Any event of this scale takes some amount of planning, so I guess I’ll touch that briefly.
I had done this event twice before, finishing on a geared bike in 2012, and on a single speed bike in 2014. I really enjoyed my single speed ride in 2014, so I signed up that way again in Janurary.
Most of my training over the winter was more focused on getting ready for Trans-Iowa, but I did happen to do a lot of my winter riding on a single speed. I did the usual indoor trainer rides, and I was also running and lifting weights in a gym at least twice a week, which I honestly find has a substantial benefit to riding single speed. In addition, I did a 8 day gulf of mexico tour in Feburary, on a 93 pound bike, with one day as long as 180 miles. I have trained through the winter the last three years, and by keeping everything so varied this winter I really feel like it kept me from getting burned out on the bike before spring hit.
Trans-Iowa came around, everyone froze and suffered, and no one finished. Despite what you might expect, everyone had a great time, it was a nice big family reunion and I loved every second of that weekend.
Afterwards, people back home were saying things like “All that training for nothing”, and I would respond in a way such as “You know, I plan to keep riding bikes still…”.
Also, whenever someone asks me how I train for a 200 mile event like Dirty Kanza, I respond with “I train for a 330 mile event,Trans-Iowa.”
I basically took the month between Trans-Iowa and Dirty Kanza off the bike. I did two rides that were 100 kilometers, one on my geared warbird, and another on a Brompton folding bike. There were a couple 10-20 mile rides in there also. All this time I had the dumb idea of riding Kanza on a fixed gear in my head. My buddy Jay Barre had done it at Trans-Iowa(A significantly harder event) after doing it geared and SS, a term I call “The Barre Exam”, and so that was the spark in my brain. I am very curious, and I simply didn’t know if I could. I already knew I could finish Kanza geared and single speed, I had already crossed those finish lines in the past. I guess the best way to say it is I just wanted to ride into the unknown and discover something new, I quickly get bored with repetition and certainty.
My bike was a 58c Surly Cross Check with Woodchippers, Aerobars, an Ergon magic seatpost and SM3 saddle, 42c Soma Cazadero tires, and a custom 3rd water bottle boss brazed on my downtube by the fantastic folks at Comrade Cycles.
So 12 days before Kanza I laced up a fixed wheel. I played around with it, but found it was hard to stretch the legs and that the saddle hurt since you can’t really stand up, ever. After 30 miles I was really on the fence about showing up fixed, and was thinking of just riding my cross check single single speed again. Pedaling down every hill seemed like a cruel joke.
The thing that pushed me over the edge happened 6 days before at the Gravel Metric, which I spent riding with my friend John from Brompton, on Bromptons. We were talking about all sorts of good stuff, business at the time, when he said “If you hit every goal you set, then your goals are not very ambitious.”
Kansas, Leg #1.
At the 6am starting line I was pretty comfortable in what I was doing. I had done the event twice, so I knew what to expect, and I was just out to have a good time with other people out to have a good time. I was conflicted on where to start at the line up, because I felt that I would be quick during the starting flat miles, but get passed on the future hills when I was forced to pedal down each hill. I ended up starting near the rear, simply because I found some great friends there that I don’t get to see often enough.
The herd started moving and away we went. Once on the gravel the line of riders were slowing drastically for any small puddle on the road, and so my 42c tires and inability to coast would decide to hit the shoulder and hold my pace, usually passing a few dozen riders at a time. I did this over and over before a dozen or so miles in we hit the now infamous death march. At first glance of people getting off their bikes I yelled “No gears no fears!” and charged into the mud. Everyone laughed and 30 feet later I picked up my bike and joined the hike line.
It went on a while, well over an hour in fact, but it wasn’t terrible due to there being a grassy shoulder on one or both sides most of the time. I was able to roll my bike on the cleaner vegetation the majority of the miles. To be honest, it was a lot easier to make forward progress then the B-roads in Iowa that have 45 degree shoulders and leave nowhere to hike. I ate 300 calories and marched on.
Afterwards I heard people had found snakes during this hike, and looking at their pics I believe they were Massassauga(Sistrurus catenatus), a pygmy species of rattlesnake which I have wanted to find since early childhood. Massassauga are nearly extinct in my home state due to habitat loss. My buddy Bailey joked that had I seen them, I would not have finished, instead choosing to play with snakes all day. This is now in and of itself a reason for me to return to the Flint Hills, to find the Massassauga, but I digress.
At the end of the mud it was carnage. I took my front wheel off to scrape mud out, and noticed my chain was oddly sitting on top of the chainring at a 45 degree angle. I swiftly cleaned what I could and fixed my chain, before clipping into my mud shedding crank brothers pedals with my brakes still unattached. At this mud to gravel transition my bike was barely rolling, but my plan was to start riding to see if mud would fly off the bike at a certain speed, and see how long it was till I saw water. About 2 miles later there was a nice water pool I was able to efficiently clear a lot of mud off the bike with, and also reattach my brakes. Mission successful.
Around this point we really entered the reason I come down to this event, the Flint Hills. I love nature, and being in an ecosystem unploughed and so expansive makes me smile. Miles 20 through 77(Checkpoint #1) were sort of euphoric, and I was just stoked to not only be on a bike in such a beautiful place, but have nothing else to do that day but ride.
