Journey To 100 - Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp

Michelle Duffy is on a journey to ride the Dirty Kanza 100. She is documenting and sharing her story as part of the Life Time Women Ride the World initiative, with the hopes that her honesty and vulnerability will help others decide to take on a challenge for themselves. Along the way, she’ll have a mentor and the help of Salsa Cycles Ambassador, Crystal Kovacs. The Salsa Journey(wo)man as her steed of choice. Follow along as she takes on this journey!


Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp

In early September, I committed to a goal of riding the Dirty Kanza (DK) 100 next year and chronicling that journey (check out my first blog post here). Then I decided, “what-the-hey? let’s go to Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp and see what I really got myself into here.”

DK Women’s Camp was started by Kristi Mohn, one of the original owners of DK. It’s a place where women can ride in a comfortable environment, talk about women-specific cycling things, share goals, network, ride the Bleeding Kansas gravelduro event (50 or 100 miles), and gain entry into the 2020 DK.

Kristi and I talked about whether it was insane to go from not owning a “real” bike to completing DK Women’s Camp and riding 50 miles at the Bleeding Kansas in just three weeks. It is insane, but so are we, and working together only fuels that. I decided to try it, and very quickly my reality and focus became riding as much as possible before camp.

I’m intimidated by my bike. Maybe it’s because I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” but I feel intense stress through my neck and wrists when I approach a steep downhill, especially on the sandy, winding gravel trails around my house. It’s funny, given that I spent my childhood riding bikes around my neighborhood on Long Island. I was like Bambi: long and gangly and super awkward. I had scraped-up knees from falling off my bike over and over, but I would always hop back on (after some tears) without fear. But now, my brain struggles with the fear factor at times, knowing the possibility of a hard fall, having heard awful stories of bike mishaps. I’m probably putting myself at more risk by holding onto those thoughts—fearless childhood Michelle, where you at? Anyway, back to camp…

After eight rides—only three of which were on my new Salsa Journeyman (with drop bars…that’s new!)—I was off to DK Women’s Camp. I knew I would be riding with a group of rockstar ladies, but quietly hoped there would be a few more beginners like me. They were totally all rockstars.

Women’s Camp was the first time I met Crystal Kovacs, who I was connected with through Salsa. She was the first non-DK face I recognized and there was comfort in that. It was so good to be able to chat with her about my concerns and struggles and freak out a little to someone I knew. Crystal was so calm and shared a lot of her journey, which helped me calm my nerves.

Day One: The Baseline

Day one was an FTP (Functional Threshold Power) test. This measures where your fitness is and whether you’re riding at your optimal cycling performance level. We put on heart rate monitors, then pedaled hard for 20 minutes. Our coaches, Amy Charity and Kristen Legan, transcribed the data for us and let us know if we blew up, were too conservative, etc. I discovered that I’d been riding way too conservatively in the weeks leading up to camp, and I don’t think I ever reached my threshold during the test until the last minute or so. It was a fantastic exercise and valuable for beginners and experienced riders alike. It made me confident that I could do more. 

Day Two: First Flint

On day two it rained and rained. It was muddy, windy, and hilly, and I was on some real chunky Flint Hills gravel for the first time. We had the choice of riding 25 miles or 37 miles that day, and with the 50-mile Bleeding Kansas ride the next day, I chose the shorter ride (which was still my second-longest ride to date). It was 100% the right choice for me. Throughout this journey, my competitive side has tried to poke its head out, and the part of me that had felt so on top of the world the day before made me think I should ride 37 miles. But that’s not what this journey is about, and I keep having to remind myself of that. I want to ENJOY this experience, as I only get to be a beginner once. And putting myself into a scenario where I may end up riding beyond myself or killing my legs the day before a 50 was not worth it. 

It took me a while to gain confidence that day—about a mile in when I realized the type of gravel and hills we’d be on, I was like “Holy $#!+!” I had unknowingly ridden off the front of the group while chatting with DK race director LeLan Dains and started smashing the hills (I love to climb), but when we got to our first downhill, I went comically slow. I am afraid of downhills and I don’t trust my bike. It was frustrating because I saw all of these other women flying by me, fearless and effortless and graceful and embracing, yet there I was: a 125-pound, 28-year-old white-knuckling the brakes. But we regrouped for a lesson on navigating downhills and the group shared their knowledge with me, which got me through the day. Watching Crystal fly over the uneven ground and LeLan encouraging me to let off the brakes made it a transformative ride for me.

