I knew what the picture meant before I knew anything about its context. Wattie had forwarded it to me: a bike racer sitting on a curb, his head down, his elbows on his knees, covered in dust and grime. It was a picture of exhaustion, and I was supposed to write a story about it, but more than anything I wanted to be that rider, myself. What had he done to put himself in this condition? Could I do the same? Could I even get close?
“I was trying to decide whether I was going to throw up or not,” Jason Hilgers tells me, referring to the photo snapped a few minutes after he won the single-speed division at Dirty Kanza, in early June of 2018. In the picture he’s sitting on a convenient curb, a flattened soda can under his left heel. While his head isn’t in his hands, he’s adopted the agonized, exhausted position many of us who choose to race bikes for “fun” and for a living know well: he’s covered in dust and dried sweat. His hair is a mess. You can’t see his face. His knees prop up his elbows, and an unopened bottle of water dangles from his gloved hands. His socks and shoes look like they should be retired. It’s an old-school pic that evokes races such as Paris-Roubaix, or stoic coal miners from another century, their dark skin glowing in the camera’s flash, their eyes white and hopeless.
Writing about Dirty Kanza moved the race from the fringes of my sporting brain to its spotlit center. I arranged interviews with Jason Hilgers, the subject of the original photo, and James Walsh, his teammate on The Adrenaline Project, and unlike most pieces, where I dread the prospect of picking up the phone and actually talking to someone, I couldn’t wait to ask them questions: How does it work? How do you train for it? What is the day itself like? What do you do to prepare your equipment? And lurking behind all of those questions, with their ostensibly journalistic motives, was my big personal question: do you think I could do this race?
The Dirty Kanza 200 (or DK 200, which sounds more like a droid or rapper’s name), in case you haven’t made its acquaintance, is a 206-mile bike “race” that takes place on the first weekend of June each year. Participants ride road or cyclocross bikes that are specially kitted out for the event: wider tires, disc brakes, thick bar tape, and even aero bars in some cases. The race winners take between 11 and 13 hours to complete the course, and the final rider this year took 20:50 to traverse the 206 miles from start to finish. Some years the dirt roads are dry but the weather is oppressive and hot. Some years there is mud to contend with. Almost every year is windy, subjecting participants to an unending battle with indifferent headwinds. An odd mix of athletes make up the front group who truly race the event: former professional cyclist Ted King won the men’s geared race this year, but professional triathletes Jordan Rapp and Matt Lieto also made the top 20. Sven Nys, the greatest cyclocross rider of all time, joined the fun. Jens Voigt (yes, that Jens Voigt) pedaled the distance in 13:38. Professional mountain bikers like Geoff Kabush tend to do well, too, making this race an odd assemblage of talent—an island of misfit toys that share one joy: suffering for hours and hours on the dirt roads right in the center of the United States, racing for nothing but glory and the satisfaction of doing something incredibly hard. It’s as if we’ve turned the clock back thirty years from a triathlon perspective, when Ironman was still something of a moon-shot for each participant, and racers showed up with a galaxy of strange gear and clothing, trying to figure out what would work.
Here was some good news: two guys I knew, Matt and Jordan, had done the race—and done well. Both of them were superior riders than I was, but not in a different galaxy as far as ability was concerned. Perhaps this was something I could do. The distance sounded daunting—I know what being utterly cracked feels like, and the longest ride I’d ever completed was a 150-mile road loop, completed on a triathlon bike: nice paved roads, regular amenities, a far cry from the remote, muddy, windy, soul-crushing roads one experiences at DK200. If I were to do this, it would take a lot of work.
“I’ve done a lot of really long endurance stuff,” Hilgers tells me. “100, 125 mile single-speed mountain bike races, so Dirty Kanza does make sense—you’re out there about the same amount of time.” When he’s not training for ultra-endurance cycling events, Hilgers is an engineer who works 60-70 hours a week and raises his two kids. When I asked him why he puts himself through the discomfort, he told me that he works a lot, and loves spending time with his family, so events like DK are chances for him to get a lot of time on his bike at once. He does most of his training in his basement, blasting out big gear reps on a road bike that never leaves his trainer, and then getting in one big ride on the weekend. “So when I do races, it’s just time on the bike. I love riding my bike.”
This was Hilger’s second try at the event. A friend of his on the team (The Adrenaline Project) told him about the race late 2014 and it sounded intriguing. He “bought a single-speed cyclocross bike and trained on that.” The 2015 race didn’t go his way, though, and he was forced to abandon the race with a broken rim. “The technical stuff…” he begins. “I don’t really take any of this stuff too seriously. If I break something and I’m out of the race? Oh, well, that happens, we’ll get it next time. I didn’t really do anything to prepare for this one, though. I checked my tire pressure right before we started. After the race I realized I’d packed the wrong kind of tubes, too, so if my tubeless setup had failed I would have been SOL. I brought some chain links, a chain tool, and a patch kit. I did spray the bike down before the race, but I didn’t even clean my chain. My teammate, James, he had this crazy waxed chain he was talking about beforehand for days.” It’s very much a single-speeder’s attitude, more like surfing than the meticulous world of road cycling or triathlon. No waves? Whatever, tomorrow. Break a rim? Happens.
