As she pedaled into the 100-mile checkpoint on her bicycle, Wendy Davis, 44, asked the question on everyone’s mind: who turned the wind on?
For much of the previous 50 miles, she and hundreds of other cyclists had battled the stiff gusts that blow across the Kansas plains. She was halfway through the Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile race on the rarely maintained back roads of the state’s rugged Flint Hills.
Why ride 200 miles over crunching gravel, her noncyclist friends asked. “Because I can,” she answered.
Davis, a recent convert to long-distance cycling, had fallen in love with the growing sport of gravel grinding. “I like the sound of it,” she said. “I like the feel of it. If the gravel is still crunching, then I’m still moving forward.”
She had come ready for whatever the race might throw at her. She had bowed out her first year when the temperature hit 100 degrees. Last year she pushed herself, “riding on euphoria” to a 19-hour finish. She was back hoping to beat her time, but the wind had other plans.
Undeterred, she pointed her bike back toward the gravel and shoved off.
“The Midwest is not blessed with mountains and the type of geography that one might think is a preferred cycling destination,” said Jim Cummins, who has been organizing the Dirty Kanza for eight years. “One thing we do have is vast expanse and endless miles of gravel road.”
All of that gravel attracts tough amateurs and seasoned pros alike.
“I thought I was going to be bored, like riding a stationary trainer for 13 hours,” said Rebecca Rusch, 44, a professional cyclist from Sun Valley, Idaho, who first raced the Dirty Kanza 200 in 2012 and won the women’s title.
“It ended up being one of my favorite events of the year,” she said. She returned this year, again winning her division and finishing 11th over all.
Mark Stevenson, who puts on the granddaddy of gravel grinders, the Trans Iowa, a 300-mile-plus excursion across that state’s back roads, said that people were drawn to the races as a way to test themselves.
“Everybody who toes the line has already won,” Stevenson said. “If they show up and have an experience, that’ll last their whole life. That’s what really appeals to people.”
Gravel events, he said, are a relaxed contrast to the often uptight world of hard-core road and mountain bike racing.
Riders are required to be largely self-sufficient and can receive support only at the four checkpoints, each 50 miles apart. While some gravel grinders are free, entry to the Dirty Kanza is $95. The prizes for winning are a belt buckle and some bike parts donated by sponsors.
For some, the allure of the ride is the scenery: the Flint Hills are home to one of the last stands of the native tallgrass prairie that once blanketed much of the Great Plains. For others, it is the absence of honking horns. On the gravel, traffic might be limited to the occasional tractor or stray cow. The bicycle industry has begun to respond to the interest with a few gravel racing bikes and tires with twice as much flat protection.
Stevenson began a Web site in 2008 — Gravel Grinder News — to catalog what was then a handful of events in the Midwest. Today, he said, about 150 gravel rides and races are listed. And the sport is moving to other corners of the country. This year Rusch is organizing her own gravel grinder in Idaho.
The first Dirty Kanza drew 38 riders who started and finished in a motel parking lot. Last year’s field filled up in hours. This year it was expanded, and more than 600 riders tested their mettle in the Flint Hills. Others competed in 20-, 50- and 100-mile versions.
The race has become a highlight here. Emporia has embraced the gravel grinders, seeing them off at dawn and welcoming the fastest back to town 12 hours later with cheers and ringing cowbells. Many stay up into the early hours to see the last stragglers across the line.
Weather can determine the outcome. Two years ago temperatures peaked at 100 degrees, prompting all but the hardiest to call for a ride home. Other races have had rain and hail. This year the wind slowed many riders to a crawl.
“The course is great, the weather is great,” said Rob Delaney, who had come for his first Dirty Kanza from Franklin, Ill. “It’s the wind today, it just strips your soul.”
Riders from strongholds of endurance cycling like Colorado are often humbled by the conditions of the Great Plains, said Matt Brown, who owns High Gear, Emporia’s only bike shop. Unlike mountain climbs, which top out with a leg-refreshing break on the descent, he said the combination of rolling hills and headwinds mean constant pedaling.
Here in Kansas you pedal up the front of the hill and you pedal back down the backside, said Brown, who finished third in the open men’s category.
This year’s race was won by the defending champion, Dan Hughes of Lawrence, Kan., who sped across the finish line in 12 hours 3 minutes for his fourth victory. He likened the race to a marathon: short enough to be raced by the very fit and a personal test for the average athlete to finish.
And, he added with a bit of Midwestern pride, “the Flint Hills are just awesome.”
Some seven and a half hours after Hughes’s win, Davis and her husband, Jim, pulled into town.
“I didn’t get my goal,” she said, “but it’s O.K., because there is a lot of wind out there.”