“The Dirty Kanza”: One Epic Gravel Bike Race

Gravel riding is on the rise in America. It combines elements of road and mountain biking and typically takes place over unpaved, rural roads. As gravel riding becomes more popular, so do events like the Dirty Kanza and other epic gravel riding races and festivals.

The Dirty Kanza began in 2006 and quickly became one of the most popular gravel riding events in the world. Located in the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas, this epic gravel grind winds through the last remaining tract of natural tallgrass prairie in North America. Every year it proves one of the toughest one-day races that test the endurance and will of every rider.

Just 34 riders participated in the inaugural 200-mile ride. By 2018 the event ballooned to over 2,500 riders and sells out quickly! The Dirty Kanza festival now offers a number of race distances, categories, and events for everyone and any skill level, as well as bike parades, live bands, food and beer, kids activities, vendors, and much more.

Dirty Kanza ride options and activities:

The Lunar Kanza is a fun, recreational, nighttime bike ride under a full moon around Kahola Lake. Stay after the ride for the Lunar Kanza Celebration with food trucks, local brews, music, and games. The entire community—riders and non-riders—come out for this annual festival.

The Dirty Kanza has a category just for high school gravel grinders in their lineup of events. The Dirty Kanza Youth Cycling Fund promotes youth cycling, hosts clinics, and is working to establish an Interscholastic Cycling League in Kansas and throughout the Midwest.

For the more competitive or adventurous riders, there are a number of distance options to choose from at the Dirty Kanza. The DK25 is a “community fun ride”. Just 25 miles long, this ride is perfect for families and people wanting a bite-sized taste of the Dirty Kanza festivities.

The DK50 is a 50-mile gravel ride designed for anyone who wants a slightly longer, less competitive adventure. This extremely rural route passes one fully stocked aid station with food and bike mechanics. While the DK50 is designed for entry-level gravel grinders, riders are responsible for carrying maps, appropriate food, water, and repair kits.

Riders looking for a semi-competitive, middle-distance ride should consider the DK100 “Half-Pint”. This race is designed to help riders take a step toward the full DK200 race and encourage people to get into endurance cycling. Prizes are awarded for top finishers of the DK100 and all riders that complete the entire 100-mile course receive a finisher’s award.

The DK200 is the crown jewel of the Dirty Kanza Gravel Festival. It is 200 miles of ultra-endurance grinding through the most remote areas of the Flint Hills. This is the event that got the festival started and annually draws participants from all over the world. The DK200 is widely recognized as the world’s premier gravel grinder event.

Only the most seasoned and daring gravel riders should consider the DKXL. It’s 350 miles of ultra-endurance pedaling in the dust, heat, and hills. There are no towns between checkpoints… just you and the dirt roads!

How the Dirty Kanza works:

In the DK100, DK200, and the DKXL riders use maps and cue sheets to navigate the route through each checkpoint. Every rider must check in to every checkpoint along the way (50 to 80 miles apart). These official checkpoints are the only locations where riders are allowed to meet their support crew, re-supply food, and water, and fix any mechanical issues they may have.

The fastest riders cover the 200-mile course in about 11 hours. Only about 80% of the riders finish within the 20-hour time limit. It’s a long day and a lot can happen along the desolate roads. Receiving aid from any support crew or non-participant anywhere except at the designated checkpoints results in immediate disqualification.

Riders are responsible for bringing their own support crew to the Dirty Kanza. For some, this is a friend or family member that drives to meet them at each aid station with food, water, tools, and parts for bike repairs. Other riders come with a full support crew of bike mechanic, driver, and nutritionist. Either way, the Dirty Kanza is a great event for riders of all levels and support crew sizes.

Photo credit: Paul Arnold

Preparing for the Dirty Kanza:

Preparing for any big gravel race requires a fair amount of training. Average riders take about 7 hours to complete the DK100 Half Pint ride. In addition to building up the endurance required to tackle the distance and time, athletes need to learn what nutrition their bodies will need to make it through the race. This will help prevent dehydration and “bonking” when your body runs out of calories to burn.

Because the Dirty Kanza does not allow riders to receive mechanical support on the course, you should learn to make basic adjustments and repairs to your bike. Anything can happen on the gravel roads and riders who can make temporary repairs that will get them to the next checkpoint have a much better (and safer) shot at finishing the race.

One fantastic way to prepare specifically for the Dirty Kanza is to attend the Dirty Kanza Training Camp or The Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp. The camp is open to all registered DK riders and takes place in Emporia, Kansas a few months before the race. It includes gravel seminars, nutrition training, opportunities to consult with experts, and training rides on the DK course. The training camp is designed to help riders prepare physically and mentally for one of the most challenging gravel rides in America.

As with any bike ride, preparing for the Dirty Kanza includes learning the route. Study the maps, course descriptions, and cue sheets provided by the race directors. Even though you’ll never be able to plan for everything, knowing the course will help you prepare well for the unknown.

Are you ready to tackle the Dirty Kanza? Have you ridden the DK or another gravel biking event? Share your tips for getting into gravel riding in the comments!

"The Dirty Kanza" - One epic gravel bike race

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