This year Salsa is sending the Dirty 11.5 to participate in 2016's Dirty Kanza 200. Ben Weaver is Dirty No. 6.
2015 was my first Dirty Kanza. I had been part of a panel discussion at Quality Bicycle Products’ Frostbike event earlier that winter, where I heard Jim Cummings speak about the power of the race: The transformative experiences and riders being pushed to new mental and physical places.
Leading up to last year’s race, Jim’s stories echoed in my head. I wondered how the ride would challenge me. Wondering what new places I would be pushed to, and what I’d learn from them.
If I had fears about the ride, they were rooted in never having completed a 200-mile gravel course before. Even though I had logged thousands of other non competitive, yet worthy miles, perhaps I didn’t know my own limits. Maybe I’d find them during this race and not be able to finish. It never occurred to me that I might not finish the race due to anything other than the failure of my own body.
Thirty-two miles in, I rode through a mud section that I should have walked. I ripped off my derailleur, cracked my rim, and broke four spokes. With a spare derailleur hanger in my tool kit, I was determined to go forward, but one of the two bolts holding the hanger to the bike was plugged with mud. In attempting to clean the head of the bolt and get it loose, it stripped.
Next I attempted a single-speed conversion, but no matter what I did I could only ride a few hundred meters before the chain would skip off. I later found pieces of rock wedged in between the cogs, which I suspect were the culprits that wouldn’t allow my chain to settle on a straight line. If only I had found them while on the course. But I didn’t.
My body was confused. It had hardly begun to work, yet it now had to walk away from the very thing it had been prepared to do. Leaving the course behind was like trying to hold water back or contain a fire in the wind. Facing the demons and disappointment that came with this reality was my challenge. In hindsight, I learned a great deal from it, and I am a better rider because of it. There is nothing sadder than a bike that won’t roll.
The Cottonwood River flows through the town of Cottonwood Falls near the last race checkpoint. After getting cleaned up in Emporia, my partner Amy and I drove out there. We stood on the old bridge overlooking the dam, the sound of cow bells and cheering in the near background. A giant tree was stuck in the dam spill below the falls. It kept getting sucked under water, disappearing, and then coming back up. It never went under or returned to the surface in the same spot. Consistent and inconsistent all at once. Much like a ride.
I understood what Jim had been talking about back at Frostbike. The heart of the race lies in facing the unknowns, embracing and discovering the uncertain. We do our best on the front end by training and then we show up to the starting line. There must be a moment in every ride that is about opening up to the mystery, a part that is bigger than a win, a finish, or pure physical strength. No one knows when or how they will reach this place, but facing it gracefully is crucial.
The spirit of every rider wants to keep forward momentum. I have come to understand there are times when stepping off the course is not failure, it is still part of the ride, still part of the inherent urge to keep moving forward.
So here I am, looking at my goals for Dirty Kanza 2016. I want to finish strong, with an intact bike, and before the sun sets. Last year when I entered the muddy section that ultimately rendered my bike useless, I had heard a little voice in my head say, “get off and walk,” but I didn’t listen to it. This year I want to stay present enough in my riding to not only hear my intuition but also follow it.
If I have any fears they stem from my experience knowing the incredible potential for uncertainty, and the impossibility to predict the circumstances or nature of how I will come face to face with it. In calming those fears, I find myself smiling, because I know that herein lies the heart of my fire, why I ride: To encounter the unknown.
Emporia is a one-of-a-kind community. I look forward to seeing the whole town come out on race day. I look forward to seeing Jim and Tim, as well as all the other riders, familiar faces, and friends who will be there. On Thursday night I will be giving a performance in connection with the local music shop and the Granada Theater. It’s always a gift to ride, and it’s an added blessing to be able to sing in connection with the riding. Ramble, ramble.
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Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet. He has released eight studio albums of music and four books of poetry.
Listen and purchase his music here.
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