Off the beaten path

Boulder cyclist Thomas Prehn ready to tackle his first gravel grinding event in Kansas

Adventure Monkey

In his 2004 book, Racing Tactics, Boulder resident and professional cyclist Thomas Prehn aimed to help other cyclists avoid common mistakes and to “ride intelligently,” as he puts it. The 57-year-old plans on utilizing his own advice as he tackles the 10th annual Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile ride over mostly dirt and gravel roads through the grasslands of the Flint Hills in Kansas on May 30. Billed as the “World’s Premier Gravel Grinder,” it’s an epic cycling event riders must complete in one day, riding over polished limestone and fist-sized chunks of gravel, through creekbeds that may well be full, given the recent rains, or could be baking in 100-degree heat, all while rolling up and down hills for a total of about 12,000 feet of climbing. Winners finish in about 11 hours.

“I have actually never done a specific Gravel Grinder event,” Prehn says. “I have done tons of road, mountain bike and cyclo-cross events, though.”

And although he’s done a few 24-hour events before, this is one race he’ll be doing strictly on his own, rather than with teammates, as he had done in the past.

“I am looking forward to the challenge of doing 200 miles in a day,” Prehn says. “And that is no easy 200 miles of riding in a pack of cyclists. Even though there are 1,500 riders in the different events, you really can’t sit in a pack and get sucked along in a draft. Flat tires and mechanical problems are always a potential challenge.”

But Prehn has never been one to shy away from a challenge. The former USPRO road champion cyclist has been involved in the sport since the early 1970s, won a USPRO road championship title in 1986 and was a consistent top finisher in U.S. National Championship races throughout his career. The current director of CatEye Service and Research Center, and president of his own consumer research and consulting firm, Boulder Sports Research, he was also one of the few cyclists to have finished all 13 editions of the Red Zinger/Coors Classic.

The Dirty Kanza, however, will be his first official gravel grinding event, which presents a unique opportunity to test his endurance on some of the toughest surfaces a cyclist can tackle. Rather than the smooth surfaces of a paved road or trail, gravel grinders are gravel road races and rides that combine riding on surfaces such as asphalt, gravel, dirt, some singletrack trails and maintenance or B roads. Courses vary from hard-packed dirt to softball-sized rocks. The distance usually ranges between 50 and 150 miles, but in this event, it’s much longer. He’s been training in the Boulder area for months, although the recent rainy weather has been a bit of a hindrance.

“I have been trying to get in as many miles as I can, but with work and this very wet weather, it is a challenge,” he says. “I will not have sufficient miles in my legs before the event, so I will have to be extremely careful as I race.

“One of the best reasons to do gravel or off-pavement road rides is the exploration,” he continues. “I think most Boulder County residents would be amazed at some of the remarkable ‘country roads’ we have just off a major highway or road. Riding on gravel or dirt roads is more of a challenge, but it is also usually away from traffic. That is a wonderful thing. To be able to ride 80 miles through Boulder County and maybe half of it is on gravel or dirt roads where you have virtually no traffic is remarkable. It can be slightly more challenging from a bike-handling perspective because of sand, gravel on the road. Any long bike ride or athletic event can be grueling.”

Prehn didn’t have time in his schedule to check out the terrain before the race, but he has been researching the Dirty Kanza 200 route. He anticipates an incredible backdrop with sweeping tallgrass and expansive prairie as he takes on the physically taxing 200-mile ride.

As a semi-professional photographer, the event also gives him the chance to capture the breathtaking landscapes and other cyclists amidst their own individual efforts.

“I have seen photos, and it looks absolutely fantastic,” he says. “So I am looking forward to stopping every now and again and capturing a shot of two of the riders in what looks like just remarkable pristine countryside. Gravel roads or really gravel paths rolling over beautiful grasslands could be spectacular.”

The popularity of gravel grinding has skyrocketed in the last few years and is now the fastest-growing genre in the cycling industry. The Dirty Kanza 200 has grown exponentially with it. In 2006 there were 34 participants, and this year 1,500 riders are signed up. The race’s founders, Jim Cummins and Joel Dyke, try to maintain the grassroots feel of the event, even as it grows, by keeping a focus on a passion for cycling and the experiences provided by riding what they see as some of the best gravel in the world.

“If you’re not doing it for the stories you can tell, I’m not sure why you’d do it at all,” Prehn says. “Seriously, the events are a lot of fun because there is a collective challenge to get through 200 miles of challenging conditions from making sure your equipment holds up to trying to make sure your body holds up, too. I have already talked with cyclists who have done this before and having some experience in doing some rather extreme events over the years, I know that pacing and keeping moving will be two critical elements to having a great event.”

All 1,500 slots to race were sold out within 24 hours of the event opening for registration, a testament to its growing popularity. As riders trickle in, often between 10 p.m. and midnight, the finish line celebration brings out the town of Emporia, Kansas (population 24,000) in force. Crowds are estimated at 6,000.

“I have no illusion about ‘racing’ this. I will pin on a number to my jersey and be in the event, but I am mostly going to be enjoying the event, and when I cross the line … I will be pleased,” Prehn says. “I will be even more pleased if I capture a few great photos and video of this awesome event.”

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