Armadillos, dust storms, lightning, wind, and rain. Oh my, it was a Dirty Kanza to be remembered, but it is not as if this 200 mile (320 kilometre) gravel event knows any other way.
The yellow brick road of the gravel kingdom doesn’t lead you to the Emerald City, instead, it takes a right turn on an unmarked path in the prairies of Kansas, through a cattle pen, and into the Flint Hills. This road is riddled with flint rock, mud, manure, sweat, and dust. A pair of sequin shoes, or even a belt buckle, can’t protect you from the obstacles you will face. There is no wizard that will make your gravel dreams come true. You have to own your individual dreams and outcome, but at least there is a hug and a beer at the finish line.
This is the Dirty Kanza. This is the annual pilgrimage on the yellow brick road by all gravel enthusiasts and cycling industry alike. I returned to the Dirty Kanza 200 as reigning Queen of the Kanza and loved coming home to where it all began.
Alison Tetrick winner’s buckle from the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200
The best journey takes you home, and in this case, home is Emporia, Kansas. There is no place like home. It is interesting how in our lives how we can measure our individual progress and pivot points with yearly bike events. I can’t be the only one that does this.
Last year at Kanza, it was my first gravel race and after taking a shot from that flask, I haven’t looked back. Don’t we all have mile markers like that? I have loved transitioning into an endurance rider and finding a new community and home through gravel events.
With this passing time, comes experience, and experience is a fickle critter. With your past experiences, you can better prepare for not only the present situation but also all those future plans. Yet, with that awareness come all the memories and baggage attached. Memories of the challenge and the work along the way. Memories of the suffering and dark and beautiful places you encountered.
With experience, you know what is coming. I tried to make the most of just that with my equipment, nutrition, and mental preparation. Gravel racing is an adventure in itself and you need to be prepared to take your bike and body to its limits in order to complete the event. It has been fun geeking out on the equipment and product with Specialized as we continue to innovate and design for a gravel specific approach. Some experiences are simply priceless.
The early morning start of the Dirty Kanza began dramatically as a huge thunderstorm of biblical proportions rolled through town with lightning, hail, winds and heavy rain. The race was delayed 30 minutes. I could only imagine a few people that were excited for the now muddy roads. I wasn’t one of them. The race began quickly with a tailwind and wet gravel roads as the anxious pack began navigating into the plains. We passed turtles hiding from the thundering herd of cyclists, and horses running alongside of us in perfect echelon formation. We hopped cattle guards and entered the open range.
The front group was established before the first checkpoint and I was with them along with Kaitie Keogh. Two-time winner Amanda Nauman was not far behind in a chase group. We had ourselves a bike race.
As the race unfolded over 12 hours, I was conscious of all the ebbs and flows that the day can bring. I was far from the ocean but I felt the waves of emotion and mental acceptance flow in throughout the day. Maybe it was the amber waves of the grain I was seeing, or maybe it was a mirage, but I was just so aware. We all want to write our own story, but sometimes we are left writing about what really happened and not what we dreamed of.
We passed a tree that was struck by lightning and it was split in half and still smoldering with orange flames. I considered this a sign that maybe lightning could strike twice on this iconic day, and I also thought of Kansas City BBQ. What felt sudden, was probably a slow burn of the fast pace and I was alone a little sooner than I wanted to be before Checkpoint 2.
Well, I did say we would all most likely find ourselves alone out there. I wasn’t surprised with that, but I knew what was waiting for me down the gravel road ahead. “Hello, darkness, my old friend,” I found myself muttering. At least with the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” running through my head I momentarily had a soundtrack for my mental meanderings.
Gravel racing and endurance sports tend to bring out these beautifully raw and dark sides of ourselves. It is what drives us and what makes us question our motives and commitments. You have three choices when faced with this side of yourself; you can panic and run from it, you can ignore it and try to drown it out, or you can embrace it in all its vulnerable chaos. We all have that dark side. This is why we do what we do. It can be filled with doubt, insecurity, fear, and comical hallucinations. It can be filled with motivation, dedication, and driving inspiration.
