Chapter One, in Which Your Narrator Worries Pointlessly
“Quit checking the weather.”
That’s the only cycling advice my wife has ever saw fit to give me, and it was sound. Because the early forecast for race day in Emporia was ugly, and I was officially in a wad about it.
A high near 100 on a 206-mile course was enough to make my kidneys quiver. Racing in those conditions would require taking a Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.” Because organs can quit in crap like that.
I was especially worried because I’m what you call a “heavy sweater” with a sordid history of heat exhaustion. I’m the guy you avoid in spin class because of my “sweat radius.” For me, getting off the spin bike involves wading out of a pool. It’s gross.
A heavy sweater. That’s me. (Photo, Hugo Boss)
The ordeal of staying hydrated in high heat makes me panic. And Marty had to talk me off the ledge more than once. “Relax,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. And that’s what ice socks are for, anyway.”
Still, I crabbed. “Easy for him to say,” I thought. “What does that jackal know? He’s never struggled to keep a sieve full of water. What’s he have to go through?”
Well, it’s funny I should ask…
Dr. Marty doesn’t know what it’s like to be me. (Photo, salsacycles.com)
Chapter Two, in Which We Learn What Dr. Marty Has to Go through
Marty’s race week was preceded by a family vacation to Florida. Not a bad way to taper in front of a race, if you ask me. On one of their last days, he was swimming with his son in the ocean when he felt an unholy presence in his trunks. Between his cheeks: an evil sting.
He jerked and thrashed; he got himself and his son out of the water. While he didn’t exactly stick around to take role, Dr. Killeen’s wife, Dr. Killeen, had identified the bluish floating sacs of several Portuguese man o’ wars (men o’ war?) floating nearby elsewhere during their trip.
The damage downstairs was significant. Butt skin was lost. Good old Wikipedia tells me that in some severe cases, the venom can affect the lymph nodes and trigger symptoms that mimic allergic reactions. Marty watched his bottom lip and tongue swell to such a degree that Amy would check in his sleep to make sure he could breathe. It was not fun.
A single Portuguese man ‘o war is actually several organisms living in tandem, none of which could survive independently. I’m sure there’s a cycling teamwork metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m too tired to draw it. (Image, anatomytoyou.com)
Because we’re ridiculous, our thoughts went first to how this ordeal might impact his bike race. The welts and scabbing were safely north of bike seat territory. And his mouth eventually returned to its prewar shape. “No worries,” he said with a normal tongue.
The Killeens returned to Nebraska and we returned to our normal workout routine. That routine includes an obscenity of abdominal crunches. To protect his healing welts, Marty did these crunches somewhat off kilter. And in the process, he aggravated a 20-year-old snowboarding injury: a broken coccyx. And the carnage on Marty’s backside surged south into bicycle seat territory.
The poor man could hardly sit. It was a struggle to see patients.
Then, the Wednesday before the race, he got sick. He turned pale(r than normal). He couldn’t eat, his stomach in a wretched twist.
Still, as far as the race went, his outward attitude never veered any more negative than “We’ll see how this goes.”
I sat behind him as he drove the van to Kansas on Friday morning, his back at an odd, sideways tilt, his pallor a little better than the dead’s.
We arrived in Emporia, and he passed on our traditional evening leg spinout in favor of a nap at the hotel.
Chapter Three, in Which the Race Begins.
As for my weather worries, well, the projected heat wave waved bye-bye. And as the forecast high dipped, my ambition rose.
The only kink in the final forecast was the wind. It would start out of the south sort of bashful like, then shift to the north and blow like a bastard. The timing of this shift meant that more than half the course would be ridden into the wind. And while we weakened, it would strengthen to 25 mph—well faster than the race roster’s fastest pro. Our push north into the worst of it would begin at mile 122 and wouldn’t quit until 202.
So the central question arose: How many matches do you keep in your box for the grisly half, and how many do you burn early while the getting’s good?
Our day began with a surprise storm that covered the course’s northern half and stretched northward across Nebraska. Jim delayed our start 30 minutes to let the lighting and 60 mph gusts pass, and we rolled out onto wonderfully squishy roads.
With 2,000 tires kicking up a tan spray, everybody got nice and dirty from the get-go. We wiped lenses and spit grit, happy and wet as clams.
In this joyful, muddy rip, you may wonder: What did I think of Marty’s well being? Was he feeling OK? Were his venom welts keeping closed? Was his stomach unkinked? Reader, I wish it were otherwise. But I hardly gave it a thought.
I lost touch with Marty and Addison both after maybe 15 miles. Once I realized the gap was larger than I’d believed, I spun my wheels a while and glanced back to see if they’d closed.
When they didn’t appear, I settled into my own pace and my own decisions. We’d reconnect at the first checkpoint, I figured. In the meantime, I’d be stingy with my energy.
So I sat in groups and only bought speed on sale. It’s not sporting to leach onto wheels without taking your turns up front, but I think it was Tim Krabbé who called cycling the art of licking another person’s bowl clean before starting on your own. Well, I found a couple good, larger groups and I gratefully lapped up all the soup they served.
