A community enables one to conquer the 200 mile #DirtyKansa gravel race as a blind tandem team

Nothing beats the thrill of finishing a 200-mile gravel bike race than being surrounded by the people who made it happen. For many, cycling is an individual sport featuring a single person atop of a bike pedaling to their heart’s content. If you look at the words, “teamwork” and “tandem,” there is no room from an “I.” This is exactly where my Captain, Mike, and I found ourselves at 2040CST crossing the finish line and surrounded by our friends and family. It’s through our friends and family we with disabilities owe much of our achievements, since our independence requires a bit of dependency on others.

So how did this all unfurl? Through teamwork, volunteerism, compromise, and focusing on tangible goals.

This time last year, our team could not have guess they would be celebrating together. However, one person possessed the idea and will power to see it happen. With less than 20 miles left during the 2016 Dirty Kansa 200, Mike Reynolds, and Emporia-based ophthalmologist, received inspiration to complete the the 2017 race with a blind stoker. The idea occurred while crossing an old wooden bridge thanks to the euphoria endurance athletes commonly feel. Us in the military may experience similar emotions upon completion of training ruck marches, completion of a successful mission, or the day we recognize the positive accomplishments of our service.

Over the next five months, Mike remain committed to completing the Dirty Kansa 200 with a blind stoker on his Calfee Tetra. However, he struggled to identify a partner, despite contacting blindness organizations, tandem clubs, and even Paralympic training programs. Nothing would sway Mike from this goal.

During this time, my fellow University of Kansas student Veteran, Matt, shared a Facebook post about finishing some other gravel races. This caught my attention, since my visual impairment eliminated any chances for me to ride independently. Matt proposed we enter the Emporia Veterans Day Freedom Fest spur challenge. The 5k run, 40-mile gravel ride, and obstacle course occurs the weekend prior to Veterans Day. It represents everything Veterans Day activities should include, community building celebrations, military and Veteran outreach and education, and furthering local Veterans-based initiatives. The fact that Emporia is the home of Veterans Day makes this an even more special event to support.

At this point our team has yet to come together. Both Mike and I recognize the only way to accomplish our respective goals require the assistance of others. The reliance on another is not weakness or burdensome, but a chance to establish a meaningful connection that lifts the team to new heights. Endurance sports athletes learn this lesson rather quickly. Running or cycling across the country requires pacers, support vehicles, and communities to aid them through easy days and overcome dark moments when failure is a breath away. Marathon runners require the various volunteer stations along routes to provide energy drinks and gel packets to push their muscles to the brink. Cyclists need a mechanic to keep their bikes moving for other riders along the route to lend a spare tire or pump.

Disabled athletes likewise learn the importance of assistance to compete. Visually impaired runners rely on pace groups and volunteer stations along course routes just like sighted runners. However, one would not even be able to register without lining up sighted guides for training and on race day. Hand cyclists involve mechanics in maintaining bikes, and will request other cyclists to give them a little bump to crest a hill. Deaf swimmers focus on visual cues to announce the start of a heat. The beauty of these arrangements stems from the sheer enjoyment and celebratory feeling that spreads throughout the entire team upon finishing the event.

Returning to the Emporia Freedom Fest 2016 Spur Challenge, Mike, Matt, and I find ourselves a part of the few tandem teams. Demonstrating his competitive nature, Matt scoped out the field of tandem bikes staged for the second component of the Spur Challenge. He described to me the amazing Calfee Tetra’s, and the other Salsa Powder Kegs on the racks. When we completed the first part of the challenge, a 5k run, most of the tandems remained on the racks. This provided us with much optimism for the 40-mile gravel grinder, even though we rode a road tandem. My introduction to Mike and his wife Joyce occurred roughly two-thirds of the way through the course when they easily overtook Matt and me. Let’s say it’s very difficult to miss a shiny white carbon fiber tandem rolling along upwards of 20mph on a flat of hero gravel. It sounds like a fast-moving car, you just wish to draft. But Matt and I could not even keep up, despite trying for a short moment.

After the race concluded, Mike asked Leland, the lead for Gravel City and both the Freedom Fest and Dirty Kansa, who the other tandem team was. After finding out our information, mike hunted us down and proposed the question if I would like to accompany him on the DK200.

This simply took my breath away. First, I never knew a 200-mile bike race existed. Watching Mike leave us in his literal dust imposed a second mental block. Simply stated, I doubted my ability to serve as Mike’s stoker. However, Mike displayed a tremendous degree of patience and understanding by providing me a couple of months to think it over.

One of the important pieces of teamwork involves the team’s strength. My apprehension instilled a self-induced barrier. Representing the truest definitions of selfless service and team work, Mike believed in me and gently nudged me to believe in myself without breaking me. The chain strength comes from the capabilities of each link. Stress the weakest link to much, and it breaks. Tandem cycling is exactly like the chain. The Captain and the stoker works in unison to propel the team forwards. A cadence maintains the speed, the pair feels each other out through verbal and nonverbal cues. 

Mike’s desire to see us succeed became very clear while training for the DK. Being split between Emporia and Lawrence places much trust on each part of the team to prepare themselves when separate and optimize times when riding together. Mike provided training plans and tips. When it came to riding together, Mike continued to demonstrate selfless service by venturing out to Lawrence or picking up and taking me to Emporia to ride parts of the DK route. During the training rides, we established a goal and pedal are hardest to achieve it, while trying not to risk any injuries.