I like mine, it reminds me that I am alive, complex, and have a quaint ability to trick myself into suffering more than most. I look forward to when I get to meet this side again. We like to put it in a box in the back of the closet of ourselves and not invite it to dinner parties. The good thing is that our crazy doesn’t need any invitation to Dirty Kanza. Spend some quality solo miles in the Flint Hills and let your crazy fly out. Your pinball brain can run wild and free, and suddenly the race entry is cheaper than therapy.
I would like to say I was able to channel this inner crazy for a great feat, but it was a struggle. The last 120 miles where a game of leap frog, cramping, and fighting through the elements. It was hot, humid, and windy. But all the riders were facing the same conditions and you can only follow your own yellow brick road.
My first cramping occurred when riding with a group of four when I ran over a dead armadillo. Crunch. As I flinched on my bike, my quads lit up. I screamed. The riders looked back, and I didn’t see them again. I guess the armadillo had a worse fate before he caused my jolt of pain.
At one-point Amanda had passed me, and we were under five minutes behind Kaitie. Then I passed her later as she entered her own dark period of struggle. It was a fight. It was a fight to pedal hard, stay focused, and keep targeting the crazy for good. The trick is to embrace your crazy but not let it take over your forward progress.
Here are some of my tips to accept crazy and harness it for positive momentum:
Follow your own yellow brick road. Yes, you need to follow the course map to complete the route, but stick to your race and your plan. You can let other’s pace challenge you, but you also want to finish strong. It is okay to roll the dice a bit but be smart with your efforts. Find your own motivation that inspires you to be there. They don’t have to be someone else’s goals, they can just be yours. What do you want from the day? Stay grounded in the race against yourself.
Don’t panic. Nothing will ever go perfectly. The food you have trained with might suddenly make you want to chuck it or you may have a mechanical at the worst time. Take a deep breath, relax your body, and gain perspective back on what your yellow brick road is, and what motivates you. The more calm you are the more you will be able to react to the changes. Count. Yes, I count to drown the crazy. For about 25 miles, I couldn’t get past the number 3. I usually can make it at least to 8. I paced my counting with big deep breathes to try to get rid of the cramps and also with my big belly breathing to drown out the crazy in my head. If that fails, try a song.
Beef sticks and beer. I did stop with some locals offering beef sticks and beer. I mean, when all else fails, how do you go wrong with that? Sometimes a little refreshing distraction can make you take yourself less seriously and then you can refocus on your task at hand.
There was something magical about this Dirty Kanza. I was extremely tuned into my emotions as I fought for a win and then accepted second place. I even started writing this blog in my head. I found composure in each stage of the race as it transpired. I had a late mechanical that almost finished my day and as I was on the side of the road, I watched Amanda pass and I cheered her on.
I realized there was another chapter in this story. Third place it was, but there were no regrets on the effort. I was able to come down the finish chute with a pure smile of joy, relief it was finished, and gratitude to the community. It was a sense of satisfaction and pride that I hope all were able to enjoy.
We all toed the line for the Dirty Kanza to get the most out of ourselves on that day. It isn’t always ideal, but you can prepare for all the scenarios you can imagine. The prairie gremlins might still throw a wrench in your spokes, but you will persevere. I am proud of our new Kanza champions and their efforts, as well as everyone else out there and the support crews, fans, and race promoters. You can’t go wrong when competing in the Dirty Kanza.
They say heavy the head that wears the crown, but I say, once royalty always royalty. You will still see me sporting my belt buckle. It only took about 12 hours after the race for me to start planning my next buckle attempt. Who knows where my yellow brick road will take me next, but I imagine it is glittering with gravel.Alison Tetrick is a professional cyclist for Specialized Bicycles and while she may have had to pass over her Kanza crown she still reigns as gravel world champion. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and if you want to read more of her entertaining writing you can check out the related posts below and also visit her website.