Dirty Kanza and the Holy Grail
SCENE 4.—“A scratch!? Your arm’s off!”
[“This state of emergency” lyric from Bjork’s “Jóga” on loop, taunting from in the background]
[Screen title] Flint Hills, still A.M., BG
There was an almighty cracking sound. I’m not being dramatic—OK, maybe a little, but it was fucking loud. The sound came from my wrist, angry and agitated, like a wasp in a bottle. It was such a loud crack that Jon and I froze and locked eyes.
That did not sound good.
“That didn’t sound good.” I can’t remember if I said it out loud or Jon did, but one of us. As if saying it made it real, because until that moment, it was kind of surreal.
I was at least standing up now—that was a positive, I guess. Holding my wrist tenderly with my left hand, I made a circular motion with the right and, surprisingly, it didn’t seem to hurt. Maybe we imagined that cracking noise?
“It feels OK. I think?”
“That did not sound good.”
Riders continued to make the turn to head up the hill next to us, the sound of their forward momentum acting as some kind of taunt to Jon and I about their ability to read maps and follow directions, and our dismal failure. I remained standing there, holding my wrist and thinking.
“Should we call Rita?”
“No,” I said. “Let’s just ride for an hour and then re-asses?”
I felt somewhat OK, considering. ‘Tis but a scratch! Worry worked at Jon’s features.
I felt like joking: “I mean, it’s not like my arm’s off or anything. I’ve broken this wrist before—I don’t know if I’ve told you this, but I rode across America.” The last part is a running joke, but truth be told, although I had broken my right wrist before, I couldn’t remember what that felt like. It might have felt like this. I don’t know. I was heavily concussed that time. Maybe I was concussed now?
An inspection of my helmet showed a ding in the exterior, but the interior foam didn’t seem cracked. There was a hole ripped in the shoulder of my jersey, and the sting of Kansas gravel was beginning to set in on my skin. We picked up my bike and while some bar tape had been torn off, and the bottles had flown out, everything else seemed OK. Eager to just get on with it, I swung my leg over my trusty steed with more bravado than I felt, and gingerly clutched at the bar with my right hand. With our bikes facing the right direction finally, and adrenaline surging, off we went. Off to ride ourselves back into the race.
Pedaling uphill in too big of a gear, I maneuvered my hand awkwardly to change to a lower gear and immediately felt the sensation no one wants to feel.
It’s not what you think—it had nothing to do with my hand.
Anyone who’s ever thrown a rear derailleur knows this sensation. You feel the pulley begin to twist around in a slow, cat-stretch motion, as it gets ready to throw the beans above the frank and maybe even snap something for good measure. Fortunately, if you’ve felt this derailleur dance before, you will also stop pedaling before anything catastrophic happens. Which is what I did.
Inspection time. Yup, the hanger was bent. In its current configuration, the bike was un-rideable. I began to think Kanza was trying to tell us something. Shhh…. What was it saying? Can you hear?
I could just make out the words in the crunch of the bike’s chain as Jon wiggled it.
Kanza was saying, loudly and clearly: “None shall pass!”
SCENE 5.—“May we burn her?!”
[Eerie silence. Occasional gravel castanets]
[Screen title] Flint Hills, still A.M., slightly further ahead than the scene before, BG
The Dirty Kanza is a beast, a bastard, a poet, a thief, a dictator, a bully, and a dominatrix. But above all things, the Dirty Kanza is a teacher. Blah blah blah—oh the things it will teach you about yourself—blah blah blah. Got it. All this means is that if you do the Dirty Kanza enough times you are well-and-truly schooled on all the things that are absolutely necessary to carry on your bike. You never need something until you do. That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why, between us, Jon and I had three spare derailleur hangers. Seems like overkill, right?
With tools out and Jon’s wrenching expertise to save me, all I could do was stand there and watch him fix the bike as I held it. A steady stream of people continued to pass us, as we launched into full “Operation Save our Race” mode. Time dribbled away, and I alternated between, “this is over” and “we’re still in it!” emotions. In total, we maybe lost half-an-hour with the crash and wrenching combined? Not sure. It doesn’t matter—the most important part is that we were up and running again. Back to the fray.