At checkpoint one, my crew took good care of me. I dallied a bit for Marty and Addison, but Beth’s phone tracking suggested they were still a ways out. I decided I couldn’t wait. And I rolled back out, reconciling myself to the possibility of 150 friendless miles.
Chapter Four, in Which the Narrator Searches the World for New Friends
I’m not really the outgoing sort around folks I don’t know. But the prospect of facing Dirty Kanza’s darkest places without a friend gave me the fantods. So I forced myself to become a veritable chatterbox.
I began with a woman in familiar rainbow Gravel Worlds socks. She must be a Lincolnite, I figured, and introduced myself. Two surprises:
- She wasn’t from Lincoln.
- Turns out I knew her anyway.
It was Kristi Mohn, one of Dirty Kanza’s race organizers and a total BA whom I knew through Strava. (She trains like a fiend and is boot-sole tough.) She was super friendly and willing to chat. We talked about DKXL, and she filled me in on what sounded like a rough night for that motley crew.
Heartened by her friendliness, I started conversations with others and gained an appreciation for just how global an event the Dirty Kanza 200 has become.
I invited a blond gentleman in a green and black Lauf kit to work with me in bridging to a group a hundred yards or so up the road. He was game, and we took fun, short turns closing the gap. We’d congratulate each other after mighty little pulls, and I noticed his accent.
Connecting that voice to his company kit, I ventured: “You wouldn’t happen to be from Iceland, would you?” (Lauf is an Iceland-based suspension fork and bike company.) He was. And we got chummy talking about his trip and Emporia’s strange yet perfect position as gravel cycling’s global Mecca.
As the hills got harder, I found myself picking the wheels of tall, lean older guys with efficient pedal strokes and high cadences. These guys would inevitably pick good lines and hold even paces. They wouldn’t make mistakes. I held onto the best one long enough to see him tire a little bit. Then I thanked him, introduced myself, and took my turn—trying my best to give him the same steadiness he’d given me.
This tall drink of water was a mountain biker from New Zealand. He’d timed a Colorado trip to include a Kansas detour so as to experience “the something different” he’d heard he could find in the Flint Hills. We worked together for many, many miles and he taught me that Nebraskans have no clue how to fly down rocky descents.
Later, I’d briefly meet a human sports car from Singapore.
And before I knew it, I’d arrived at checkpoint three, where I found my wife star struck. “You’ll never guess who I just got done talking to,” she said. Her eyes were big and bright and beautiful. “Jens Voigt!” We jumped up and down in the street. “Jens freaking Voigt was talking to me like 10 minutes ago! He let me take his picture!”
It’s OK if you don’t know Jens Voigt; just understand that he’s Beth’s all-time favorite cyclist—a retired German pro who raced the Tour de France an incredible 17 times. He briefly held the world hour record in 2014 at 51.11 km. He’s popular for his sense of humor, his TV commentary for the Tour, and his #ShutUpLegs mantra. But Beth loves him mostly because he attacked.
He attacked brilliantly. He attacked foolishly. He attacked honestly and constantly and wholeheartedly. He attacked because that’s what you do when you’re Jens Voigt. He’d rather attack and give himself a 99 percent chance of losing than stay in the pack and make it an even 100. If it’s going to hurt regardless, his attitude held, at least let him be the one administering it.
Our station just happened to stand a couple stalls from the Trek tent, and Beth was floored when she found out he had rolled in. Beth being Beth, she went over and introduced herself as he rested and ate.
She asked him how he was enjoying Kansas.
“Do you want the nice answer or the honest answer?” he said. Beth very much wanted the honest one.
“It’s beautiful and incredible here.” His face sank with fatigue. “But this is hard work.”
Jensie at the start. Is that not the coolest DK jersey you’ve ever seen? (Photo: Linda Guerrette Photography)
Jens at checkpoint three. (Never presumptuous, Beth asked before snapping this shot.)
Chapter Five, in Which Beth Is Warned: Don’t Scare Jens Voigt
Pete had already finished his race—the DK 100 “Half Pint”—a course that consisted of the first 50 miles and last 50 miles of the DK 200. And Pete’s report on the roads after this last checkpoint was not exactly pretty.
“Judging by what one of our riders said,” Beth told Jens, “your work’s maybe just getting started.”
The storm that had delayed the start of the race and softened the opening roads had absolutely saturated the closing roads. Pete’s body was bruised where he’d shouldered his bike and made a four-mile slog through mud. She relayed the dirty details to the German superstar.
Nice day for a hike. (Photo: Peter Welsch)
Jens’ shoulders drooped in his chair as he chewed. And Beth said his handlers (Jens has handlers) just looked at each other, then looked at Beth as if to say, “What the Christ are you doing? Don’t scare Jens Voigt.”
They quickly stepped in and explained. The roads had been wet this morning. But the wind had been blowing all day, and the sun shining all afternoon. They’d sent guys ahead to check it out. The roads were passable now. Jens returned to chewing whatever science project it is that German cycling icons eat at races.
Disaster averted. Thanks for stopping by.
(Beth requires that I add how friendly Jens was to her, how he very much lived up to her sense of his sporting spirit. I am also supposed to add that if he ever invited her on holiday in Germany, that I could certainly take care of things at home so she could go, even on short notice.)
