WorldTour pros, aero bars, empty podiums: What was the fuss at Dirty Kanza?

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“This event put me to my limit. My eyes hurt, my toes were numb for three days, I was rationing water sips in the last hour. I view it as a survival race more than a bike race.”

Those are the words of Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina – a WorldTour pro who knows a thing or two about suffering – as he explained his Dirty Kanza experience. In the sometimes controversial wake of this year’s race, there’s at least one certain outcome from it: learning that WorldTour riders feel pain, too, no matter how untouchable they may seem.

On June 1st, over 3,200 participants from all 50 U.S. states and 28 foreign countries set off from Emporia, Kansas, for the start of the 2019 Dirty Kanza. This cohort featured a wide spectrum of gravel enthusiasts, but none attracted more attention than the five WorldTour racers making their debut appearance at the event: Trek-Segafredo riders Kiel Reijnen and Peter Stetina, and the EF-Education First trio of Lachlan Morton, Alex Howes, and Taylor Phinney.

None of them won the race. Dirty Kanza crowned a new king this year, and that king was Colin Strickland (Meteor X Giordana Racing).

The 2019 Dirty Kanza was run over five distances – the DKXL, DK200, DK100, DK50, and the DK25, each named for their respective distances in miles. The DKXL? That one is as long as it sounds at a whopping 350 miles (563km). Riders are expected to be self-supported (although support crews are allowed at checkpoints), and need to have an emergency back-up plan in place should something go wrong. Needless to say, this race isn’t for the faint of heart.

“Each rider will be responsible for printing out their own maps and cue sheets. These maps and cue sheets will guide the rider to each checkpoint along the route.” – Dirty Kanza Rider’s Bible

But, wait. What about those guys over there – the five immortals from the WorldTour? They’re just going to come in and clean up, right? That was the opinion of many in the lead-up to this year’s Dirty Kanza. WorldTour pros mixing it up in what’s fast becoming the defining gravel event of the year ruffled plenty of feathers.

Howes and Morton finish the DK200 together in 3rd and 4th place in 10:18:36. Strickland had a winning time of 9:58:49.

When asked about what drew him to the DK200, Alex Howes (EF Education First Pro Cycling) said, “Our overall goal was not to bring WorldTour racing to Kanza but to go and observe, study and learn and see if there was a way to bring a little bit of Kanza to WorldTour racing.”

Despite concerns over WorldTour racers participating in the event and spoiling the fun for the mere mortals, Howes is adamant that he felt the love: “Standing there at midnight, high-fiving finishers as they came across the line, I got a real sense of the power of the bike. More so than racing the Tour – I saw in the eyes of these normal folks finishing an insane 200 mile journey, in the dark, that bikes really can change lives. The bicycle is a tool not just for exploring the next town over but for venturing deep into one’s own soul. I know it sounds corny, but that 200 miles really did change my life, and I saw that same feeling in the eyes of every person I saw rolling across the finish line.”

Teammate Taylor Phinney shared that sentiment. “It’s cool to start with the ladies and everyone at the same time, which adds a level to the event that’s different.” Despite suffering multiple flats early on in the race, Phinney found fulfilment in the less aggressive nature of the field, and the race’s survival aspect. “It’s not as intense as the races that we are used to. Way less sprinting, position fighting… It’s good for the kind of riding I’ve been doing since I’ve been spending a lot of time just surviving WorldTour races.”

Stetina agreed: “The DK was something different than I’ve ever experienced. DK is a purely unique ride; just grinding away until all systems fail.”

Explaining his day, Phinney said, “I ended up riding with my friend, TJ Eisenhart (Arapahoe|Hincapie p/b BMC). He found out a couple of days before the race that he was going to do it, so he was a little underprepared. We needed each other on that day. That’s the cool thing about that race, that you can buddy up just to finish it. I don’t even know what my result was, but I was happy to finish; it was major just to finish.”

DK200 men’s winner, Colin Strickland, is a full-time racer for Meteor X Giordana Racing. His team focuses on local Texas races, a scattering of criterium races, fixed geared crits (Strickland is a former Red Hook Crit winner) and some gravel racing.

It’s a diverse program that doesn’t seem a great match for a 200 mile survival ride against WorldTour guys. “The presence of these guys definitely changed our game plan going into the race, as we felt outgunned and uncertain,” Strickland said of racing riders like Stetina, Howes, and co. “I think their involvement does nothing but grow the event to the next level. This was my first year, but it was incredible to see Lachlan Morton or Taylor Phinney just roll by at the expo. They were out there signing babies and kissing boobies, and it was great! How could anyone lament the growth of the event and the extra media and international exposure that brings?”

