to smash it early. Over-eager starts are bad news for almost everyone. Sure, sometimes it’s fun to get crazy, to ride with abandon. It’s just a game after all, and going “all in” is awesome. But, do it in the last, say, 20% of the ride, not the first. If you made it 80% of the distance and still have something left, first of all, congrats. Now, go ahead and rip it.

Step 2: Initiate conversation. Many of these gravel events are 8 hours or longer. You’ve got nowhere else to be; traffic is all but nonexistent. Go ahead, chat with people. Several long conversations helped me cover huge stretches of dusty endless hills at Dirty Kanza. I learned about people’s lives, shared funny stories and made new friends–it was awesome. Less ego, more amigo.

Step 3: Ride steady. Experienced riders know how to pace an event just like they know how to pace a single climb. The answer: ride steady. Unless your last name is Contador, avoid overzealousness when it comes to climbing. Your legs feel okay, so you hit the initial gradient with force, supposedly using momentum or at least covering as much ground as possible before lactate sets in. This is a no-go zone for almost all gravel climbs. In other styles of racing, your effort is shorter, going anaerobic is expected and for the most part, your body can handle it. Not the case in long gravel events. Burning legs need not apply.

The fact is, unless you’re one of these WorldTour riders (remember those guys race Grand Tours) your body can’t handle many anaerobic efforts over a prolonged period. So, when Captain Surgio goes early on climbs, the steady paced rider ends up catching back up, lid still on. Ready to pick a fun line on the descent.

Step 4: Eat real food. Cramps and bonking happen. We are, however, living in the golden age of ride food. Gone are the days when your only option was some sawdust flavored bars and sticky gels. At Dirty Kanza, I ate salted avocado pretzel sliders (such a millennial), sweet potato cakes, dark chocolate, and other delicious treats. I savored them as they nourished my muscles and mind. 100% guilt free eating, yet another awesome aspect to a day out on the bike. Enjoy your food. You’re lucky to have food in the first place. Homemade food out on the bike is extra. Be extra.

Step 5: Think fun. You’re a gravel rider. You enrolled by buying a bike, putting in the training miles, and registering for the ride. You did it because you heard it was fun. Keeping that “why” at the forefront is a secret to enjoying the experience while you’re having it. The course is the course; it’s not going to bend to your will. Spending mental energy in resentment toward the terrain, the weather, other riders’ abilities, whatever it is — you’re riding with the brakes on. Don’t do that. Free yourself to see the day as it is. Then, regardless of what comes up, you can handle it.


Gravel races are what you make them

The Five Steps to Gravel Fun are predicated on a pretty simple notion: These events are what you make them.

Dirty Kanza, and gravel racing in general, highlights an enormous gap in approach between riders. They’re mullet races, defined by a business-at-the-front, party-in-the-back split. The thing is, there can be fun on both ends of the mullet. But only if you’re honest with yourself. It’s all about the balance between Type 1 Fun, also known as “fun,” and Type 2 Fun, which is known as “not fun, but seemed like fun afterwards.”

Type 2 fun is often miserable while it’s happening, but enjoyable in retrospect. We’ve all been there at one point or another. Getting caught out in a hailstorm for example — riding as fast as you can to escape the ice balls pelting your skin without mercy. It’s usually only when looking back, after a hot shower and food, that it’s possible to smile at the experience. We realize that as bad it can feel in the moment, we survive. It’s easy to get rather dramatic when it comes to most real-time discomfort. Our reptilian brain is focused on getting us out of there, hijacking our experience back to safety as quickly as possible.

I come from a background of traditional road racing. Guttered, gasping through clenched teeth, stuck on the nose of the saddle, eyes fixed on the wheel in front. That’s classic type 2 fun. It’s pain, pure suffering and for some (crazy) reason, you like it. The thought that someday, you’re the person up at the front, accelerating while the competition crumbles–it’s a feeling that keeps you on a program of intervals and dieting. Congratulations, you’re a racer.

But gravel is here; it’s not a road race, even if it sometimes feels like one. It’s for fun. You put yourself in there, remember? This was something you signed up for. You even looked forward to it. Don’t hate it in the middle. Instead, find stoke. Remember, we’re playing bikes here. It’s a game.

This is Type 1 Fun, and it’s there for the taking if you choose to seek it out.

So there is it. My five steps to optimize for Type 1 Fun at gravel events. Go ahead and let me know what you think of them. Do you have anything to add? What are your five?

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