So you want to take on the Unbound Gravel 200, the 206 mile gravel race through the flint hills of Emporia, Kansas. I’ve been meaning to write an article about this race for over a year based on my experience in this race, and with the 2019 event fast approaching, now is the time!
I completed the race in 2016 and 2017. My best finish was 21st overall and 2nd in my age group 40 – 44. I focused my training specifically for the event, did a significant amount of detailed research, and learned many lessons. I am sharing it all with you in this post, and I hope that you will find it useful.
This article will focus on:
- A brief overview of the race
- How I :
- Prepared for the event
- Setup my bike
- Raced (tactics)
- Could have improved my results
- Important rules
- Lessons learned and “pro” tips
- Useful resources and links
Dirty Kanza 200 overview
According to the DK 200 website, the race is a “200 mile long ultra-endurance bicycling challenge, held on the gravel roads through the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas.” This is not just some “race.” It’s a test of your mental fortitude and willingness to endure serious pain.
It is one of those events that you can’t just show up at the start line without significant preparation. Whether you are planning to simply complete the event or get a podium finish, you need to prepare for one of the hardest physical challenges you will ever complete on the bike. Pros show up to this event thinking they can just race the event on their fitness alone. This has led to dehydration, crashes, and serious injury. Sven Nys just “showed up” to DK200 in 2018 and he did not finish. This is not your garden-variety 200 mile gravel event. World champions don’t finish.
It takes 6 months to be ready
In both years that I competed, it took me six months to train, test, prepare, retest, and prepare more. And that is why this was a great event for me – there is so much more to it than fitness. I am really good at planning for something like this, and I did it while riding all over the country.
At Kanza, the strongest rider does not always win. To win, you need to be strong, have a great race plan, select the right tires, have a good support crew, have plenty of spare everything, hydrate and eat correctly and, most of all, have some luck. I have done other gravel races before, but none like this one.
Will I race it again? Maybe. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The training was insane. The preparation and event combined cost a fortune, and I broke lots of things on my bike both years. In the 2017 event I cracked my frame, and in the 2016 event I had to throw the bike out. It was like I rode it through some concrete at the start of the race and then rode 200 more miles destroying every moving part on the bike.
But for those of you who want to tackle this challenge, read on.
How I prepared for Dirty Kanza 200
To finish the event, you will need to plan and prepare in the following areas:
- Physical and mental fitness
- Hydration and nutrition
- Bike setup
- General research
I rode my bike 15,000 miles in each of the years I was preparing for the event. That included many solo 8-hour rides in terrible weather conditions: in the cold, in the heat, and in the rain.
I found the worst headwinds and rode into them for hours on end. Trained in Arizona and California in hot and humid conditions, and into the wind. Sought out the most frustrating conditions and trained in them. I did countless 100 mile indoor rides, including a block of 5 consecutive 100 mile training rides on Zwift.
Here is one of my epic training rides in California. I did this ride solo. The first 55 miles were into a strong headwind, up hill in the heat. This was one of many rides like this, mostly done solo.
I trained in the worst conditions because I knew the second half of Dirty Kanza would be into a 20 -30mph headwind in 90-degree weather. For those of you looking to just finish, I still recommend working up to 8 hour training rides. That’s the only way to test hydration and nutrition.
In 2017, it was amazing to see the “strong” rides in my group slowly disintegrate after 8 hours. Everyone in that group did the obligatory 8 hour training rides, but it’s hard to tell what will happen between hours 8 and 12. I don’t recommend doing training rides longer than 8 hours. They are unnecessary and take a huge toll on the body. If you want to chat with me about the specifics of my training plan, start a thread over on the Dirty Kanza Forum.
The event starts at 6:00AM. You need to be at the start line, at the VERY front, at 5:30AM. That means you need to roll out of the hotel at 5:00AM. To hit a 5AM departure, I needed to get up around 3:45AM to eat well and digest the food, poop, and get ready. Like everything at Kanza, this requires training. I started to gradually wake up earlier and earlier over a 6-month period: 4:30, then 4:15, 4:00 and finally 3:45AM. To this day, I still wake up at 3:45AM every day. I eat, drink coffee, and get ready to work out.
Hydration and nutrition preparation
There are three checkpoints in the 200 mile event, each about 50 miles apart. The hydration and nutrition strategy between each is a little different. The race starts early in the morning, right as the sun is rising. The temperatures are normally cool and the first leg of the race is slightly shorter. Because of this, you don’t need the same amount of hydration between checkpoints.
