200 miles of dirt, dust, gravel, hot winds and sweat. The Dirty Kanza is the mother of all gravel races. It’s tough on bikes and tough on riders, but the sense of achievement at finishing it is incredible. And for 2017, the organisers want to see 200 women take on those 200 miles.
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While not an event recommended for the newbie endurance cyclist, it’s certainly more than achievable for the regular long distance riders out there. In fact, BikeRadar’s very own Josh Patterson and Reuben Bakker-Dyos both tackled the event in 2017 – in Josh's case, for the 6th time!
While the event attracts a number of women they are still in the minority, particularly for the full 200-mile distance event, and for 2017 the organisers have set themselves a target: 200 female competitors under the banner #200women200miles.
"Dirty Kanza Promotions is committed to getting more women on bikes. To that end, we have established a goal to see 200 women riding in the Dirty Kanza 200. We are encouraging all women to join in this movement because we know you can 'Find Your Limit', and smash 200 miles. Pushing one’s limits over the course of 200 rugged, remote, and absolutely beautiful miles can be life changing. We believe there is no reason why more women shouldn’t be experiencing that famed Dirty Kanza finish line for themselves."
What is the Dirty Kanza?
Billed as the world’s premier gravel grinder event, the Dirty Kanza takes place every year in Kansas, USA. Riders take on the non-stop 200-mile route self supported and solo, riding on the gravel and dirt roads of the Flint Hills region.
The name of the region is a something of a giveaway as to one of the many challenges this event provides. Flint equals frequent punctures, and having robust kit that can take a beating is important, though riders tackle the route on everything from bespoke gravel grinders to 29er hardtail mountain bikers.
Riders take anywhere between 11 and 23 hours to finish the race. The 2016 winner, Ted King, completed it in 11 hours and 50 minutes. Amanda Nauman was the first placed winner at 13 hours 11 minutes, with a time fast enough to put her in the top 10 of the race overall, male and female.
The 2017 event takes place on the 3rd of June, with registration opening on the 14th of January, 2017.
In 2016, 500 men participated in the full-distance 200km event, and 54 women. This is a ratio the race organisers would like to shift, with a view to getting 200 women taking part in the event in 2017.
So why would you want to do it? Who better to ask than a selection of women who’ve taken part in the event already.
Jenn Barr, a bike shop employee, was drawn to the race after hearing her boss talk about it.
“I knew it would be hard,” she tells BikeRadar, “but I didn't know it would be so beautiful. One day I'm just going to ride it instead of race, just to stop as often as I want to take pictures. It really is incredible to see nothing but rolling hills and grass as far as you can see. 200 miles is a long way to ride, but the scenery makes it a lot easier and the journey along the way makes every mile worth it."
The scenery Barr speaks of is the natural tallgrass prairie lands, one of only two such areas left in the world. It’s a chance to test yourself in some truly stunning landscapes.
Andrea Cohen has completed the Dirty Kanza four times, and, she says, she still gets butterflies thinking about it. “It’s totally doable. It is epic, but it doesn’t require all sorts of technical survival skills or ridiculous amounts of gear,” she advises, and is keen to see more women complete the challenge. “You will roll into a small college town, Emporia, about 25,000 people live there. They are dwarfed by the Flint Hills. That is where Dirty Kanza will take you; out into the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by grass and rocks. It’s one of the most surprisingly peaceful and humbling places.”
For local rider Lyn Blubaugh, the event is a combination of an amazing community event and a chance to develop and push her riding and endurance. “Dirty Kanza is a huge and fun event for our community. You want to be a part of it, somehow,” she says. “A few of my friends had ridden all the different miles that Dirty Kanza offers and that got me interested. I started with the 50-mile route in 2012, I continued to build miles, saddle time and worked up the mileage each year. In 2015, I was ready to push myself out of my comfort zone and committed to the 200.”
“Sure, it’s 200 miles, and although not many have completed it, I believe women are particularly suited to doing things others can’t – we are built for this race. We have the physical ability (with some training) and the toughness to take what this race throws at you.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Barr. “It’s fun, it’s beautiful, and it’s hard, which makes you feel awesome when you get to the end, because you did something that took guts and strength. What woman doesn't like to feel gutsy and strong?”
Another important element that shouldn’t be overlooked are the pit crews that each rider must bring along to help support them at the various checkpoints, providing water, food, technical support, and whatever else the rider might need. Family and friends are helpful to have at this point, and Barr's husband and daughter have been acting as her support crew for several years. "They not only crew for me, they see and experience so much throughout the day... They might even have more fun than me!”
Some words of encouragement
Finally, for anyone thinking of joining the race for 2017, Blubaugh has these words of advice. “Women are perfectly made to ride this race. We can take the suffering and pace ourselves to finish strong. If your bike can make it, you can finish. I have not had any mechanical problems, but if I did, someone would stop to help me.
"Do not let the map intimidate you. The course is well marked, you will always see tire tracks in the gravel. Ride your race and no one else’s. Get off and walk when you need to – just keep moving. Don’t spend too much time in the checkpoint town, and let people encourage and help you. It is an experience that is beyond words, with satisfaction that will be with you forever!”