200 MILES. 1600 RIDERS. GRAVEL. MUD. KANSAS.
Kansas is beautiful. The horizon seems bigger, the land seems to stretch into infinity anywhere you turn. It turns out, in places like this, there are some (slightly crazy) people who really enjoy riding through miles and miles of difficult terrain for sport! These riders shun the highway, and instead turn to the gravel filled backroads. You will find them all over the United States, but here in Kansas is the mother of all "gravel grinding" events, the Dirty Kanza.
The DK is a 200 mile race through the toughest terrain the state has to offer. Claylike mud clings to the riders bikes and shoes, flinging up from their wheels unto their backs, chest, and face in globs. Riders will frequently stop and slowly pick the mud from inside their bikes and around their tires, just so that they can continue.
When riders aren't being slowed by quicksand-like mud, they are speeding along gravel roads, up and down steep (and sometimes long) inclines. They must carry all their gear on them, no outside help is permitted. If they break down along the way, (which is virtually impossible to avoid) they fix the problem or drop out.
Seth and I got an early start, beginning from Chicagoland at around 4 AM. We arrived in Emporia right about 2PM and began getting accustomed to the town. We decided that it would be advantageous to explore the course a little, so we headed north. We discovered that just a mile out of town felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.
Day two started out wet. Normal backroads were turned into swamps, and as the downtown Kanza promoters began to setup, we set a game plan for the day. Because the race started early the next morning, we wanted to get close-up shots of our riders. The rain finally began to clear up around noon, and after some great Mexican food, we headed out!
After scouting for awhile, we headed back into town to meet our riders and plan for the days ahead. Thanks to some advice from Jason and Eric, we were able to get an idea of what the race would look like for us logistically.
One problem we were tasked with solving was to create adequate rain-protection for our camera gear. We found a great guide online showing how to make a DIY rain cover, and gave it a shot!
Seth began filming from a van-side door, while I chauffeured. The guys from Axletree and Brooks began their short ride, and we followed alongside, at times shouting out instructions for them to follow. The shots were awesome, and the roads weren't too muddy... yet.
After we got the shots we wanted, we headed back into town to let the guys clean off their bikes and get some rest. Seth and I headed out to shoot some time-lapses before dark! The cows on the roadside were curious to say the least, and groups of 30 or so would slowly gather and approach from the sides of the road.
RACE DAY. The race began at 6 AM, so we were up at 4:30. We grouped up with our riders, and got up on top of a local theatre's awning. As 6:00 approached, the riders began to gather at the start line. The street was filled with color, each rider's jersey blending into a sea of cyclists.
As the countdown ended, a wave of bikes and riders washed forward upon the course. We followed the wave for the first mile in our jeep, then set out to intercept them at the 13 mile mark.
As we drove, we began to realize just how bad conditions were. There was a slight misty rain, cold morning air, and a strong driving wind. Combined with the disastrous state the previous day’s rain had left the roads in, we were shocked to see riders bravely traversing the muddy hills of the first leg. Around the 13th mile we stopped to film, and caught riders at a most difficult point. The mud was deep enough that many riders were carrying their bikes along the path, some even running. A few had mechanical failures and called it quits right then and there.
As cold and unforgiving as the conditions were, I could not help but continually marvel at the landscape. The plains of Kansas seem to stretch on into eternity. I continually attempted to take photos that would capture what I was seeing, but was unable to. The photo above is almost 360 Degrees wide, yet looks almost like a normal photograph.
As the race continued, we watched our riders traverse obstacles we thought impossible to pass. 4 of our crew dropped out due to mechanical failure, but two remained to endure. At points along the trail, you could look out and see for miles with nothing but the grass and sky to focus on. The landscape seemed to continue forever, and the soft mist forced a chilling feeling upon both the riders and ourselves.
The day wearing on, we decided to break from our filming on the course, and head back into town to catch the first riders at the finish line. We arrived just in time. Shortly after 7:00 the first and second pro-racers completed the course, their time around 13 hours total.
As they rode into town, a massive crowd greeted them with cheers, cowbells and shouts. Every few minutes, another rider would arrive, each greeted with the same welcome. The first riders aside, many riders took much longer to reach the finish line, stretching from 10 all the way until 3am. Our riders continued through the now dark and wet courses, traversing dangerous hills and pathways with only their small headlamps to guide them. When they finally rolled in at around 2am, the rest of our crew was there to cheer them on.
Our two riders looked as if energy would never return to their bodies, but somehow they found it in them to celebrate with a beer. Our day over, we headed back for some needed rest.
To think that these guys went nearly half the distance between our location and Chicago is absolutely insane, but crazy is what you have to be (at least a little bit) to attempt a feat like this. I am so glad that I got to be a part of cheering these guys on, and I am incredibly excited to see this video come together. Thanks for reading! -Evan