Chapter Six, in Which the Narrator’s Focus Turns Local
In a field of 1,016 racers, I believe I happened to have meaningful exchanges with the one who lived the farthest north (the Icelander) and the farthest south (the Kiwi). But the one who saved my goose—the rider who coaxed me out of my cramped and darkest place, was someone who rolled out of bed and biked all of three blocks to the start: Emporia’s own Brad Raper.
He wasn’t tall and skinny like the Kiwi, but he had that efficient high cadence that told me he wouldn’t blow up. My quadriceps, on the other hand, were experiencing their own Chernobyl disasters. I estimated the current hill at an approximate gradient of swear word. If I allowed my psyche to speak to my hamstrings at this point, it would be all over.
I chugged a pickle juice and worried it would never be enough. I needed a friend, and needed one stat. Up the grade were two riders—wooly, inky Brad, legs spinning; and a chicken egg right then in the process of splitting in half. It was as if I could see his yolky soul spill down his seat tube and soak into the road. I spun past him and bet my last dirty dime on this guy with a sunflower on his arm.
Brad’s for real. (Photo, Gravel Guru)
I can’t remember what we talked about first. But he soon told me he did 99 percent of his training alone, and he wasn’t particularly interested in taking turns. I feared he was about to tell me to get lost, and my soul peed a little with worry. But instead, he said, “So you can just stay on my back wheel as long as you like. But when I ride somebody else’s wheel, I just run into potholes, or they get pissy, and I end up hating it.”
He held up his left fist and showed me three letters in black magic marker on his fingerless glove: a P, an M and an A.
“Positive mental attitude,” he said over the wind’s endless cough. “The conditions suck. So effing what? Am I right? PMA, man.”
Yes, I thought. A thousand times yes.
We talked about his family—his 7-year-old daughter’s love of the Beatles. His wife’s loveliness. The kick he gets out of horror films. We leapt unashamedly between bemoaning gravel cycling’s increasing commercialism (brought to you by Garmin), then lusting over the stuff we’d buy if only we had the coin.
And my legs quit cramping. And the wind didn’t seem so bad.
Look at that. We were in the 180s, and the sun was still pretty damn high in the air. Even with the 30-minute delay, if we kept working like this, we’d beat the sun. Brad’s computer had long since died. But I had my cue cards—battery life: infinite. Just stay on it.
The 190s. Can you believe it? Two years ago, Addison and I were far closer to the 3 a.m. cutoff than we were to the dusk. Now look. Look at our legs spinning. Look at our late resilience. Look at that train, sitting still, across our path. Look at the little cluster of stopped and frustrated riders, about to grow by two.
I saw it before Brad and thought immediately of Marty at last year’s Gravel Worlds. This stuff happens, and it kills goals. We pulled over. We waited. Other riders were on their phones, trying to get direction from race organizers. In minutes, people were getting antsy, getting pissed.
Brad was not happy about this development.
I thought of Brad’s glove. PMA. A few people set off along the tracks to cut in front of the train. I was firmly with those who scoffed at that. Every time another small group caved and moved to cut the tracks, we groaned. “You’ll be disqualified!” folks yelled.
I’m not sure whether they were. But in my mind, their finish is sullied. They cut course at the purest race in our sport. Trespassed on private property. At DK. It’s like talking on your phone through a wedding. Picking your nose at the Vatican. Come on. Know where you are.
We sat for half an hour—195ish miles into this filthy, this pure, race—waiting for the train to roll, or for permission to make a legal move.
A guy (I’m guessing Californian) got out his phone to take a picture of the stuck racers. “I gotta get this,” he said. “I want all my triathlon friends back home to see what real gravel racers look like,” he said. “Especially you!” He pointed at Brad—all gravely with his wooly red hair, the beard, the ink. The Californian laughed as he pushed the button. And I admit wanting to kick him square in the balls there by the train. He’s not your damn prop.
Eventually, we got our permission to leave the course. Jim and company sent a jeep to lead us on a new route that would get us across the tracks and back onto the course, adding some six miles to our distance.
Combine the 30-minute delay at the start with the 30 minutes at the tracks and the 20-something more we spent rerouting, and the sun slipped under the horizon. Brad reluctantly flipped on his lights. Sure, it sucked, but so what? You do the whole thing the right way. Because you know where you are. And you know who you are. Know what I mean? PMA, man.
LeLan met us at the line and smiled in the fresh dark. He handed us our patches. Instead of moons, they had fat, yellow suns on them. He shook our hands. “You’d have made it for sure,” he said.
So what happened to Dr. Marty? Did he get sick again? Nah. He got two flats. Then he helped his brother out as he fell sick. And he stopped again to administer aid to a severely injured racer, staying with him until the EMTs arrived. All that and Marty still only finished about an hour back.
And Addison? Well, he got to the point where he couldn’t keep water down and had to pull the plug at 140-something. (Photo: Marty Killeen)
Pete was less put off than most by the four-mile hike-a-bike section. He slogged like a champ and finished the Half-Pint in great position.