The Women’s field at the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200 was defined by an impressive list of experienced gravel pros with literally thousands of dirt and gravel miles under their collective wheels. With all the pre-race talk of WorldTour pros and aero bars, the Women’s race would be defined by riders well-versed in suffering and the gravel spirit.
Amanda Nauman (SDG – Muscle Monster), Alison Tetrick (Specialized), Kae Takeshita (Panaracer / Factor p/b Bicycle X-Change), Amity Rockwell (Easton Overland Gravel Team) and Amy Charity (DNA Pro Cycling) entered as experienced Dirty Kanza 200 riders, and with that experience, they knew all too well what the wrath of the Kanza gods can bring.
Olivia Dillon (Velocio) headed west from California as a seasoned gravel racer with impressive 2018 wins at Lost and Found and the Sagan Dirt Fondo. Instead of defending her Lost and Found title, she opted to head east for 100 additional miles of gravel in Kansas. Joining her was Oregon’s Sarah Max (Argonaut), who put her name on the alternative racing map with a second at last month’s Belgian Waffle Ride.
Although there were fomer winners in the Women’s field, every Dirty Kanza is different, and with the new course on new roads and the buckets of rain that have fallen on the Great Plains this spring, there was plenty of uncertainty about what to expect early Saturday morning in Emporia.
After 202 miles of Flint Hills gravel, that uncertainty was answered and a new Queen of Kanza emerged.
The Early Split
In our preview of this year’s route, race founder Jim Cummins described a new northward-bound course that was relatively flat for the first 30 or so miles. However, he suggested that the minimally maintained E. Kaw Preserve Road from Mile 26 to 30 would likely cause splits in the lead group when the road got narrower and gnarlier.
Cummins knows a thing or two about gravel and the Flint Hills, and not surprisingly, he was correct.
Even with no defending champion, many of the female race favorites received call-ups and had prime spots to join the massive group of somewhere near 100 riders rolling through the first 20 miles of the 202-mile course.
The stretch of road along E. Kaw Preserve Road—and then a shallow creek crossing at Mile 38—quickly broke that big group into smaller factions of riders.
With sharp rocks and several ruts, the E. Kaw Preserve road caused flats and crashes that helped create some of those gaps. Among the victims of the section was Lauren De Crescenzo (DNA Pro Cycling), who suffered a broken collarbone after crashing when someone went down in front of her.
When riders cleared the creek crossing later on and passed through the small town of Eskridge at Mile 40, the winners of the selection were Charity, Max, Dillon and Nauman. Tetrick followed in a group behind them, and then Kaysee Armstrong (Liv Cycling), Takeshita and Rockwell followed.
Charity, Max and Dillon all hit Checkpoint 1 in Alma at Mile 65 in the same group. Tetrick followed nearly 3 minutes back. Other female riders passed through the town one-by-one, already with some work to do.
Wrath of the Kanza Gods
When the team behind the Dirty Kanza released the route for this year’s race, they strongly suggested it would be the hardest yet. Which is saying a lot, because the Dirty Kanza has gained renown in part for being an incredible gravel challenge.
Why did it have the potential to be the hardest yet?
First, between Eskridge and Alma and then back south to Alta Vista, the course entered an endless series of hills and valleys that help define the Flint Hills. Second, the course left Lyon County, where Emporia is located, and went into Waubaunsee County, which reportedly uses coarser gravel on its roads.
The Kanza Gods—or you know, the landscape and roads—would rear their ugly heads in the Women’s race from here on out.
After leaving Checkpoint 1, Max was the first to suffer one of what would be many flats among the top female riders. She dropped back and Charity moved into sole possession of first place, with Dillon, Tetrick and then Rockwell chasing in group by group.
“I had a strong start. I was pretty surprised where I was, but things were just going too well,” Max said. “I slashed the side wall in my tire, put a tube in, it didn’t hold, rode it for a while, stopped, got a tube from someone. Someone helped me put the tube in. Then honestly, I just wanted to finish.”
After Mile 85, Charity then succumbed to the sharp Flint Hills rocks. The first of what would be a reported eight (!) flats for Charity dropped her back and Dillon took over the lead.
Although she entered as a Dirty Kanza newb, Dillon made an impressive splash on the gravel scene last year, and her road background suggested a skill set perfect for the grind of the Kanza course. That she could win the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder against Katerina Nash also suggested that she knows her way around a bike cockpit.
With the lead after Charity’s misfortune, Dillon quickly solidified her advantage. At the Litle Ford creek crossing at Mile 110, her lead was up to a few minutes, with Tetrick, Charity and then Rockwell chasing, all within about 2 minutes of one another.
Once clear of the town of Alta Vista at Mile 120, the course got a little flatter, with any stretches going up more inclines than hills. Dillon carried a 7-minute advantage over Tetrick and Rockwell entering the final 80 miles of the famed Kansas gravel race. All of the women, however, still faced a long grind to the finish.
