Last weekend we sent one of our most trusted and talented test riders to the Dirty Kanza 200. He rolled into town on a Foundry Overland built specifically for the challenge. What follows is the blow-by-blow account of his day covering over 200miles of Kansas gravel against the strongest field in Dirt Kanza history. A story more about the people behind the event, and the riders in the event than his battle at the front to win the 40-44 field and finish 3rd overall.

Mike Easter/Images Gravel Guru

RELATED: Big Thanks to Gravel Guru for the image. Check out their Facebook page and podcast here. 

I didn’t take long after arriving in Emporia, KS, to fall in love with the event and the city. The residents and businesses had Dirty Kanza signs for the riders and there was a noticeable welcoming as you drove into town. Registration and the Expo had a laid back feel as 100’s of riders milled about. Check-in was easy, well-staffed, and full of people there to encourage the riders. My primary goal at check-in was to find a support crew to take my supplies to the three checkpoints. As I was walking through the venue I found a booth that was taking donations for “Never Let Go,” (scroll down to the bottom to learn more about this non-profit fighting childhood cancer) which were volunteering as support crews to raise money for four local families with children battling cancer. The ladies that were at the booth were so amazing, despite being at capacity they graciously offered to help me. Standing there I was struck by their heart to serve others in order to help care and support those in their community. Every rider at Kanza will have a story, my story of Kanza and the City of Emporia was more about People than it was Bikes and Gravel. The people of Emporia and “Never Let Go” reminded this SoCal kid of the importance of community, encouragement, and the endurance to overcome the journey.

The Start
I got up at 3am to eat a real breakfast (oatmeal/coffee) and start the caloric intake early. I ate another meal at 4:30am (eggs, toast, and banana) and then sipped on Clif Hydration and Water until the start at 6am. The buzz and excitement of hundreds of gravel riders in the pre-dawn hours was contagious. The start was corralled based on expected finishing time. It started at the front with 12 hours and continued in 2 hour increments back further than I could see. I corralled in the 12 hours section and enjoyed the pre-ride atmosphere and that nervous excitement where you begin reassuring yourself, “You got this!”. They called up numerous riders to the front to recognize their contributions to the cycling community and/or their past performances. Not expecting a call up, I was sure to stay close to the front and see who the top contenders were.

To Checkpoint 1 (0 to 48 miles)
The start was neutral to the first gravel section and surprisingly it actually was neutral! A nice easy roll out. Then after a couple miles we made a right turn onto the first gravel… I mean mud and 3 inch deep water section. It went from excitement to survival in one right turn. Bikes and riders began to fall apart, so I began bike survival mode and made sure to keep light on the power and remain very cautious of my line and drivetrain. As we exited the mud onto dry gravel I looked around and the 30 or so riders who made the front group looked like we just finished 206 miles and we had just done the first 10 miles. This lead group was comprised of some seasoned riders, with Ted King, Tim Johnson, Neil Shirley and Yuri Hauswald. There was a noticeable feeling of relief amongst the groups as we were thankful to have made the front group with bikes and body still moving. The group rolled on at a good pace, but each rider was still conservative in their effort at this stage.

At Checkpoint 1
I knew getting in and out of Checkpoint 1 quickly was going to be important. The group still had a lot of nervousness and desire to push the pace. As I came into to checkpoint 1 I had no idea where my support crew would be or even who they might be. Amazingly they recognized me, yelling and waving me into their tent. They had my supplies ready, filled my 4 bottles, and then they did something more. What they did was Encourage me, one lady rubbed my back as I frantically stuffed food in my jersey. She told me, “You are doing great, you can do it.” Her encouragement brought me back to my Kanza story and it reminded me to enjoy my Kanza journey.

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (48 to 107.5 miles)
The group was noticeably smaller coming out of Checkpoint 1, we lost several riders in that transition. About 2 miles outside of the checkpoint we hit another mud section, this one was rutted, off camber, and super sticky. This section claimed another several rider’s drivetrains and they lost contact with the lead group. As we continued on leg two, multiple-Kanza winner Yuri Hauswald called for a pee break. No one in the group either had to go or didn’t thinking stopping was a good idea. I normally would pee off the bike, but remembered that my Kanza story wasn’t about bikes, but People. I told Yuri I would stop with him, little did I know that he would pee for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t see the lead group and thought, “Well at least I am still with Yuri and together we will ride the group back.” As we began our chase back, I could see Ted King was keeping the group slow so we could get back on.

After Yuri and I latched back on to the group, the group continued to ride together until we hit the Kanza rollers of death. Here the group began to splinter with a couple riders making solo efforts to get away from the group. Nothing was working, until Brian Jensen (2014 Winner) made a move and quickly put some distance on the group. Ted said we may want to go with that, but it was obvious that there were not many who had the legs to make that effort. Then, Ted attacked and rode across to Brian. It felt like a bomb went off in our group. Suddenly we had Ted and Brian up the road with two riders chasing them, and our reduced group of about 8 riders containing Shirley and Johnson.

