Andrew Vontz has been prepping for the Dirty Kanza Half Pint for the past year, after a first attempt in 2013. Between his race prep and his built-for-the-race bike, would he take the win?
What if the only thing standing between you and amateur cycling glory was an uncontrollable need to drop anchor 50 miles from the finish of a 109-mile race when you were within spitting distance of a first-place finish? Do you think you could hold on until the end?
At the Dirty Kanza Half Pint, I couldn’t, I didn’t and the amount of time it took me to strip off my (thankfully full-zip) jersey and bibs to squat in a ditch wearing just my cycling shoes, helmet and heart rate monitor to dispatch the everything that had rumbled in my stomach until I couldn’t ignore it any more may well have been the small margin between my eventual second-place finish and being first.
The road to that moment had been a hard-fought battle wrought with high-speed adventure. At Dirty Kanza, the 200-mile race starts first at 6 a.m. followed by the Half Pint field at 6:10 am. The two races trace the same route for much of the first 25 miles before splitting completely so that the groups don’t overlap again for the duration of either event.
On race morning, I woke up at 4:45 a.m. in Emporia’s luxurious Guesthouse Inn, scarfed down a chicken breast and oatmeal, cleared the system fully and rendezvoused with my two fellow riders, Blake and Josh, from my team #rawsteelthugs. After a final tire pressure check and chain lube application in the parking lot, we soft pedaled the two miles to the starting line on Commercial drive. Meanwhile, our solo wonderman crew, the Notorious MVC, slingshotted ahead in the support vehicle with the bottles and food we’d grab at the race’s single checkpoint at mile 59.
With the sun yet to rise, the temperature stood at 75 degrees, the humidity at 95% and I could feel rivulets of sweat trickling down my back. I had two 33-ounce Zefal Magnum bottles on my frame and a third bottle in my center rear jersey pocket. After numerous test runs over the previous months at race distance and anticipated race pace, albeit in much more moderate weather, I’d concluded that 99 ounces of water would be enough for each half of the race. I had a pair of almond butter and jelly sandwiches stuffed in the hot pink bag strapped to my top tube that I had partially zipped up to retain its contents. Additionally, I had dates, figs and an emergency berry flavor Power Bar in my jersey along with a third sandwich.
At 6:10 sharp, the crowd of thousands roared, I started the turn-by-turn course directions on my Garmin, and we rolled out behind a pair of police cars for a neutral 20 mph start. We rolled one mile out of town, turned right and hit the gravel, which wouldn’t stop until we looped back into town more than 105 miles later for the final paved stretch back onto Commercial drive.
A small group at the front started to paceline and immediately strung out our field of 450+ riders until a small group of about 20 pulled clear. A half dozen riders took pulls while the rest tried to get a free ride. Executing a rotating paceline on rough gravel can be tricky because to float to the back you invariably have to pull out of whatever relatively smooth line you’re on to carefully plow through loose gravel while inches from the bars and shoulders of the riders in the advancing side of the line, until its your turn to cut back into the rotation.
Working together, the group hauled serious ass and it wasn’t long before we could see the giant dust cloud being kicked up by the more than 700 riders in the 200-mile race pack up the road, and then we were on top of them. Our paceline shifted shapes as we caught the very back of the 200 pack and had to weave in and out of traffic for several miles while we dodged hundreds riders and tried to keep up our pace until the 200 course split off in a different direction.
Back on clear road, the paceline started to work again as we started to assault the first of hundreds of rollers that wouldn’t stop for the rest of the day. Just when we’d settled into a good rhythm, the 200 course looped back into ours and we had to navigate traffic again, a tricky business for sure made more difficult by the very rough road surface on this section of the course. It seemed that every quarter mile now we’d pass someone on the side of the road changing a flat, sometimes in pairs, and soon one of the fastest riders in our group succumbed to a flat, too.
The course rolled through prairie on rough gravel and every few miles we’d ride up on herds of cattle that liked to sprint in front of us right as we rode up. You’d never know it until you see it, but cows can really haul ass when they want to get their hooves pumping.
There had been severe thunderstorms off and on all week leading up to the race and we encountered the consequences of this rainfall in the form of muddy sections of road that bogged us down and clogged our knobbies. After one particularly sticky section, my tires had nearly totally packed up. To expedite the process of shedding the extra rotating weight, I pulled up on my bars and gently tapped my front wheel against the road, a maneuver I’d done hundreds of times in similar situations before. This time I got a different result. My handlebars slipped in the stem and rotated forward about two inches so that my drops now pointed back and up and my hoods faced nearly straight down.
