Now pushing into its 11th year, the Dirty Kanza stands as the staple of the gravel grinder race calendar. From the days when you weren’t allowed a GPS computer and had to rely on paper maps, cue cards and a compass to a fully-fledged race with checkpoints jammed full of hundreds of support vehicles and live tracking to keep supporters abreast of the chess-match like action (206 miles is a long way, you know).
- Horse For The Course: Specialized CruX for the Dirty Kanza 200
- Horse for the Course: Raleigh Roker Race for the Dirty Reiver
The course: The Dirty Kanza 200
The equipment goal: To find out what the titanium loving crowd have been shouting about all these years
The horse: A Moots Routt 45 — an adventure/dirt/gravel specific bike with huge clearance that I most definitely didn't make the most of with 36mm tyres
While BikeRadar’s Dirty Kanza veteran Josh Patterson finally nabbed the Race the Sun prize (to cross the finish line before the official sunset time) on his sixth attempt, I opted for a different approach featuring four punctures, four tyres and a whole heap of soda — but more on that later. Firstly, the bike.
Named after the Routt National Park nearby to Moots' hometown of Steamboat Springs, the Routt range is an evolution of their highly regarded Psychlo X cyclocross frames. The Routt aims to tackle the roads less travelled, a cycling sub-genre that has picked up enormous traction in recent years and has pushed dedicated roadies further, and further off-road.
As with most long distance rides, it’s a sensible idea to get the bike in your hands to get it dialled in so you know you’re comfortable, the equipment works and things, all being well, should go to plan. Yeah, that didn’t happen for me. I arrived in the States two days before the Kanza and as such, I first saw the Routt 45 I would be riding in person two days before the Kanza.
My Routt 45 was spec'd with Shimano’s Ultegra with RS-685 brakes, Mavic All-Road wheels with Clement X’PLOR MSO 36mm set up as tubeless. A Fizik Aliante saddle came stock on the bike, which meant I didn’t have to swap that out as I have the same saddle on my Focus Mares CX race bike and I get on with that fairly well.
Naturally I did make a few changes to the stock spec. Out of the box, the size 54 Routt 45 came with a 110mm stem, which given the relatively long wheelbase of the frame made riding the bike feel like a session of yoga on wheels so I opted for a 90mm Focus CPX Concept stem that I nabbed from my Focus Mares CX just before I flew out to the States.
Other small mods included fitting an Ultegra Stages power meter that did not connect to my Garmin the morning of the DK. (I'd paired it to my Garmin and smartphone, even updating the firmware the night before. And days after the race, I was able to connect the meter to the Garmin by manually entering the ANT+ ID and restarting the Garmin. Stages claims that certain Garmin Edge models can fail to connect sometimes, but the manual entry/restart method will fix it.) In reality it was no major biggie as it's only an extra 20g but it would've just been nice to have power data from such a long race.
The original plan was to use Restrap’s #carryeverything frame bag, however, as I didn’t get to see or ride the bike before I was in Kansas, I gambled and unfortunately the bag was too long for the frame. This put plan B into action — use the Tacx saddle rail mounted bottle holder for two extra bottles that I panic bought back in the UK with a Specialized Keg for tools and spares. Ultimately, this worked out well as it gave me more cages for water bottles, and you can’t drink enough water when you’re riding in 30°C/86°F degree heat for 12-13 solid hours.
I was never too keen on using a pack for hydration, mostly as the thought of having my back covered by anything for up to about 16 hours in humid heat made me quite uneasy, but the top male and female riders all had hydration packs — so maybe my logic was flawed? Something for next year. Maybe.
With Moots being a titanium specialist, it was only natural to fit the bike with lightweight titanium pedals in the form of Crankbrother’s Eggbeater 11s. The 11s gave me a few issues initially, as they were difficult to clip into, however after persevering and wearing the cleats in, the action of clipping in went from becoming a conscious chore to clipping in and out without thought. The pedals performed brilliantly with no issues whatsoever after this bedding in period.
So how did the race actually go? Well it was a fairly bittersweet experience in all honesty. I achieved my main target of actually just finishing, but what was more surprising was how strong I felt for the entire day. This would usually be a good combination, except for the fact that I had about two and a half hours of mechanicals and stoppage time which killed the race buzz that was floating around at the start of the day.