Strickland’s salt production was at an all-time high.

I asked Strickland whether this caliber of competition had affected how he approached his race. “The plan was to let the WorldTour guys race each other as long as possible. When my teammate disappeared from the lead group, I tossed the game plan and raced the way I always have, and the way that has gotten me where I am. I said ‘fuck it’, and I attacked. In doing so, I stopped racing those WorldTour riders, and instead started racing myself, the elements, and the course. This is something I am quite confident doing,” he said. Chapeau, Colin!

So it seems that the good vibes were there, and having a non-WorldTour rider take the win certainly kept it interesting, but the race was not without some post-event Twitter drama. One of the main antagonists of WorldTour Gravel-Gate 2019, Canadian mountain biker Geoff Kabush, chose to use all 280 characters to stir the pot.

Kabush, who finished third at last year’s race, wasted no time in calling out the Trek-Segafredo riders on their decision to use aero bars during the DK200. “I’m always psyched to see more people at events like DK, including the WorldTour athletes. It really is strictly a safety question. I think mass start events, especially gravel, and aero bars should not mix. I also think it is important for the elite riders not to use them as they are the role models and trend setters,” Kabush said.

For the most part, the criticism was water off a duck’s back. When asked about the concerns being expressed on Twitter, Phinney’s chill demeanour shone through: “I didn’t check any Twitter or really see anything negative. The energy of the event felt amplified; the people were stoked to be riding next to us.”

“I just stopped looking at Twitter and had a great time,” Stetina said. “Some people like to make noise because that’s all they can do. The people at the event were excited and fully welcoming. We took pictures, signed a few autographs, and were told how excited people were that we were attending.”

When I asked the Dirty Kanza organizers about the use of aero bars, event co-founder Jim Cummins had a fairly pragmatic response: “We believe this matter can best be addressed via common sense and self-policing. If you are in a rough patch of road, don’t get into your aero bars. If you see someone do so, let them know this is not an appropriate time to be in them.”

Stetina’s comments took a similar stance. “I fully support aero bars in the DK. Actually, I learned Gravelers call it ‘comfort bars’, so let’s address that; it’s a relief to change positions and also unweight the wrists. I think self policing is key; I never rode in them in the group and didn’t even touch them before Checkpoint 1. If I saw someone riding them in the middle of a group I would have said something, but I didn’t [need to],” he said.

Those for and against aero bars chimed in on Twitter:

The rule is clear (or at least, clear-ish). Aero bars are legal in the DK events, with a little common sense and know-how. It’s an open question for future events, but until then, give your wrists some relief, get into your aero-tuck and ride on.

The drama didn’t stop there, though. Kabush shared a podium photo from the day after the event: the official presentation for the men’s race, with an empty podium.

This photo aroused a bit more outrage from Twitter followers than the silly aero bar debate.

Where’d they go? We asked second place finisher, Stetina, about the riders missing the podium. “Due to travel and logistics not all five could attend Sunday. At the finish we asked to do the podium presentation there, to make it a beautiful and complete shot. It was a simple miscommunication. It was a request born out of respect for the event and wanting to do right by them, I didn’t foresee the backfire it could create. The organizer is totally fine with what happened but some grouchy trolls couldn’t understand,” Stetina said. “Why would Colin intentionally miss the podium of the biggest win of his career? Why would Alex and I, who begged our teams to come here, miss it? The podium is the best part of the race, duh!”

This perspective was backed up by Jim Cummins: “We understood that many of them had pre-arranged travel plans that prevented them from attending Sunday morning’s award ceremony. We held a somewhat impromptu photo session at the finish line.”

Kabush, in turn, softened up a bit and showed he really is a friendly Canadian. “It was a tough position coming to an event as a 500lb gorilla but I think for the most part everyone did an amazing job and I hope more come back … without aero bars.”

With the dust of the Flint Hills now having settled, the racers have returned to their natural habitat with a DK200 finish to add to their resume.

Despite the at-times tetchy exchanges on social media, it was arguably Strickland who summarised the event best.

“It was inspiring to see people get behind an event so whole-heartedly. From the locals, to the aspiring finishers, to the WorldTour pros, everyone was gracious and friendly. This is why I love gravel events, regardless of how trendy, hipster, or whatever they [call them],” he said. “They are fun as hell and have rekindled the spirit of community and fun in countless American cyclists. For this, I am thankful.”

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