Preparing for the Dirty Kanza: Holding the Fire

By Tim Ek, Photos by,

The phrase, “Dirty Kanza 200” causes an involuntary physiological response within me. I wish I could control the butterflies’ fluttering wings in my belly, but I can’t. I even call on race experience in an effort to quell the quiet storm that’s gathering deep inside me, but it’s quickly trumped by memories.

These memories of what is affectionately known as the “D.K.” are not entirely wrapped in glorious moments that can be found racing a bicycle, but in an array of images that include desperate moments which seemed to hinge on the brink of survival.

As a Salsa Cycles sponsored rider I’ve had the privilege of traveling to the open prairies of Kansas twice. In 2010 I hit the road with the Salsa crew to compete in a gravel race I had only heard about. I held my head high as I rested on several solid finishes, which included being a two time veteran of the Trans Iowa.

“What could be harder than the Trans Iowa?” I thought. I mean, the D.K. wasn’t 330 miles of unsupported, nonstop gravel racing. I brimmed with confidence as I felt I had evolved into somewhat of a cagey veteran of this discipline. I would soon learn that the Dirty Kanza not only had a personality all its own, but came to be a living, breathing entity, bent on destroying me.

I was once asked, “What are you training for?” I replied flatly, “All of it.” As soon as the words left my lips an image of me laying on the side of some gravel road in Kansas with a blanket of searing heat pressing hard down on my broken body flashed through my mind. Silently I said to myself, “Kansas”. What started as a rest stop in the 2010 D.K. turned into a situation of surrender as I began to succumb to the heat … “letting go” if you will.

Preparing the body for this race is the easy part, I just ride and ride. However, prepping the mind is another matter. I start thinking about what I’ve been through, the highs and lows that the breadth of the range gave me. I plan for the moments when the sun is shining the brightest, yet I am cloaked in darkness.

The “dark times” always pass; it’s just a matter of traveling through them. I now view the D.K. as a beast of a race, one capable of delivering blow after blow, but in my mind I’m prepared to keep getting back up. No matter what, I have to get back up.

My first dance with the race found me calm and controlled emotionally. In other words, I didn’t know what to expect. In many ways I wish I didn’t know now, what I didn’t know then. Currently, I have a set of expectations surrounding the event, some good … even great, and some down right scary.

The things I can’t wait for are these; breath-taking beauty, a connection to nature that I have yet to find in any other race, and that exquisite feeling of being small … a bit player in a much larger picture.

While I crested a small rise this larger picture was pointed out to me by a small herd of wild horses. As their hooves tore at the prairie they showed me that I was in their world. There were no words for that moment and there still aren’t.

On the other side, I expect HEAT! I’ve experienced hot summer days in Northern Minnesota, but they seem laughable now that I’ve been a part of soaring Kansas temperatures. The heat can be so oppressive that it takes control of the mind, everything becomes about managing the fire. My plan is simple, find a balance among these factors, one that allows me to exist some where that contains a smile, a grimace, and every thing in between.

One must not forget the obvious fact that this is a bicycle race, therefore the choice of machinery is critical. I have always chosen a cyclocross bike for gravel racing. In 2010 I slipped onto the saddle of a Salsa Chili Con Crosso and found overall success as it proved flawless. Last year I boarded a Salsa La Cruz Ti and enjoyed its supple ride from start to finish. This year I’ll find myself working with a Salsa prototype that is currently in development. The spirit of this bike is sure to find its home underneath any rider willing to create the bond that most cyclists seek in their rides.

As I contemplate this year’s Dirty Kanza 200 I’ll take care to respect its beauty as well as its brutality. I’ll work to find that delicate balance that is well represented by its expansive views. I’ll long for that pristine and sometimes fleeting moment when I feel so small within its vastness. I’ll work to hold its fire, even if just for a second.

Stay tuned: Our own Josh Patterson is racing the 200-mile Dirt Kanza this weekend. Watch this space for exclusive coverage of the race.