There are gravel races that are longer than the Dirty Kanza 200, but few combine massive fields, scorching speeds, rough terrain and capricious weather.
It was my seventh time toeing the start line at this legendary race. After many years of tinkering with gravel race strategies, I came away from last year’s event pleased with my set-up. But, being a tech editor, I know that there’s always room for improvement.
Early this spring, I caught wind that Specialized was developing a purpose-built gravel race bike. Riding 200-miles of lonely flint roads in the heart of Kansas seemed like the perfect way to put it to the test.
The latest Specialized Diverge was my weapon of choice for the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200 Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
Specialized’s Diverge was a bit of an odd model when it was introduced in 2014. It was a bit more capable than brand’s endurance road bike, the Roubaix, but only by a matter of degrees.
Rear clearance was limited to around 35mm-wide tires without much mud clearance, so it wasn’t an ideal candidate for gravel riding. Despite its introduction, the company’s cyclocross bike was still the preferred weapon of privateer gravel racers. In fact, it was my DK200 bike of choice last year.
The gravel category has rapidly evolved from niche to mainstream. Specialized was quick to take note, shift gears and redesign the Diverge accordingly. The new Diverge has a clear purpose: to be the fastest gravel race bike the company can produce.
Comfort is speed
Enough to take the edge off: Specialized’s Future Shock provides 20mm of suspension Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
If you’re an aspiring gravel racer, the first lesson to commit to memory is that whatever makes you more comfortable will also make you faster. The high-frequency vibration and chatter generated from rocky gravel and pitted dirt roads take its toll on man and machine.
Mitigating discomfort will allow you to ride stronger for longer — this is critical for races that range from 100 to 350 miles in length.
Specialized seems acutely aware of this. At the front of the Diverge is gravel-tuned version of the company’s Future Shock. Unlike the Future Shock introduce with the latest Roubaix, this steerer-tube mounted spring is wound with a progressive coil to decrease harsh bottom outs.
The rear of the Diverge is designed to improve comfort through compliance. The top tube is aggressively sloped, and the seatstays meet the seat tube below the top tube to allow for more seatpost flex.
The Diverge Comp complete with many Kanza modifications Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
Specialized sent a Diverge Comp for me to put through the ringer at this year’s event. It features a Shimano 105-level build that won’t break the bank. Still, there’s always room for improvement, right?
I made a few changes to cut weight and improve comfort
I swapped the alloy wheels for a Roval CLX 32 Disc wheelset. I kept the stock Specialized 700x38mm Trigger Pro tires. These tires served me well last year; they’re fast rolling and durable. I used Orange Seal sealant to ward off the sharp flint found on these roads.
Specialized’s 700x38mm Trigger Pro tires are fast and sturdy Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
The drivetrain was next on my list. I traded the 11-32t 105 cassette for an Ultegra model. I happened to also have a Praxis Zyante crankset on hand. The hollow-arms of the Zyante shave a bit of weight from the stock Praxis Alba crankset. The 48/32t “gravel compact” gearing has enough high-end range with plenty of bail-out gearing to rely on in the event of punishing headwinds or treacherous mud, which, thankfully, were not issues this year.
The 48/32t gearing worked well for this long race Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
I replaced the stock saddle with my reliable and well-worn Ergon SMC3 Comp saddle.
This aged Ergon SMC3 saddle is still my go-to for endurance events Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
Last on the list of component swaps was ditching the Specialized Comp Hover bar with its riser bend that didn’t agree with me ergonomically — or aesthetically — for Easton’s EC70 AX bar. This carbon handlebar has 16-degrees of flare at the drops. I really came to enjoy the wider, more stable position this bar provided.
Easton’s very comfortable EC70 AX handlebar Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
With these changes, I shaved approximately two pounds from the stock build, bringing the Diverge down around to 18.5lb/8.39kg.
Then, it was time to add more gear to bring the weight up again.
About those bottles…
Ugly, but effective: my tri-geek inspired bottle system Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
With the components sorted, it was time to focus on the accessories, nutrition, and hydration that would hopefully carry me to the finish line.
Once again, I mounted my modified Profile Designs Aqua Rack to the Specialized CG-R seatpost. I improved upon the hair tires security system that I’ve used as an insurance policy against bottle ejection in the past. This time, I used rubberized hair ties with strips of webbing sewn on to make them easier to loop back over the bottles.
So why bedeck a bike in bottles rather than use a hydration pack?
Webbing pulls made it easy to pull the hair ties back over the bottles Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
From my experience, I’ve found carrying two bottles in the front triangle, and two more off the seatpost is the most efficient way for me transport water for this specific event.
This admittedly ungainly system, allows me to carry two bottles of water and two more filled with drink mix so I can alternate as needed. This approach also gets the weight off my back, gives me free access to food in my jersey pockets, and allows for quick bottle swaps at the aid stations, which are located roughly every 50 miles along the course.
Staying fueled during long races such as this presents its own set of challenges.I relied on SIS energy gels and SIS Electrolyte mix in two of the bottles on my bike. I took in real food at the mid-point pit stop.
All my repair items fit snugly into Specialized’s Tool Keg Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
My multi-tool, two tubes, CO2 and a spare derailleur hanger were housed in Specialized’s SWAT Keg in a bottle cage mounted under the downtube.
Specialized makes a SWAT box that sits neatly at the junction of the Diverge’s seat- and downtubes. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room in the front triangle to run this integrated SWAT system with full-size (26oz) water bottles on the size 52cm frame I rode.
I like the Speedsleev Endure Top Tube Case because it stays in place without a strap around the steerer tube Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
SpeedSleev’s Endure top tube case carried SIS gel packs along with a Goal Zero Flip 10 battery. This auxiliary battery kept my Wahoo Elemnt up and running.
Lights are required at Kanza, since many racers finish late into the night. I ran a Bontrager Ion 700 upfront on a BarFly mount Josh Patterson / Immediate Media
Done and dusted. Freestate Brewing’s Dirty Kanza Kölsch is a superb recovery drink Jaime Patterson / Immediate Media
The best compliment I can give the Diverge’s Future Shock is that I didn’t give it a second thought while racing. The 20mm of suspension absorbed all but the most forceful impacts while remaining out of mind.
While the Future Shock’s performance remained in the background, I did notice how fresh my arms, shoulders, neck, and back felt toward the end of the race. I was able to spend more time ticking off miles in the drops, staying low and out of the wind.
This was particularly important this year. Mild temperatures, dry roads, and low winds made this year’s race the fastest in the event’s 12-year history.
The rest of my gear performed without fault. The Science In Sport nutritionals kept me fueled. I made it through the race without a single flat or mechanical, which is a significant achievement in its own right.
I’m curious to see where the gravel category heads in the coming years. As races such Dirty Kanza continue to gain popularity, the case for gravel race bikes as a breed apart from general-purpose gravel/adventure-touring bikes gets stronger.
We’ll see what the future holds.