I recommend one 3-liter hydration pack and NO water bottles for the first leg. That will keep your bike light and you don’t need to plan for an ejected water bottle when using the hydration pack. Also, it’s hard to eat during the first 3-hour leg, so I added 900 calories of CarboPro and electrolytes into my hydration pack. I brought food to eat before the start, but did not eat anything solid during the first leg.
My hydration experience
By the time I rolled into the first checkpoint I had not consumed all my fluids, making me short on calorie intake. I ate a 300-calorie bar and refuelled. At the first stop, I took on two 33oz water bottles – one with Scratch and one with 600 calories of CarboPro. I also put on my second 3-liter hydration pack with 900 calories of CarboPro.
My setup was designed to lose one water bottle and still have enough to complete the leg with enough hydration. I loaded up with food too, including gel blocks, GoMacro bars and Salt Sticks.
I had the same hydration approach at checkpoints 2 and 3: two 33oz bottles with Scratch and CarboPro and one 3-liter hydration pack with CarboPro. My food consisted of gel blocks, GoMacro bars, and Salt Sticks. Between checkpoint 2 and 3, I started feeling low on energy, so I ate about 500 calories quickly. At checkpoint 3, I had a Coke, sandwich with Nutella, and salty chips.
The bottom line
In hindsight, I should have been eating more early on in the race. I tested these hydration and nutrition strategies extensively over a 6 month period. I tested them in the cold, heat, humidity, and wind.
In conclusion, you need to know how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat. If you are getting hungry, you are eating too late. And if you get behind on hydration, the game is over. Your heart rate will spike and power will drop off a cliff. You will not recover in a reasonable time. Moreover, getting all this stuff right in a race with wind, rain, heat and humidity takes a lot of practice.
It pays to prepare for Dirty Kanza. I was not the strongest racer in the field. But I was without a doubt one of the best prepared. Here is what I carried with me during each stage of the race.
- (3) latex tubes
- (1) patch kit
- (1) tire boot
- (3) CO2 cartridges with quick release
- (3) heavy duty tire leavers
- (1) replacement derailleur hanger
- (1) chain quick link
- (1) mini bottle of chain lube
- (1) frame mounted mini pump
- Multitool with a chain breaker
- Spare chain link
- Garmin with an external battery taped to the stem
- iphone with an external batters used for backup navigation
- Saddle bag
- Zip ties
- Duct Tape
Spare parts at checkpoints
At each checkpoint (all three of them) I had an assortment of spare parts. They included:
- (1) Replacement chain cut to length
- (1) set of replacement wheels with tires setup tubeless
- (2) replacement tires
- (3) latex tubes with CO2
- (1) derailleur hanger
- (1) rear derailleur
- (1) mini chain lube bottle
- (1) heavy duty leaver
- (1) set of replacement shoes
- (1) set of replacement peddles
In addition to having the right parts on and off the bike, you need a working understanding of your drive train and how to adjust it. [idea]You need to know how to fix a broken chain, fix a flat, patch a tire with a boot, change to single speed if the derailleur breaks, and replace the derailleur hanger.[/idea] And you need to know how to do this QUICKLY. You will need to pull out these skills during the race, so practice them.
General Dirty Kanza research
I researched the event extensively before my first time racing the event in 2016. That meant hours on the internet reading blogs of other athletes who finished the event. In addition, I reached out to athletes who finished the race to learn about their bike setup, tire selection, and race strategy. Further, I called the manufacturers of bike parts to understand how their components would perform under Kanza conditions.
I even created a flyover of the course on google earth in advance of the race. This was helpful tool to get familiar with terrain. If you want to do this yourself, Google “how to make flyover video in google earth with gpx”.
If you want to see what the start and finish are like without all the racers around, watch this video.
I prepared like any MIT grad would. Researched the hell out of everything and became an expert in all things Kanza starting at 3:45AM every day for 6 months.
How I setup my bike
Bike setup for Dirty Kanza is hugely important. Almost as important as you physical fitness.
You need a bike with very large tire clearance, front and rear. The bike should be able to handle 40c tires with plenty of room to spare. In addition, the derailleur hanger needs to be heavy duty, discussed below under drivetrain.
Finally, you might consider aerodynamic frames, such as the 3T Exploro. I choose the Open U.P., which stands for Unbeaten Path. The chain-stay of the U.P. has a unique design which allows for massive tire clearance.
I spent MONTHS testing and researching tires. Weight, puncture resistance, width, and tread are all very important considerations. After all my research it really comes down to width, weight, and puncture resistance. And they all interrelate.