The first neutral water stop was at mile 32, and I stopped to assess my bike, as the chain felt slack. The reality was that my hub had come loose on the bearings and it had 2cm of lateral movement and had been bouncing side to side the last few miles. I was pretty shocked, but the mud had froze the preload adjust and when the wheel spun it threaded out. Worse yet my multi tool did not have the 2.5mm allen to adjust the hub. Thankfully a rider next to me had a massive tool with just what I needed, and I lubed my chain before clipping in to keep the smiles going.
Aside from the cattle drive of the 3 mile b-road, I hadn’t really ridden “with” anyone all day, just a bunch of touch and go conversations with a few friends. Even more so then when riding single speed, fixed gear was a lone ranger ride. My 40×17 gear made me climb faster then most around me, but I still was swiftly passed on the downhills.
There were some really rough water crossing this leg of the course, and charging down a hill at 25mph, before jumping off a concrete pad onto a rock garden while pedaling a 140rpm cadence the whole time really reinforced my decision to run 42c tires. Everyone talks about Dirty Kanza flat tires and sharp gravel, but from my experience at three separate Kanzas the majority of flats come from pinching the tube on creek crossings. Run big tires.
Another mud section happened, we walked some but had enough of a time buffer to feel secure in doing so. I ate some calories during this walk. One of the things I’ve learned from Trans-Iowa is anytime you are walking, you are eating. It is those little tips early on that make the late hours more comfortable.
Some of the cattle road in this area were rough, and really wet. I don’t think my feet ever dried all day. From mile 100 on there was also a strong headwind, which I would duck into my aero bars for to push my gear.
Eventually I came to the neutral water station, shortly before a few riders showed up with a dog in tow.
“This dog has been running with us for 30 miles, it wont leave.”
I filled my bottles, ate a few hundred calories, and rolled out solo, besides a dog as a shadow.
Along this section of the route before we hit checkpoint two I spent a solid chunk of time with a guy named Matt from Lawrence, and a few other riders. It was nice to have conversation, and these miles were really enjoyable with gentle sweeping hills. I was getting bloated in the gut by mile 140, which is a recurring issue I can’t seem to figure out. We rolled into town and went our separate ways to our support, and the Legend Bobby Wintle grabbed my bike and directed me towards some fancy indoor plumbing which I used to it’s full potential. I returned to a smoother, faster bicycle with smoother and faster body. I walked down a few cars to Joel and my Dekalb friends and they got my bike restocked and another thick PB&J sandwich in my mouth.
Lately I have been big on foods that I ate as a kid. I think it is interesting how taste can take us way back to a period of our lives so clearly. PB&J is pretty easy to eat, tastes amazing, and remind me of when I was 10 years old and riding around my neighborhood on my bmx bike doing tricks all day.
I like to think that on some small level it helps me remember I am still just a person, experiencing a big vast world, by making small circles with his feet.
I was shivering while siting around eating my sandwich. I felt pretty great and alert, so I think it was more the fact that I had been splashing through water puddles and it was cold then that I was calories deficient.
My friends mentioned my shivering and kindly pushed me out of the nest to get moving and warm again, friends are so awesome.
I decided at this point that I wanted to finish by midnight. That was the 18 hour mark, and 2 hours before the the cutoff. I said this because that is when they stopped pouring beer on the main street. That was 42 miles in 3.5 hours. It was reasonable even this many miles in, considering we only had another 11 miles of headwind and the last twenty miles were pretty flat, as I recalled.
Shortly after rolling out I saw Matt again, who’s family forced him to continue on. He was feeling fine and riding strong all day, but he felt that due to the weather and hike he was riding slow enough to inconvenience his family’s travel plans. He considered stopping at the 2nd checkpoint in order to have the evening with his family, however, his family would not let him stop now after such a distance. Thus we were once again riding together, as we would until the finish line.
The sun set an hour or so into the last leg of 42 miles, and we navigated partially by maps, but also taillights and memory. We had both done the event at least once before, so some of the route was ingrained, or at least we recalled it once we made the turn.
The last hour or so was pretty painful for me. Once the hills ended there was no way to get out of the saddle well, and 17 hours of fixed gear pedaling was about my limit. I thought back to Jay riding for 34 hours to finish Trans-Iowa, and the deep respect I had for his ride increased even more so.
A few miles out of town Jeremy Kershaw passed us as we hit the final pavement run into town. Matt and I chatted and thanked each other for the company, and followed Jeremy across the finish line to great our family and friends, just 7 minutes before my goal of beating a midnight finish.
I heard I was only the second person ever dumb enough to finish The Dirty Kanza on a fixed gear. My words, not theirs.
I felt pretty solid afterwards, all things considered. I reduced some more bloating, got multiple jimmy john’s sandwiches, and spent time with friends waiting for other friends among the amazing Emporia festivities. That town is incredible. The locals, riders, families, and everyone else create the best finish line atmosphere I have ever seen.
Eventually I left to take a shower, before returning to the finish line to great more friends crossing over to the recovery side. I ended up being out till quarter to 3am.
I am pretty glad I took the leap and risks I did. Sure, fixed gear was more difficult then had I rode single speed, but it was a new experience and better story then had I simply repeated the same thing over again. It added another color on my three years of Dirty Kanza painting.
Bad ideas make good stories.