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A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
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Dirty Kanza 200: The Toughest of the Tough
"10...9...8...7...6..." I shut my eyes and took a deep breath while the world around me slipped away into silence. A tiny movie began to play in my head with the opening shot being of myself spinning freely on pristine gravel, then fading to a deep water crossing, my bike held high upon my shoulder, followed by a view of the ground with two mud clad cycling shoes alternating in and out of my sight as I mindlessly trudged on like a World War I soldier ordered to march to some unknown destination. Finally, my mind's film cut to a brisk no handed finish, as I rolled into Emporia Kansas' embrace. My senses whooshed back to the here and now as the P.A. system rattled my ear drums, "5...4...3...2...1..." My Dirty Kanza 200 adventure was under way.
My thoughts were immediately on the finish as I found my place in the pace line. I felt that I was sufficiently prepared as I seemed to be ready for any scenario. First and foremost finishing was what mattered. Amy and I had driven over 10 hours for the event and reports of extended periods of rain and flooding were buzzing throughout the venue. A last minute decision had me changing my bike set up from a simple top tube "gas tank" to a "tangle" bag capable of a larger amount of tools as well as my nutritional needs. Experience has taught me that the nation's bread basket is not bike friendly when mud is present, therefore I was ready for what could end up being a full on drive train explosion. Equipped with a chain tensioner that I'd mount to the bike in case of a destroyed rear derailurer I felt there was nothing that would keep me from riding into Emporia later that evening.
It was early enough that my nerves were still on high alert when I noticed a congregation of riders dismounted up ahead. "Must be some mud" I thought, "here we go". Hoisting my machine I joined the masses in what would turn out to be the march with no end. We walked and walked, turned some corners and walked some more. It just didn't seem to end. A few brave souls attempted to ride, mud flying in every direction, their bikes protesting with every pedal stroke. Later I'd see them on the side looking perplexed as their rear derailures hung precariously by nothing more than a shifter cable. "Keep walking, this will end" I told myself. I was determined to keep my bike safe. Early on in my gravel racing career I figured out that life on the dirt for hours and hours takes on a different meaning, things get simple and it becomes quite clear the bicycle underneath is the most important thing in your world, without it you are nothing. I promised my Warbird I'd take care of her even if it meant adding hours to my ride.
The 3 mile walk took about an hour and a half, but it did end. Deep grooves on top of each shoulder reminded me of what I had just done as they marked the spot the nose of my saddle sat through the mud march. It felt so good to be back on the bike and covering some ground again. It also felt pretty good to be riding next to my friend Scott Bigelow whom I spent some of my most difficult hours on a bike during this year's Trans Iowa attempt. Funny how two souls bent on meeting the same types of goals tend to find each other. It wasn't long before Scott and I were tapping out a rhythm we'd become quite accustomed to.
Things were calm now and I was doing what I'd come to do. My thoughts now had room to roam and I began to contemplate the ride as a whole. "Wait! You're going to finish in the dark!" I thought. That walk really threw off my timeline and with so many things to consider while preparing for the race it occurred to me that I was not prepared with adequate lights. Stupidly, I never really felt that a night time finish could be a reality. Well, it was now. Equipped with a small commuter light and a small helmet light as a back up I wondered if I'd be in trouble when the dark set in. I let those worries drift away as that scenario seemed to be a lifetime away.
Scott and I were several hours into the race when a feeling came over me. The 2015 DK was no longer a race for me, but an adventure that I dove into head first. I no longer cared about my finishing time or my average speed. I was riding next to a man who'd become my good friend in a most peculiar way. If I were to zoom outward and observe the birth of my friendship with Scott it would be obvious that it was built on very little conversation. So much of the bond that we've developed came from shared experiences. Together we've struggled, pushed on, and succeeded through what seemed to be impossible at the time. I guess words aren't really necessary for times like those.
Closing in on the first check point I mentioned to my partner that I'd like to continue on past c.p.1 together if he was o.k. with that. He agreed. Quickly we attempted to set a meeting point as we entered Madison, Kansas. I was glad we'd be riding together through the second leg as it was a monster section. We parted ways amidst the hustle and bustle of volunteers, support crews, and riders.
"Crew for hire?" I called out to the spectators on the side of the road. Crew for hire was a group of people hired to take care of your every need while in the check point. Also, proceeds from their service went to an extremely worthy cause. "Up ahead at the purple tent" was the answer I kept hearing, but when I scanned the street I saw a sea of pop up canopies. "Purple, purple, where are you?" I questioned as I've been challenged my whole life in the realm of color identification. I resorted to my old trick of continually asking where while paying attention to the direction the person would point, soon enough it worked. A volunteer from the "crew" spotted my wrist band and motioned me over. I'd made it!
