Things Dirty Kanza Taught Me About Riding Bikes

If you were looking for a blow by blow of my attempt to tackle the DK200 beast, you’re in the wrong place. But you probably weren’t anyway, ‘cos that would be pretty dire. Instead, here are a few things that the 20 hour ride – and the training that preceded it – taught me.

If you haven’t heard of the Dirty Kanza, it’s a 206 mile gravel endurance race in the Flint Hills of Kansas, USA.

1. Pacing Is Everything – The Technical Bit

How do you move from painfully intense 40 minute ’cross races to a whole day in the saddle covering hundreds of miles? You learn to pace, or you learn the hard way.

The way you tackle an endurance ride like the DK200 is totally different to lots of other disciplines – especially if you’re into racing or just being a bit competitive with your mates. Learning to ride ‘within yourself’ is something that might not come naturally (I.e. it can be boring as hell) but I have found that with a bit of practice it has become a valuable tool to have.

Building up the miles ahead of the big day, my longest ride to tackle was a flat- a 175 miler on road. Despite being the second-longest ride I’ve ever done, and the longest by far in a year, it turned out to be relatively easy. How? Simply trying to stick to a zone 2 heart rate level – a really easy and controlled effort – as much as possible. That might sound geeky and boring to you, but it’s something that you soon get a feel for and rely less on the numbers. That ride taught me that I really can just keep going if I pace well – and that means not pushing harder to keep up with your pals or attack the hills – but take it easy all day.

The strategy from Coach Oli was just the same for the Dirty Kanza. Light too many matches early on and I’d suffer later. Knowing that the second 100 miles was forecast to feature 20-30mph headwinds, I knew I had to save some beans for that too. It took some mental effort to not get angsty as riders flew past me on the first few hills as I spun down to the 42 and chilled the heck out.

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Chilling ‘the heck out’, heat of the day style

2. Skill VS Fitness

Efficiency is crucial in cycling – especially when you’re riding over 200 miles in a day. Now I’m not just talking about aerodynamics and position here, but a lot more about the skills that are more hand in hand with riding off road. With literally hundreds of loose gravelly corners and relentless rolling hills on the DK200 route, being able to master these basic skills can make a massive difference to how well you carry speed. There was such a range of skill level on the Dirty Kanza, from off road novices to expert level – and a matching range of fitness level.

I’d obviously been watching Si’s How To Ride Gravel video, as I seemed to carry speed well round the inside of the gravel corners (much different to road riding), where some others hauled on the brakes or skidded out. On the hills, I’d had conflicting advice. Lasty suggested pedalling on the descents to carry as much momentum up the other side and then chill on the climb, whereas a friendly local and DK veteran Chuck insisted I should freewheel on the descents to conserve energy and then start pedalling on the climb again. I went with the former – which makes sense for anyone who knows me and my love of descending too – and it seemed to work pretty well. Especially when you take your aero gravel bike (thank you 3T) and perfect the aero tuck so that you get over the next roller without pedalling at all. Awesome.

So what I’m trying to say here is that you can make up a bit for a lack of fitness – at least comparably – with decent skills, and hence riding efficiency.

It’s not just about what your FTP is (*yawns audibly*).

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*splash*

3. Too Much Of A Good Thing Is Bad

Well, sometimes. Now I like Clif bars as much as anyone – which is a lot by popular review, but after the fifth or sixth one it does get a bit difficult. They say variety is the spice of life – and when you’re riding all day long (and part of the night) then having a varied selection of goodies in your hamper basket is a delight for your stomach, and for your head. Eating my first savoury food, and first meal of the day at Checkpoint 3 (160 miles) at 10pm probably wasn’t my wisest move ever.

Whilst we’re on the subject of food – I had a first ever on the DK; troubles eating. I’ve heard of other people struggling on longer rides before but have never personally had a problem (I do LOVE food), so this one stumped me! A combination of the frequency, lack of variety but mostly the heat meant that it became hard to face eating and also physically to chew, which was super weird.

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Yes, really. Actual food is the one.

4. Safari Tours By Bike

I’ve always known that cycling is a good way for seeing creatures and critters in the countryside, especially when you go off the beaten track, but being in a completely different country this makes it even more evident. Over the course of the ride I met two Texan horned lizards, three tortoises, one snake, two dung beetles (complete with rolling turd), heard the barking of coyotes, the croaking of toads, and saw the flashing on thousands of lightning bugs in the dusk hedgerows.

So in short, if you’re into wildlife, you don’t have to take your binos to get an eyeful/earful.

5. Ride Bikes Have Fun

I’ve saved the best ’til last. And this certainly isn’t something that I learnt at the Dirty Kanza, but it rung truer than ever there.

For some people, riding solo is the best way to tackle mentally tough challenges. I am not one of those people. Growing more and more nervous about the headwindy second half of the DK as it approached, I knew it would be important to find a group to join for some shelter. But what I found – or what found me – was much more than that. One by one, my little possy grew as we picked up waifs and strays heading back to Emporia. Firstly singlespeed TransAm veteran Adam found me having a roadside snack (I’d earlier accidentally ditched him after a descent where he’d punctured, just seconds after we had been discussing how well our set-ups and tyres were holding up – oops), and then we picked up Sean whilst having a break in the shade. Next was Walter just 30 miles out, and finally Aaron who’d called it quits with just 14 miles to go and we found waiting in the dark for a rescue. There was no way that we were letting him do that.

We didn’t just didn’t just share a temporary relief from the dreaded headwind. We shared terrible jokes, shared different ride snacks, and even shared pickle juice (just don’t ask). That final 80 miles was as tough as anything, but knowing that you’re in it together makes it so much more bearable.

And on the note of fun, don’t be afraid to have a good splash in the river crossings or get sendy on the rocky descents – the DK200 has plenty of them.

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Not sure I was up for the podium boy treatment, but these guys really get me through the night miles

Other less thrilling titles include:

  • You Will Never Have Enough Sun Cream
  •  Never Underestimate The Power Of A Trusty Tyre Setup
  • There Are Many Different Ways To Ride A Bike Without Sitting In The Saddle

Make sure you catch the Dirty Kanza wrap up over on Global Cycling Network here:

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