Dirty Kanza and the Holy Grail
SCENE 1.—“You’re using coconuts!”
[grand musical flourish]
[Screen title] Kansas, 2019 B.G. (Before Grail)
Nestled between the half-groves and ancient rock gardens, smudging up against the bluest of skies, is a magical, mystical, whimsical land. Upon this land, rivers flow with velvety, liquid hope, while unicorns frolic gaily on riverbanks to Bjork’s “Venus as a Boy.” Enchantment unfurls across the fields like a giant emotional support blanket, cuddling inhabitants and making random cooing sounds. The serenity is…. Off. The. Charts.
The geo-coordinates of this land are unknowable, and I only bring it up because it sounds exactly like the kind of land where you’d find a holy grail and not here, in this gravel-infested, cow-shit bestowed prairie of the Flint Hills of Kansas. But here we are. Again.
Naughty Zoot left the grail-shaped beacon on, and like knights to the quest, we flock.
Acquiring the coveted Gravel Grail at Dirty Kanza is a quest only true idiots aspire to. It is a useless item. Heavy. Glassy. The sort of thing a person throws change into, or hurls at another person’s head to win an argument and gain instant Crime Channel fame. A successful quest to hold this thing aloft is farcical. All it means is that you’ve completed five Dirty Kanzas and 1,000 miles of hating yourself. Sound appealing? Is this the kind of idiocy you can get behind?
This is a story. It’s real, but also surreal. I lost my mind during it—went a little crazy in the coconut. How do I know? I think this account makes that abundantly clear. Welcome to idiocy. You will need to maintain your air-speed velocity to carry this crazy coconut of an idea all the way to the line. Oh, and one last thing.
When in doubt, grip it by the husk!
SCENE 2.—“Bring out your dead!”
[moody music: the kind you’d expect to hear as fog creeps across a moor]
[Screen title] Emporia Fairgrounds, 4:30 A.M., B.G.
* * *
We open on a muggy landscape, humid and bleak, and focus in on an RV squatting silently on the grass behind a horse yard. Our moment of quiet, sweaty reflection is unceremoniously interrupted by the dulcet tones of a person vomiting in front of an absolutely kick-ass Tacoma.
Let the record show that the offender would like to add the word ‘discretely.’
The hero of this story (identified in the previous paragraph as ‘the offender’ and played admirably by sassy raconteur, Janeen McCrae), has had no sleep. Strike that: perhaps an hour, made up of minutes cobbled together, here and there. For those unaware of the Dirty Kanza’s unique ability to upset one’s applecart, this is exactly the kind of preparation a person needs for an all-day bicycle race.
But let me just interject here and say that our hero—aka me, myself, and I—would’ve slept more had it not been for the Royal Emporia Philharmonic of Trains. Well played, trains, well played. Your intermission blows.
Inside the RV were four souls: Rita, Starr, Jon, and me. I was sleeping above the driver’s compartment on a person-sized shelf, which featured a tiny vent in the ceiling perfectly angled to receive the orchestral maneuvers in the dark of the Kansas trains. The horns, oh how they blew. The engines, low they did grumble. And me, laying there cursing my life choices. Jon insists that he “never heard a thing.” This enraged me at the time, but I kept a lid on it.
Keep it simple. Expel all negativity. Marie Kondo the mind. Ohm.
For my pre-Kanza breakfast, I harassed some eggs and cheese onto a tortilla and swaddled the contents into a hand-sized offering. Took a bite. Chewed slowly. Veeeerrryyy slowly. Took another bite or two. Felt a sudden heat on the back of my neck. Oh, dear. It was swiftly followed by the stirrings of street protests and rebel forces amassing in the stomach. I put the burrito down. I just needed a rest. Just for a second.
Rita was her usual, cheerful, Tigger self, bouncing around in complete juxtaposition to my sudden stillness.
Needed air. Just needed to feel its sweet caress on my clammy skin. Once outside, I started doing that thing people do when they can’t quite figure out how they’re feeling—I milled about like the walking dead. Followed some kind of invisible dance routine that consisted of slow steps in circles of varying circumference, coughing a little here and there as the tempo allowed. The cooling dew on the soles of my feet was sublime. I coughed some more, as the slight breeze mopped my brow with its soothing soothiness. Breathed. Milled about.
Be not alarmed. I walked toward the front of my truck, gently put my hand on the hood, bent over and rather unceremoniously threw up. Just a little. And then a little more. And then one last time for good measure. Eggs are for losers! Coffee is for quitters! Sling yer hook, interlopers!
Rita, having no doubt heard my coughing but hopefully not my throwing up, asked gently from somewhere in the darkness if I was OK. Sure. Nothing to see here! I headed back inside the RV for attempt number two at a pre-Kanza breakfast and sat and stared at the burrito, knowing what I had to do but also knowing that I couldn’t.
“You should eat something.”
Yes, I know. After a time just staring at a milky bowl of granola—attempt number 3—I charged forth, nibbled it down, and declared breakfast a complete triumph. Coffee. Advil. Granola. What could possibly go wrong?
And so, with all this onboard as excess baggage—no sleep to speak of, no substantial food in the tank, plus a general sense of ‘hmm, something’s not quite right’—I trudged to the start line. Dread snatched at my ankles as I lined up beside Jon in the corral. Everything was out of sorts. We were facing the wrong way (the start direction had been reversed this year), my nutrition plan had immolated itself upon the Kanza altar, and we, as a collective were being led like animals to the slaughter.
