So. Historically I don’t write much about DK. JOM does pretty comprehensive coverage and everybody and their dog writes a DK race report. But this time, a whole buncha people went by me and yelled “write your story!” Either because they mistook me for a smaller Alison Tetrick, or because I probably looked like I was having a near death experience, and they thought “oh this is going to be some funny sh*t.”
On a side note, a genuine thank you to everyone who came up to me and mentioned they liked something I wrote. This all started because I met JOM at the first gravel race I ever did (2017 Middle Georgia Epic), and he gave me a platform to rant about things, and then I just started writing about all the crazy stuff I went and did, because it’s a therapeutic outlet (both the bicycling and the writing) and also because I entertain myself in the process. So I’mma keep on doing this until JOM fires me, which he can’t because no one including JOM gets paid for GravelCyclist.com. So really, thank him 🙂
Friday: The best thing about DK is catching up with people. When I started riding gravel, I wanted to get far away from the pressure and stress of my previous athletic endeavors. I remember being worried my first year at DK (2017) that all the hooplah (which has only increased since then) would detract from my experience… but I’ve found that no amount of hooplah, media, “pro”-y, whatever things can kill the positive community vibe in Emporia. The best part was that I got to be there with my better half this year, and we rode bikes down to the expo, talked to a whole bunch of friends from all over, and tried to accrue as many free stickers from vendors as possible. I only got into one molecular physiology argument, and vendors only assumed that the boy was the one riding a small handful of times, so I considered it a success.
I also took the opportunity to tell anyone and everyone who would listen to me that I had decided sorta last minute to ride single speed this year, because I was still trying to convince myself that I had done that, and seemingly needed to repeat it over and over again to make it real. Because the logical thing to do after riding single speed for all of a month is to decide to do 201 miles on it, on the year when the course goes north, through all the gnar gnar, and up all the hills.
But as we’ve covered before, there’s something wrong in my brain. If you’re in the target audience for this piece, there’s probably something wrong in your brain too.
Friday evening culminated in an attempt to pack my cooler for our SAG people. I chucked my usual assortment of bottles, celiac-friendly Honey Stinger waffles, emergency potato chips and emergency Snickers on my side. Takes 30 seconds. The boy first declared that he didn’t even know what to do with this because he’s never had SAG before. Current context: while I’m the single-shot ridiculous effort why-would-you-do-that person, he’s the rode-across-the-state-1000-miles-living-off-burritos-found-along-the-way person. We had to have a long “this is a magical box that will greet you at miles 60 and 150” conversation, and then he promptly ordered two pizzas which went into ziplock bags (“breakfast pizza and lunch pizza and dinner pizza”.)
Saturday morning we rode down to the start line in the dark and situated ourselves somewhere vaguely appropriate. I insisted on a shameless selfie just in case I died on Little Egypt Road.
Towards Checkpoint One was smooth sailing. It helped my self-confidence that the roads were in good shape and didn’t have any super ridiculous hills for the first 30 miles. I knew I was pushing a taller gear than I wanted to be… I think I typed some numbers into a single speed gear calculator on the internet when I was initially figuring out how to set up this bike. It’s my beloved Specialized Crux, aka my oldest child, which had been feeling abandoned since the assemblage of my compulsively color-coordinated Salsa Cutthroat last year. For all its flaws, this bike is an extension of myself and I refused to throw it in the river like my mechanic and dear friend suggested. So the Crux got a fancy single speed conversion.
People have been suggesting I ride single speed for a solid year. I like to think it’s because they think I’m as cool as them, but it’s much more likely that they’ve noticed I don’t use my gears correctly anyway, since my default mode is to push the hardest gear that I possibly can regardless of the circumstances. This is all a very long explanation for how I came to be riding a 46×20 Specialized Crux, and very much loving it, at least on the four rides I had done so far. I had figured out after Elrod’s Cirque that this was probably a taller gear ratio than necessary, but a smaller front ring wasn’t in the cards in time for DK, and I had had the brilliant idea to use this bike for DK at the end of a string of night shifts which is when I make all my best decisions, so here we were at mile 30ish of DK on a very over-geared but very very loved bicycle.
And I felt pretty damn good. I was super proud of myself for navigating the much-talked-about deep ruts and bumpy stuff with the 38mm front/35mm rear that I can fit in there. I was working hard but I went up all the hills. And Singlespeed Crux and I cruised into Checkpoint One pretty much like this:
My wonderful SAG (p/b District Bicycles) grabbed my bike, flung it back at me 30 seconds later during which time they probably accomplished a full tune-up including the sprinkling of unicorn tears, and yelled “YOU CAN CHEW WHILE YOU PEDAL” while smearing sunscreen on my face as I tried to drink a V8. I then crushed that can of V8 with my bare hands, let out a guttural yell, and morphed into the Incredible Hulk*.