On the other hand, there’s Hilger’s teammate James Walsh, a converted roadie who made the switch to gravel years ago and hasn’t looked back. Walsh used to live outside of San Diego and was hit by a car from behind while descending a local canyon. “I broke my collarbone, several ribs, punctured my lungs in a bunch of places. Lots of road rash. It could have been much worse. It totally turned me off of road cycling. I moved to Colorado in 2015, and would take a ‘cross bike out and loop up all these trails and double-track roads to avoid cars. I realized that gravel racing could provide the dynamics and intensity of road racing, but without the danger.”
This would, without a doubt, be my Achilles Heel. I know just enough technical stuff on a bike to get myself into a place from which I can’t escape. I have several professional mechanics’ contact information at the ready in my phone. When I chatted with Walsh about the training for the event, he told me: “Really, just treat it like a huge bike race, so normal road racing training, with an added endurance component. But the thing you HAVE to have nailed is your equipment set-up. Really know your tire and rim combination, your tubeless characteristics—how to change or fix anything in a pinch. That’s crucial, because SOMETHING is going to break along the way.
At first DK 200 also daunted Walsh. “A few of the guys on my team planned to do it in 2015, and I said “That sounds terrible. That’s nothing I want to do.” As with so many of our passionately held aversions, this one soon crumbled. Like his teammate Hilgers, Walsh had done a bunch of 100-mile MTB races, and signed up for a few longer gravel events (some of these days aren’t really races, but they aren’t just rides, either—one of the endearing vagaries of gravel) this past winter, and then pulled the trigger and signed up for DK. “I’ve done Leadville 100 before, and managed to put myself in the top 20 by the first climb, but then the pros just ratchet it up and blow everybody off the back. This felt like road racing dynamics, but in a way safer environment. I managed to stick with the lead pack until mile 90 or so; people were attacking; teams were working together. Then someone ramped up the pace, I accelerated to keep up, and I just squared up on a big rock and cracked my front rim—sealant shooting everywhere. I was able to put in a tube and make it to the next checkpoint (at mile 103), but I’d lost the group. I didn’t see anyone from the next group come by, though, for the next 5-10 minutes, which tells you just how fast we were riding!”
Walsh’s crew had a spare wheel at that second checkpoint, and he soldiered on, latching on to another group that rolled past in pursuit of the leaders. They road together for a little less than twenty miles and “probably dicked around a little too much.” Another group, led by a 24-hour solo MTB world champion, caught them, turned up the heat, and soon Walsh was on his own. “I’d burnt a few too many matches,” he confesses. “Miles 135 to 162 were the worst for me. At 140 I took out my phone, cued up an old emo and hardcore playlist I had on Spotify, and started working away at a headwind blasting me in the face.” Mile 162 provided the third and final checkpoint, where Walsh “had a sandwich and a beer, and it kinda reset my stomach. For the last 40 miles I probably felt as good as I’d felt all day.”
Ultra-distance gravel racers, as with Ironmen and women, rely on a combination of luck and planning to consistently arrive at the finish on time. I’d noticed in photos that all the riders wear backpacks in their event, something I asked Walsh about. “You NEED the backpacks,” he told me. Everything at DK is self-supported. There are checkpoints, sure, but no neutral aid is provided at those checkpoints. You have a crew who can resupply you at those stops, and help you with mechanical issues, but other than that you’re on your own. Interestingly, Hilgers the single-speeder relied almost exclusively on traditional sports nutrition (Skratch Labs and EFS: “I couldn’t put down anything solid in the final five hours”), while Walsh, the more Type A of the two, turned to real food: Pizza, sandwiches, and beer. “The biggest thing, though,” he tells me, is being comfortable not having a plan. In a road race I would have been worried about that broken wheel, scrambling around to fix it. In this case I just took my time and fixed it correctly. You realize that it’s a really long day, and you have time to come back from that sort of thing.”
This, I realized, was what I had come here for. After 16 years in triathlon, 13 of them racing professionally, I was tired of plans, power meters, nutrition schemes that looked like science experiments, the whole carefully-laid, wildly fragile world of on-road triathlon. I wanted, I realized, adventure. A nice dose of actual risk folded into the dollop of perceived risk that makes up the excitement of these kinds of events. What were those roads actually like, rather than the picture I carried of them in my brain? What adversity would I encounter, and how would I respond? All of the old urges returned: could I do this? What would it feel like? Where is the edge? I felt, for the first time in a long time, nervous anticipation around an endurance event.
I asked Walsh if he would be back, and almost before the words were out of my mouth he said “Yeah.” He’s had this feeling a few times before with other races: Xterra World Championships back when he first got into racing; The North Face 50 outside of San Francisco, and now Dirty Kanza 200. “As soon as I finished it I wanted to go back and have another crack at it,” he says. “You see people now coming from all different backgrounds: Ted King, Jordan Rapp, Matt Curbeau, Geoff Kabush, Matt Lieto, Sven Nys—all these different guys. And they’re doing races that have no prize money and are super hard. I think it’s because if you’re that kind of person, super driven, just finishing is still a major accomplishment. Doing something that puts you way outside your comfort zone. I think gravel cycling is a way for ordinary people to find this new culture of pushing themselves way harder than they ever thought they would. And it still is about the participants, rather than the person winning. Nys said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. It’s hard for everybody. Everybody there is to ride with their friends, make new friends, and somehow get to the finish line.”
Originally read over at Wattie Ink. Rock the W!