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The Making of a Dirty Kanza Gravel Fondo Racer

"Finding success at Dirty Kanza 200 is determined by a number of factors" says top Gravel Fondo rider Neil Shirley

Racing 200 miles through the Flint Hills of Kansas on gravel roads is, of course, a major challenge regardless of who you are, how much you train, or how methodical you are with your nutritional needs. Yet no matter how dialed you are with all of those, you’re only going to be as good as the equipment you’re on.

If Mount Everest is the ultimate challenge for mountaineers, well then, Dirty Kanza is the equivalent for gravel riders, and there are no better proving grounds for equipment than the brutality of the flint rock and Kansan mud that can be found throughout the course. No other gravel event has crushed as many dreams as DK has, one flat tire or broken rear derailleur at a time, so it’s hardly a surprise the number one reason for not finishing is equipment related.

What are some of the equipment needs to find success over the 12-to- 22 hours it takes to finish Dirty Kanza? There is no shortage of differing opinions on what the “ideal” setup is, and that becomes clear when you see mountain bikes, fat bikes, single speed fat bikes, and every kind of drop handlebar bike imaginable at the start. The OOO crew are riding two builds that target the performance side of gravel riding, and although they are made to achieve the same thing, each takes a slightly different path toward that goal.


Suspension or Rigid?

When Open burst onto the scene with their original U.P. gravel bike they blew the doors off the competitors thanks to their vision of what a gravel bike should be, rather than just re-branding a cyclocross bike. Fast forward to 2018 and the new U.P.P.E.R. is 220 grams lighter than its predecessor and has a couple of other updates such as a new fork, flat mount disc brakes, but all in all it’s safe to say some other brands have closed the gap over those few years. One such brand is Lauf, which first got into the gravel game in mid-2016 with the Grit fork; a fork that delivered 30mm of suspension travel via 12 leaf springs. Now, they’ve added a frame called True Grit that allows up to 45c tire clearance, three bottle cage mounts, and a top tube pack mount (Open also offers the same number of cage and top tube bag mounts).

How much of an advantage…or hindrance…is the Lauf’s front suspension? There’s no doubt the Grit fork adds weight over the Open’s rigid fork, around 500 grams, but as the terrain gets rougher the weight becomes an easy trade-off for speed and more control. At Kanza, where comfort becomes a huge piece of the puzzle, the Grit stands to be a game-changer. Obviously, if you’re using the bikes as an everyday road bike as well, things tip back in the direction of the Open.

Finding Common Ground

As important as the frameset choice is in ensuring there’s ample tire clearance, the wheels and tires are even of greater importance. A flat tire could cost you around 3-5 minutes if you’re well adept at tire changes, but the real disadvantage comes with putting a tube in what had been a tubeless setup, meaning the chances of flatting again are even greater now. Both the Lauf and Open are using ENVE’s new M525 G wheelset that features a rim sidewall design called Wide Hookless Bead, which through the shaping and widening the of the sidewall have increased the amount of impact force required to pinch flat the tire between rock and rim by over 60%. Both bikes will have 40c tires with pressure set at between 32-35 psi.

Drivetrain Wars

1x or 2x drivetrain? That’s always a big question for gravel bikes, and how we see it there are few downsides to a 1x (single chainring) setup on a gravel bike. Taking the front derailleur out of the equation is nice on terrain where speed changes are around nearly every corner. SRAM does offer a range of well-priced 1x drivetrains from the Apex 1 up to Force 1, yet each of these bikes took a different route. Since Shimano doesn’t yet offer a 1x drivetrain option, the Open has a mix of road and mountain bike Di2 parts to pull together one of the nicest setups out there. Using an XT rear derailleur, along with Dura-Ace shifters and disc brakes, a 44×10-42 gear range is achieved with electronic shifting precision. The Lauf, however, is built with a standard road drivetrain, using SRAM eTap Hydro 2x setup since the wireless, electronic shifting of the eTap group has proved to be a robust and trouble-free group. If/when SRAM comes out with a clutch version eTap rear derailleur it will be an easy choice to ditch the second chainring up front.

Only thing Bigger than the Challenge is Overall Experience

Fresh off the Rock Cobbler gravel race last weekend, Neil was reminded that the journey is more about pedaling the bike, and proffered these sage tips for Tim’s #RoadtoDK.

When it comes to Dirty Kanza, the only thing bigger than the challenge is the overall experience. In order to make sure the tough times are balanced out with fun, here are a few tips on how to maximize the awesomeness.

1: It’s all about mindset going in. Be ready to embrace even the most difficult of moments. It takes a bit of mental training to handle turning a negative into a positive. I’ve cracked spectacularly out there a couple of times, and rather than look to end the day early I took the opportunity to snap a few extra photos and take in the scenery that I was going so much slower past than anticipated.

2: Stop at a roadside party. You’ll see a few of them at farmhouses right along the route. They are out there partying for us, so stop in, grab a cold coke and refill water. It will be one of the most refreshing things you can possibly imagine.

3: Fine tune your high-five technique. When coming back into Emporia be prepared to high-five about 1,000 people through the finishing chute. Enjoy it! You worked hard for this moment so soak it up by taking in the excitement of the locals. It’s a powerful moment.

How will each setup fare on June 2nd? Follow along with Neil during the Dirty Kanza weekend the Outdoor Office on Instagram.

"Finding success at Dirty Kanza 200 is determined by a number of factors" says top Gravel Fondo rider Neil Shirley