28 May 2019

Kansas is calling: Howes, Morton and Phinney adventure

One day. Two hundred miles of racing, most of it on gravel. More than two thousand people.  

Our EF Education First Pro Cycling sponsored team alternative racing program begins in Emporia, Kansas on Saturday, June 1. Americans Alex Howes and Taylor Phinney and Australian Lachlan Morton will line up for Dirty Kanza, the 200-mile adventure run over the Flint Hills’ gravel roads. There are no borders on our racing program this season — from Kansas to the KOM Challenge in Taiwan, the team is breaking the traditional road racing mold.

 The first finishers typically take about 11 hours, and approximately 80 percent of the riders make the 20-hour cutoff point. Completing Dirty Kanza is a badge of honor. 

“To prepare for Kanza, I spent a week riding on the front at Tour of California,” says Howes. “I also did a 155-mile ride on a mountain bike almost exclusively through deep desert sand with nothing but the hot sun and ravens for company. That was four years ago, and I just now recovered, so I expect to be flying next week. 

 "Most importantly, my grandparents are also from Kansas, so this will most definitely give me a major spiritual and potentially genetic upper hand,” Howes jokes. 
 
“We will not come rescue you,” the Dirty Kanza racer’s manual states in bold letters. “You are responsible for you.” 

Riders are also responsible for rounding up at least one support person. Howes, Phinney and Morton have EF Education First Pro Cycling mechanic Tom Hopper at their disposal, but support at Kanza looks a lot different than the races we’re normally running. 

 There are also no bottle hand-offs, only a few designated feed zones. 
 There is no assistance for mechanicals suffered out on course. 
 There are no rain bags.
 There’s mechanical support only at designated areas, and racers must finish on the same frames upon which they began.  

 There are minimal course markers along the demanding 200-mile course. The Dirty Kanzaracer’s manual warns that the route is desolate and the roads primitive. Riders are expected to print or download maps and cue sheets and use these to navigate the route.

 There are two checkpoints along the way. Here, riders can restock supplies and repair equipment with help from their support crews. Receiving assistance from support crew or any non-participant at any other point along the route results in immediate disqualification. 

 It’s a test unlike any other this season. 

“We are going into the unknown with this race,” says Morton. “I think it will be a huge mental challenge, which is what makes it exciting. Nerves are good. I don’t really get nervous racing anymore, so it’s nice. It means I’m out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I want to get out of this.”  

“I’m a bit nervous, but there’s also something quite calming about knowing a full day of suffering is right around the corner,” says Howes. “I’m looking forward to Kansas. That big wide-open ocean of grass. The empire of the Comanches. Tornado scars. Ghosts of a frontier. Weather beaten windmills. Shiny tractors. Humble pie.”  

“I’m thinking of that moment when only a pancake flat, windy ‘schlog’ consumes my awareness, where I wish I had never started but somewhere deep and fleeting I want it to last forever,” says Phinney. “I’m here to have fun and ride my bike because I love it.” 
What the race lacks in hands-on support it more than makes up for in camaraderie. A mass of riders roll out together, and racers are tested in so many ways out on the course. It’s lonely, but one is hardly alone. 

“Long days on the bikes are my favorite days,” Morton says. “I’m hoping that counts for something.” 

Phinney adds: “I’m looking forward to experiencing a radical shift of perception and the gratitude that accompanies it.” 

The race has become synonymous with its hometown. Emporia opens its arms wide to welcome the race, and main street is ablaze in light late into the night to welcome the racers home, winners or finishers at the 20-hour cutoff alike. 

“The buzz of a big race in a small town is hard to beat,” said Morton. “I think the anticipation before such an epic ride creates a really unique atmosphere.”

We’ll see you in Kansas.