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1,300 cyclists sign up for Dirty Kanza bike race through Flint Hills

Local cyclist Jeff Usher is pedaling more than 250 miles a week to train for the Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile bike race over a gravel course through the Flint Hills. (May 28, 2014)
Local cyclist Jeff Usher is pedaling more than 250 miles a week to train for the Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile bike race over a gravel course through the Flint Hills. (May 28, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Thirty-six miles was chump change.

Thirty-six miles and Wichita resident Jeff Usher, 57, would finish his first Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile mountain-bike race through the Flint Hills.

Sitting at a checkpoint, eating a sandwich and fighting cramps, Usher said he considered giving up on his first Kanza attempt. Instead he kept riding.

Ten miles later he was tempted to stop again, but his support team was far away, busy tending to his fallen teammate’s dislocated shoulder. With no choice but to keep going, he pedaled his way to fifth place in his age division in the 2012 race.

This year, Usher is pedaling more than 250 miles a week to train.

“It’s almost an adventure in a way,” Usher said about the Kanza, the longest course he has ridden. “You’re out there on your own. It’s exhilarating.”

About 1,300 cyclists from 45 states and seven countries, including 54 riders from Wichita, will join Usher on Saturday in Emporia to prove they are as tough as the gravel trails they will ride over.

This year marks the largest number of entries the Dirty Kanza has seen since Kansas native Jim Cummins and fellow cyclist Joel Dyke started the grassroots event in 2006.

Cummins, a resident of Emporia and a cycling enthusiast, thought the Flint Hills offered a unique challenge. Cyclists must overcome rough gravel, hilly terrain, occasional high winds, hot temperatures and isolation – apart from designated checkpoints every 50 miles, riders are out in open terrain.

“There are a number of similar events throughout the country, but the Flint Hills have a unique beauty and a unique sense of remoteness that other gravel courses can’t replicate,” Cummins said.

The first Dirty Kanza attracted 34 competitors. It has grown since, prompting Cummins to leave his 30-year career as a packaging engineer and move to Emporia to manage the race full time. This year about 800 riders are registered for the 200-mile race, and about 500 riders are registered for the noncompetitive 100-mile version. Competitors are traveling from as far as Australia and Norway.

Apart from one other full-time employee, the race has been a community effort, an aspect that adds to its appeal, Cummins said. More than 3,000 people attended the post-race celebration last year, and together with the Dirty Kanza race the events provide about a $500,000 economic boost to Emporia, said Susan Rathke with Emporia’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The fastest racers finish the Dirty Kanza in about 12 hours. The rest have until 3 a.m. Sunday to cross the finish line. Usually 60 percent of riders complete the course, but the race has seen as few as 19 percent finish, Cummins said.

Weather conditions have drastic effects – one year rain made the course so muddy Usher said his friends had to walk and carry their bikes for four miles.

“The challenges the Dirty Kanza offers intrigue the best athletes,” Cummins said. “It’s a chance to test your perceived physical limits, and it’s a chance to learn about yourself.”

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