Immediately, I was impressed with how swiftly all of my needs were being met, even the things I intended on doing myself were being taken care of. One volunteer even allowed me to wipe my mud covered glasses off on her t-shirt! I was ready to be on my way much faster than I imagined I would be, but where was Scott? I waited, but with nothing more for me to do I began to get anxious about the precious time that was ticking by. I stared down the road hoping for a glimpse of him coming, but still nothing while groups of riders left the check point I was just standing there. I couldn't take it anymore I had to get moving. I explained my situation to a stranger who seemed to have noticed my pacing. He assured me that he'd keep an eye out for Scott and let him know that I was up the road soft pedaling, waiting for him to catch me.
Alone now and a few miles down the road I was overcome with guilt. After all, it was my idea that we would leave the c.p. together and I had left him behind. Solutions came and went as I searched for the best way to resolve the situation. I stopped for nature breaks, I swerved slowly back and forth in the road constantly looking back over my shoulder. I even considered doubling back to look for him, but that seemed insane. The name calling and self loathing I directed at myself was off the charts, it was a very low time. Just as I started my effort to shake it off I spotted him coming on fast with a smile on his face. "I'm sorry!", I yelled. "I freaked out when I saw all the riders leaving the check point" was my explanation. He chuckled and told me not to worry. Within seconds we were back to what we do, it felt good.
The middle leg was 73 miles long and it was comprised of what can only be described as "no man's land". Our energy ebbed and flowed and in my case it seemed there were extended times when it ebbed. There were times when I felt that all I was doing was sitting in while Scott pushed hard into the wind. I told myself I needed to pull more so I made a conscious effort to do so. As I came to the front more often I noticed Scott staying behind me for longer periods. "He's tired, help him" I said to myself. I knew he'd been doing it for me, it was my turn to repay the favor. It wasn't long before Scott rallied and we were back to regular turns at the front mixed with some side by side time. We began to take it all in as we found ourselves alone in a treeless land scape without a man made object in sight. The spectacle that is the Flint Hills really is a thing to behold. We were visitors in an ecosystem that thrived without us, that struck me as a good thing. Now deep into the open country side we continued to take care of our bikes, at times getting off to carry them through more sections of ankle deep mud never once complaining, but rather accepting it as some type of rare gift.
The second check point pulled me in as each mile ticked off. I sent Amy scattered text messages in an effort to let her figure out my approximate arrival time, which was much slower than what it would have been under more normal conditions. The c.p. would come at the 155 mile mark and as I rounded the final turn I spotted the Salsa tent with the blue timing matt under it. While crossing the matt a deep breath of accomplishment left my lungs and that's when I noticed them. Bobby Wintle and Dustin Burgardt began cheering, yelling my name, and running along side me as I cruised toward the "crew for hire" tent. A broad smile formed across my face as their enthusiasm and encouragement were so truly genuine. Dustin is my dear friend from Kansas that I met on my first trip with Salsa to the great state. He was rooming in the house that hosted us, Dustin and I hit it off immediately. Bobby Wintle is the man that I give credit to for getting me to the finish line the year that the idea for Racing the Sun came to me. If I could capture Bobby's spirit in a bottle I would and every once in a while I'd open the cap just a bit and breath some of it in. My eyes scanned the spectators as I searched for Amy. Unable to spot her I kept rolling for the tent I needed for my resupply, I hoped she was there. It was when I was coasting to a stop that I heard her voice jump out above the others, "Tim!", there she was hustling toward me, making her way through the crowd. I barely had my leg past the rear wheel of my dismount when my bike was swept away from me by Dustin and Bobby. They went to work on it like a NASCAR pit crew, tuning the shifting, lubing the chain, and mounting my pathetic little light. I managed to plop into a lawn chair while Amy worked on my nutritional needs. Typically, when I've reached Cottonwood Falls I have been so worked over that it was a pretty miserable experience, but this year was different. I was happy! I felt sincere gratitude for I was doing what I loved and I was being supported in doing so by people I loved. My heart was full. It didn't take long and I was ready to get moving again with 45 miles to go. I looked to Amy as I got ready to approach my bike and she simply said, "I'll see you at the finish." She never has a doubt and in moments like that one, I believe her.
Rolling out of c.p.2 was an experience I'll never forget. I put Amy and Bobby in my review mirror and started off down the road. Shortly after leaving I saw Dusting walking with his wife, "Dustin, see you later", I said. Our eyes locked, he smiled and offered me some words of encouragement. Pedaling through the main street of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas I noted the throngs of people along the sides of the road. What an event! Just then, Nick Legan jumped out into the road, slapped me five and yelled "GO EKI! AVENGE ME!", a line we came to love while watching Red Dawn together in our host home during one of my first visits to Kansas. Nick and I have been friends ever since. Soon, I began to hear "YEAH EKI, GO!", "ATTA BOY EKI", "YOU GOT THIS TIM", from both sides of the street. I waved and smiled and wondered who they all were. I didn't know all of them, but they seemed to know me and it was a feeling I can't describe. As the crowd thinned out I realized I had tears in my eyes, as I was overcome with emotion.
