Going the Distance: Survival on the Notorious Soiled Kanza Gravel Race

Images by @PinnedGrit

The rumble of trains passing by way of Emporia was punctuated by rolls of thunder. My cellphone glowed on the nightstand: 3 a.m. An orange Accuweather notification flashed on the display: “Emporia Kansas Climate Alert – Extreme Thunderstorm watch.” I attempted to return to sleep. Unimaginable.

Steadily the lights within the Gufler Mansion flickered on and all of us started to descend the steps to the eating room. 4:30 a.m. Fifteen of us stared out the window, watching the lightning and listening because the thunder grew louder. I attempted to eat my oatmeal. The radar confirmed an enormous line of thunderstorms stretching from Wisconsin. We silently prepped our bikes within the storage because the wind twisted the bushes outdoors. The temperature was dropping shortly. Pedaling within the darkness to the beginning line, flashes of purple electrical energy illuminated the road. Ten of us have been driving the total course and we had three dealing with help. What have been we doing right here? A 206-mile race is difficult sufficient, not to mention beginning it in a thunderstorm. I used to be glad I wasn’t alone.

We started to line up outdoors the theatre in downtown Emporia. After a sweltering day Friday, Saturday felt surprisingly chilly. Goosebump chilly. That was optimistic. At 5:45 the race director introduced there could be a 30-minute delay to permit the storm to go. Now we have been lined up with 45 minutes to kill. Nobody needed to surrender their beginning spot, and because the wind picked up and drops of rain started to fall we stood stoically with our bikes. The drops grew bigger by the second. The wind blew tougher. Sufficient was sufficient. We deserted our bikes the place they stood and ran for canopy underneath the awnings of Industrial Avenue. Would I lastly get to see a twister?

The storm ended as shortly because it started. No twister. The clouds parted because the solar started to rise. How a lot rain did the course get? Was it sufficient to settle the mud? Would all of us get caught within the sticky grime? There have been horror tales from earlier years of muddy begins: derailleurs ripped from frames, catastrophic failures.  Months of preparation and coaching can exit the window 200 miles in need of the end line. It’s all a part of the gravel gamble and the mystique of Soiled Kanza.

We lastly began, gliding out on the moist pavement. After we hit the primary gravel, the grime was completely cheesy and quick. Nonetheless, every subsequent flip supplied a special highway composition.  Quickly, grime bullets have been capturing off treads, peppering riders with bits of rock and clay. To my proper a rider bled from a big gash underneath his eye.

“What occurred?” I requested.

“Took an enormous rock to the face,” he stated nonchalantly.

“You’re actually bleeding,” I acknowledged clearly.

“Yeah, I do know.” He was unfazed. We pedaled on. We weren’t even 10 miles in. Giant limbs littered the highway from the storm, utterly invisible to the peloton. Somebody tried to name one out nevertheless it was too late. Explosions of wooden and bark despatched sticks into spokes and twisted derailleur hangers. Riders began to go down. We pedaled on.

On gravel there are a number of completely different line selections: you possibly can stick in one of many three clean, tire-packed sections of highway and endure the accordion impact of three separate tempo strains, or you possibly can take a threat and attempt to work your means up within the unfastened gravel on the skin. Hissing tires and sprays of sealant signaled those that have been getting overly assured of their passing technique.

By the point we hit the rolling flint hills, the sphere had begun to separate. Unfastened climbs and steep descents have been made tougher by the shortcoming to see multiple foot in entrance of your wheel. I opted to hold again a bit of and preserve my eye on the terrain. It was additionally the primary probability I had to go searching. The solar was rising over the emerald fields as a pack of horses ran subsequent to us making an attempt to maintain tempo. It was magical. I circled to look at a line of riders stretched greater than a mile behind.

The tempo was quick. Too quick. I had no enterprise driving like this was a 50- and even 100-mile race. But it surely’s straightforward to get caught up within the pleasure when your legs really feel good. At mile 20 we crossed a shallow rocky creek and some seconds later I felt the unmistakable squirm of the rear wheel. “Flat!” I shouted and I raised my hand and pulled to the aspect mimicking the handfuls of different doomed riders I’d already witnessed that morning. It was a sidewall puncture, an inconvenience so widespread that 5 of the seven riders in our group had suffered one on their pre-ride just a few days earlier.

These have been full safety, very robust gravel tires that I’d by no means flatted in all my time driving in Southern California. I shortly grabbed a Dynaplug and shoved it within the gap, shot the tire up with C02, shook the sealant round, and was again on the highway a couple of minutes later. I pushed laborious making an attempt to make up for misplaced time. An enormous mistake. 5 miles later the rear tire started to squirm once more. The plug had fallen out. After a number of extra makes an attempt and a number of other mangled plugs I used to be out of C02 and started at hand pump. One other dash. One other tender tire. One other cease. A pal rode by: “You want something?”

“C02 could be wonderful!” I answered. He stopped and tossed one in my palms.

