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Masters and Convicts of the Groad

Dirty Kanza is a gravel race starting in Emporia, Kansas. The first stop for EF Education First on the alternative racing calendar, it might seem easy – until you get there. Tire-slashing rocks, heat stroke and hours between aid stations add up to a ride that recalls Grand Tour glory days.

06 June 2019

Who doesn’t love cycling’s good old days? Those deep tans and hollowed faces, captured in Kings of Pain: Masters and Convicts of the Road, earned during unthinkably long, unsupported races. Café raids and mechanicals that cause splits on the leaderboard of minutes and hours rather than mere tenths of a second. Nowadays, races like this only really exist in old photographs.

For many, road racing is in the doldrums. Arguably the most exciting races on the calendar are the newest. Take Strade Bianche. Tuscany’s white gravel roads have served up some of the most thrilling racing in recent years, yet at a total of 184km (114 miles) cycling’s cognoscenti don’t consider it a true classic because it’s not long enough. Then there’s Tro Bro Leon, a race waged on the farm tracks of northern France with a pig for the winner, or Belgium’s Dwars door het Hageland, the best gravel race on the pro calendar that nobody knows. These exciting races are in the minority for now.

Enter Dirty Kanza. Set in the rolling midwest of the United States, the event is a breath of fresh air in spite of its intense heat and humidity. Falling into a category that’s jokingly termed “groad”, a portmanteau of gravel and road, it offers something vastly different for the pro riders of EF Education First Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton and Taylor Phinney as they set out looking for a new challenge.

The race marks the first of the alternative calendar, with ultra-distance, mountain biking and hill climbs still to come. After the Rapha Roadmap, a report that followed two years of interviews and research into the issues currently faced by professional cycling, the alternative calendar was conceived as a way for riders to expand their horizons beyond the normal diet of WorldTour races.

Kanza is catnip to fans of gravel and adventure riding, in part thanks to a progressive approach to media coverage. There are no gendarmes wagging their finger non. Since 2006, the race has grown from a single 200 mile event with little over 30 riders to five distances ranging from 25 up to 350 miles that attract thousands. In 2019 Emporia there’s gravel on the menu for all appetites, offering riders of all abilities the chance to toe the line together, world tour pros mixing it up with mass start first-timers.

In the days before the race, we meet Alex, Lachlan and Taylor in Boulder, Colorado. They’ll be racing the original 200 mile distance, with up to 14,000 feet of climbing. The numbers are one thing, but with years of racing experience there’s wisdom enough among them to know that Dirty Kanza is an unknown quantity. They’re all reticent when asked about their expectations for the race. At a pre-race briefing, co-director Lelan Dains describes the course as death by a thousand cuts.

Lachlan Morton is staying with his family at their home on the edge of Boulder. Colorado is one of his favourite places to ride his bike and we meet him out of town in Nederland, up in the mountains to the west, where he’s riding to prepare for the weekend’s race. Kansas is not much above sea level, and when we meet him, storms are forecast for the race. This information doesn’t affect his outlook – it’s one of many unknown quantities ahead. He’s never raced the distance, he’s never raced gravel – in fact, he’s never raced an event like this before.

But he has undertaken rides like this before. Since 2013, he’s ridden and documented long-distance, unsupported tours with his brother, Gus Morton. In fact, in 2015, the second Thereabouts passed through Colorado on roads we revisit with Lachlan that day. In the time since the first film, Lachlan has became a figurehead for fans of pro riders who do things a little differently.

Alex Howes has recently moved out of Boulder with his new wife, Jessica, into a house at 8,200 feet. It is a cyclist’s dream with a garage full of bikes and spectacular routes to be ridden in all directions. Born and raised in Colorado, Howes is the picture of an outdoorsman. There’s a selection of axes hanging alongside his bikes in the garage. He carries binoculars in his frame pack for sighting wildlife on bike rides. We’re not long through the door before talk turns to bears, mountain lions and moose. Jessica and Alex saw one of the latter in the driveway the day before, dwarfing their truck. Jessica explains to us the best way to escape if they charge – they’re fast but they can’t turn, so you’re best to weave between the trees.