Conversations fizzled out. We just pedaled for a while. It’s rather easy to be in denial about an injury when you’re just standing there, but not so much when you actually have to use the offending appendage to steer and control a bicycle. I couldn’t put the heel of my hand on the handle bar with any kind of conviction—there was obviously something wrong with it—but the adrenaline was still high and I discovered that there was one lonely hand position I could use without it hurting too much. Just jam the hood in the V between my thumb and index finger and don’t put too much weight—if any—on the heel of my hand. With only 120 miles to go, this was going to be a piece of cake!
[Sound of internal monologue clearing throat. It stepped up to the microphone] *tap* *tap* *tap* “Is this on?”
“I’m not coming back. I’m not stopping. I’m getting this stupid grail. I can’t do this again. Think, dammit! How are we going to do this? What speed do we need to do? Is it broken? Do I think it’s broken? I don’t think it’s broken. There’s something wrong with it. Just keep pedaling. It’s probably not broken. You’d know if it was broken. I’m not coming back here! No effing way. This is it! This is the last goddamned year! There’s something very wrong with my hand. Why isn’t Jon riding with me? How are we going to do this? Do I have a headache? I feel ok. Why won’t Jon ride with me? Why is he way back there? I suck. There’s something wrong with my hand. Where’s Jon?”
This went on for a while. The sun took it upon itself to ramp up the temperature so that my tiny bit of road rash started to burn a fire of crackling proportions. After a while, Jon rode up beside me. I looked over. Why was he so quiet, and why wasn’t he smiling his little Jon smile? I need that shit. Didn’t he want to ride with me anymore?1 Is he OK?
“What’s the matter?” I asked, or words to that effect.
He answered, simply, that he felt bad. Like he’d messed everything up. That he crashed me out, and because of him everything was ruined.
I almost laughed. He blamed himself for my uselessness? Seriously? I should have been paying attention, both to the map and to Jon’s wheel, and I told him so.
“The person behind,” I say, “Is responsible for their own cockpit.” Jon wasn’t having it. Nope, in his eyes, he was to blame—he crashed me out—and it was now his duty to beat himself up for the rest of the race.
We blame-game volley-balled, back and forth over the doubletrack net for a bit, before we decided to just shut up and keep going. Forget about it. Neither of us did, of course, but in the comfort of my head I thought of another angle. If Jon had not been there, there was no way I could’ve fixed that bike with my hand being all skewiff and whackadoodle. I could barely change gears—and I had Di2! If Jon had not been there, I would’ve had no choice but to DNF the race, and so I say that to him. And then I tell him that I’m not coming back next year. This is it! We get all riled up about this stupid race and how we’re never coming back and we’re getting that grail! And that’s when we decided.
“Let’s just get this fucking thing over with.”
Via Jesu Domine, as they say. Dona eis requiem!
SCENE 6.—“He’s already got one, you see.”
[no music. Quiet contemplation humming]
[No idea of time] Time is a construct designed by the government based on outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the myth of a 40-hour work week. Let’s become an anarcho-syndicalist commune where the passage of time is decided by a sort of executive officer for the week. Ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting, of course
Hands are quite useful. Not sure if you’ve ever thought about it, but they can be used for all sorts of things. Reaching in the backs of cupboards, waving flags at parades, pulling small children out of wells, just to name a few. My right hand could do none of these things, becoming what can only be described as ‘90% ornamental’ from that point on. Changing gears hurt—poor baby—as the act of even contorting my hand to push the button on my Di2 sent a shooting spark up my arm and flames out my ears. And because I couldn’t put any weight on it, I couldn’t stand to climb at all. But at least it felt like I had some control going uphill. The same could not be said going down.
