Dirty Kanza Review: The Bikes That Got Us Here

By Zap

For the fourth year running Road Bike Action is readying a team to compete in what is arguably the toughest & biggest gravel race on the calendar – the Dirty Kanza 200. In the coming days RBA editors Troy Templin, Jon Hornbeck and RBA contributor Janel Holcolmb will be heading to Emporia, Kansas to tackle the longest bike race any of them have ever attempted. Or, as Jon put it so succinctly when he realized that his day in the saddle would likely be in the 12-15 hour range, “Oh my God…that is so gnarly!”

For every year that we have participated in the DK, we have built up specific project bikes (below) in the attempt to test the latest gravel product as it has evolved. Following each participation, we have come away with more experience of what a proper gravel bike could/should be. Without a doubt it’s been this first person knowledge base that has enabled RBA to lead the way in gravel bike tech knowledge and expertise.


Three years prior to Gerard Vroomen rolling out his aero inspired 3T Exploro gravel bike last year, former RBA editor Neil Shirley got our Kanza ball rolling by jumping into the Specialized  wind tunnel to maximize the aero performance of everything from his Crux race bike to his clothing and accessories. In his first year out in Kansas, Neil got rammed from behind and suffered a broken derailleur. After turning his bike into a singlespeed, Neil eventually limped in just over 15 hours after he started.


For his second attempt at the DK 200, Neil worked closely with Ridley in developing their X-Trail gravel bike. Of all the Euro bike brands, Ridley was an early adapter of the gravel scene. Just as occurred  in the previous year, Neil’s race came unglued early on with a broken rear derailleur.

After spying Tim Johnson’s prototype race bike mounted with a Lefty fork in the pits at the 2015 cyclocross national championships, Zap figured that the 30mm of front wheel travel would be a boon for his attempt at the 100 mile half-pint race. This was the year of the big rain that created a four mile hike-a-bike section. It was from this bike that Cannondale took certain design cues to create the Slate and later, the revamped (and much improved) Super-X cross bike. Other than a bruised calf from  the four miles of pedal slap while crying and pushing the bike, Zap was able to finish in 24th place on the Cannondale.


Furthering our effort to bring something new to Dirty Kanza each year, Neil hitched an exclusive ride aboard the much talked about Open UP gravel bike in 2016. Up front we mounted the Lauf gravel specific suspension fork that had 30mm of travel. Neil took full advantage of the Open’s asymmetrical chainstays to run 38mm Teravail tires mounted on Enve wheels, plus three bottle mounts the top tube storage box.

The third time did mark the charm for Neil to finish the DK 200 without mechanical mis-hap. As usual, Neil pre-rode the start and finish sections of the course the day before the race.


Although Zap had his special Di2 1x Shimano drivetrain(Ultegra shifters mated to an XT rear derailleur and 11-42 cogset) figured out in advance, it wasn’t until the Sea Otter Classic in mid-April that the frame came together thanks to Alchemy who supplied a carbon Hyas for the effort. Reynolds wheels, Specialized Trigger Pro tires, Pro aluminum stem & handlebars,  a Thomson aluminum seatpost and ProLogo saddle, 140mm rotors, Lizard Skins bar tape, and Crank Bros. Candy pedals rounded out the accessory package. Of course if it wasn’t for his Wahoo Element GPS computer he would probably still be out their looking for the route to the finish.


This is what most bikes looked like in their post-Kanza profile. Each year it’s the combination of mud, head winds, heat or cold (depending), and notorious flint rock roads that provide the most gruelling challenge to finishing.

At 6:00 on Saturday morning, just over 2000 riders will line up in front of the downtown theatre on Main St. for one of the toughest two-wheeled challenges in America.


Welcome to the plains of Kansas. Despite the miles and miles of flat roads, there is still close to 10,000 feet of climbing (for the 200 miler) to contend with…especially over a series of rollers that annually are bedeviled by strong head winds.


If you’re gonna be on your bike for up to 20 hours in arduous conditions, having extra storage for spare parts and food is essential. The key word for finishing the DK 200 is survival…come prepared!


The fastest finish time ever came courtesy of Brian Jensen. Last year’s winner was Ted King who finished in over 11 hours. After bonking hard, Neil rolled in at just over 14 hours. For the majority of DK200 riders it can take between 18-22 hours which make proper lighting (with a back-up battery) a necessity.


Despite three flat tires, Dirty Kanza rookie Ted King used the endurance gleaned from his days as Pro Tour rider to take the win last year aboard his Cannondale Slate.


The best advice we can give beyond being prepared for anything and everything in the race, is to visit Casa Ramos after the race for a cold Margie and delicious combo plate – the food and service are first rate.


Besides an incredible sense of relief and personal accomplishment, every finisher also receives a Dirty Kanza pint glass at the end of the race.


One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, Jim Cummins is the promoter and master of ceremonies at Dirty Kanza. Besides maintaining rider safety, promoting a sense of self-sufficiency and community for the riders is a key goal for Jim.


Although we remain really enthusiastic about participating the Dirty Kanza 200, there is a level of enthusiasm that, unlike some, we won’t cross!

Be sure to check in soon for a gallery of the bikes that Team RBA will be riding in this year’s running of the Dirty Kanza 200.

LaufJim CumminsShimanoLizard SkinsCannondaleSpecializedridleyAlchemyDirty KanzaOrbea