As the Dirty Kanza has grown in prestige, interest in following the 200-mile race on race day has grown as well. Despite what you may have read on the internet a few months ago, the info available to folks at home included Twitter updates from the race and time checks at Miles 65, 120, 152 and 190.
Time checks, of course, only provide snapshots of what is happening on the ground. There are a lot of blanks to be filled in.
Perhaps the most gutting story of the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200 told in those blank spots is that of Olivia Dillon (Velocio).
After winning Lost and Found in 2018 in her third try, Dillon decided to make the trip east to try her hand at the Dirty Kanza. “Last year after Lost and Found, I told myself I might give Dirty Kanza a try the next year,” Dillon said about her decision. “I kind of had that as a goal and went with it. I entered the lottery and got my entry, so it was like, ‘Okay I guess I’m doing this.'”
Dillon came into the Dirty Kanza as one of the riders to watch, and by the time she reached Checkpoint 2 in Council Grove, she had lived up to the billing. Up until then flat-free, Dillon was dialed in and cruising solo at the front of the Women’s race.
Then, a flat and some trouble fixing it abruptly ended her run at winning the DK200. She only had about 40 miles to go, but as they say, the Kanza gods are unforgiving.
Despite the disappointment Dillon came away from her trip to Kansas with a positive experience.
“To get through Belgian Waffle as a clean ride, it felt good. Lost and Found I flatted last year, but I was able to find the hole and plug it,” Dillon said. “It is what it is. You can only prepare so much and hope nothing bad happens. You can’t take it too seriously.”
The California resident shared her story about traveling east to uncharted territory, the emotions of race day and thoughts on whether the decision to take on the Dirty Kanza was the right choice.
Originally from Ireland, Dillon is a 40-something former road professional who now keeps herself busy racing a good amount of gravel. It is fitting, given she resides in Marin County and works for Velocio. Marin Country is considered by many as the the birthplace of mountain biking, and as we saw with Ted King and Josh Berry going 1-2 at the 2018 event, Velocio is looking to expand its gravel presence.
Each year, the Dirty Kanza and Lost and Found seem to force West Coast riders to choose one or the other. Other Californians such as Amity Rockwell (Easton Overland Gravel Team), Amanda Nauman (SDG – Muscle Monster) and Alison Tetrick (Specialized) have chosen DK, but prior to this year, Dillon has been Lost and Found, ride or die.
“I love Lost and Found because that area of the country is so beautiful. A ton of our friends do it, we go camping for the weekend,” Dillon said. “I was definitely having FOMO while at Dirty Kanza. I love the terrain at Lost and Found as well.”
Although both events are special in their own way, there is no question the Dirty Kanza creates a vortex of cycling world attention on that June weekend and the days surrounding it. Happily camping and enjoying limited cell reception most years at Lost and Found, Dillon gave in to the hype a bit after breaking through and winning Lost and Found in 2018.
“I think I paid more attention to Dirty Kanza starting last year,” she explained. “I hadn’t really paid much attention before, but last year, Velocio was involved and obviously Ted King races it. We have good connections with Kriti Mohn and Tim Mohn at Gravel City. It was all of that and interacting with people who had done it. It was like, ‘There’s something to this.'”
She added, “People keep going back, and it seems to be an immense challenge but also something new in a part of the country I don’t know.”
As Dillon mentioned in the intro, she eventually came around to setting the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200 as a goal. She did what everyone else does—entered the lottery—and when her name got picked, it was game on, DK20o.
Dillon’s warm-up on the groad scene was the Belgian Waffle Ride in SoCal the month before the big race. Dillon had a solid afternoon on the skinnier tires, finishing that race in third.
As a NorCal resident and former road professional, Dillon knew many of the podium hopefuls both professionally and personally. Tetrick and Rockwell both hail from the Bay Area, Nauman is a California gravel staple, she knew Amy Charity (DNA Pro Cycling) from the road, and she got to meet Sarah Max at BWR.
Despite getting a shoutout in the definitive DK200 race preview and knowing that she could compete for a podium or even the win, Dillon was humble and educated enough to know that the Kanza gods are unforgiving and tempting them with overconfidence is a bad life choice.
“To be honest, I didn’t go into it putting pressure on myself or treating it like a big race,” she said. “The reason for that is I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be unrealistic to go into something that probably takes a few years to figure out with big, high expectations. I was also working the event with Velocio, which added a little stress.”
To help reduce some of that stress, Dillon did some homework before heading to Kansas. Tire choice? If something works, why change it, right?
“I read up and stuff. To be honest, I decided on my tire choice based on Ted and Kaitie Keough running Maxxis Ramblers last year. Neither of them had issues with flats, so I thought that was a good indication,” she said. “I spoke with Ted a little bit and decided to go with the lower TPI. Obviously in the end, I had mechanical problems, but I don’t know if there’s any tire that’s bulletproof for that area. In the end, it’s a lot of luck.”
One of the challenges of heading from California to Kansas—a 26-hour drive, if you go that route—is finding someone to tag along as your support for checkpoints. Dillon was at a bit of a disadvantage on race day, as she ended opting for the Support for Hire service.
