Weekend Reading: Why Riding 200 Miles on Gravel Makes Perfect Sense

If you’re reading this during the day on June 1, I’m most likely somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Kansas. More precisely, I’m probably (hopefully) still riding on a gravel road outside Emporia, KS with a thousand or so other intrepid souls for the Dirty Kanza 200. The question I’ve gotten many, many times in the past few months – and the question I’ll likely ask myself sometime today – is: WHY?

The Dirty Kanza 200 is the newest addition to the CTS Epic Endurance Bucket List, and about 20 CTS Athletes and a handful of CTS Coaches are here in Kansas to face a new kind of challenge. Coming off the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience just two weeks ago, I feel like I have very good fitness for the event, but there are a lot of unique challenges in an event that will likely take me 14 hours to complete.


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From the technical standpoint Dirty Kanza shouldn’t be overly difficult, but I’ve been warned that the relentless rattling from the gravel can really wear you down. Tire choice is one of the most talked about equipment choices for the race. I’ll be riding a Trek Cronus cyclocross bike equipped with Easton EA90 wheels and 700x40c tires. Originally I figured that a 35c tire would be more than sufficient, but advice from CTS Athlete Services pro Cameron Chambers (winner and former course record holder), Russ Folger (2nd place last year, beating Cam’s record time), CTS Coach Jim Lehman (5th overall last year), and CTS Athlete Rebecca Rusch (3rd overall and women’s champion last year in a new course record time) convinced me to move up to a bigger-volume tire. The exact tire I’ll be riding is still up in the air, but I’m leaning toward the Kenda Happy Medium.

The terrain around Emporia is rolling hills and the road surface is largely flint, which is important to note because flint can have razor-sharp edges. Traction is not that much of an issue, but sliced sidewalls are apparently a major concern. And since these roads are very remote, it’s important to carry plenty of tubes, a patch kit, and material you can use to boot the inside of a sliced tire.

Water is also a major issue. There are checkpoints every 50 miles, and your support crew can provide water at those stops. But due to the combination of the rough road surface, Kansas heat, and potential for mechanical delays, it’s prudent to figure that each leg will take three-plus hours to complete. If you plan to consume 1-2 bottles per hour – or 20-40 ounces per hour – that probably means leaving each checkpoint with at least 80 ounces of fluid, plus tools, tubes, a pump, etc.

Over the past few months I’ve experimented with a variety of bags, packs, and bottle combinations to see what’s going to work best for me. I’ve tried two different kinds of frame packs – bags that sit under the top tube. They are a popular choice for competitors in the race, especially those riders who expect to be out there for 14+ hours. Personally, I didn’t have much success with the frame packs. With bottles or a hydration bladder inside, the width of the bag meant they rubbed my knees as I pedaled. That was merely annoying on 3- to 4-hour rides, but I figure it would be infuriating after 12 hours and probably rub my legs raw.

Jim Lehman raced with bottles only last year, making sure to consume at least a full bottle of fluid at each checkpoint and carrying three or four bottles (two on the bike, 1-2 in his jersey pockets) between checkpoints. Russ and Rebecca each wore small hydration packs in addition to two bottles on the bike. Most likely, I’ll go with a small hydration pack, like the Camelbak Rogue or Hydroback, for plain water and carry one bottle each of GU Roctane Energy Drink and water plus a GU Electrolyte Brew Tablet.

Beyond equipment and hydration/nutrition challenges, it’s the distance that makes the Dirty Kanza 200 interesting to me. It’s been a long, long time since I last rode 200 miles in one sitting; I’m pretty certain it was all the way back in my pro road racing days. The trick to going long is that you need to go slow to go fast. In the first hundred miles you have to be careful not to burn matches, because no amount of eating or determination will bring that energy back to your legs in the second hundred miles.

Even in shorter events like century rides, starting out to fast is a common mistake. When you’re fresh it feels good to push the pace, and you can make the argument that going out fast means that you’ve put more miles behind you by the time you start losing speed due to fatigue. The problem is, the extra energy it takes to go 3 mph faster early on can reduce your speed by 5+mph later. The longer the ride, the more it pays to be conservative with your energy output early on.

All of this leads me back to the question of why I felt drawn to a 200-miles gravel road race in the flint hills of Kansas. It’s a puzzle. It’s a complicated problem-solving exercise. I’ve ridden all kinds of bikes in races all around the world, but I’ve never done something quite like this. And in order to solve the problem and have a successful day on the bike, I’ll need to tap into many different lessons I’ve learned over my 40-plus years as a cyclist and coach. That’s the thing about these Bucket List Events; they’re not just about the miles or the medals, they’re about sinking your teeth into experiences that challenge everything you know about being an endurance athlete. The one thing I know for certain is that by the time I cross the finish line in Emporia, Kansas tonight I’ll know something about myself that I didn’t know in the morning.

Have a Great Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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