Again on stable rubber I leapfrogged teams of riders, burning matches I couldn’t afford to burn. I fell again right into a rhythm shortly earlier than the primary support station at mile 55. The tire was going tender once more however I limped to our mechanic and he topped it up with a flooring pump. I grabbed my Camelbak with spare tubes and C02 and was again on track. The hills start in earnest after the primary support station. We slogged up and down rollers as I labored with a bunch of fellow flat victims. Nobody was afraid to tug on the entrance. At mile 60 we came across one other rider altering his third flat of the day. “That is silly!” he yelled. “These bikes simply aren’t made for this type of driving.”

We’re on gravel bikes…on the gravel. Made sense to me. My protoype Big bike felt wonderful.  

Extra flint, extra climbs, extra unfastened descents. A number of different riders in our group flatted out or have been dropped. We hung round six robust. By the point we rolled into support station two at mile 100 it was getting laborious to carry wheels as my power and enthusiasm dwindled. We handed Jens Voigt who was casually spinning alongside wanting amused. “Having enjoyable?” I requested.

“Ya, that is nice!” Ever the optimist.

The clock learn 5 hours and 44 minutes. After a fast cease it was again out on the gravel. The wind was choosing up. I left the help station on my own as an alternative of clinging to a wheel. Large mistake. Ten miles ticked by slowly. The cramps set in. Debilitating cramps. Eighty miles left. My tempo slowed and turning the pedals grew to become an increasing number of troublesome. One Charley horse after one other shot by way of my hamstrings. I stored counting the miles till the subsequent support station the place I used to be planning to gorge on PB&J and pickle juice. Mentally I used to be in survival mode now; it was not a race. I started to talk with the opposite riders who pulled alongside after which disappeared as I attempted and failed to carry their wheel. There was commiserating. I got here throughout Jake Wells, final yr’s runner up, a shell of his former self.          

Each flip introduced a headwind.  Each climb offered views of countless stretches of gravel roads. I attempted to search for the wonder. A number of knee-deep creek crossings introduced respite from the warmth. Sometimes a thick grove of bushes offered shade. It was lovely. Ultimately I limped into the third support station. I’d simply accomplished the final 55 miles in barely much less time than it took me to do the primary 105. 45 miles to go.   

After I bought to our tent the crew went to work lubing the chain, filling my Camelbak and altering bottles. They have been wonderful and so upbeat. I attempted to eat as a lot as I may with out getting sick. Two different members of our group have been additionally sitting down, glassy eyed and demoralized. “We went out too laborious,” they stated nearly in unison. We made an settlement to get one another to the end line. We’d work collectively and we’d make it. It was probably the most optimistic I’d felt in hours. Ultimately we bought to our toes, threw our legs over our bikes and pedaled again into the wind. It was agony. The velocity hovered between ten and twelve miles an hour as we struggled to make ourselves invisible to the gusts. We’d rotate, making an attempt to take turns as certainly one of us would get a burst of energy whereas the opposite struggled. I may barely maintain on. Miles and hours ticked by. The solar started to show a deep gold on the horizon. “Simply end,” I stored repeating. Then, I started to concentrate to one thing outdoors of myself.     

The final 20 miles have been dotted with native spectators and I started to know what this occasion was about. Complete households sat out on garden chairs cheering on each passing rider. It was an exquisite summer time night within the prairie. They’d been there for hours and could be there nicely into the evening. Some had coolers and have been handing out bottles of water. Others rang cowbells. It didn’t matter for those who have been first, tenth, one hundredth, or one thousandth. Ending this race was all anyone cared about and the city was there that will help you accomplish that, decided to offer you all of the encouragement they might muster.  My grimace nearly changed into a smile. I used to be struggling, however I started to consider the riders who could be on the market for over seven extra hours. What have been they going by way of? What stored them turning the pedals for over 20 hours that day? They deserved probably the most credit score.    

As we started rolling again into city the solar shone by way of the bushes, it was blindingly vivid and with the thick, dried mud plastered throughout my glasses I used to be almost blind. We crossed bridges and railroad tracks, then all of the sudden discovered ourselves winding by way of Emporia State College and into the ending chute on Industrial Avenue. The highway was lined with hundreds of individuals, all cheering, ringing cowbells, and providing excessive fives to each rider as they churned towards the end line. For a delirious minute I assumed I used to be on the Las Vegas Strip. Spotlights illuminated the nightfall, music blasted, lights flashed, and each particular person I stumbled previous shook my hand, requested what they might get for me, patted my again and supplied a real “congratulations.”

For an additional delirious minute I felt like I gained, and in a means I did. There are not any losers in a gravel race, that’s the entire level. It’s a bodily and psychological take a look at, a mind-set, an occasion designed to problem riders in addition to the entire notion of racing. It’s not a couple of podium shot or an age group victory. I sincerely hope it stays that means. It’s about working collectively as riders and as a group to remind one another why we began driving bikes collectively within the first place, and why we proceed to like this wonderful sport.   

As we left downtown Emporia shortly after midnight, a gradual stream of riders handed by way of the ending shoot. Each rider bought the identical hugs, excessive fives, and heartfelt congratulations that the leaders had skilled eight hours prior. Riders would proceed to come back in for hours and the gang wouldn’t diminish till the final rider crossed the road.

Pricey Emporia: Thanks for humbling me and reminding me why I really like gravel. See you once more…finally. 


Try Ryan’s Strava exercise from his Soiled Kanza expertise right here:

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