“I used the Support for Hire, which I think they do a good job with all of that, but people who were in a rush like me probably would have been better served by our own support. You have to send food in advance, so whatever you put in your bag is what you have to eat on race day. When you get in it, some of those things just don’t taste good.”
Dillon arrived in Emporia on Tuesday, ready to get to work representing Velocio. After meeting folks from across the gravel spectrum, it was finally time to put on the many-colored Velocio kit of her own and head to the start line in the wee hours of the Saturday Kansas morning.
The Best Position
On Saturday morning, there is a special energy in the air at the Dirty Kanza 200. With temperatures usually warm, Commerical Street lights up in the early hours as riders arrive early to get a spot near the front and support crews and supportive Emporians line the street to send riders on their way. If you are nervous, whether it be about the fast start or the race in general, the vibe can no doubt amp those feelings.
As she mentioned, Dillon went into the race not knowing what to expect and with few expectations for her result. However, as they say, when she hears the music, she’s gonna dance.
“I always try to put myself in the best position, so I was a little nervous about starting with like 1,000 people on dirt roads,” Dillon said. “I was able to keep myself at the head of the pack, which I think helped get me in a good position. Then, of course, once I was out there, I was going to race. That’s just the way I am. I’ve done these events before, so I knew what to do.”
Dillon more than accomplished her goal of putting herself in a good position. She joined a group that included Charity and Max, and the 3 women led the way at Checkpoint 1, passing through Alma 3:30 ahead of the next rider.
The group of three women, however, would not last long on the challenging afternoon.
“I had to stop to adjust my saddle because I had changed it a couple weeks prior,” Dillon said. “I knew it was a little high, but in the end during the race, I knew I wasn’t getting full extension and full power. I stopped and lowered my seat, taking the risk of not being able to catch them again. As soon as I changed it, I was feeling better and more powerful, so that was a good move.”
Stopping to drop her saddle dropped Dillon from the group with the leading women, but as became the story in the Women’s race at DK this year, flats started to take their toll on the top riders. The first to flat was Max, and then a bit later, Charity got the first of her many flats. Dillon moved into the lead by herself. “That was unfortunate because the three of us would have had a good run together if we had been able to stick it out together,” she said.
Once in the lead, Dillon’s rivals became the oppressive sun on the cloudless day and heat of a different kind. “I tend to get hotspots, and that reared its ugly head in a bad way. I have to apologize to anyone I was riding with because I was moaning a lot. The reason I didn’t ride through the creeks was those were my only chance to cool my feet off.”
And the other heat? “I was trying to eat and drink, but the drinking was extremely difficult because I could not get enough water. I stopped at every water stop, but you could not quench your thirst.”
If she could fight off the hotspots and the unenviable feeling of being constantly thirsty for, well, a really long time, Dillon was in good shape. At the Mile 120 timer in AltaVista, she had a 7 minute lead on Tetrick with about 80 miles left in the race.
“When I knew I was leading, it was like ‘Game on.’ I was trying to ride as strong and as fast as I could while taking the best lines.”
Tetrick was dealing with flats of her own, and with a renewed vigor between AltaVista and Checkpoint 2 in Council Grove, she closed Dillon’s advantage down to 3 minutes. However, Checkpoint 2 also provided the Women’s race leader a chance to restock on water and prepare for the final push back to Emporia.
“I was excited to be leading. It gave me renewed fight and energy for the end the race,” Dillon said. There were only (or still, depending on your perspective) 50 miles left to go.
Wrath of the Kanza Gods
Save the hotspots and that little saddle issue, Dillon had made it through three-fourths of the 200-mile race clean. A number of women were not so lucky. Max was still chasing after her flat around Mile 80, Charity suffered a reported 8 flats on the day, Tetrick flatted 3 times, Lauren De Crescenzo (DNA Pro Cycling) crashed out early on; the new, gnarlier DK200 course was taking its toll.
Then, disaster struck for Dillon.
“I was one this pristine piece of gravel. It was a straight road. It was really nice. Then all of a sudden my back tire was flat,” Dillon recalled.
As DKXL winner Jay Petervary said, you are going to flat at the Dirty Kanza. Just stay calm, fix it and get back on your way.
A gravel vet herself—Dillon flatted at Lost and Found last year and still won—she took care of business, only to see a darkly comical series of events unfold.
“I had to stop and take out my Dynaplug thinking it was something that would be easily fixable, but I couldn’t find where the hole was,” she said. “I decided to pump it first, but then I realized that would take forever, so I put a CO2 cartridge in it and it inflated. I started riding again, but in that time frame, Ali had passed me. I rode for a while, but it went down again. I put in another CO2 to get it up and rode for a little bit. Then it went down for a third time.”
She continued, “After the third time, I was like, ‘Okay, I need to put a tube in.’ I put the tube in, but it was a dud tube. I put a second tube in. At that point, I had dropped my pump because I put it in wrong and it fell off. I was out of CO2s, but fortunately, Craig Roemer stopped and gave me a CO2. Meanwhile, Amity had passed me, Sarah had passed me, and even Kae had passed me. It was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m in fifth place.'”
