Wanted Man in ‘Ol Emporia – Dan Hughes and the Dirty Kanza 200

In Guest Post by Eric BenjaminLeave a Comment

I am honored to have Dan Hughes, four-time Dirty Kanza 200 champion, guest write on the Adventure Monkey blog today. He is a Rock Star for sure – a legend in these parts. Next week I will share my favorite shots and a report of the race from my perspective. Enjoy.

Wanted man in ol’ Emporia 

Wanted man in Buffalo
Wanted man in Kansas City
Wanted man in Ohio

Wanted man in Mississippi
Wanted man in ol’ Cheyenne

Wherever you might look tonight you might see this wanted man

(apologies to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash)

A few years ago, at the end of a road ride through Death Valley, when both the mileage and the temperature had topped the 115 mark, a photographer snapped a black and white photo of me that encapsulated what I was feeling at that moment…tired, salty, dehydrated, and desperately in need of some hair styling. My mother put it more succinctly when she said: “God…you look like a convict.” Little did I know that the photo would come to frame a significant portion of my thoughts about the 2013 Dirty Kanza.

In the lead-up to this year’s race I was firmly convinced of several things. First, that my time atop the leader board was over. Second, that the presence of big-named pros (like the “Queen of Pain,” Rebecca Rusch) in the 2012 edition meant that the race was officially big-time and 2013 would see an influx of top talent that would blow the race apart, leaving the locals to fend for the scraps. And third, that the hard work of the organizing team (Jim, Kristi, Tim, and many more), the unexpected beauty of Kansas, and the uniqueness of the DK would be recognized by folks on a much broader stage. Turns out I was only partially correct on some of those.

Truthfully, I was happy about all those outcomes (overjoyed about some in fact), but my task was to figure out how to navigate those waters on a personal level. I figured my only option was to lay low, deflect attention, and remind everyone that I was just the guy that got lucky. After all, my long-time mantra when it comes to racing goals is pretty simple: 1) don’t crash or screw up some expensive piece of equipment, 2) don’t embarrass yourself, and 3) hope for a good result. If I can achieve 1 & 2, everything else is gravy.

So when I found out that my “convict” mug shot was to be used for the official DK schedule of events, and that it was going to plastered all over town…well there went the idea of laying low. The big guns of gravel grinding were coming to town and they knew exactly where to aim. Wanted man in ol’ Emporia…that’s me.

To add to the pressure, one of the brands of bikes I sell in my shop, Specialized, had taken a somewhat keen interest in the gravel grinding scene. This was due I think to Rebecca’s (one of their marquee athletes) participation in the DK last year. They asked me a few questions about what I would want in a bike of this type, if I thought there was a market for it, and before I knew it there was a prototype Crux Carbon Pro Disc frame on my doorstep, all blacked-out, looking stealthy and wicked fast (and with three bottle cages). Follow-up question…what happens when the guy who’s face is on the poster and is riding the proto-type bike of his dreams ends up 75th? I didn’t want to think about the answer.

DK weekend came up pretty quickly and we collected Rebecca from the airport and headed to Emporia. Reba had her usual duties talking to the cycling press about her new bike, her recent Kokopelli Trail success, and more. Collin and I tried to blend in as much as possible.

Race day dawned cool and with the promise of a west-northwest wind…uncharacteristic for the Kanza. Reba and I rode “the prologue” from the hotel down to the start and took our places with the other folks shooting for a 12-hour time. All the big names were there…Eddie O’Dea, Daniel Matheny, Garth Prosser, Jay Petervary, Yuri Hauswald, and more. Wearing a non-traditional Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop throw-back cycling kit, I hoped to fly under the radar a little, but too many friends were there in the peloton to go anywhere unnoticed. We shed some last minute clothes, assessed the fitness of our closest competitors (“look at that guy’s legs!”) and we were ready.

At precisely 6am, Race Director Jim Cummins sent us on our way and we were off under the somewhat uneven pace of the Emporia Police Department (no offense!). The start was fast as it’s come to be in recent editions of the Kanza and after a crash in the other paceline took down a number of riders, I decided it was high time to move up. With Reba on my wheel, we took a slight risk and got to the front of the peloton in time to see my training buddy Colin Mahoney leading the pack. Colin has been training like a fiend for the past 12 months, specifically for this event, and looked completely at ease leading us out. I knew he had the legs for a good day.

