WHY? Dirty Kanza
By Christian Meier and Krysten Koehn. Photos courtesy of Speedvagen and Andy White. See the full photo essay here.
NOTE: This is an extremely remote area. You will likely not pass through any towns, and therefore no convenience stores between checkpoints. Always be aware of the distance to the next checkpoint, and be prepared to travel that distance with the supplies you carry.
Participants are solely responsible for their personal well-being, will have to make their own informed decisions, and suffer the consequences of those decisions. Please be aware… if you break down or become injured, it is YOUR responsibility to contact your support crew to come get you. DO NOT CALL US. WE WILL NOT COME RESCUE YOU. EVENT PROMOTERS AND SPONSORS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SAFETY AND WELL-BEING.
–2019 Dirty Kanza Riders Bible
The last time I was in Girona, Christian literally spent hours at his computer researching which tires to use for Dirty Kanza. I suppose this level of scrutiny has to be applied to every aspect of preparation when it comes to a virtually self-sustained 320 km on gravel in 40ºC temperatures, for which you’ve been aptly warned that you will “suffer the consequences” of your own decisions.
I spent some time with Christian getting the full scoop, just a few days after his ride. The facial expressions that accompanied these words made it clear that it was all still fresh–spectrum to spectrum, the elation and the suffering.
How do you even prepare for something as epic as DK?
“There was a lot of thought that went into it because I was planning on doing it for a very long time. I did a lot of research about what would be the best all around, in terms of riding with a Camelback or packing and storing hydration, tire choice, wheel size… And I think in the end most of it didn’t really matter. It’s very difficult to understand what the event is like until you’ve done it, so doing it was really what needed to happen to actually know how to prepare for it.”
You unveiled a brand new Speedvagen just a day before the event. Did you not find it risky to do DK as the virgin ride?
“I didn’t think of it as being too risky because it’s custom and the geometry was exactly the same as my road bike–I knew what it would feel like, and they nailed it. It was perfect. I was also super happy with the build: Ceramic Speed everything, Enve aero bar with the flat section to lay on, Enve 3.4 ARs. Next year I would probably ride aero bars and 650B instead of 700 with a wider tire because I think the puncture protection would be a bit better–there were actually a lot of sections that were quite rough.”
What was it like when you rolled up to the start at 6 in the morning?
“The amazing part was the atmosphere. There were thousands of people in this tiny little town. The main street is a couple hundred meters long and there was a huge expo of brands, but just the vibe: everyone is super stoked to be riding gravel and everyone is generally just super excited. The locals live for it; a lot of locals are riding the event. The bike shops there are just gravel shops. I saw some people with Service Course water bottles hanging around, and a couple people who had been to The Service Course which was pretty cool!”
So you’re there, the sun is coming up and everything is buzzing and exciting, but then at one point it’s actually time to ride. Take us through the experience.
“We rolled out, sunrise, big group. I was at the front because we’d gotten a call-up. There’s a neutral section with a couple of kilometers on pavement, then you turn and hit the gravel. Then a guy attacked and I just went with him, I don’t know why. It wasn’t really planned.
A few kilometers later I dropped him, then I just rode by myself for about the first 115 kilometers, which was pretty epic because it was sunrise, and the terrain in the first part was super nice because you had these really long, straight sections of road which I really quite liked. The landscape was beautiful–there were all kinds of animals like deer and rabbits and turtles. That was pretty sweet!
Then I got to the feed zone after 100 kilometers and found my crew (we work with pit crews; you have to have a support crew to start the event). I had amazing support from the guys from Enve. There are more than 1,000 people doing DK so you’ve got a lot of crews. Everything is roped off into sections and colors so you have to find your crew and ride through and out. So the first one went pretty quick–you have all your stuff prepared in a box at the feed station so I just grabbed my camelback, a couple of bottles and started going again. I maybe stopped 30 seconds.
