By Neil Shirley
After 206 miles and over 12 hours in the saddle, I was finally standing on the other side of the Unbound Gravel (Formerly DK200) finish line; the side that meant I was done, it was over. Trust me when I say the desire to get across that line was in the forefront of my mind for hours, but once finally there, it was a definitive end to the months of preparation and thousands of training miles that got me to this point. There was a sobering reluctance to accept that it’s over.
I imagine there were many others that had similar feelings upon achieving their goal of finishing after having poured so much energy into DK. So what now? For me, once the brain fog lifts from the 200+ miles of gravel through the challenging Flint Hills of Kansas, I’ll start the planning for next year and do it all over again and hopefully bring a few more first-time DK riders out to experience the event for themselves. But before turning my thoughts to the future, here’s a refection on DK 2017.
1) No one does it better. I know that’s a hefty statement; but at least in my opinion, it’s true. There is no event promotions company that could buy their way in and pull off an event like DK. It has been built from the ground up with community support throughout the entire process, and that’s the atmosphere that makes it so special. It takes over the town of Emporia and the locals don’t just deal with it, they embrace it. Between the farm houses on course making signs to encourage us, to the thousands of locals at the downtown finish cheering us on, the atmosphere is as good as it gets.
2) Find your limit. That’s one of DK’s official taglines, and it’s amazing how much that is taken to heart out there. I’ll be the first to admit that after spending most of my life riding a bike, I was a little out of touch with what some riders were having to endure in order to get through to the finish. I’d heard stories of people riding with dead batteries in their headlights for hours in pitch black, walking for miles because of a mechanical, and persevering through cramping muscles just to try and beat the 21-hour time cut. This year I wanted to support each of the final riders on as they crossed the finish line after truly finding, then passing right by their limit. At 2:59 AM Sharon Morejon and Robert Franklin came into view and were cheered on by a number of remaining spectators even more than if they were the first to cross the line. It was an emotional moment to see both riders finish in time to get their name on the results list. Those two are the real champions of DK.
3) Kansas is not flat. Out on the West Coast there’s a common misconception that Kansas is flat. That’s so not true. Emporia borders the Flint Hills, which are just non-stop rollers that all pack their own punches. There’s not a knock out climb like you might find in the Sierra or Rocky Mountains, but it’s the non-stop body blows coming from two-minute climbs that inflict the real damage, and add up to nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain by the finish.
4) DK gravel is unforgiving. This is the only gravel event I’ve done where I tell people to run the biggest tires they can fit on their bike. Got room for 38s? Run ‘em. 40s? Run ‘em. 42s? Definitely run ‘em. Pretty much anything smaller than a 38mm width is asking for trouble, and even then, you’re just one flint rock away from a torn sidewall if you’re not careful. I had miraculously logged just over 500 miles of DK racing before succumbing to a flat tire at mile 65 of this year’s event. Considering the flint stone that creates the base for most of the roads in the area was once used by the Native Americans to make arrow heads, you can imagine how unforgiving it is on tires. As the saying “Go big or go home” goes, that’s all one needs to remember when it comes to tire selection.
5) Getting a spot in 2018 won’t be easy. DK could be considered a victim of its own success. Well, not DK so much as all of us that want to get a registration spot for next year. Considering the 2,200 spots (for the 200, 100, and 50 miler) sold out in a matter of seconds, event director Jim Cummins is contemplating using a lottery system going forward. Whether that’s a more fair system or not, I don’t know, but either way there’s a good chance that there will be a different registration process in place for 2018. Of course, there are other ways to get yourself an entry even if you miss out initially, such as the ENVE social media contest where they gave away two entries to to this year’s event.