I had about 90 miles to race still and if I pulled over to fix the bars I’d have a long chase to get back onto the paceline. Instead I pushed down on the drops as hard as I could and hoped that I didn’t crack the carbon bars. I would like to say that I strategically applied the perfect amount of pressure to get the bars back into their original position and that my strategy worked. But I was just lucky to get them somewhat close to their original position and a few centimeters off center. I got back in the paceline, fished my multi-tool out of my jersey, found the correct Allen key and cranked down the stem face plate bolts while chasing back onto the paceline. A few twists of the bolts later, I took a moment to reflect on the sacrifices my parents had made to pay for braces when I was in high school, the 20+ years I’ve continued to wear a retainer and night guard, the great care I’ve taken to brush and floss at least twice a day and my conscious attempt to ingest enough calcium to have strong bones and teeth. With any luck the bar wouldn’t snap in half and leave me eating my stem or a face-full of gravel.
Ripping along again, I used my size to my advantage on the downhill side of the rollers where I could amp up the pace and turn the screws on the lighter riders along for the ride. My Clement X’plor MSO’s seemed to be the perfect tread choice and the 48 psi I’d chosen to run kept me rolling fast and helped me ward off pinch flats when I nailed the occasional unforeseen rock. As I bombed down the backside of another roller and hit one such rock, I experienced an unanticipated consequence of running high pressure as I watched both of the almond butter and jelly sandwiches in my Bento box eject several feet into the air like slices of bread launching out of a rocket propelled-toaster.
Another crux moment: stop and grab my food or keep moving? I kept moving and dropped back to my teammate to see if could spare any calories. True to the code of providing mutual assistance to friends in need, he floated me a Power Bar and we continued to work to keep the pace high along with our other teammate.
At mile 25, the Half Pint and 200-mile courses split for good. This intersection has special meaning for me because at the 2013 Half Pint, high wind had flattened the signs indicating the two different courses and I’d unwittingly followed 200 riders onto their route and ended up riding a bonus 15 miles. This year, both signs stood upright in the light wind and I made the correct turn along with our paceline and we finally had clear gravel ahead of us. Heads down and hammering, we overshot a turn by a hundred yards and our Garmins all started to beep to let us know we were going the wrong way. A U-turn and another turn and we were back on course and grinding away up another hill.
You’re on rollers all day at Dirty Kanza, and the lay of the land often affords you a glance a mile or more up the road so you can see exactly how much distance separates you and the riders ahead of and behind you. That’s when we saw two riders up the road who we hadn’t seen in our group who had stealthily woven their way through traffic and put time into us. We were now a group of just four, pushing it hard. We started cranking and caught and dropped the first rider but the second rider eluded us until we neared the first checkpoint. Riding a singlespeed steel Niner Air 9 with drop bars, a 34×13 setup and 29×2.1 tires at 25 psi, he looked like he was barely looking while we were firing on all pistons.
By the checkpoint, four of us hauled ass into the checkpoint in Cottonwood Falls, KS and made a beeline for the courthouse where the Notorious MVC had parked the support Subaru. As the singlespeeder made a speedy pitstop and roared back onto the road, Blake, Josh and I re-upped. I replaced the sandwiches I’d dropped, grabbed a banana, swapped out my bottles, had a scoop of whey protein and pounded two shots of espresso, circled up with Bob and Rocky, our KC workhorses, and we got back to it. We went full gas and caught up to the singlespeeder but every time we hit an uphill he would crank away from us effortlessly.
Knowing that the last ten miles of the race are largely flat and usually windy, we thought we’d easily be able to make up whatever gap he might get on us going uphill, so we continued to ride a hard, but not insane, tempo. It was about this time that I felt a serious rumbling in my stomach. I ignored it and focused on tapping out a steady tempo but I didn’t know how long I could hold off this challenge that fell so squarely into the category of man against himself. I let Blake know I faced a problem, asked if he could wait for me and further inquired if the cycling cap he wore might be available for my use as I didn’t know if the few squares of toilet paper I’d shoved into a jersey pocket before the race started to wipe dust off my shades would suffice for the challenge ahead.