At the first climb, an inopportune dropped chain (which would also plague me throughout the day) saw Colin move off the front and the lead group of 20-30 moved up the road. The pace was high in this section with a good tailwind blowing and I remember remarking to Yuri Hauswald that “these guys are fast.” “You mean it doesn’t always start out this fast?” was his reply. “No” was all I was able to choke out. This section also featured our first encounter with the mud that everyone had been concerned about prior to the race start and save for the poor soul that was first and tried to ride the mud hole (thereby completely locking up his wheels and wasting chunks of time), we all hopped off and cyclocrossed through grass on the verge. Emporia local Matt Brown encouraged us to be wary of ticks as well, but I don’t think anyone stopped to check themselves. We also had a moment on Road 100 which was scarily reminiscent of last year’s course miscue when the lead group all went off course. This year the pace slowed and in typical racer fashion, no one seemed too keen to be the guy that pulled out the map. “C’mon guys, am I the only one that’s going to pull out the damn map?!” local strongman Joe Fox was heard to say. But ultimately we were on the right road and no backtracking was required.

 Climbing Teapot Mound Road (Twin Towers to the locals)

From here the course rolled up near I-35 and the cattle pens, and the climbs became a little steeper while the gravel became a little chunkier. With the favorable winds at this point, I was more than once sprinting in my 50X11 to stay on the group as favorites like Daniel Matheny, Jay Petervary, and Dennis Wilcox scooted off the front occasionally to figuratively test the waters. We would literally test the waters shortly thereafter as we forded the Verdigris River, swollen by the recent rains. In no previous Kanza to my knowledge has it been necessary to dismount and wade up to your nether regions across a moving river. It was a new experience and provided a good break to the race pace up to that point. After crossing the river, the run-in into the first checkpoint at Madison was fairly routine and I pulled for a significant portion for no other reason than I didn’t want the #1 plate to be hanging on the back any more than necessary. Plus, there was a tailwind. Strangely, no one wanted to sprint for the city limit sign in Madison so I had to lightheartedly take it uncontested for myself.

 The leaders climbing low maintenance just before the Madison checkpoint

My pit stop in Madison was so brief that I thought we might have pulled out an advantage on some folks, but within a couple miles, the majority of the group was back together again (one brief side note: in the 7 Kanzas that I’ve started, I think 6…last year being the exception…have followed a similar progression: bunch of folks at the start, a group of 10 or less at the first check, 5 or less together at the second check, and 3 or less together at the final stop. This year was no different…weird.)

For anyone that rode the Kanza this year, I think we can all agree that Section 2 was where the hurt was. Travelling primarily into a strong cross-headwind, this section featured chunky gravel, named climbs like Texaco and Battle Creek Hill. Daniel Matheny was clearly the strongest here, routinely dangling off the front and then looking back to make sure we were all still with him. At one point Joe Fox whispered to me that no one else in our group had ever done Texaco Hill, and then with a smirk “that he liked our group.” Well apparently they know how to go uphill in Colorado, California, and Idaho because Texaco Hill didn’t seem to faze them in the slightest and while I struggled to stay on, Joe Fox was gone to ride his own pace. Sorry Joe!

Also in this section I noticed Matheny pulling a totally pro move and relieving himself (so to speak) off the bike while at speed on the gravel. Having done this myself only twice successfully in my 30-year cycling career, I was impressed and concerned simultaneously. Impressed because he made it look so easy, but concerned because it sent a clear message that we weren’t stopping for anything (follow-up side note: I still have only successfully completed this maneuver twice in my cycling career, despite trying to emulate Matheny a few moments later. Let’s say I was “80%” successful).

Moving on through Lapland (once a thriving farming community with 35 families in 1880!) and up Battle Creek Hill saw our group get whittled down one by one (Jay Petervary gone, then Chris Case gone) until it was just Daniel Matheny, Yuri Hauswald, and me. I was pretty sure these were the three strongest guys in the race, but in that order unfortunately. As we approached the second checkpoint at Cassoday, the gravel opened up a little more and we were able to echelon and make good progress towards the half-way point. Upon reaching town I once again jokingly took the city limit sprint with a well-timed bike throw and we agreed to pit stop and roll together after the check.

Let me throw one quick note in here about my pit man, Collin Earhart. Collin works with me as our Bike Shop Manager, but he is completely in his element on race day. Not only was my bike dialed in its preparation, but at each pit stop he kept me there to an absolute minimum. This was perfectly exemplified by the fact that he refused to pack chairs. Moreover, he hid or rendered unusable any surface which could have been sat upon. To me, the stat that counts for the entire Kanza is this one: my total non-moving time was 6 minutes. That includes all the checkpoints and a couple unplanned stops which I’ll get into later. Collin is the best in the business at this game…hands down.

