If one thing is true about the Dirty Kanza 200 as it has grown in popularity and prestige, it is that the fields have gotten deeper and stronger and the races have gotten faster—save those years where muddy roads prevented it.
What started as some Kansas friends getting together to ride some Flint Hills gravel has grown into one of the most prestigious bike races in the U.S. The latest sign of the growth in prestige of the Dirty Kanza 200 is the presence of two WorldTour teams in Emporia this weekend.
At the beginning of the year, EF Education First announced it would be sending three riders to the race and two Trek – Segafredo athletes announced they would be racing at the beginning of last week. The race has seen current and retired pros race and win in the past, but active WorldTour pros racing represents a new level for gravel in the U.S.
The five WorldTour riders at the start line in Emporia are no doubt among the most talented in the world, but as any Dirty Kanza vet will tell you, it takes more than talent to win in the Flint Hills. Flats and mechanicals are are an omnipresent part of every race, and 202 miles of gravel in the Kansas heat takes an otherworldly ability to suffer to be successful.
If the athletes from EF Education First and Trek – Segafredo were the marked men, there was also the question of how professionals from other disciplines would fare against them. Would the former pro Ted King defend his title or could someone else elevate their riding and suffering to the next level? And could another amateur rider such as Ian Tubbs step up and take on the best?
That is, as they say, why they race the races. As riders assembled on Commerical Street in Emporia before dawn on Saturday morning, 202 miles of gravel stood between them and finding out what the story of the 14th Dirty Kanza 200 would be.
It has been a wet spring on the Great Plains, and heading into Saturday’s race, there was a sense the new course heading north out of Emporia could be similar to one of the famed “mud years.”. However, as the sold-out field rolled out of Emporia and the sun started to peek over the horizon, a warm, sunny, relatively dry day started to emerge.
One thing about gravel athletes have cited as an appealing factor is it draws riders from across disciplines to a more neutral playing field. The disparate backgrounds of the riders do, however, make trying to do a rider preview a bit of a fool’s errand.
A rider whom social media pointed out as an omission from our preview was former WorldTour pro Christian Meier. Perhaps responding to the slight, Meier broke free from the field pretty much from the gun and went solo out of Emporia. Twenty miles into the race, his advantage on the large mass of riders was already up near 5 minutes.
Behind him, a large group of riders rolled along through the relatively flat opening 20 miles of the race.
In our preview of the new DK200 course, race co-founder Jim Cummins said he expected the first 25 miles to be fast before a particularly narrow and gnarly section along E Kaw Reserve Road from about Mile 26 to Mile 30 slowed things down. Cummins knows a thing or two about the Flint Hills gravel, and of course, he proved to be correct.
Riders who passed through in the middle of the pack reported seeing pros and podium contenders fixing flats along the side of the road while they themselves tried to dodge sharp rocks and hit the right ruts along the minimally maintained road. The ensuing carnage quickly split the massive group into smaller sections of riders.
It was after the next obstacle, a creek crossing at Mile 38, that the shape of the front of the race started to become clearer. Meier was still well off the front solo, while a group of about 25 survived to from what was then the first chase. Riders felled by flats included Mat Stephens (Panaracer / Factor p/b Bicycle X-Change), Kiel Reijnen (Trek – Segafredo) and Taylor Phinney (EF Education First), among others.
Checkpoint 1 was in the town of Alma at Mile 64 this year. When riders left the location of their first chance to get assistance from their waiting crews, Meier held a 3-minute advantage on a chase of 18 riders that included many of the race favorites. The Canadian former WorldTour rider still had another 135 miles to go to hold on for what would be an unprecedented win.
Meier’s move would only last so long, and likely thanks to a flat, he dropped back after leaving Alma.
Once the chase became the lead selection, the situation at the front of the race became a bit more fluid. The lead blob traveled onward while riders popped off the back due to flats and other issues. Some were able to recover, while others were left to fend for themselves as the second half of the race neared.
About 20 miles outside Alma, the lead selection was down to about 13 riders, while notables such as Reijnen and Colin Strickland (Meteor x Giordana) gave chase.
Going Solo, Redux
Prior to the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200, organizers billed the new course as perhaps the toughest yet. Many vets of multiple Dirty Kanzas are likely to agree for a couple of reasons.
First, north of the town of Eskridge to Alma and then south to Alta Vista, the course passed up and down through a series of hills and valleys that help give the Flint Hills their name. Second, the gravel in Waubaunsee County, where the northern part of the race took place, uses a coarser grade of gravel than Emporia’s Lyon County.
“It’s a grind. It’s a gravel grinder. It’s not attacks, it’s diesel, diesel,” Peter Stetina (Trek – Segafredo) said after the race.
