Photos: Eric Wynn, Paulina Batiz, Jason Ebberts, IM Design, and Nick Legan. Words: Dan Hughes
As a bike shop owner and journeyman endurance bike rider, I’ve often wondered if we in the bike industry effectively market the joys of riding your bike over great distances and extreme terrain. So often the imagery seems to focus on the suffering of the pursuit, with gritty black and white images of people caked in mud or epic grimaces on their faces as they toil to get to the finish line. This is supposed to hook future riders on the idea of riding bikes in their free time? Abject anguish is fun? Suffering is the antonym of happiness. Says so right there in the dictionary.
Lately, I’ve been over it. In fact, lately I’ve been over a lot of stuff. The last couple of years have been a bit of a roller coaster for me and I’ve had some moments that could have been clinically defined. I didn’t want to ride my bike, I felt isolated from friends and family, and while I never seriously considered self-harm, I wasn’t above eating and drinking my way to the same destination. It was not fun to be me, be around me, or probably even think about me.
After ten Dirty Kanza 200s, a Trans-Iowa, a few Gravel Worlds, and six Rebecca’s Private Idahos, I can tell you that the idea of suffering for the sake of suffering doesn’t hold the same allure that it once did. Don’t get me wrong…I think I still have the capacity to suffer, but seeking it out? Maybe not. Maybe I’m getting soft. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe suffering is not that fun anymore. I quit last year’s Trans-Iowa when a beer and a burger in a tiny Iowan town seemed like a better idea. I quit last year’s Dirty Kanza XL when I was tired, a big storm was blowing in, there was still a long way to go, and the prospect of watching my son race the high school race was the perfect excuse-tree I needed to pull the plug. Afterwards, I felt like I had let people down, but honestly I didn’t care. I was done with suffering.
So it makes perfect sense that I would sign back up for this year’s DKXL, right? Well let me explain.
Before I do however, I should point out that from a fitness perspective, I have never been in worse shape in my life. In 2015 I rode 4300 miles from January 1 to prepare for the Kanza. 2016 was 33% less…2900 miles. 2017? 23% less than the year before (2299). 2018 was even less, and 2019 was the worst yet…only 1300 miles since the first of the year. 70% fewer miles than 2015. But I didn’t need the stats to tell me how much I was slacking, as I could see it every time I looked in the mirror. Close friends called me “fat” to my face, and questioned how if I abandoned the DKXL last year, how was this year going to be any different? My mom even said “you’re asking for a heart attack if you do that race.” True words all, but those fewer miles meant I was avoiding suffering (in training) and was instead chasing happiness.
But I do like to challenge myself, so the question was: could I pull off a DKXL and have a good time? 350 miles of Flint Hills gravel? Without suffering? From the couch? I was about to find out.
The carnival of Dirty Kanza has expanded greatly over the years. In the past, it was possible to drive down to Emporia on Friday afternoon and launch into the weekend. Not so anymore. A serious fear of missing out (FOMO) meant that I wended my way down to the Flint Hills on Wednesday evening; for a number of reasons but also so I could be bright-eyed and bushy tailed for some serious modeling work on Thursday morning for the Shimano folks.
A quick word about the Shimano angle. For the past 18 months, Shimano (the bike industry’s biggest supplier) has been working on developing a gravel-specific component group. To do so they have enlisted the aid of about 20 gravel ambassadors from across North America (of which I am honored to be one…fun fact: I’m the oldest codger on the squad) to amass feedback and provide guidance to folks in the industry that are grappling with exactly “what is gravel?” Interestingly (to my eye), this has been done by bringing the “Shimano Gravel Alliance,” as we’re known, together at various events to ride, commune, and occasionally race…but on every trip the goal has been to have fun. Weird. Is that even marketable? I don't know, but the result has been a tight-knit group of riders that are riding really cool gear, having enjoyable experiences, and spreading the word about it far and wide.
Nerd alert: If you’re reading this novella to get the deets on Shimano’s new offering, here you go. Shimano’s new GRX group is a mid-tier component group (perfect for about 90% of the folks that are tackling these gravel endurance events) that comes in a myriad of options: 1x, 2x, 10-speed mechanical, 11-speed mechanical, 11-speed electronic, a bunch of cassette options, a dropper post, in-line hydro brake levers and more. The biggest changes are an improved lever shape (with a ribbed hood for grip) that are FAR more comfortable than anything I’ve ridden in a long time and which also feature a repositioned pivot point for better braking from the tops of the hoods. Additionally, they’ve moved the crankset outboard by 2.5mm for better clearance between the rear tire and the front mech. Like many things in the bike industry (and because I’m a jaded, crusty, old dude) I approached all of this stuff with a “really…how can you make it better?” attitude, but let me tell you: this stuff is the shit. I have never been more comfortable on my gravel bike and the new hood shape allows me a plethora of positions over the course of a long ride (339 miles of Kanza gravel, no gloves, no blisters). And while I might have eschewed the lack of a 50-34 front ring option, I never missed it last weekend and was immensely grateful for the low 31x32 option for climbing those steep and loose Kanza climbs. That this stuff will be available on a lot of bikes and not just halo bikes is pretty damn cool. I’m all about making gravel accessible to more people. Okay, here endeth the techno-babble.