One effect of the hills in the north part of the course was to absolutely shatter the field into pieces. With the exception of the lead selection and groups here and there, many riders were left to ride on their own with minute-plus gaps between them as they passed one-by-one over the open expanse of roads.
To catch Dillon, Tetrick and Rockwell would probably be on their own.
Both hailing from NorCal, Rockwell and Tetrick know each other well and have raced together before—they went 1-2 at Gravel Worlds last year—and for the 40 miles after Little Ford, they jockeyed for position with one another. When the two reached Checkpoint 2 in Council Grove at Mile 152, Tetrick closed Dillon’s lead down to 3 minutes while opening up a 7-minute advantage on Rockwell.
If you race Dirty Kanza enough, the question of getting a flat at a bad time is not a question of if but when. You just hope it is not too bad and you can find a new group to help move you forward.
For Dillon, when was unfortunately on Saturday when she was in the lead and seemingly on her way to a DK200 win.
About 40 miles from the finish, Dillon flatted, badly. Tetrick and then Rockwell passed Dillon as she sat on the side of the road fixing it, and Max and Takeshita passed her as well to push her back to fifth. The Kanza gods would not spare the strongest woman on the warm Saturday afternoon.
Tetrick now held an advantage on Rockwell, who had now calmly made her way all the way to second after sitting outside the top 10 early on.
Rockwell too knows the wrath of the Kanza gods. Last year, she suffered a series of flats and mechanicals and ended up in a disappointing 18th place. Presaging her inspired ride on Saturday, Rockwell finished that trying race, giving her motivation for a second try in 2019.
“I have some unfinished business,” Rockwell told us on Friday. “Every time I have a bad race, I try to chalk it up as fuel for the fire. I suffered a lot last year. I think it was like 13 and a half hours to plot next year’s revenge.”
Passing Dillon gave Rockwell a renewed energy, and with 30 miles to go, she passed Tetrick to move into first.
“I know she has way way more power than me on the flats. She always does. She regularly beats me at these things,” Rockwell said about Tetrick. “I knew if it starts going uphill, I can kind of put in a few digs and maybe get something out of it. When I saw her with 30 to go and we were on the long stretch of road that kept pitching up and up, I said, ‘If I don’t go now, I’m going to lose a sprint finish to Alison.’ So I just went.”
Once past Tetrick, Rockwell’s advantage turned into a 12-minute lead at Americus with just 10 miles to go. Of course, she still assumed Tetrick was right on her wheel.
“I tried not to look behind me. My cross country coach in high school never let me look back, and I think about that all the time,” Rockwell said. “I tried to just put my head down, and then every so often I was asking myself, ‘Can I go harder right now? Can I move my legs a little faster?’ I felt like the answer was always ‘Yes.'”
Once passed by Rockwell, Tetrick faced a tough trek back to Emporia that any DK200 vet can likely relate to. Just, finish.
“I think this year I kind of did the DK like a triathlon,” Tetrick said. “I survived the start, and then I just decided to have a fun ride. I got to enjoy birds and horses and cows, and then it was just a slog the last 25 miles. I started playing a game, is a mailbox or a person? Is it a street sign or a person? It felt like every 200 meters.”
On a day that was really defined by flat tires, Rockwell’s slate, save one slow-motion crash on a climb, had been near perfect. “I rode really really hard, but I was also really lucky,” she admitted.
Once over the final small climb in Emporia, Rockwell had time to soak in the moment while riding past the gravel fans lining Commerical Street in Emporia.
It was an appropriate hero’s welcome for the newest Queen of Kanza.
“Dang, I kind of knew when I hit that last hill out of campus that maybe I had it, but it is going to take forever to sink in. I did not think this was my race to win. I’m really really grateful. I’m so grateful to everyone who got me here and looked after me. My checkpoints were flawless today. I really want to thank team manager Matt Hornland for helping me get here.”
Tetrick rounded out her afternoon to complete the top 3 trifecta—1st in 2017, 3rd in 2018 and 2nd in 2019.
“It was a hard day,” Tetrick said. “It was mainly challenging mentally with the heat and conditions. It was really fast, but it was much rougher than last year. There were more mechanicals and things like that, but it was a beautiful course. I loved the change.”
Max added another impressive finish to her 2018 alternative racing palmares, bouncing back from the early tire issues to take 3rd.
“When I started to pass some girls, I thought, oh, maybe I can reach the podium. I just tried to keep a steady pace and keep the faith and not lose heart,” Max said about her strong finish.
Takeshita took 4th and Dillon bounced back to complete the podium in 5th.
Top 20 results are below.
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Open Women Top 20: 2019 Dirty Kanza 200