 The Leaders rolling into Cassoday

Collin Earhart, amazingly fast pit man

After Checkpoint 2, Daniel, Yuri, and I rolled east with a raging tailwind and not wanting to waste it, I cranked up the pace a little. This caused some disharmony in our group with Daniel mentioning that “we have six more hours to go, we don’t have to go this fast.” While I debated internally the idea of not maximizing every bit of free speed that we had fought so hard to gain, Yuri caught a rock at a bad angle and flatted. We slowed long enough for me to ask Daniel if we should wait, and when he said “no” we rolled on without Yuri. A long descent into Teterville brought us to the bottom of a bigger climb on rough gravel and while Daniel tried to start a nice conversation with me, I was unable to really respond with much more than mono-syballic grunts (pretty typical for me). Daniel did say at one point that he felt the course was “legit-hard” which I took as a compliment on the Kanza’s toughness. About the only thing I managed to ask him was how old he was. I was already doing the mental arithmetic on whether or not I could at least salvage a win in the 40+ category when Daniel inevitably went up the road.

As we climbed out of the Teterville valley, I noticed Yuri had made a fast flat change and was not far behind us as we tackled a really exposed section of lumpy gravel with terrible winds. I knew that Daniel was nice enough that should I say something like “Yuri is right there, we should wait for him, I can take a pee, and then we can roll towards the finish as a stronger group” he would have totally been on board. But for whatever reason (inability to form words, the fact that Yuri was in my age group and the second strongest in the race behind Daniel, etc.) I didn’t say anything and we left Yuri to twist in the wind on a really tough section. Racing is racing, but I’ll be the first to apologize to Yuri for that.

Climbing into the wind, out of the Teterville valley and into the Madison Oilfields

Yuri Hauswald just behind and catching

Right at the end of the Madison Rd. section I heard the telltale hiss of a puncture and after overcoming the panic that it was me, uttered an expletive when I knew it was Daniel who had flatted. Up to that point we had been rolling along okay and with most of the tough stuff behind us, we had the opportunity to really start cranking it up for the finish. Daniel stopped to fix his flat and I rolled a little further to take a pee (100% successful) and then roll on alone. It was mile 125.

From here on out I was on my own, trying to meter out my effort in such a way that I could hold off the posse of chasers that were hunting me down while keeping enough in the tank to have something to fight with when they caught me. I tried to bury any thoughts of winning way down deep and just focused on riding. And I listened to a lot of Lady Gaga on my iPod.

On the way to the third checkpoint in Cottonwood Falls, in the metropolis of Bazaar, I had a moment of panic. Cresting the hill before the tiny hamlet I noticed a freight train fully stopped on the tracks. As I approached it I contemplated climbing through the cars to elude my pursuers (dumb idea, but I was desperate) but at the last moment it started to move…painfully slowly. It was a long train and while I was stopped for no more than a couple minutes probably, every one of them was spent scanning the distance to catch a glimpse of Yuri and Daniel. I never saw them and as soon as the train cleared I was on my way again.

The remaining miles to Cottonwood Falls passed uneventfully for me, but it was not to be the case for many of the other racers. I firmly believe that where you ended up at the end of the day on the results sheet was influenced by whether or not you made “THE TURN.” Coming off of Rock Creek Rd. on to Den Creek Rd. was an unmarked turn (perhaps previously marked but then destroyed by some area gremlin, I don’t know) and through sheer luck I made the right choice. Many others, including Yuri (who had passed Daniel when he flatted), Daniel, Rebecca Rusch, and Joe Fox did not. This added miles to the distance and minutes to their times. It also added to my cushion going into Cottonwood Falls.

I spent exactly 43 seconds in Cottonwood Falls. Fearing the hounds would be upon me any second, Collin completed the fastest pit stop in history and I was out of there before anyone saw me go. I think Collin even signed autographs after I left, so awesome was his performance. I knew that if I could get north, up around Lake Kahola, I would have a fighting chance of holding people off to the finish so I put some effort into getting there quickly. Again cranking some really bad music I made my way to the turn and then started heading for home. The route into Americus and then to Emporia is probably the flattest and least interesting portion of the course (no offense Americus) but it was exactly what I needed. I waved to some of the folks that were still out finishing up the Half-Pint 100 portion of the Kanza (which had started 15 minutes after us so long ago that morning) and as I hit the pavement at the ESU campus I finally started to believe that I could win.

The crowd at the finish was boisterous, and the cheap champagne that Collin showered me with was equal parts delicious, sticky, and staining. I waited at the finish in my kit for Jay Petervary and Rebecca Rusch (who crushed the women’s field again!) and Yuri to finish and as I did so I mostly felt…lucky. Lucky that I had no mechanicals, lucky that I had not gone off course, lucky that my legs had held out for 77 solo miles. And lucky to have been the winner of four of the eight Kanzas there have ever been.

I imagine that’s the same lucky feeling that a wanted man feels when he throws off the posse.

– Dan Hughes  – 4 Time Dirty Kanza Champion

Feed Your Monkey!