I wonder if anyone who saw me fly by on those sketchy descents knew I was only using one hand to do so, my right hand having decided to play more of a supervisorial role in proceedings. You know bowling lanes when they put up the bumpers for kids, and the bowling ball just bounces from one bumper to the other, all the way down the lane? That’s essentially how my hand worked. As I mentioned, the only position where I could hold the bar was a spot right between my thumb and index finger, so the hood would just pinball between, allowing for a rudimentary hold.
This did not stop me bombing these things, by the way. I didn’t spend months perfecting my descents down Nisene Marks fireroad, with all its roots, ruts, and pitch-black corners, not to take advantage of the fruits of my labor. At least I should be able to enjoy SOMETHING about this damn race.
And then, fate stepped in to give us a boost. After bluffing my way down a particularly hairy flight to the bottom of the world, into the depths of Little Egypt, I saw Jon had stopped ahead to talk with someone.
Allo! Who iz it?
It was Dan bloody Hughes, coming the other way. Dan Hughes, grinding out the miles in the DKXL. Dan Hughes, Gravel Grail aficionado and keeper of the Holy Hand Grenade. Seeing Dan Hughes at this time, after the shocker we’d been having up until this point, was what they call in the classics: “A sign.”
It was a sign. If it wasn’t for Dan Hughes, I never would’ve done my first Dirty Kanza. It never would’ve crossed my mind. Plus, Dan’s already got a Gravel Grail, so logic follows that proximity to someone who already has a grail proves that hope floats, and therefore has all sorts of witchy powers to ensure the quest for the grail was not a waste of time. He also seemed so relaxed, jovial, and glad to see us that it was like being slapped in the face by a ‘you can do it’ gauntlet. We chatted for quite a while, not caring about the time—sometimes it’s the journey, not the goal that’s the thing you should focus on—after all, but then said our goodbyes and continued on our separate ways.
“It was so good to see Dan.”
“Yeah, what are the odds?!”
And just like that we were back in the mental game, stronger than ever. Yes, there was obviously still something wrong with my hand. Yes, it was hotter than shit, and as we pulled into the water oasis it was hard not to notice the carnage wrought by the heat there. Bodies strewn across the grass, salty and sleeping under the metaphorical shrubberies as egos popped out to say ‘Ni!’ to weakened warriors.
But there was no stopping now. We’d already decided we were not coming back. This was it. I was surviving, Jon was coming back to life, and we’d seen Dan as a sort of harbinger of destiny—we were going to get our grails. We were not going to Run away! Run away!
SCENE 7.— “Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.”
[Music that builds to crescendo over an hour]
[Screen title] Council Grove, Checkpoint 2, P.M., BG
One hour. Sixty of your earth minutes. The time it takes to cook a chicken (although admittedly, not thoroughly. Don’t eat that. The recommended internal temperature for a chicken is 165F. You’ll want to cook it for roughly 20 minutes per pound.) Anyway, one hour. That’s how long we spent tending our bruised egos at Checkpoint 2.
Ice. I had been dreaming about ice. Of holding it tenderly and with great reverence to my wrist for ten-or-so minutes. In other years, it’s been of the ice sock and sticking that down my back, but not this year. This year is was the idea of strapping an ice bracelet on and just sitting back in blissful contemplation as I assessed my world.
“I crashed Janeen out.”
Our trusty crew asked what happened and Jon blurted out what would become his catchphrase over the next few days, for anyone who asked how his Kanza went.
We unwound our tale to the exuberant crew, who’d obviously had a lot of free time and were now friends with all the crews around them. But first roll call.
Olivia and Rita. I’m lumping these two together because when they are together, they are like one unit. The Tiggers. Their role in this operation was mechanical support, with additional moments of fussing over Jon and I, suggesting things to eat and drink, filling bottles, cleaning stuff, taking photos of us not looking our best, and providing comic relief by jumping up and down a lot.
The third member of our support crew was Pete aka Robson. He was the ‘throw the bike in the stand, tune it up in a jiffy’ man. A Kiwi. I’ll just leave that there. He also provided comic relief, but from what I could tell, was the boss of the mechanical unit, while also wrangling two tiggers when normally he only has to handle one (Olivia).
“Maybe you should go to see the medic?”
