Surviving 100 Miles of Gravel Roads On a Bicycle

Cycling is a great way to get places, to see things, and to connect to a group of people who truly view themselves as a community. However, after casual riding on the bike path, some dirt trails, or maybe even some spandex, high miles, and skinny road tires, there has to be something bigger, badder, harder and dirtier out there.

There is, and it's called the Dirty Kanza out of Emporia, Kansas.

There are multiple distances, but the king of gravel racing is the DK200. 200 miles of gravel roads, creek crossings, blood, sweat, mud, and a whole bunch of other stuff that probably could and should stop anyone on a bike. Put in the work, talk to the right people, and keep your eyes on the prize, and slaying one of the most grueling endurance races in the world is within your grasp. I have proudly conquered the DK100 on my first try, and subsequently failed at it the next year. It's just that kind of race. The key to a race like this is to put yourself in the best position to finish, not to win, but to be able to get it done and maybe even enjoy some of it along the way.

How to Prepare

Most people are probably going to say that training is the most important thing you can do to get ready for a race like the DK, but that's only kind-of true. The first, and most important thing for me was actually signing up for the race. I know it sounds like a "duh" moment, but it's absolutely true. I talked about signing up for it for three years before I did. Finally, I made the decision that "maybe next year" was never going to happen unless I took the plunge, so I set my alarm for the day of registration, got up and got my credit card ready, and got signed up. Now I had to do it, so time to start training.


First off, it is probably better if you are more than just a casual cyclist if you want to give one of the DK races a try. There are 200, 100, and 50-mile versions and the training is pretty much the same for all of them. You are going to need miles, nutrition, and a bike setup that is both comfortable and efficient.

The general rule for training distance for endurance riding is that if you can comfortably ride 50 percent of your final distance, then you should be fine riding the full amount. Granted, this is more of a general rule, but the operative rule is "comfortably." If 50 miles kicks your ass, 100 miles is probably not going to happen. Make sure you get to the point where you can knock out half of your final distance without pain, major discomfort, or bike fit issues.

Nutrition and Hydration

Nutrition and hydration are both critical, but nutrition probably gets overlooked by more people than hydration. Your body is a diesel truck in a race like this, and you are going to need calories and salt. It's ok to pack some of those fancy little packets of gels and capsules and powders and other witch's brew, but you need real food too. The smartest decision I made during the DK100 was to pack two pieces of pizza wrapped in foil in my jersey pocket. It didn't bind me up like energy/race foods do, and there was something very calming about sitting under a tree with some cows while shoveling pizza and beef jerky into my mouth.

Bike Setup

My right leg is normally covered by a large tattoo.  Now it's just covered with gravel dust.

The third prep item is your setup. I integrated hydration and nutrition into how my bike was set up. Rather than wear a hydration backpack, I used the bladder and drinking hose from a well-known brand, found a frame bag it would fit snugly in, and attached the mouthpiece to my handlebars with a retractable I.D. badge holder that a friendly school nurse gave me. That way, I could grab the hose, suck down some water, and just spit the hose out. Food access was also handled up front, with two bags shaped like extra-large can coozies strapped to the handlebars on either side of the stem. Beef jerky, meat sticks, and granola bars in one; gels, electrolyte pills, and other random stuff in the other.

The Race

The race itself will probably end up being kind of a relief, especially if it's the maiden voyage for gravel endurance at this distance. Up at six in the morning and downtown before the sun rises, the people of Emporia will make sure you feel like a champ. Don't get too caught up in the cowbells though, because it is a long-ass day and I watched a lot of people pass me in the first few hours only to see them sitting by the side of the road trying to stretch out cramps in their legs, backs, and necks. Ride with some friends, or if you didn't bring any riding buddies, try to link up with a group. You may end up sharing food, tools, and sunscreen but at least you'll have a pace group to ride with and someone to share an occasional grunted conversation with instead of singing Prince songs over and over in your head.

Although completing the race itself was one of my proudest athletic moments, the race itself is a combination of cultures and camaraderie of cyclists, outdoors-people, beer and food. It's really just people who love life and love getting out and living it. The people of Emporia kick ass every year in opening up their town to those of us who come from around the world, the other cyclists kick ass in always stopping to lend a hand if someone has a breakdown, and everyone comes together with the pride that comes from being able to say "Hell yeah, we did that!"

The Aftermath

I may have only done the Half Pint, which is what they have so graciously named the 100-mile version of the race, but it is still something I am damn proud of. And even though it has been a few years now, I still feel pretty damn cool every time I fill up that little eight-ounce glass with my favorite brew knowing that I earned it.

Drew is in search of his next cycling adventure that also involves beer and good people, so drop him a line if you've got something he should add to the list.