Then shortly after that it started climbing quite a lot, and not that long after, maybe 10k later, I got caught by the front group which was maybe 10 or 12 guys–Strickland, Stetina, Ted King and the EF guys, a few others I don’t really know–and as soon as they caught me I was with them for a couple of kilometers, then I flatted. So I fixed it and got going again with the next group. Then I had another issue–my saddle bag kind of fell off–so I had to stop and fix that, then got in the next group. Once I got caught I thought, ‘ok, I’m not really racing for the win anymore.’
At that point I was starting to feel the heat a little bit in the climbs, so I was just kind of cruising a bit more, then got another flat. I changed that one and put a tube in so it took a bit longer. By then I was really starting to suffer due to the heat, hydration, nutrition… I kind of misjudged what to bring and after a while my stomach started to go a bit weird and I wasn’t eating or drinking enough so I just kept digging a hole, essentially.
The terrain in the northern part of the course was actually very rough and rolling. Super short climbs, but just relentless, one after the other with no flat and a couple of longer climbs. I eventually groveled into the second feed zone at 150 miles/235k, and by then I was pretty dead. I was super depleted and in a pretty bad state–I probably had heat stroke. I sat at the second feed zone for about 45 minutes. A guy that I met riding in California, Ryan Steers, was there with me and was in pretty much the same condition, but he was like, ‘no, come on man, let’s go, we can do it.’ I was sitting there thinking I still have 90 kilometers to go, how am I going to do this? But I came all this way so I have to finish it. I just need to get to the end.
So we started off again after eating some weird stuff–there was pickle juice (!), I had some chips and I had some nuts and I had some Twizzlers, just a bunch of weird stuff. I felt a little bit better, but after a while I was feeling pretty average again. Ryan and I had already been cramping for a while, so we decided to help each other make it to the end, but it was kind of a funny thing because to not cramp and feel ok I would have to ride at my own pace, which was a tiny bit faster than his pace but not a lot faster, so we did the last 90k within like a minute of each other, pretty much just riding solo.
Every once in a while I just needed a break so I would stop on the side of the road and sit down, then Ryan would come and I’d start with him again. Did that probably four or five times. Then I stopped to have my picture taken at the Salsa chaise; I just sat there until the next person came to get their photo. Then that person left and Ryan came, so I was like, ‘ah, sweet” and I just sat down with him again, sat there for a while, and just kept going like that all the way to the end.
When I finally got through I was pretty shattered. After the finish line I fell asleep on a couch for half an hour. I finally made it back to the hotel, and when I got back I didn’t even eat anything, I just went to bed. I was just so tired, I went straight to bed. Woke up the next morning just starving! And that was Dirty Kanza.
Have you ever felt like that in a ride before? Where you got to the point at which you felt like you maybe couldn’t go on?
Nope. I never felt like that before in my life. In some races I’ve been pretty hot, like one stage of the Tour of San Luis in Argentina where I overheated and my heart rate wouldn’t go back down (after the finish it was sitting at 155 and wouldn’t go down). That was pretty intense but I wasn’t as hammered then as I was at Kanza. And there have been days where you’re so cold that you’re really suffering, but those days are usually not as long. But no, I’ve never been to that point at which I didn’t think I could finish until DK.
What was the best moment?
The best moment was that morning, riding alone, which definitely made it completely worthwhile. It was so amazing. The second best thing was probably finishing.
What are the things you’ll do differently next time?
I would change my nutrition. I would probably just make myself small peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and rice cakes. The stuff I had was pretty natural but I don’t think it was the right stuff for what I was doing. I also took some carbo drink, but next time I’ll probably just stick to water with some electrolytes maybe. I would change to bigger tires and put aero bars. Those are probably the main factors.
Why did you want to do DK?
It’s the biggest gravel event in the world! But really it’s about pushing myself to the limits. A new level of suffering brings a new level of growth, and that’s where flow is ultimately found.