Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Wicked Wind of the North...

As I pen this, the dust has settled on the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200 course. The navigation stakes are pulled, the Gel packets, ejected water bottles and forsaken riders have been plucked from the austere course. The lush green hills and alabaster gravel roads have returned to their wind-swept slumber - well satisfied to exist in a state of suspended animation until they are summoned once again, in the year two thousand fourteen, to burn with the intensity of a thousand suns for one EPIC day; when hard women and men will again test their mettle against this eerily beautiful yet unforgiving landscape...

Sh*t's About to Get Real...  Photo Credit: Kyle Thompson
Re-entry from the Dirty Kanza 200 is Hell, and I struggle to make sense of the day-to-day upon my return to city life here in Madison.  Blogs about this event have already begun to spring up like weeds in vacant lots from all corners of the gravel racing community.  To city dwellers, this event is a mere curiosity. But to those among us who live to CRUSH GRAVEL, the thousands of struggles that played out in the microcosm of this barren environment scream out like headline news.
Stretching out to the horizon   Photo Credit: Kyle Thompson 
The raw beauty of the Flint Hills was on full display this year thanks to frequent Spring rains. The course was as green as an emerald and provided a striking backdrop to the chalk-colored gravel roads that stretch to the horizon and beyond.  There seemed to be a remarkable number of cattle in the middle miles of the course, some choosing to run across the road unpredictably leaving riders with no option but to stop and wait or take evasive action.  There was abundant sunshine and beautiful fluffy clouds that added a dramatic touch to the entire scene and made for some incredible pictures by the many photographers stationed around the course.

You ARE in Kansas Anymore!            Photo Credit: Dave Leiker

My race got off to a fast start owing to the help of the Northerly winds as we headed South toward the first checkpoint.  The first leg had a few muddy hike-a-bikes and a gentle stream crossing complete with cheering spectators.  I had early on resolved to attack all water crossings with my shoes on, which saved me from having to make the decision on the fly.  True to form, at the creek crossing I never hesitated.  I was across and gone before other riders could even get their shoes off.  I hit the first checkpoint in 3 1/2 hours, feeling great and allowing myself to dream of a 14 hour finish.  At checkpoint 1, I followed my plan to be in and out in a matter of minutes.  Once my CamelBak was filled and I had my nutrition on board, I flew out - leap-frogging dozens of other riders who had beat me there.  As the second leg began, my race ended...

2013 may go down in history in the gravel crushing community as the 'Wicked Wind of the North'. I'm a little unclear as to how the organizers of the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200 had the omniscience to know that the winds on June 1st, 2013 would be howling from the North. It IS my belief that their clairvoyance led them to premeditatedly construct a route that exacted the maximum amount of Northerly travel possible from the racers without straying onto the Almanzo course. The unrelenting headwinds of this years race foiled many earnest attempts to slay the course (only about half of those who toed the line for the full 200 miles finished). The shell-shocked look in the eyes of the riders at Check Point 3 later in the day delivered the news, while the bleary minds behind those eyes struggled to weigh their options: go on and suffer, or abandon the field without shame in the hopes that they might return victorious next year. There is comfort in knowing that there will always be a next time in the Flint Hills.

The Emerald Gritty...                   Photo Credit: Kyle Thompson
I too was a victim of the wind, which blew relentlessly for most of the second and third legs of the race.  Despite being well-fueled, I simply wasn't strong enough to make the bike go fast.  The second leg was a death slog, and I was reduced to constantly watching the map in hopes that the next turn would align me more favorably with the wind.  But each successive turn on this leg simply turned us from bad to worse and then back again.  With no reprieve from the wind in sight, I put my head down and resolved to remain comfortable, positive and well-fueled in the hope that I could make up the time in the third leg.

At checkpoint 2, I felt great and took the time to take care of a few important tasks like sunscreen, bathroom, and chamois cream.  I didn't dilly-dally, but I did allow myself a few extra minutes to snap out of my wind-induced delirium.  Per the map for the third leg, our first 13 miles was arrow straight with the wind at our backs.  I lit out from the checkpoint and was killing it, but only for those 13 miles.  As soon as the course returned to its Northerly/Westerly meandering, I was once again reduced to a slow grind.  I remained incredibly positive however because everything else was going to plan.  I was well ahead of the cutoff time and knew that I could complete the race.  In these windy hours, I began to strategize about how to change my training in order that I might become stronger under these kinds of conditions.  My bike, a Twenty2 Cycles steel MonsterCross rig was taking everything that the course could throw at it and my confidence in my machine was supreme.  I soldiered on, counting down the miles until checkpoint 3.

The Author: 120 miles into the race  Photo Credit Kim Morris
I rolled into checkpoint 3 with plenty of daylight to spare, and as I was refilling my CamelBak and preparing my lights and nutrition for the final leg, I began to notice that many of the riders who were sprawled out around me seemed pretty shell-shocked.  At this point in time, I felt great and was very happy.  Despite the wind, I was ahead of last year's time and confident that, barring a mechanical, I'd complete the race.  After some solid food a Coke and a candy bar, I hopped back on the bike and struck out for Emporia.  When it finally got too dark to see, I hit the lights and began the arduous task of navigating the course at night.  At this point, despite a change in overall direction and the slackening of the wind, darkness slowed my progress considerably as I was being cautious to verify each and every turn.  The last thing I wanted to do was add an hour to my time by taking a wrong turn.

As it turns out, I did take a wrong turn near Kahola lake where I followed another rider in the direction of the lake.  I felt that something was awry, but followed nonetheless.  Shortly after our wrong turn, that rider flatted and I began the process of rejoining the course.  Luckily, I'd only strayed a mile or so off the course and I soon saw the lights of approaching riders.  I picked my way through the remaining miles, being cautious and praying that I wouldn't experience a mechanical.  As I carefully navigated the darkness, several other riders joined me and placed their confidence in my route-finding abilities.  Unlike my experience at Worlds last year, none of these gentlemen who had been relying on me for navigation attempted to beat me to the finish.  Regardless, to ensure that I maintained my position, I picked up the pace and sprinted down the main street of Emporia to the cheering of a small yet enthusiastic crowd.

I was greeted by Kristi Mohn at the finish line, received my finisher's pint glass and dismounted my bike.  I was immediately joined by three of my compadres - Al Brunner, Josh Lederman, and Pete Chrapkowski (Pete, who despite finishing 5 hours earlier and placing 2nd in the Single Speed division, was still there with his bike cheering on the finishers!  Pete my friend, you are truly a gentleman and a scholar and you can CRUSH a bike!  Much respect bro...).

Peter Chrapkowski - Killing It!
Which brings me to the real reason for this post: Set aside for a moment your understanding of the blood, sweat and tears that flowed as freely as the muddy creeks of the Kansas countryside on Saturday, and peer behind the curtain at what's really going on - we have become a community. Ours is a community forged in the searing furnaces of this nation's ultra-endurance gravel events. Its bellows are the unfettered, soul-crushing wind that stalks these plains in pursuit of worthy mounted adversaries. From the strangers that we meet on virtual gravel forums to the riders that we happen upon as they engage the scree at the edge of town, we share a bond. And while at times the object of our desire crushes us, more often than not it allows us to crush it...

Band of Brothers: the Author, Pete Chrapkowski, and Al Brunner

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