Another thing I noticed on my way out of town was Scott working on his bike on the side of the street. I can't be sure, but I thought he had his rear wheel off. Earlier I told him that if I got out of the check point first I'd take it easy until he caught me, but as I rode past him I assessed my condition and truth be told I was tired and I wanted to get to Emporia. Dustin had calculated the exact amount of miles I would need to continue north and into the wind, the number was 11. After the 11 miles I'd be turning east for a spell and then finally south for the home stretch into Emporia. I wanted to drill this last section and get to the block party!
A few miles out of town I managed to get my ear buds in and some music on shuffle. Somehow my tunes got stuck on Journey's Greatest Hits for two complete run throughs, that's a lot of Journey. So while I hoped for some inspiring, upbeat, hard driving music I had "Open Arms, and Separate Ways" to listen to, pretty funny now that I think back to it.
Ahead I could see a fast moving group of what appeared to be five with a solo strung off the back, his body language suggesting to me that he was digging deep to get on a wheel. I wondered if I could get to him and if so, the two of us would be able to get to the five. I put my chin on the bars and went for it. There were times that I'd close some distance, but lose it again on the next downhill. I felt I was climbing well, but I was unable or unwilling to take the risks that I needed to on those downhills. Therefore, it didn't seem that I was getting any closer when it all shook out. However, I was on familiar terrain now and I knew the route and the general landscape. In other words, I knew when to go full gas and when to conserve. As I approached the turn to head east two guys came by me like a freight train. "NOW! GET ON THEM!", I screamed in my head. Going 'all in' I floored it to grab the wheel of the second man. I'd done it and I could feel the pull of their draft. "Stay with these two and you'll finish strong", I told myself.
Day was turning to night and the two riders I was with meant business, we were really moving (at least it felt that way after 14 hours in the saddle). Finally, one of them flipped on his light and the reality of my lighting situation came rushing back to me. I looked at my handle bar and saw my little commuting light sitting there. How could I have been so stupid to bring this light when I have one back home that is the same size and 5 times brighter. What a rookie mistake. I vowed not to turn on the light until absolutely necessary, because embarrassingly I wasn't even sure how long the batteries would last - they weren't fresh. The three of us would eventually pick up some other riders, some of which tried to jump on and failed, while others succeeded. At 9:20 p.m. I counted six, including myself hauling at 22 mph on flat, fast gravel. I felt bad for "sitting in", but I simply didn't have the lights to take a pull. I had been hovering near the back of the group poaching their lights as mine just wasn't powerful enough to be effective, let alone at high speed in a pace line. Oddly, there were very few rotations to the front. A few very strong boys pulled for the majority of that closing hour. I was impressed.
Traveling at 22+ mph with a rear wheel 4 inches ahead of your front in the dark is a sketchy situation to be sure, but that was my world. Just as I was thinking about how I couldn't see any obstacles in the road due to shadows and the rider in front of me blocking my view it happened. The guy ahead of me slammed a pot hole with everything he had and in a nano second so did I. He violently veered left as his foot shot off his pedal. While he careened for the ditch I noted his skill as he made an amazing save, avoiding a catastrophic crash. Meanwhile, I crushed both tires to the rim in my meeting with the pot hole. Somehow, by some miracle I did not flat (Thank You Schwalbe Tires). I let a gap form while I recouped my nerve, shook some cobwebs loose and reminded myself that I'd come too far for a silly mistake, "FOCUS!".
I knew that once we hit the black top this thing was as good as over. According to my estimation we would have about 2 miles of city riding before the finish and I was ready to be done. Finally, it happened the lead rider in our group called out for a right turn and I felt my wheels hit smooth tar. Hours and hours of vibration instantly disappeared, while up ahead lights of convenience stores and shops illuminated the night. The ride through the university went by quickly as we ramped up our speed, each rider anxious for the finish. Into the lane marked out by traffic cones we all rode with the finish now in sight. Crowds lined the chute, the volume of their cheers stood in stark contrast to the silent beauty I was part of some hours previous. My mind spun back through the day as I contemplated all that I'd been through. The "march of the damned", the water crossings, the dead fish in the middle of the road, the expansive views untouched by man, the wind, the friendships, and the emotions.
When I lined up at the start line some 16 hours earlier the only thing that I knew for sure was that I was surrounded by people whom I considered "The Tough". As I rode across that finish line I let myself believe, even if just for a second, that I was one of the "Toughest of the Tough". Thank you Dirty Kanza for giving me the chance to believe.
Special Thanks to:
Jim Cummins, Lelan Dains, Tim and Kristi Mohn, and all of the D.K. volunteers
Salsa Cycles - The Warbird Ti, what a bike!
Rudy Project - Keeping my eyes and head safe for hours and hours.
Schwalbe Tires - Not one flat, that's huge for this race!
Amy Fullerton - I'll always see you at the finish.
Bobby Wintle - Your encouragement stayed in my mind for that whole final leg.
Dustin Burgardt - Your calm, supportive demeanor means so much to me.
Fred and Lillian Spellman - Thank you for opening your home to us and for your gracious hospitality.
To all the riders who approached me and mentioned that my writing has resonated with them, even inspired them, I can't tell you how much that means to me. I am so grateful.