Now in fifth, the Kanza gods had one last nasty trick in store for Dillon. “I tried to ride strong again, but I ended up pinch flatting on a rough descent. Then Amanda Nauman passed me, and I was in sixth. Once I got going again, it was like, ‘This sucks, but it is what it is. I just need to get to the finish line.’ I just started riding hard and felt good and eventually saw Amanda and was able to pass her and keep going and finish.”
“Those miles were so long.”
Dillon finished her first Dirty Kanza 200 in 5th. A result literally 99% of the field would kill for, but with how Dillon got there, it is hard not to think of what could have been.
Fortunately for Dillon, the Dirty Kanza 200 returns on May 31, 2020. This year’s winner Amity Rockwell came to the 2019 DK200 with a bit of a fire in her belly after a disastrous go at the race in 2018. Rockwell was strong and consistent and was lucky enough to avoid flats while taking care of her unfinished business.
After coming so close, will Dillon be back? Well, with most DK200 finishers, it really depended on when you talked to her.
At the finish?
“I did say to Alison, ‘I’m not really sure why you come back to this every year’ Kristi Mohn was standing right there, and she was like, ‘Oh Olivia, you’ll be back. You’ll be back.'”
A week later?
“I don’t know if it’s unfinished business. I think it’s more that I want to go again while changing some things based on this year. One is obviously the nutrition. I want to do something about my feet. Maybe have someone for support at the checkpoints. Even though I said, ‘Never never again’ right after, more likely than not, I will probably give it another go.”
Modern Gravel Fandom
The intro of this story mentioned how checkpoint timing allowed folks at home to follow along with what was happening on the ground in Kansas, albeit on a limited snapshot basis. The time checks at Council Grove and Americus told the story of a disaster for Dillon, even if we did not know why at the time.
If I am being really honest, I did not believe something had happened to Dillon. Ted King’s chip timer was not registering live on the Athlinks website, and I figured something similar happened to her. When I last saw Dillon around Mile 125, she looked so strong. That would prove to be wishful thinking, unfortunately.
Among the many bike racing fans following along online was Dillon’s partner Tayler Wiles. Wiles was coming off a monster week of her own, winning her first career Women’s WorldTour stage at the Emakumeen Bira in Spain and then finishing third the next day. “She thinks it’s crazy I did 200 miles on gravel,” Dillon said about Trek-Segafredo rider with a laugh.
“I thought about her a lot during the race because that win was a big deal for her,” Dillon continued. “She actually soloed into the win on this horrendous climb that was like 17% toward the top. I knew she put everything into it. I thought about trying to get the most out of myself in a situation like that.”
In Europe, Wiles was following along as best she could, even employing some modern race radio techniques to get on-the-ground updates.
“She was following along from Europe, which I think is hilarious,” Dillon explained. “She was watching and saw I was leading. Then when I was on the side of the road with a flat, I saw a text from her that said, ‘I’m dying to know what’s happening. There hasn’t been an update.”
Unfortunately, it stands to reason that if you get a response to a text in that situation from a rider who is nearing 11 hours on the bike in the hot Kansas sun, it’s probably not a good thing.
Said Dillon, “I texted her, ‘Go to bed. I’m on flat number three. I think I’m in fifth right now, so you can probably go to bed.'”
“It’s interesting because so many people were following,” she concluded. “I’ve heard it from a number of people. There were four or five timed sections that people were checking in on. Maybe live tracking will be coming in the future.”
Good Gravel Vibes
If we are being honest, no one would fault Dillon if she came away from the Dirty Kanza feeling a bit bitter and sad panda about the whole thing. To have a win at one of the most prestigious bike races in America within reach, only to have it taken away by an unfixable flat is just devastating.
However, if you spend any time around the gravel Elites, it quickly becomes clear the discipline attracts a certain kind of personality that can roll with the punches and understand that flats and mechanicals are all in the game.
Dillon fits that mold, and not surprisingly, came away from the event with good vibes. “I thought it was fantastic. I was really blown away. The town of Emporia is super cool and a great community,” she said.
As a representative of Velocio, Dillon arrived in Emporia on Tuesday and was able to spend time meeting other gravel racers and maybe outfitting one or ten for their big rides on Saturday.
“I interacted with so many people who came to do the race,” she said. “There are people doing the 25, 50,100 and 200, so I got to find out where they’re from and which event they were doing. There were so many people from the Midwest—Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas. All these people who were targeting this race or who come every year and it’s such a big deal to them.”
Every gravel racer has their story—Dillon’s happens to be one of finishing fifth—and getting to hear those stories proved to be a special part of the experience for her. “There were all sorts of cyclists of all ages. I loved that part of it. If I was just in the race, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to interact with such a broad range of people. There was a woman I met who was doing the 200 for her 6th time. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, wow.’ I didn’t know about the prize folks get for doing it five times, but I do now.”
Dillon has a ways to go to join the vaunted 1,000-mile fraternity, but chances are good she will be back in 2020, and whatever her result, she will enjoy the experience.
“It was awesome to see how excited everyone is in the morning and then through the evening watching everyone come in and finish. To be honest, it’s absolutely fantastic. I loved it.”