If you’ve never ridded in the flint hills it’s unlike anything you’ve seen. Especially when the roads get wet. Flint rocks were used by the Indians to make arrow heads. When you grind that rock down it effectively turns into shards of glass.
By 2017 several companies started to make tires specifically designed for this terrain. Jim Cummins, one of the original founders of Dirty Kanza, lives in Kansas and rides this terrain daily. He was sponsored by Panaracer and recommended the Gravel King 38 and 43C tires.
I understood he was conflicted, but why would he pick a tire that sucks if he rides this terrain every day? The tire was excellent and I went with the 38C tire, weighing in a 440g. Jim’s Panaracer Team selected the 43C Gravel King, which weighs 490g. I traded comfort and some puncture protection for 50g in weight loss per tire. I never studied the rolling resistance differences between the too. If I do the race again, I will research that further.
Tubeless all the way. Tubulars are out because of the high probability of flatting. In addition, tubes will lead to flats because they cannot heal the inevitable punctures from the flint rock. Therefore, start with a tubeless setup and hope it holds up for the entire race.
Wheels and breaks
I rode a set of Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3 TLR Disc Road Wheels. No complaints about the wheel set, but consider using a gravel specific wheel that is slightly wider. In case something went wrong, I had a spare set of wheels available at all three checkpoints.
Disk breaks are extremely important. In fact, I will go so far as to say DO NOT USE RIM BREAKS. The mud in this area is very sticky. Rim breaks do not offer enough tire clearance and they give the mud something else to cling to. I ran SRAM hydraulic disk breaks with 160mm rotors.
Drive train considerations
You need a drivetrain that is connected to the bike with a heavy duty derailleur hanger. Do not overlook this point. I broke the hanger on my Trek Boone in 2016. It was attached to the frame with two very small “set screws” and the hanger itself was very weak.
In 2016 about 20% of the field had to abandon the race around mile 6 because the mud tore off their derailleur and threw it into the rear wheel. The event was coined “Derailleur Armageddon”. I was one of those people caught in the mayhem, but managed to hobble into checkpoint 1, single speed.
After the race, we compared who had issues and who did not. The SRAM drivetrains seemed to hold up better than the Shimano. Based on this unscientific survey, I switched to SRAM in 2017.
In 2017 I had a SRAM Force 2x setup with an 11×32 cassette. I did not use SRAM Red because the largest cassette it will handle was 28t. There are a few hills, decisive hills, that required the 32 tooth cassette. Being a heaver rider, I needed all the gears I could get.
I did test out the SRAM Force 1x setup. Neil Shirley ran 1x in 2016 with good success. I collaborated with him and tried his exact setup. I switched back to 2x because I found myself between gears all the time. My cadence was either too high or two low.
Dirty Kanza is known for rough terrain. You need to select a sturdy bottle cage that will secure your hydration. I noticed that several athletes strapped their bottle directly to the cage with cordage in 2017.
I wrapped my bottles with grip tape used on skateboards. That made them easier to grab and helped the cage secure them. Even with the grip tape, I ejected two bottles during the race. As an example, there are certain sections of the course where you can see many ejected bottles.
I studied images from Paris-Roubaix to see how pro teams dealt with bottle cages on rough terrain. Check out this GCN video on how the pro teams setup their bikes for the cobbles. Some of this also applies to Kanza.
How I raced Dirty Kanza
I’ll focus on 2017 because I have some good race footage shown below. The race starts at 6:00AM and you need to get to the starting line no later than 5:30AM. I stationed myself in the first pen at the front row, right behind the pro call-ups. I peed twice during the 30 minute wait. Someone held my bike as I walked to a nearby building.
There is a neutral roll out for the first few miles on a paved surface. When the road turns to gravel, the race is on. I made a number of critical errors.
The beginning of the race is critical
First, I got swarmed in the middle of the pack and went from the front row to the 100th rider in 30 seconds. I hit the gravel road in terrible position and fought for 90 minutes to get to the front of the race.
After reviewing the race footage with my new coach, I learned that I was passing in the wrong spots and wasted a ton of energy in the first 90 minutes. For starters, I should have hit the gravel in the top 25 riders. Instead, I was stuck in the middle of the pack having to pass slow riders in tight quarters.
In addition, I was passing on the straight sections and in the rough gravel, when I should have been passing in the corners where the yo-yo takes place. I should have dive bombed the corners and picked up several spots without spending any energy. Instead, I wasted a ton of energy passing in the worst spots.