Taylor’s pied-a-terre in Boulder – he considers Girona, Spain home for now – is exactly what you’d expect from a man of his character. Bright and brimming with his artwork, it’s a feast for the senses. Charlie Parker plays softly in the background while he quietly proffers coffee. There’s paint on the floors and canvases stacked up in corners. It’s as if he’s unfolded his mind into the space. Like the others, he admits he has no idea what to expect, but he’s excited for what’s to come.

If the riders are nervous in the days before the race, they don’t show it. They speak of apprehension, but there are no signs. In fact, on the morning of the race itself, Lachlan arrives beaming. Taylor is in similar high spirits. Alex has an easy smile but an air that means business, a cowboy with an itchy trigger finger.

The 2019 edition sports the strongest field the race has ever seen. Ted King is the defacto king of Kanza, having won in 2018 and 2016. Colin Strickland is perhaps best known for his wins at Red Hook Crit, but he’s also two-time champion at neighbouring Nebraska’s Gravel Worlds event. Peter Stetina of Trek-Segafredo, recent winner of the Belgian Waffle Ride, and his teammate Kiel Reijnen are both there. There’s no shortage of world-class firepower.

When we catch sight of the riders rolling to the start just before 6am on Saturday morning they’re all wearing a smile, chatting, pocketing food for the miles ahead. The smell of embrocation and the affected seriousness that pervades similar road events is entirely absent. Instead it’s a carnival carried through from the preceding days’ party atmosphere at the Kanza expo village.

Over the tannoy, race founder Jim Cummins announces we’re moments out from the start. The air overhead buzzes with drones capturing video, and the riders bristle with expectant enthusiasm. In spite of the previously forecasted rain, it’s set to be a scorcher. For now, the sun is barely up and ahead hundreds of miles of gravel lay in wait.

In the last fifty miles, Lachlan and Alex find themselves alone with over ten minutes to leader Colin Strickland, and their joy appears in danger of being permanently snuffed out. The pair have really been through it. Aside from a tricky course which requires constant concentration, they’ve been scorched by a torrid sun, had salt and dirt crusted on their clothes, and had no support apart from two aid stations which sit hours apart from one another.

But by the time we see the pair cross the line, side-by-side, the smile is back in full effect. Kanza has become less about the win than simply making it to the end. The pair high-five spectators all along the final 500m, revelling in the moment. It’s something to behold as they cross the line together in 10 hours 18 minutes and 36 seconds, almost 20 minutes behind solo winner Colin Strickland, with Peter Stetina splitting the difference to round out the podium.

Colin Strickland’s win is remarkable in every sense. He’s the first to go under 10 hours on the 200 mile course, the only rider to average over 20 miles per hour on this route. He’s a pro on his own terms, choosing his own independent racing programme, racing whatever he wants, from gravel to fixed gear crits. He’s also a rider who refused to be brought back by three WorldTour professionals.

If Alex and Lachlan made it through hell, Taylor’s day was more like purgatory, filled with puncture after puncture. It was always a risk – at 6’5” and almost 90kg, the stony surface is a much greater nemesis for him. He rode most of the way with TJ Eisenhart, a fellow American that Taylor views as a little brother. Between them they amass a total of nine flat tires. Even if his legs feel good at the finish, he admits his spirit has been squashed.

Professionals turning up to local races inevitably draw scepticism. Like Alex Garland’s secret island in The Beach, there’s an understandable anxiety that WorldTour calibre talent will spoil what’s good about an event. But that’s not the case here – instead, they’re just one of the reasons that races like Dirty Kanza are great.

Whether this signals a new era for bike racing at large is open to debate, but there aren’t many sports you’d get the chance to play alongside the world’s best. Imagine strolling up to a three point contest at the Staples Center with LeBron James, or a penalty shootout at the Nou Camp with Lionel Messi. It just doesn’t happen. But it happens in Emporia.

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