With riders expecting fireworks from the impressive international field gathering at the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200, Mother Nature got a head start on Saturday morning. Riders awoke to gusting winds and lightning in the surrounding Flint Hills. Event organizers delayed the start by 30 minutes after rain arrived in Emporia, but the wait to start was only temporary.
The Dirty Kanza 200 has grown each year since its inception in 2006, and in 2018, the race had arguably its most impressive field yet. Our Women’s race report covered some of the big names at the start line in Emporia, and the Men’s race added even more names to the mix.
Defending champion Mat Stephens has been on a roll since winning the race last year, and 2016 winner Ted King was back looking for his second win after a flat-marred 2017. A group of Canadians led by Geoff Kabush politely threw their hats into the ring, and the field got a true international flavor thanks to Sven Nys and Jens Voigt.
The pre-race hype also included chatter about, of all things, aero bars. Last year, Mat Stephens turned some heads by using aero bars to help him to his King of Dirty Kanza title. In the days leading up to Saturday’s race, Kabush stirred the pot by saying he wouldn’t do work for anyone with aero bars. Kabush’s comments provided some fodder for the cycling commentariat, but the aero bar influence was hard to miss in Emporia, as riders at both the pro and amateur level opted for them to deal with the wind.
After the 30 minutes delay, Stephens received the last call-up and joined Alison Tetrick in receiving the honor of leading the 1,000+ rider field down Commercial Street and out onto the Flint Hills gravel roads. After a small re-route thanks to the early morning rains, riders were off for 206 miles of gravel racing.
The Heavy Hitters Feel Each Other Out
With a field filled with heavy hitters, the big names were reluctant to do too much work early on. A Friday conversation at the Gravel Expo summed up the feelings in the field pretty well. “My plan is to sit in and not do any work,” one unnamed rider said. “Dude, like 50 other people have said that,” replied another.
The early miles of the course featured some mud and grit thanks to the early morning rains, but nothing like what riders had to contend with in 2015. One early victim was Sven Nys, who suffered a flat early on and had to chase almost from the start. Last year’s runner-up Jake Wells also fell victim to a flat and had his podium challenge marred early on.
Josh Berry had a good plan for dealing with the mud. “Luckily the last time I did an interview with Cyclocross Magazine it was in Belgium racing World Cups,” he joked. “I found Sven Nys and followed him through all the mud until there was more of a climb. He had a flat, and I’ve always looked up to Geoff Kabush, he was third today, so I stayed with him until he flatted. He’ll remember I was screaming ‘Nooooooo,’ because I wanted him up there.”
A large group of 50ish riders held together until Checkpoint 1. The first quarter of the course featured one climb, but the stretch from mile 50 to 75 packed in several climbs, including two bigger ones that made their mark on the lead group.
The two climbs whittled the field down from about 50 to just 22 survivors at the front. Many of the others joined a chase contingent looking to make contact again. With King, former road pro Josh Berry, Stephens and others setting a fast pace at the front, their task was not an easy one.
In the miles leading up to Checkpoint 2, King put in what he called a “dummy attack,” to mix things up in the lead group. The move worked, and when the leaders Eureka, the lead group was down to 10 riders.
King and Berry Break Free
Moving quickly through the checkpoints is an important part of Dirty Kanza success. Riders need to find their crew, restock supplies, deal with any bike issues and get back out on the course at the same time as the groups they enter with. Long checkpoint stops can force riders to burn matches chasing back to their groups or even worse, leave them dropped.
A small group of riders sped through Checkpoint 2 in Eureka and used the quick stop to their advantage. After leaving town, Berry mixed things up. “I was happy to really make an effort after the second feed zone to make it happen,” Berry said. “There was plenty of time to go, but there was really nowhere to go to be out of the wind. I was pretty much by myself, and then I looked back and Ted was coming across by himself and that was the perfect situation.”
A few miles outside town King and Berry, along with Dylan Johnson, had a gap on a chase group of four that included Joseph Schmalz, Stephens, Kabush and Taylor Lideen.
After making the turn at Eureka to head back north to Emporia, riders faced a soul-crushing headwind for nearly all the second half of the 206-mile course. Throw in the sharp Flint Hills gravel, and anything could happen before riders returned to Emporia. The gravel gods can be cruel, after all.
The next 20 miles before the crossing of Walnut Creek at Rocky Ford shed Johnson from the lead group and left King and Berry as the two DK200 survivors at the front of the race.
“I got caught about a mile before the feed and at that point, there were maybe ten left,” King said about the key miles of the race. “My pit crew was outstanding, and I was in and out like that. Then we were five. Then within two or three miles we were three, and then a few miles after that it was just me and Josh Berry.”
King scouted the exit route when the duo reached the shallow crossing, and Berry stayed on his bike and plowed through the water. He gained no advantage from the move and the two exited the creek valley together again.
The chase that survived miles 110 to 130 was, in a piece of delicious aero bar irony, Stephens, Kabush and Ian Tubbs. While folks at home tapped away on Twitter, the two had plenty of time to discuss gravel race bike setup as this chase group of three would last all the way into downtown Emporia.
Berry stuck with King into Checkpoint 3 in Madison, where the two held an 11-minute advantage on the chasers. After leaving the town square, the last quarter of the race belonged to King. With no flats slowing him down, the former winner was determined to be crowned King Kanza yet again.
King dropped Berry outside Madison and then used his aero-bar-equipped bike to plow solo on the long northbound slogs into the strong headwind.
“I had aero bars on the bike, which was certainly helpful,” King said about the headwind drag. “I was cutting through the wind pretty good. I was able to take longer pulls because of how efficient the bike was.”
The now two-time champion soaked in the applause of the fans gathered at the barriers on Commercial street and came across the line to a celebratory champagne shower. His finishing time of 10:42:22 set a new average speed record on the course at 19.2 mph.
King was philosophical about his win. “You know what somebody told me?” he asked. “65 years ago today, the Queen of England was queened, so what better way to king Kanza than King Kanza?”
Berry finished second in his first Dirty Kanza 200. Stephens, Kabush and Tubbs stayed together all the way to the finishing stretch of Commercial Street, with Kabush taking the sprint for third. Tubbs took fourth and Stephens fifth.
The top 20 Men’s finishers are below. Full results are also available online. (We are working on making the formatting compatible with our site for full results)
For more from Kansas, see our full coverage of the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200.
Men's Top 20: 2018 Dirty Kanza 200