The first 90 minutes of the race are decisive. Prepare to ride hard until the race thins out after those 90 minutes. My normalized power for the first 90 minutes was well over 300 watts. You can see from my heart rate this was a difficult effort with all the surges. My goal was to stay with the leaders until the 1st checkpoint but, unfortunately, I got a flat and had to re-inflate my tire once the sealant did its job.
After my one and only flat, I hooked up with a very strong chase group. We had about 20 people and we rode hard. In the first leg, the group grew some as riders got blown out the back of the lead pack. The first rest checkpoint is absolutely critical. YOU MUST GO FAST IN CHECKPOINT ONE.
[idea] Checkpoint 1 cannot last longer than 30 seconds if you want to stay with your group. Stop the bike > pee > change hydration > take on food > lube chain > GO. [/idea]
If you take too long in checkpoint 1, peg it to catch your group. The effort spent is worth the savings of a large and fast group. I was able to transition in less than 60 seconds and keep my group. My goal for the next 3 hours was to stay with this strong chase group and spend as little energy as possible. I did that by playing games.
How to play games 101:
- Get to the front and slow down the pace 1-2mph. Guys will think you are slow and ride around you.
- Swing off to the side to blow your nose a lot. You will lose your place in line and slide back.
- Slowly eat and drink a lot. Do that in the back of the line.
- Look down at your derailleur and wheels a lot. Shift gears and mess around with something like you have a broken something.
- Ride half way up the line and then have some mechanical issue. Swing off to the side before hitting the front and look down like something is wrong.
Playing these games can be seen as less than honourable, but frankly speaking, it’s what allowed me to stay strong and not blow up from hours 8 to 12.
I hit checkpoint 2 with the chase group intact. Again, transition is key. I went very fast in the transition, spending about 60 seconds to refuel and lube the chain. The group got split in two because of lost time in transition.
I was in the front group and we rode hard to make the chase group spend energy. They finally reconnected with us but had to waste energy to do it. Checkpoint 2 to checkpoint 3 is by far the hardest effort during the race. The distance is longer, it’s into a block headwind, and the temperatures approach 90 degrees.
By this time our group was down to about 10-15 riders. Everyone started to work equally and it was punishing. The headwinds were bad and the heat terrible. Riders slowly started to blow, one by one. All of a sudden, they just disintegrated and pulled the pin. Our group slowly caught and passed blown riders from the lead group. And some were completely wasted.
Checkpoint 3 is where I lost about 5-7 minutes. My pit crew supported the two pro riders with me before they handled my bike. I was experiencing technical issues with my bike and I had to wait for service. That was a forced break that I used to eat and drink a Coke. By the time I rolled out of checkpoint 3, I had one other rider with me, and we stayed together to the end.
The final hours
During the last three hours, I was experiencing terrible cramps and my bike was a mess. At one point, I dropped my chain on the inside of the little ring. I had to pull so hard to get it out I cracked the frame. In addition, I had to swap the external battery on my iPhone and Garmin, as both were practically dead.
About 10 miles from the finish, we hit a railroad crossing right when the lights started to flash for a freight train. We could have crossed it with plenty of time to spare, but who wants to play chicken with a freight train? The wait lasted about 5 minutes.
In the last few miles of the race we caught Jim Cummins and Grady Fowler and chatted with them for a while. I think Jim was surprised to see me. He helped me with tire selection and setup months earlier. He probably helps a lot of random people, but not many who cross the finish at the same time as him.
How I could have improved my results
- I wasted energy in the first 90 minutes of the race getting to the front of the race. It would have been better to go very hard to get to the front in the beginning of the race.
- I lost about 5 to 7 minutes at checkpoint 3. I was having mechanical issues with my bike and had to wait for service. There is not much I could have done to improve the situation in this case…
- The freight train that stopped me with 10 miles to go was unavoidable. And I refuse to cross a train track with flashing red lights, no matter how far off the train looks.
- My Garmin and iPhone started to run out of battery after 8 hours. I was carrying a spare battery for both but they were not readily available, and thus required a stop. I could have plugged in the external batteries at the beginning of the race to avoid stopping.
We took a few wrong turns after checkpoint 3. My Garmin simply got lost and my backup iPhone navigation was difficult to follow. I might consider a better real time navigation system.
- Many of the top finishers had some type of aerobars. I would consider using them in the future.
- I might be able to reduce weight by using two 24oz water bottles if I could find a way to secure them 100%. Otherwise, you need to plan to lose one bottle per leg.
- I would train differently. Many of my 8-hour training rides were at around 70% of FTP with no efforts. I would change that to be 20% intensity and 80% endurance on the long rides.
