The week before the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200, Colorado’s Mark Symns checked in with a pre-race Gravel Report about his attempt at the famed event. After finishing Saturday’s ride—and beating one of the race’s big names—he checks in about the experience.
by Mark Symns
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Pulling out of my driveway at 4:45 a.m. on Friday morning to make the 9-hour drive to Emporia, I began questioning if the Dirty Kanza was worth it.
Worth two days of driving. Worth neglecting my wife and two kids for three days. Worth the hundreds of dollars spent on registering, a hotel, transportation, gear, etc. Worth the all the hours of training and gear prep, then more hours of logistics, analyzing and “what-if,” second-guessing race prep choices.
After completing my 2nd DK200, I can say without question it is most definitely worth it.
There are so many things that made this year’s Dirty Kanza awesome, it’s hard to know where to start.
Since my family living in Colorado wasn’t able to make it, my in-laws came down from Iowa to help me at the checkpoints and cheer me on at the finish line. My mother-in-law has done RAGBRAI several times, so she was curious about cramming 200 miles of racing on gravel roads into a single day.
It was great to see their familiar, curious faces along the ride and hear them cheer louder and longer than anyone else in the always enthusiastic finish line crowd in Emporia.
My Dean, with the addition of the Ritchey WCS Speedmax tubeless tires, performed flawlessly. There are some rides when you recognize your bike is perfectly suited for the task at hand, that you wouldn’t change a thing about your setup, and you can simply relax and let your machine do what it was designed to do and enjoy the experience. This was one of those rides.
I felt so comfortable on the Dean, it was very difficult at times to follow the sage gravel event advice—”ride to not flat.” The bike truly begged to be constantly pushed up gnarly climbs, along flat, fast sections and on the downside of loose, steep rollers.
Having lived in Kansas for 10 years, I have come to count on significant winds during any ride there, usually out of the southwest at about 15-20 mph. During my first DK200, they came in the variety of constant 20-25 mph headwinds from Miles 100 through 165, accompanied by temperatures in the mid-90s.
This year, the winds were truly amazing—either almost non-existent or maybe a slight tailwind. To say the winds this year were favorable is an understatement to anyone who has spent much time in that state. They were a freaking godsend.
You can’t talk about the Midwest and the Dirty Kanza without mentioning the people. People really are nicer there, whether it’s interactions at the All Things Gravel Expo, hanging out with friends from college who still live in the state or chatting with fellow racers.
In Colorado, you’ll occasionally get the “good job” or “keep it up” from a fellow racer, but at the Dirty Kanza, you get to have long, leisurely conversations. This year the topics of those conversations ranged from the unintended consequences of pot legalization in Colorado with a “local” from Wichita, to whether Space X or Blue Origin is best poised to capitalize on the space tourism industry with an aerospace Ph.D. student from Michigan.
Even in the grueling, competitive atmosphere of the race, most DK participants recognize it’s more of an adventure to be shared with others than a serious contest.
As many have heard, the “contest” portion of the race was ratcheted up a few notches this year due to the appearance of some very high-profile pro road racers. While the pros (pun intended) and cons of this can be debated, I personally think it’s yet another feature that makes this race uniquely fantastic. It’s uncommon for the commoners, such as myself, to be able to race “head-to-head” with elite racers such as these; it and certainly adds an element of excitement and legitimacy to the race.
For me personally, it meant riding the last 10 miles of the race with a small group of riders that included Taylor Phinney and recognizing this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cross the finish line before him. When rolling into Emporia, I made sure to stay at the front of the group and even sprinted for the finish a little, putting a very small distance between the WorldTour pro and myself.
Even though it had nothing to do with fitness and everything to with flat tires and other surprises the Flint Hills can dish out, I can now say I’ve beaten an Olympic-level cyclist in a bike race.
I could go on, but you know the rest … the solitude, the endless views, the seemingly endless suffering both alone and with other racers, the enthusiasm from the roll out in front of the Granada Theater to the finish line party that goes well beyond midnight.
The Dirty Kanza is calling you. Calling you to an adventure and a story of your own, promising that with a lot of training, a good bit of planning and a little bit of luck, your trip to Emporia will most definitely be worth it.
For more from Emporia, see all of our coverage of the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200.