I finished the ride with LeLan through cold, wet mud and rain like I’ve never ridden in before and I felt so accomplished. Heading into the 50-miler on day three, the doubts I originally had about finishing were gone. NOT because I felt invincible, or fit enough for 50, but because I had so much fun and was learning so fast and was inspired to find my limits.

Day Three: Bleeding Kansas

I woke up nervous. Even though I had organized my stuff the night before, I felt totally disorganized—I wasn’t even sure whether I had enough layers or the right food. My heart beats harder reliving that morning as I type this.

I had a total feeling of the unknown as we arrived in Manhattan, KS for the race. I was excited, but also thinking, “holy heck what have I just done and why do I think I have any business trying to ride more than 50 miles on a bike I’ve had for a week with shoes and pedals I’ve had for four rides?” Doubt, doubt, doubt.

The first few miles crawled by but I eventually found myself around two women I admire so much: Celia Santi from GU and Lyn Blubaugh. Unbeknownst to me, these ladies had decided they were going to ride with me ALL DANG DAY. I hope when I get better at this whole cycling thing I can pay it forward and inspire someone else the way Celia and Lyn did for me.

I had an absolute blast out there, laughing and learning and hurting and climbing and descending and figuring out how to eat and drink on the bike. I rode some of my fastest and slowest miles that day. I pedaled my bike up some crazy climbs while others around me hiked theirs. I also got off and hiked my bike up a hill for the first time ever; had a panic attack when we were spit onto the highway after a long, gnarly descent; and went through a dark time around the half-way mark. That day I rode 23 miles farther than I had ever gone on a single ride.

I t was a fabulous day on the bike, but I can’t pretend that it was without challenges.

I hate riding on fast, paved roads more than I hate downhills, so when I found myself on my own for a two-mile, windy, paved downhill to a busy road which eventually led to the finish, I couldn’t breathe and started crying—mostly because I was mad at myself for being so afraid. I live across the street from trails and gravel roads, but I quickly hated myself for never forcing myself onto pavement and around cars and downhill before that day.

How did I ride 46 glorious miles, and then be terrified of the last few?

Why was I ruining my own experience?

Why couldn’t I just let go of the damn brakes and enjoy a little adrenaline rush?

But then again, what if I fell off my bike and landed in a ditch and got seriously hurt and it took forever for people to find me?

It’s a ridiculous train of thought, but that’s how my mind was spinning.

With only 1.5 miles to go, I got off of my bike and talked to myself on the side of the road. It wasn’t the highlight of my day, and I don’t want to dwell on the negative. But it is real life.

Riding your bike can be scary and intimidating and it is OKAY to cry. That doesn’t mean you’re weak. Give yourself a pep talk, hop back on the saddle and keep riding until you trust yourself, your bike, and your peers.

I still don’t like paved roads or downhills, but I like my Salsa Journeyman and I like riding and I like myself and I like Kansas. That’s a win for me. 

Key Takeaways

Riding with other women is more than just inspiring. There is a level of comfort in a group like that, despite the total variety of ability levels. 

Pass knowledge on, no matter your gender or ability. You don’t need to be the fastest rider to impact other riders’ success. Sharing knowledge makes everyone better and enhances the cycling community. People don’t always ask questions but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to know. And with that…

It’s OKAY to throw your hand up and ask a question or share your fears about riding. Asking questions only makes you better. It helps you learn, it helps your confidence, it opens the conversation, and it empowers others to lend a hand. 

Creating space for women in cycling comes from more places than the start line of a race. Social opportunities such as camps, group rides, or clinics help to provide a tool for women to connect with one another and learn. You have to see it to believe it! And seeing 20 women riding together inspires others to be a part of it all.

Empower women on and off the bike. DK Women’s Camp had two female mechanics, which is rare in the industry. All of our meals were cooked by a female staff. Our coaches were female. Our brand representatives were female (except for Nick Legan—hey Nick!). Our event director was female. Providing women with opportunities to find and fit into the industry in more ways than “cyclist” pays dividends for advancing the industry as a whole.

Embrace the learning process. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll only be a beginner at this once. Try to enjoy that, smile when you fail, learn when you can, push when you want to, and take a day off when you need to—it makes the process so much more enjoyable.


CLICK HERE TO READ THE FIRST POST IN THIS SERIES: Journeywoman - A Beginner Rider's 100-Mile Story



Michelle Duffy is the Senior Marketing Manager for high-endurance events for Life Time Fitness. A former D1 collegiate runner, she's sharing her journey as a beginner cyclist with the big goals of riding both The Mid South and Dirty Kanza 100 in 2020. Follow along on her journey here on the Salsa blog, and at @womenrtw, #journeyto100, and on Instagram @meeeshyd!

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