Important Dirty Kanza rules you should be aware of
These rules were extracted from the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200 Riders Bible. I suggest you find the updated bible for your year and read it several times. I’ve summarized the important, less obvious rules below.
“You are responsible for you!”
Each participant is solely responsible for any accidents in which they may be involved. Plan accordingly.
There are several checkpoints along the route where all participants must check in and depart within a certain period of time. The arrival cut-off time is based on an average speed of 10mph.
Outside support is not allowed on the course unless you abandon the race, with some exceptions below.
Participants may help other participants with mechanical support, navigational assistance, or by any other means.
You are required to have at least one support crew available to come get you if you need to abandon the event.
Official checkpoints along the route serve as neutral areas where participants can meet their support crew to restock supplies and repair equipment. These checkpoints are the only locations along the entire course where participants may receive assistance from their support crew.
Participants can get food, water, and other supplies at stores and businesses along the route. Participants can also receive “neutral” assistance from residents along the route. “Neutral” is defined as support that is freely offered equally to ALL event participants, and is done so from a stationary, non-moveable location. It is NOT OK to receive a handout from a vehicle that “just happens” to be at the side of the road. Read this blog post from Nick Frey who got disqualified in 2016 for violating this rule. This was a good example of a pro just showing up on fitness alone.
Support Crews are NOT allowed on course, except to pick up a rider who is abandoning the event. Break this rule and get disqualified. See link above.
Riders must remain within the primary boundaries of the roadway at all times. If the roadway is bordered by fences, stay between them. If the roadway is in open range (no fences), stay out of the ditch and on the road. This was a real problem in 2015 so the organizers take it seriously. Don’t test them.
If you exit the course for food, supplies, or any other reason, you must re-enter the course at the same spot at which you left. If you get lost, you must backtrack to the point you left the course.
Additional participant rules
Participants must start and complete the entire course on the same bike frame. All other components and equipment may be repaired or replaced during the event.
DK200 and DK100 participants must have a clear front headlamp and a red tail light for the duration of the event.
Drafting on a nonparticipant cyclist, or on a motorized vehicle will result in disqualification.
Lessons learned and pro tips
- Get to the race start no later than 5:30AM and line up right at the starting line. Consider getting there even earlier, 5:15AM to ensure a good spot.
- Practice getting up early to eat, poop, and get ready for an early race start.
- Start the race with just enough hydration in order to keep your overall weight down. You will consume the least amount of fluids during this stage. It’s shorter, faster, and cooler.
- Start the race with very small front and rear lights that simply meet the requirements of the race. Something like the image below.
- Keep your “real” front and rear lights at checkpoint 3 in case you really need them. And do yourself a favour, get a really bright front light. If you need a light you are not finishing in the top 100. Don’t worry about weight and get something like the Nite Rider Pro 2200.
Tires and flat repairs
- Select a tire that is designed specifically for Dirty Kanza. Consider the Teravail Cannonball or Panaracer Gravel King. Don’t show up to this race on a CX tire or a super light tire thinking it will handle the flint rock.
- If you get a flat, be very careful when you change the tire to not get flint rock between the tire and tube. You will hear that over and over, once you get a flat you will keep flatting. It’s because the flint rock or even flint dust is on the tube and it causes punctures.
- Repair the flat, then replace the entire wheel at the next checkpoint. Otherwise, you will keep getting flats over and over.
- Plan on losing at least one bottle between each checkpoint.
- The route from checkpoint 2 to 3 is the longest and hardest. It’s the hottest time of the day, and into a block headwind. In 2016, I consumed over 120oz of fluid in that section and still ran out.
- Transition times at checkpoint 1 and 2 are critical. At checkpoint 1, if you take longer than 30 seconds you will lose the group. Stop, refuel, lube your chain and roll! Guys drill it out of checkpoint 1.
- Know where your support crew is located in advance. Crews are given designated areas based on color. Study the support areas in advance and know where you are going before you get there. You can study this the night before.
- Study the terrain and note decisive climbs in advance. There are a few tough climbs that are long and steep. The front group will break up in these locations.
- NEVER RIDE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD OR IN THE GRASS. The sections of road worn down by vehicular traffic are less likely to puncture your tire. That nice looking patch of road in the middle with little blades of grass growing up has unworn flint rocks waiting to puncture your tire. Bunny hop over that and never ride in it. NEVER.
- Consider using aero bars. Many of the top finishers used them. Expect to ride 100 miles into a block headwind and likely solo.
- Avoid the snakes.
Useful links and resources
- Dirty Kanza Website
- Dirty Kanza Riders Bible from 2018
- Nick Frey’s Post on getting disqualified in 2016