Emporia was filled with bikes and excitement as Dirty Kanza 200, the world’s premier gravel grinder took place Saturday. Beautiful weather and high-caliber riders turned this year’s DK200 into a record-shattering success.
Brian Jensen crossed the Dirty Kanza 200 finish line in 10 hours, 42 minutes, and 49 seconds. He not only won the DK200, but completed the 200 mile gravel grinder in record-breaking time. Rebecca Rusch finished first among women with a time of 12 hours, 11 minutes and 15 seconds a personal record for her. In 2013, she completed the DK200 in 12 hours, 51 minutes and 4 seconds.
Randy Smith, was the top Emporian to finish the race. He crossed the finish line to place 99th overall with a time of 13:42:21. Smith races for the High Gear Cyclery team and is sponsored by Trek, Oakley and Gu.
“It’s pretty cool to be this old and be sponsored by bicycle companies,” Smith said. “I’m hoping to be the first old man across the finish line.”
The DK200 begins and ends in what some would call one incredibly long day. However, months of preparation on the part of riders and race organizers make that one long day possible.
“I race mountain bikes too, so I ride year round,” Smith said. “It has changed a little bit over the last month or so when I started riding some longer rides. Over the last month, I’ve started doing 110-140-mile rides one day a week.”
2014 is the first year that the DK200 has had a full-time director. Jim Cummins was co-creater of the DK200 in 2006 when 36 racers took part in the first event. While DK200 is still a grassroots affair it has grown to include more than 1,200 riders and requires year-round attention.
The sun was slowly rising as Commercial Street filled with riders and fans on Saturday morning. At 6 a.m. the peddles began to turn, and Dirty Kanza 200 officially started.
Cowbells rang, fans screamed, and the bikes flew past. Over 1,200 riders began to grind the gravel in what proved to be a record breaking ride through the Flint Hills.
Low wind, mild temperatures and dry roads created perfect riding conditions on Saturday. As riders finished they shared stories of brutal hills, moments of fatigue and the beauty of the Flint Hills. Flat tires were a common challenge shared among riders. However, Jensen was fortunate to experience a good ride.
“Some people had mechanical issues,” Jensen said. “I got the record because of good conditions. I was pretty lucky with my equipment. It was good, really good.”
The passion for gravel grinding has grown considerably over the years. Smith took a moment to look back to when he first started gravel grinding years ago.
“You know when I first started riding,” Smith said. “I’d go out on those gravel roads and I wouldn’t see any tire tracks. And now I see people riding all over the place. It’s strange now if you don’t see tire tracks. It’s pretty neat. And now that it’s even closer to the Dirty Kanza and I’m out there riding I will see like a farmer and his wife coming by in their pickup and they are giving me a thumbs up. It’s pretty cool.”
Support is essential
200 miles of secluded riding can take a toll on riders. The DK200 is designed to challenge riders physically and mentally. Being self-sufficient while on the route is a key factor in every riders success. Their limited contact with civilization does end every 45-60 miles when they reach checkpoints. Checkpoints also provide riders a brief period to meet their support team, restock their supplies and get some additional encouragement to continue on the ride. The official checkpoints are the only spots on the route that riders can meet their support crew.
“What keeps me going is my support crew,” Smith said. “They are excited about it and they talk about it all year. I can come in and be totally wiped out. And I see them and they are laughing and having fun and then I can keep going. I just want to do well for them and I know they will be waiting for me at the next stop. I just want to get in there and make them proud.”
Support crews are encouraged for every rider. The “Never Let Go” foundation dedicated to the memory of Adrian Lewis Solano had support crews for hire for racers this year. The foundation provided support for over 200 riders.
“It’s a lot of work to support one person,” said Jennifer Benjamin with the “Never Let Go” foundation. “Let alone 200 people, but it’s fun. The first year we did it we had 65 riders, the second year we had about 125 and now over 200. We were at every checkpoint, waiting for them.”
Finish line favorites
The Dirty Kanza Finish Line Celebration has become a favorite among riders and fans alike. The 600-800 blocks of Commercial were closed to traffic but opened to venders, fans and a lot of cow bells.
As riders entered the finish line chute they were greeted by hundreds of cheering fans lining the way. The sounds of cow bells and yelling fill their ears. The support means a great deal to riders.
“At first I didn’t think they would be expecting me,” said Jensen. “Then all of a sudden everyone was just yelling at the same time. It was loud. It was good.”
The finish line party has grown each year. Smith explains how the growth of the event and the community response has encouraged him over the years.
“The first time I watched the DK200 it started at a little motel,” said Smith. “There wasn’t many riders, no police escort, limited support, they finished in the dark by flashlight and I thought why would anybody want to do this. Then just a few years later I rode and there was a huge finish line party. Now it is exciting. Now that (the finish line party), is something we talk about all year.”
The impact an event like the DK200 has on the community is powerful. This week more than 2,000 tourists filled Emporia hotels, restaurants and shops. Downtown businesses report a significant increase in business. Danny Giefer, city commissioner, was pleased with the positive impact the DK 200 has on the city.
“This means a lot of people coming into town, you drive around town and restaurants and hotels are full. It brings a lot of energy into town. It is a fun time for people and it is also an opportunity for great advertising for Emporia. People coming into town will see what Emporia is and what we have to offer.”
The DK200 also impacted fans emotionally. Many spectators commented on the commitment and dedication the riders have to take on such an extreme race. Some fans were motivated themselves to take part in the DK lite 20 and 50-mile rides.
Darby Wilson, Randy Smith’s niece was beaming with pride as her uncle crossed the finish line Saturday night. Watching Smith complete the DK200 was an emotional experience for Wilson.
“It’s overwhelming and inspiring,” said Wilson. “I’m absolutely in awe of his fight and drive and commitment. He is the epitome of physical and mental strength and is a remarkable man. I’m so proud to be his niece.”
A total of 468 ultra athletes completed the DK200. It was 2:55 a.m. when the final DK200 racer crossed the finish line. Another 320 riders completed the DK Half Pint. Twenty four Emporians completed the DK200 this year. Another 47 Emporians completed the DK Half Pint.
The top three men overall for 2014 Dirty Kanza 200 are:
Brian Jensen, #208, 10:42:49
Barry Wicks, #598, 11:04:39
Jonathan Schottler, #161, 11:06:35
The top three women overall for 2014 Dirty Kanza are:
Rebecca Rusch, #2, 12:11:15
KT DeSantis, #273, 12:58:24
Angie Rake, #780, 13:26:44
DK200 is over for 2014. Records were broken and fun was had. Now riders and event organizers will rest for a few days. Their rest will be short lived. Dirty Kanza 2015 is less than a year away.