The timing was horrible, but there was no stopping the inevitable so I let Bob and Rocky know my situation and asked if they could wait. I’d be costing us time, but breaking up would mean losing the strategic and horsepower advantage that four riders working together afforded us. Mercifully, they agreed to wait if I’d put myself up the road a bit to give myself a minute while they soft pedaled. I drilled it to a tree at the top of a hill a few rollers away, laid my weapon down and scooted into the ditch on the side of the road where I tore my jersey off, removed my bibs and did what I had to do as fast as I could do it. Bob rolled by, then then Rocky and they soft pedaled ahead while Blake waited.
I estimate it took me about three minutes from pulling over to being back on my bike, three minutes that likely cost me first place in the race. The day’s toughest obstacle yet surmounted, Blake and I took short, hard pulls to work our way back to Rocky and Bob, which took about five minutes. We started working together again, riding as hard as we could and things looked dialed to reel the leader back in when Bob had to stop to deal with a leak in his tubeless tire. We all stopped and tried to get his sealant to plug the hole in his sidewall, but it wouldn’t take, so after a few more minutes he told us to go while he dealt with his flat. We offered to stay and work with him, but he waved us off. Rocky soft pedaled and Blake and I pushed up to an LT pace and kept pushing over a section of the course with some of the biggest climbs and most bomber downhills where we could get north of 35 miles per hour on sketchy gravel with big jagged stones sticking out everywhere. We seemed to be gaining ground when it was Blake’s turn to have a problem. Front flat.
He jumped off his bike and I tore the tire and tube off while he got his pump and patch ready. We put the replacement tube in and then he handed me his pump. It was set up for a Schrader valve. I grabbed my pump off my bike and we took turns inflating the tire to an appropriate pressure. In a few minutes, we were back on the road but it wasn’t long before Blake needed to stop again because the tire was squirming and needed more pressure. I soft pedaled while he inflated it and a few minutes later we resumed our attack.
Rocky had passed us in the interim and it took us 30 minutes of hard chasing to catch him around mile 95 on the last of the rollers where the course turns south for the final stretch of flatter gravel back in Emporia. We’d been able to see him for the last 10 minutes of those 30 minutes and towards the end we could see he was weaving his way up the final bumps, his elbows flared out and his head hanging low. He was blowing up, big time and when we caught him, he was too gassed to jump on.
As Blake and I followed the GPS cues over the next 15 miles, we pinned it and kept our eyes up the road scanning for the singlespeeder. A few times we thought we had him then as we advanced on what we thought was our mark, we would realize it was a road sign or a cow or a tree. The temperature had climbed to what felt like 90 and the humidity remained in the upper 90s as well. It was hot and I was consciously rationing the small volume of hot water that remained in my last water bottle. At the same time, I kept eating and thought about my strategy for the final miles of the race. Blake and I had trained together for five months for this race and had gone head to head in every conceivable scenario. Part of our code on #rawsteelthugs is: Do What’s Hard. Without saying a word about it, we both knew that whether we were racing for first place or second place, it would be a race and we would give everything we had to be the guy who got to the line in front of the other guy.
I rationed my fluid so that I’d have a few sips with two miles to go and inhaled a caffeinated Roctane, my first gel of the day, five miles out. Three miles out, the gravel ends and dumps onto a highway shoulder for a stretch back into Emporia before you cut up through the campus of Emporia State University. We continued to rotate pulls and I had my eyes peeled for an attack from Blake. He’s a great all-around rider, but I’m usually the better sprinter and I wagered that if he had it in him, he’d make an attack from farther out to try to drop me and play to his strengths.
At the end of campus there’s a stoplight which happened to be green when we rolled up to it letting us bomb straight onto Commercial street for a quarter-mile drag race to the finish line. I stood up to take a dig and felt the adductors in my left thigh start to completely seize in a huge cramp. I sat down and wondered what would happen if I did an all-out sprint with a big cramp a few pedal strokes later with Blake still on my wheel, and decided it was time to find out. I stood up, ripped it as hard as I could, opened a gap and blew into the finish line at top speed, barreling towards Dirty Kanza creator Jim Cummins and a wall of race volunteers 20 yards past the line who yelled to slow down. I eased up, stopped, shook Jim’s hand and took the Half Pint mug finishers receive, turned around to shake Blake’s hand and gave the Notorious MVC a hug.
A good finish, but not the finish I wanted. The masochism of the Dirty Kanza 200 still doesn’t appeal to me, but I’ll be back for another taste of the Half Pint next year. Next time, with less fiber.