I wanted to scream at all these beautiful fools around me: “We’re all dead! Dead! Dead I tell you! By the end of the day, our minds will be as rotting corpses, festering in our own juices and primed to be thrown onto the Kanza corpse cart! We’re all dead! We just not dead yet.”
Oh, you don’t want to go on the cart? Don’t be such a baby.
We get on the metaphorical cart.
SCENE 3.—“Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”
[Benny Hill Theme music intercut with dour Funeral March]
[Screen title] Somewhere in the Flint Hills, A.M., BG
When I feel bad on the bike, my cure is always just to ride it out of me. Ride it right out. Like air through a vacuum cleaner, it’ll suck, but then it’ll vent out and be released. Now that I think about it, this is a bad analogy because a vacuum would leave all the junk inside you and…OK, maybe that’s the perfect analogy.
The insanity of the start was, as always, like ants swarming the body of an injured moth. The victim flutters, the ants shimmer on, overrunning the weak and snacking on the bones. Survival of the fittest and all that. We rode and rode and rode. Through the throng and on and on. I felt…hmm. Magnificent now, actually, and as a result was riding a little too hard for this early in the race. Jon calmed us down and we backed off the throttle to settle into an easy rhythm as we rolled through the landscape, sun creeping up beside us.
We crested a rise and off to the right the prairie unrolled as a lush, hyper-green carpet before us. The sun was low but waking up, stretching its rays to inject everything with sensual saturation. It reached magical, almost Bjork-like levels of delight. It’s moments like this where the DK slings its hooks into you—be careful.
The first checkpoint came and went. Rita and Olivia jumped up and down as a welcome, then jumped up and down again as a farewell. Bouncing is what Tiggers do best, after all. While there, we’d had a quick swap out of food and bottles and were off again, lickety-split. Making great time. This was obviously going to be the year that this little loser was finally going to Beat the Sun. Perfect conditions, maybe a little under-primed in the food department, but it didn’t feel like I was playing catchup. Not yet, anyway.
We hoofed it out into the hills again and things looked good.
This is how it happened.
As previously mentioned, I always screw up nutrition. Every year it’s the one thing I think I have dialed before the race, and it’s the one thing I always punt to the horizon during. This year, I was DETERMINED to get it right, even with the breakfast cockup factored in. To ensure I ate every half hour, I’d set the screens up on my Wahoo a certain way. It involved a little bit of flipping back and forth and calculating, but it was working great. At the time the incident happened, I was sitting on Jon’s wheel and being impressed with how we were flying. Like, we were doing team-tempo-of-the-majestic-haul-ass kinda flying. But at the same time, I was mathing hard on time checks, the sound of gravel singing as my soundtrack, straight-line booking it to the best finish ever. I wasn’t looking at the map screen and hadn’t been for some time.
From somewhere behind us, I half-heard someone say: “Left turn!”
Jon didn’t half-hear it. Jon, with his youthful ears, completely heard it, and with his equally youthful exuberance thought to himself—and I know because he told me later—“I can make this!” And because he’s quite skillful, he did.
He turned, hard, to make the corner.
One second I was looking at a 38c rear tire charging forward, and the next I was looking at what felt like the entire side of Jon’s rear wheel. Like Jon, my first thought was: “I can make this!” But unlike Jon, it was not the turn I thought I could make—fuck the turn!—but a rather dapper swerve to the right to avoid his rear wheel and continue on straight. But the gravel had other ideas. Needless to say, I didn’t make it.
Some crashes are rather balletic. You sail through the air, arms like rudders trying to control your landing. It’s sort of graceful. But not this one. I was violently and unceremoniously thrown to the ground, like a sack of Idaho potatoes, right shoulder and head taking the brunt. One, on my bike. Two, on the ground, flat on my back. Staring up the sky, bell rung *ding-ding* and pride bruised most horribly.
Gimme a second….
A shadow loomed over me, blocking out the sun. It was Jon, leaning over, hands on knees and looking concerned.
“Are you ok?”
I didn’t say anything for a while. Thinking. Gimme a second…
Then I sat up.
I think I said: “Give me a minute.”
Thinking. Assessing. My skin was stinging, a mixture of sweat and blood and general scraping of a shoulder and leg and hands along a gravel road. I looked over at the bike. Both of my water bottles had ejected, and Bruiser 2.0 aka The Hulk, was laying on the bad side. The derailleur side. The side you don’t ever wanna futz with at the DK.
Jon stuck out his hand to pull me up. I stuck out my hand and we noticed I’d ripped skin off both my palms, so Jon reached to grab further up my arm, sort of mid-forearm, in order to pull me up. We readied ourselves.
With his hand above my wrist, grip firm, and me half-heartedly involved, I slid my feet back for leverage and prepared for the hoist. I was sweaty but alive. Head ringing, grazes stinging. With his hand on my arm just above my wrist, friend to friend, compadre to compadre, teammate to teammate, I squinted at the sun, ready to stand. Thoughts swirled. Would my bike still be rideable? How much time had we lost? Why wasn’t I paying attention? We’re gonna have to do some hard mathing to work out how to beat the sun now. I’m such an idiot. I’ve ruined our Kanza.
With his hand above my wrist, strong and capable, broad and alive, we prepared to stand the old girl up. Everything was going to be alright. Ready? Now.
Come and see the violence inherent in the system.