Oh, but you are wounded!
In true Galahad fashion, brush it away. No, no. I-it’s nothing!
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before in this report, but it’s something.
We ate sandwiches, sipped cokes, laughed and generally lolled about like we had all the time in the world. After a spell, I wandered over to the restroom with Rita and, wait for it, this is where the question “Is three derailleur hangers too many?” is answered.
“Will you hold my bike while I go in?”
Rita replied that yes, of course she would. I just let it go and walked away. Rita, who was not near my bike, turned to reach for it in time to watch it clang sadly to the concrete. I blinked. Stupid Kanza brain. Meh, I’m sure it’s fine. I walked into the restroom.
Of course I’d bent a second derailleur hanger. Pete leapt into action when we got back. Finally–something to do! Not me. I took a hit of bourbon, sat back in my chair, and finished my sandwich like I was some kind of Queen instead of a knight on a grail quest.
If we’d been in great peril when we came into the checkout, after an hour there, we were no longer at risk of bailing on the hunt for the holy grail. Climbing aboard our bikes, we waved goodbye and pushed off home.
Off to face the peril. Together.
SCENE 8.—“ Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death, must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see!”
What…is your finish line formation?
What…is so great about grails?
What…is the meaning of life?
[Ethereal, smoky music. Think 2am in a basement jazz club.]
[Screen title] Outskirts of Emporia, then inskirts of Emporia, P.M. BG and AG.
The air-speed velocity of this laden swallow actually increased during the last leg—an unexpected development. Not sure what happened, but one could posit that taking an hour off to undercook a metaphorical chicken at Checkpoint 2 gave us a new lease on our ten-acre block of life. Team SAD just slayed.
We slayed everything in our path. We slayed the time we’d been losing all day, and gained a little of it back. We slayed pain and the roiling clouds of disappointment. We slayed chaise lounges and darkness, and blame games and relentless heat. We slayed little white rabbits with big pointy teeth [makes universal pointy-teeth gesture] that may or may not have been there. Fact of the matter was, we simply slayed all day with our silly knees-bent running-about advancing behavior.
I want it noted for the record that McCrae also rhymes with slay and that can’t be a coincidence, can it? It was exhilarating. Jon at the front, cranking out his reliable tempo, me sitting in, and behind us from time-to-time, grateful corpses being dragged along like cans attached to a wedding car. Just before a right turn, I pulled out of the lineup to get something to eat—a task I didn’t feel safe doing with the Frankenhand and people on my wheel—and as the train rolled by, one dusty gentleman remarked: “You guys are badasses!”
I’m taking that onboard. I’m filing that away in my bank. It is currently gaining interest in my long-term ego investment account.
As Bob Dylan once spat, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” Needless to say, it ran away and hauled any kind of prestigious awards with it. Never mind—the finish line wiggled closer with its grail-shaped beacon glowing just on the other side, and we could feel its approach with every turn of our cranks. In the darkness, with nothing to look at except the little pinpricks of headlights and tail lights all around, I hung back a little from Jon and allowed myself the indulgence of anticipating the moment of “Gotcha Grail!” triumph. A voice emerged from out of the darkness, behind me.
“Is that Janeen McCrae!?”
It was said with the tone of someone who clearly knew it was Janeen McCrae, and I would know that voice anywhere. It was Dan bloody Hughes again! In all my years riding in the Dirty Kanza, I have never ridden a single foot of it next to Dan Hughes, and nor did I ever expect to. To think that I was about to finish the race with him was…what was it?
Let me be all hippy-dippy for a second—it felt like kismet. Dan had been taking care of us for years during the DK. He’d tended to our every stupid question, saw to it that our bikes were tuned up and humming at Sunflower before the race, sourced support crews for us if we needed, and the most important of all the teachings was the ice sock trick. No, scratch that—it was the gourmet revelation of Easy Cheese Bugle cones. All these things. And now, he was right here with us, six miles from the finish line of the Dirty Kanza. To be on this road, at this time, about to roll into downtown Emporia to get our grails with Dan the Enchanter by our side—this was meant to be. A perfect end to an imperfect day.