Despite Shirley’s wisdom of saying stay together, I got anxious and rode across to the two chasers. This proved to be my first mistake, I burned a lot of energy going across, only to get caught by the group a short time later. As the group linked up with the chasers, we saw Ted King on the side of the road fixing a rear flat. Which meant only Brian Jensen was still up the gravel road. The group again started to splinter over the tough rollers and I found myself in a three man group, chasing Brian Jensen. During the chase I made my second mistake, I hit a cattle crossing very hard and cut both front and back tires. I could hear them losing air, but hoped they would seal. I continued on in mostly disbelief, but ultimately stopped since the tire pressure was too low to safely continue. Third mistake, I took out a Co2 and just refilled both tires. I know it was not the right decision, but I was hoping it would be a quick fix. I continued on solo at this point and quickly realized both tires were almost flat again. I stopped and put a tube in each tire, as I watched Ted, Neil, Tim, and others ride by. I filled the tubes to max pressure and figured I would rather have limited traction than a pinch flat. I told myself to remember there is still over 100 miles of riding and to settle in for a chase. As I road on to Checkpoint 2 I passed 4 riders, one being Tim Johnson who was helping a friend with a flat repair.

At Checkpoint 2
Entering checkpoint 2 I was alone and a bit foggy headed already. I rolled through the timing area and continued all the way through the checkpoint, then realized I missed my support crew. I turned around and found my crew and I was in need of some encouragement. They took such great care of me, filling bottles helping me clean the bike, cleaning my glasses, and giving me a much needed “You are doing great, you are in 6th place!” That really perked me up, since I thought I was much further back after my flat fixing mistakes.

Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 (107.5 to 161.5 miles)
I had stuck to my pre-ride meal plan, but was feeling like I needed something more. I remembered I stuffed a Clif Organic Energy Food in my jersey. The package said “Before,” and I thought well that is before a criterium or road race. I am going to take “Before” to mean before the next 100 miles of gravel I want some Banana Maple Oatmeal. I squeezed the maple goodness into my mouth and became the happiest I had been in 100 miles of riding ever. It was the perfect meal.

I was alone still and figured I was going to solo the next 100 miles, but as I came over one of the big rollers I could see two figures several minutes ahead. Chasing them became my motivation, and I took time markers as I rode them down over the next 10 miles, chipping slowing away at the gap.

After catching them all I wanted to do was sit in the draft and relax. The wind in the second half of the ride was absolutely brutal. Instead, I could tell they also needed help battling the wind and the three of us shared duties at the front, with the strongest rider being Michael Sencenbaugh (2nd Overall). Unfortunately Michael is about 5’6” and about 130lbs. Riding behind him at 6’2” and 185lbs. was not my idea of drafting. After riding together until approximately 120 miles, we lost the one rider whose name I didn’t catch. Sencenbaugh and I continued on together and encouraged each other through the wind and hills. This section of the course was the most difficult for me. I ran out of water in this longer stretch of the course. It also caught up with Neil and another unnamed rider as we caught and passed them as they dismounted to rest. I was at my lowest in the ride through this leg of the course. The head wind, heat, humidity, and terrain were breaking me. Had Sencenbaugh not been there to encourage me on, I too would have stopped to rest on the side of the road.

At Checkpoint 3
As we entered Checkpoint 3, Sencenbaugh and I agreed to wait for each other at the exit and continue to share the ride to the finish. Once again the “Never Let Go” support crew were excellent and gave me the final encouragement to leave Checkpoint 3 and ride on to the finish.

Checkpoint 3 to finish (161.5 to 206.4 miles)
Sencenbaugh and I linked up and I felt relieved to know we had just 45 miles left. Sencenbaugh became an even more vital friend during the last 45 miles. I had been running a Garmin for navigation and a Lezyne for distance, time, and speed. My Garmin ran out of power and I became absolutely dependent on Sencenbaugh for navigation. In the last 20 miles I was also becoming a wheel sucker and Sencenbaugh never once complained or even told me to help more. He even told me it was okay and he would take the pulls into the head wind. As I sat behind him I was reminded again of my Kanza story. A story about People and not about Bikes, Sencenbaugh didn’t know what my Kanza story was, but over the last half of the route he became the poster boy of my Kanza story. He selfishly rode in the wind, he gave me encouragement, and when I told him he didn’t have to wait, that he could ride on, Sencenbaugh said he wouldn’t leave me, he enjoyed having the company.

Finish
As we came into the final couple of miles, Sencenbaugh and I thought we would be 3rd and 4th . He asked if I was going to sprint for 3rd , I laughed and said, “No, because I would beat you and you deserve 3rd.” It appeared he didn’t believe me and I reassured him that there is absolutely no way I would sprint. He was still a bit reluctant to accept and as we came into the finishing chute I told him ride ahead and enjoy the finish for yourself and I will slow down to ride in behind.

The excitement of seeing town again was slightly emotional, especially since I “Found my Limit.” I enjoyed the high-fives of the crowd and road in to hear I had finished 3rd and Sencenbaugh was 2nd . He reached out to shake my hand and I hugged him, he seemed surprised but without Sencenbaugh, and the support crew at “Never Let Go” my story would have been about how I almost finished Kanza. Instead, my Kanza story is about how community, encouragement, and endurance to overcome can change one’s journey from an ‘almost’ to a ‘complete success’.

Thank you Emporia, Dirty Kanza, Sencenbaugh, and “Never Let Go” for your community and encouragement that allowed me to “Find my Limit,” but still find the endurance to finish well.

Look for a detailed review of Mike’s Foundry Overland in the next issue of peloton, including all the numbers,  from calorie intake to average watts. 

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Our test rider, Mike Easter, with Sandy Knight of ‘Never Let Go’ the day before the race.

To Learn more about the ‘Never Let Go Fund’ and its work fighting childhood cancer check them out on Facebook: Never Let Go