As the race neared the midpoint of its 202 miles, the field was shattered, with groups becoming smaller and gaps between them getting larger. Maintaining contact with the lead group was at a particular premium and closing gaps was more challenging than your usual gravel race.
Near Mile 100, the lead group was down to 10 riders—Strickland, Stetina, Alex Howes (EF Education First), Cory Wallace (Kona Endurance Team), Ted King (Cannondale – SRAM – Roka – Velocio – UnTapped), Lachlan Morton (EF Education First), Josh Berry (Giant Off-Road Team), Eric Marcotte (Factor), Payson McElveen (Orange Seal Off-Road Team) and Noah Granigan (Floyd’s Pro Cycling).
Then, Strickland put in a dig. No one followed. The race had already seen one ill-fated ride off the front, and 100 miles from the finish of a 200-race is a long way to go.
“When no one went with me, I kind of decided I was going,” Strickland said. “Everyone kind of sat up for a while and let the gap extend really quickly. I was like, ‘Well, let’s give it a go.’ I knew the wind patterns would be advantageous to being alone.”
“He attacked a long long way out and we just kind of looked at each other thinking he was going way too early,” Stetina said.
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Strickland has made a name for himself racing domestic and fixed-gear crits, never afraid to attack and put on a good show. Last year at Gravel Worlds, Strickland closed a 10-plus minute gap after a flat near Mile 15 and went on the win the 150-mile race in the closing miles.
Gravel Worlds is one thing, but the WorldTour year of the Dirty Kanza 200? The move seemed early.
“It was absolutely not the plan,” Strickland said. “Most of my life I kind of roll spontaneously. You kind of have to risk losing to win sometimes. That was definitely risky.”
Twenty miles into Strickland’s solo move, he held a 2:40 advantage on a chase that was now down to just 7 riders. At the town of Alta Vista, the hills turned into rollers, so he still faced a long slog solo off the front, even with the tailwind blowing across the Kansas plains.
And if the 1 minute per 10 kilometers rule applies for gravel, the group that included Stetina, Howes, Morton, King, Berry, McElveen and Granigan still had plenty of time to catch the man solo off the front.
“When he went, he went with purpose,” Howes said. “I didn’t really know who he was, so it was kind of like, ‘We’ll see how this goes.’ Then before we knew it, he was gone.”
After leaving Alta Vista, it was soon clear the whole group would not be bringing Strickland back. No 1 minute per 10km rule here.
Stetina, Howes and Morton broke free from the others in the selection and set off to catch Strickland. Then, Howes got a flat and his teammate waited for him, knowing that neither had a shot without the other at that point.
“It wasn’t a bad flat. I was able to plug it and get some CO2 in there,” Howes said. “The only thing that slowed me down was that I had my saddle bag jammed full of survival equipment. Maybe next year, actually I don’t know if I want to do this again next year, when I do this again in 5 years, I’ll keep the CO2 handy.”
It was down to Stetina with the chance to bring Strickland back. Strickland was already all-in, and Stetina did the same.
As the miles ticked down, it was clear that Stetina’s initial burst in the aero bars was not catching Strickland’s inspired aero-bar move. At Americus with 10 miles to go, Strickland’s lead was up to 6 minutes. Barring a disaster—there were plenty of flats in the Women’s race—Strickland was going to be crowned the new King of Kanza.
In a moment that is unique to a gravel event like the Dirty Kanza, Strickland stopped to hoist his Allied Able skyward at the finish line as other riders from the DK 25, 50 and 100-mile races got to enjoy their finishes as well.
The new King of Kanza had completed his incredible 100-mile solo ride away from the race’s biggest hitters in under 10 hours with a record speed of 20.2 miles per hour.
“That is pretty much what I do, ride out into a headwind, level myself and then flip it around and dump everything I have left on the way home,” Strickland said. “That’s kind of how I train. This was just a training ride, just twice as long.”
After missing the event last year, Strickland would be excused for having some extra motivation. However, for him, it was just another good day racing bikes. “I was just happy to be here. I love racing. I really don’t like training, but I love racing, so I give every race my all. I’ll empty the tank every time for a race. It usually doesn’t work, but sometimes it works.”
Stetina followed close behind in second.
“These are fun. They’re really fresh,” Stetina said about races like DK and Belgian Waffle Ride. “It’s a refreshing change to the WorldTour racing. It gives me some motivation to go back to the WorldTour with a nice result and some good stories.”
Howes and Morton finished together to go 3-4. McElveen made up for his disappointing 2018 DK200 with a 5th-place finish.
“Honestly, it was probably one of the hardest days of my life and one of the coolest, most unique events I’ve ever seen,” Howes said. “I can’t imagine there’s anything else like it out there. I’m happy to be here.”
Top 20 results are below.
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Open Men Top 20: 2019 Dirty Kanza 200