*Not really. But I did go back to riding my bike.
Shortly after Checkpoint One I recall the start of a hellacious stretch of rollers, and getting hot. And getting progressively hotter. I think this is where it started to go bad for a lot of people, present company included. I feel dumb even writing this because I know how to ride in hot and dry. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way more than once. But I had my low-80s-with-a-chance-of-thunderstorms algorithm going, not my hot-and-dry-AF algorithm. And I slowly didn’t drink quite enough, wanted salty things but didn’t have them, etc etc. It’s frustrating to know exactly what you should be doing, but not be able to execute it.
But f*ck if this wasn’t Dirty Kanza and I wasn’t still having fun.
I rode with lots of people I knew and lots of people I didn’t know but became good friends with for somewhere between 15 seconds and 20 minutes depending on our respective level of dying-ness. I went by a lot of ditch people. I went by a lot of flat tire people. I went by my favorite Minnesotan Mitch fixing his third flat, Mitch is a pretty awesome dude who the Emporia Gazette wrote a thing about which you should definitely read here because it’s more important than the drivel I’m writing. I went up Little Egypt Road, down Little Egypt Road, walked another short stretch of Little Egypt Road, and rode up the last section of Little Egypt fueled by fear alone (and a lot of f-bombs, sorry anyone who was near me.) At the oasis, I found the boy wandering around also dying of heat, which has always puzzled me because you would think that Texans would be good at heat. I asked him if he still wanted to do DKXL sometime, and he said “[email protected]%^ no #^$^ this $%#^*$*@ #$%@, not unless it’s 55 degrees.” Then he sat under a tree and I kept moving because my heart rate was somehow just as high stopped as it was pedaling, so I figured I might as well be pedaling. Didn’t matter, because he and his damn gears went right by me again five miles later.
I pushed my bike up a couple of hills, watched Leo Rodgers hop his bike up a hill and wondered what I was doing with my life, went back to riding up all the hills because it actually felt easier than pushing. A whole lot of dudes looked at my gear ratio in terror as I went by, which reinforced that I was doing an Insane Thing, which actually made me feel better because if there’s one thing I’ve proven I’m good at, it’s finishing Insane Things. Anyway, somehow I made my way to Checkpoint Two, and I flopped in a chair and said some things that may or may not have actually been words, and ate a bag and a half of potato chips before they were rudely taken away from me and placed in my back pocket and I was literally pulled by my so-called friends out of said chair and onto a bicycle and given a push. I do remember looking at my Garmin screen and being confused by the numbers and saying “It’s not 12:30 o’clock.” First of all, “12:30 o’clock” is not a thing. But they figured out what I meant and informed me that that was the length of time since I started my Garmin, not the time of day, which was in fact much farther down on the screen. So that should give you a rough idea of my brain function.
I went up that paved hill right out of Checkpoint Two and almost hit a skunk that was just hanging out in the middle of the road. I said “skunk” halfheartedly. The guy a few feet behind me said “oh.” So it seems he was functioning at about the same level. Neither of us hit the skunk and we went on our way.
I stopped to dry heave a bunch of times, noted that it was getting dark-ish around mile 175 and turned my lights on, and for some reason completely stopped eating or drinking. I also know way better than that, but it’s very easy to say it was dumb in retrospect. In the moment, I was rapid shallow breathing and tachycardic and knew it, and just generally wanted to get myself to the end and deal with the consequences later, and I knew I could get myself 50 miles without taking anything in if I needed to. (Note that I in no way endorse this, and please someone just smack me the next time I try to pull a stunt like this.)
Right at 11pm, I crossed the finish line, my latest DK finish by hours, but that’s what it’s all about. We’ve all chosen an inherently unpredictable sport where you kinda have to just go with whatever happens. I ended up on the women’s single speed podium which I’m honestly still not quite sure how to frame. As was pointed out to me, you can really choose the narrative there – “I podiumed, my finish was strong despite the fact that it was after dark!” vs “I made some dumb decisions, doesn’t really feel real.” Either way, a lot of suffering went into that Kansas-shaped block of wood they gave me on Sunday. I found the boy after I finished, who’d been done for about an hour, and asked him what he’d been doing. He said, “I licked the outside of a protein bar.” I didn’t ask any more questions. I sat on the sidewalk for a while, started to pass out when I tried to get up an hour later, and it took until the early morning for my heart and respiratory rate to go back down. Would I change any of it? No. I mean, I would like to not give myself heat stroke. But Dirty Kanza once again affirmed that I am surrounded by an incredible community of people, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
Except maybe tacos.
Peace out, Emporia.