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There’s a stretch of gravel road that points straight through Eastern plains of Colorado, aimed at Kansas like an arrow. It doesn’t bend or turn, not once, for forty miles.
There are roads that haven’t seen a tire for years. No human nor vehicle. Only hooves.
The ride from Alex Howes’ mountain-town home in Nederland, Colorado to the Kansas border is 220 miles, or 354 kilometres, through a high prairie alive with spring and mostly devoid of people. The reigning US national road champion decided, while cooped up in his mountain-town home for the last two months, that riding to that border must be done. Had to be.
It became an ode to the postponed Dirty Kanza. An all-day ride across the heart of the American prairie.
Forget Everesting, this is quite the opposite.
Nederland, Colorado sits at roughly 8,500 feet (2590m). The first part of the ride took Howes down through the front range foothills and to the plains, to about 5500 feet (1676 m). Those plains slowly drop over the course of 800 miles or so all the way to the Mississippi River.
In Boulder, at the bottom of his long first descent, Howes picked up his riding partner Spencer Powlison.
The Front Range of Colorado is busy, but not so much at six in the morning during a pandemic. It doesn’t take long, maybe 20 or 30 miles, to get into cow country, where there are more dirt roads than paved ones and the horizon stretches uninterrupted by anything but low grass and telephone wires.
Drop under Interstate 25, the north/south highway that bisects the most populated part of Colorado, is a gateway on this particular route. This is where development begins to thin out, north of Denver. Pavement turns to dirt, then back to pavement for a bit, then back to dirt. The hills still roll – they will for hundreds of miles yet – but the mountains are well and truly behind you.
“Our only stress point was water,” Howes said.
There isn’t much out there, once the Denver skyline starts to fade behind you. Howes and Powlison didn’t see a single store for most of the latter half of the ride. Howes had a filter, but mucky buckets left out for cattle weren’t particularly appealing.
“Water was hard to come by, and at one point we were contemplating filtering some pretty sketchy water from an old stock tank but lucky we stumbled upon an old spigot out in the middle of nowhere. Gear-wise, everything held up great. We had zero issues. Spencer was giving me grief because of my old front tire (I have no idea how many miles it has on it but it’s the same one from Kanza last year) but it held up just fine. Had something gone wrong equipment-wise I like to think we’d be ok. We had tools and repair items for virtually everything.”
Ride far enough, and gazing East or West starts to look the same.
The ride, cooked up by Howes’ during lockdown, is an ode to Dirty Kanza. Howes was 4th there last year, and was slated to race again as part of EF Pro Cycling’s alternative calendar. Kanza has been postponed to this fall, but would have taken place this weekend.
The prevailing winds this part of the world blow out of the west and toward Kansas. And in springtime, those winds can be vicious. But Howes and Powlison weren’t so lucky. A headwind greeted them for much of the final 100 miles, including one turnless, soft, sloggy stretch about two-thirds of the way through.
Howes isn’t the only pro seeking to challenge himself right now. There’s no racing, and racers seem to need it; a goal, a motivator, even if the beating is self-inflicted. Everyone seems to be giving Everesting a go, climbing the height of Mount Everest via repeats on a single climb. But the tie to Dirty Kanza was Howes’ motivation. If he couldn’t race everyone else, at least he could race himself.
The final tally: 222 miles (358km) in 13 hours and 59 minutes.