The Kanza takes. The Kanza gives.
“Look at Dan’s majestic calves.”
We were at the edge of town now and Jon and I were hanging back whispering conspiratorially about the finish—but there was no way Dan didn’t hear us hype girls behind him, hyping up his calves. He seemed quite content to spin in what looked to be strong-man autopilot, which only enhanced the chiseled look of those slabs.
“Look how they glisten in the light.”
They glistened and winked back at us.
This mesmerizing display was a momentary distraction from the real business at hand, and what Jon and I had been discussing—the finish line formation.
Dan had no say in it—we left him to focus on flexing those calves—and accepted our proposal quickly. It was decided. We would ride down the chute in classic Flying V formation, with ol’ shinny chisel calves himself as the tip of our grail-seeking spear. A true Gravel Graileur (which is a newly trademarked term that I just made up), guiding us into the belly of the beast. We had our Holy Hand Grenade, and his name was Dan.
And that’s how we got our stupid, pointless, magnificent, and no you cannot have it back, Gravel Grails aka Gravel Goblet, aka Gravel Chalice, aka Gravel Sippy Cup.
Three, two, one, and we crossed, triumphant and glad it was over. That we’d just got the stupid thing done. Kristi Mohn hugged me, and I whispered alluringly into her shell-like ear: “There’s something very wrong with my hand.” Not long after and I was at the med tent, where a nice man squirted the holy stinging ‘You Should’ve Cleaned This at Mile 65’ potion on my road rash, and advised me to get an x-ray at some point to rule out the possibility of a fracture.
Just stop for a minute. Think about. We did it! We’d got the stupid grail, which I hasten to point out was nowhere to be seen at the finish line. My theory on this is simple. If they gave you the grail as you crossed, there’d be broken glass everywhere. I know this because if they’d handed one to me, I would’ve raised it high above my head in triumph—a glorious end to a shitty day, how magnificent!—and then promptly smashed it into the ground, flipping it a heart-felt bird as it shattered into a million tiny pieces. You bastard shit heel piece of wankery! I hate you!
But give it to me the next day and I’m all: “Hi, Grail. I love you, bae. What are you thinking about?”
Love/hate I guess. Do you want one? Yes. Do you need one? Absolutely not. But also, yes.
There’s nothing great about it. Nothing at all. Except that you earned it. You have it. It’s yours. That it is heavy is precisely the point—Dirty Kanza is heavy. That it is a pointless reflection of having done something no one MADE you do is exactly why you want it. You stuck it out. You did. Not just once, but five times. The people I earned my grail with have been with me for all these years. Neil Shirley’s first year was my first year (he’s had more bad luck with rear derailleurs than me), and so was Yuri’s. There’s Paul from Sunflower, and a lot of familiar faces. And the of course there’s Jon. Jon who I’d suckered into doing this race in the same way Dan Hughes had suckered me into it. He simply said: “I think it would suit you.” That’s all the carrot some people need.
All hail the Gravel Grail Class of 2019. I think it’s pretty obvious I was voted “Most Likely to Write Way too Many Words in a Race Report.” I am nothing if not predictable.
What is the meaning of life? The meaning of life? How the hell would I know? The meaning of life is that it ends. You live it and things happen and then mercifully, it’s over. The end. How’s that for an answer?
[In this second, JANEEN is catapulted off the path and into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.]
Great, now that she’s gone, it’s your turn to step forward and answer a question. You didn’t know there’d be a test, did you? Are you ready?
That’s actually the question.
Are you ready, brave sir knight, to throw all sanity aside to step up and finish 1,000 cow-shit-infested, wind-howling, mind-fucking miles to get your own useless paperweight that looks quite good on a bookshelf. Impressive, actually.
Well, cue on up Bjork’s “The Hunter” and get on with it! These Grails don’t find themselves.
For Margaret – July 22nd, 1948 – February 1st, 2019
PS: It was a bad sprain. It took over 8 weeks to heal and was one of the most irritating injuries I’ve ever had.