Both the front and rear Clement X’PLOR MSOs that were set up tubeless had issues. The rear suffered from a slow leak from the day before (which I stupidly chose to ignore) and the front had a sudden and extreme loss of pressure about 20 miles into the Kanza. This meant I had to start running inner tubes in the front which opened me up to inevitable and unavoidable snakebite punctures when hitting the rougher rocks that occasionally cropped up during Kansas’ seemingly endless farm roads.
In the early days of the DK, riders had to be entirely self supported and even GPS devices were outlawed, but in the modern day version (I say modern, the DK is still only 11 years old), where participant numbers are hitting four figures for the full 200 mile route, one of the requirements for the Kanza is having your own support crew. This support crew can only offer assistance at the three specified checkpoints (CP) so with this in mind, I thought I’d be able to tackle my puncture woes at CP1. But oh no, I couldn’t even find my support crew, so had to trundle on with the looming paranoia about puncturing at any second.
As a side note, I’d like to thank the guys at Cycle City (based in Kansas City) for helping me with water, food and energy gels at CP1 after I spent 20 minutes riding around the car park unable to find my support crew’s car. It must’ve been a bit strange to see a bearded Brit roll up desperate for sustenance, but I genuinely don’t think I’d have made it to the halfway point on half a bottle of water and the one granola bar I had left without your help!
Rather unsurprisingly, my puncture paranoia turned into reality and I suffered another two snake bikes between CP1 and 2. Thankfully (and I still don’t know who had this foresight) there was a spare pair of X’PLOR MSOs with my support crew (who I actually found at CP2 — hooray!) so I made the decision to swap to fresh rubber — front and rear (and set up tubeless again) before heading on my way for the last 100 miles. Additionally, I set a new personal best for fitting two tubeless tyres at CP2, but that’s all thanks to the Topeak Joeblow Booster.
This was a bloody brilliant decision as the second set of tyres had zero issues for the rest of the entire ride and I felt like I’d had a second wind, despite not even really blowing through the first wind and I was flying for the rest of the day. I like to think that I was maybe just unlucky with the first set because ultimately, I can’t fault the tyres for performance. Not once did I feel like I was getting too loose nor did I ever feel like the rolling resistance was slowing me down. Even on some of the steeper pitches that forced me to get out of the saddle the tyres didn’t allow me too much wheel spin so I could keep decent forward momentum.
The only real negative I had with the bike was ENVE’s choice of thru axle (I never thought I'd see the day where I criticise ENVE), which had such a tight tolerance in the 6mm slot that my multi-tool kept getting stuck — not something you want when you’ve had to take the thru axle out at least 5 times on the side of a deserted farm road.
The time wasted through punctures and tyre changes put me well out of the realms of achieving my secondary target of completing the Race the Sun so my mind switched to enjoying and experiencing everything the DK had to offer.
It’s quite surreal riding through the darkened expanses of Kansas but the weather cooled and I hooked up with a couple of other speedy riders for the final 15 miles or so. I managed to finish happy knowing that a fair number of riders didn’t even make it through the first 10 miles, thanks to the loudest storm I’ve ever experienced the night before ripping derailleurs off left right and center.
I've used the word bittersweet more times than I can remember when people have asked me about how the Dirty Kanza went, but that description stops when it comes to talking about the bike. It was pure bliss to ride. There was a definite compromise in terms of handling with the Routt 45 as the longer seat stays, which help accommodate larger rubber, added stability something akin to a rigid mountain bike.
I was never going to be able to flick the bike around and jump between farm road tracks with the speed and precision of a thoroughbred cyclocross race bike. Such assured traction gave me real confidence on high-speed descents, allowing me to open up the brakes and let rip — something that having crashed twice in recent years going downhill was surprising as I certainly have a tendency to back off the speed when roads head down.
It is genuinely hard to put into words how smooth the Routt 45 felt when everything was working as it should, but it offered a ride unlike anything I’ve experienced before and I guess as a reader it's fairly easy to dismiss how gushy that sounds — especially on a frame that is pushing on for the $3,500 (£2,600), but there really is something special about titanium that's difficult to sum up.
The combination of Moots’ extraordinary craftsmanship, Clement’s X’PLOR tyres, Moots’ own bar tape and even the Fox Reflex gloves I panic ordered before flying out to the States, all added up to a ride that offered me zero discomfort for the entire 16-hour ride.
While I may have finished 4 hours, 17 minutes and 55 seconds behind the men’s winner Ted King (I crossed the line with a time of 16:08:08 in 197th place overall), all the finishers were welcomed home with a handshake by event organiser Jim Cummins, which shows the lengths he'll go to to make sure every rider (and it really is every rider) feels part of the Dirty Kanza experience.