Our first time riding together is one for the memory books. We hoped to ride the first leg and back of the DK, while also posing for some action shots by the DK photographer. Accompanying us was Todd on a fat bike. Given the February timeframe, one might hope for a beautiful day, but Alas the temperature barely rose above 30. We made it to the Cattle Pens, took the pictures, and then headed home. Yes, the cold weather was too much for this Army Veteran to handle.

Though our next two rides paired us against cold temperatures and decent winds, we manage to ride 60 miles and then our first century. The 60-mile ride allowed us to get loss around Lawrence as what should have been a simple route ended up going from Lecompton, over to Eudora, around Clinton Lake, and then back to my house. This is what happens when you trust navigation to a GPS that just refused to connect and then rely on a blind back seat stoker driver with Blind Square on the iPhone. At this point, I struggled to contemplate how we could even complete the race, then we rode our first century. Completing the 3rd and 4th legs of the DK invigorated us, and we found our groove.

The next two century rides when off without a hitch. We realized that as a team, we would be able to complete the DK. Our spirits would not even be hampered by the troubles on our final training ride along the 2nd leg of the DK. During this ride, the rear tire sprung a leak. Mike attempted to patch then replace the tire, but nothing seemed to work. Despite this, we felt strong coasting into Eureka for a pickup.

Finally, we arrive at the DK itself. Mike and Joyce graciously hosted my Dad, Jessie, Brent, and myself. Our SAG consisted of Joyce, Tom, Davao, Peggy, and Brent. Mike, Jessie, and I rode the 4 miles to the start line to warm up. Yes, even in a 206-mile race, you really do need to warm up before starting, and 4 miles is a drop in the bucket. When we reached the starting area, we stood out. Just about everyone knew Mike and bid us good luck and many individuals wondered how I could see with my entire face covered. Mike lined us amongst the front row of cyclists. The starting line consists of many rows of 30 bikes across with barely enough space to wave hi. The atmosphere resembles a New Year Eve ball drop, but at 0545 in the morning. Like the New Year’s Eve, once the clock hits zero, its organized pandemonium.

Our starting strategy involved taking it easy and allow the sprinters and fast movers the chance to go around us. Well, when you have roughly 1,100 cyclists, it’s better to play it safe and then catch them on the back end of the course. The move payed off, as the first couple of turns, though still congested, provided us with the room to maneuver the tandem safely.

Each leg presented its own challenge for our team. The first leg featured us crashing. The second leg forced us to check our rhythm. The third leg demonstrated why a milk shake might not be a suitable halfway point nutritional splurge. The fourth leg proved what is possible when properly motivated.

Wondering about those crashes, well each is funny. During a river crossing, Mike played the nice guy and let another cut in front of us. The individual just about stopped at the banks of the river, causing Mike to steer off to the left and off the crossing’s paved area. Mike flew off to the side of the tandem and I graciously maintained an upright position holding onto the tandem. When Mike returned, he looked at me in amazement that I was just standing there looking as if nothing happened. However, we would change fates on our next crash. Heading into the 1st Check Point, a series of gates and poles puts one’s balance to the test. Well that is great on a single bike, but an 8ft long tandem cannot make those turns, so we crashed. This time Mike showed me off and landed rather gently, got up, and started to run with the Calfee. Slight problem, I did not land so smoothly and barely managed to find and grab onto the back of the tandem. About 10m into the sprint, Mike realized this and slowed down enough for me to find the bike.

Well we were not the only entertaining couple of runners. Waiting for us at an entrance to pit row pinot, Daveo and Tom also seemed caught up in the excitement and started running next to us. Only caveat is both gave us conflicting directions to the break area. Well our SAG team rocked the entire Check Point, quickly conducting some bike maintenance, switching out our Camelbacks, and provider an update on Jessie and the lead group.

The second leg lack of crashes or disastrous situations contained its own elements of intrigue. After smoking the first leg, we needed to revisit our tempo and save energy for the second half. However, the pleasant weather, beautiful rolling Flint Hills, and our fellow riders made this a challenge. The DK’s tandem class is rather small, so to come across two other tandem teams introduced a balancing act between maintaining our pace while trying not to enter a race to the next check point. Technically we met both teams during the first leg, it’s during the second leg you try to find something to occupy your mind, like racing. The two tandem teams consisted of male and female partners. The first set we came across hailed from Oregon, and the second from Columbia, Missouri. Both contained relationships with Veterans, as the first woman is a psychologist at the Portland VAMC, and the other tandem teams where Marines. Both teams aspired to beat the sun and was their first time entering the DK tandem class. Another facet of the second leg is the stunning rolling hills, groves of trees, river valleys, and ridge lines. We opted to walk up the final 50m of the Beyotch Climb, and cruised into Eureka at our fastest century time to date, 6:52.

Our support team once again enabled Mike and I to rest and refit ourselves. The Calfee received a quick once over and underwent a bit of tender love and care under Mike supervision. I opted to sit down, not that I have not been sitting all day so far, and enjoy a large Sonic milkshake from my Dad who walked the 3 miles to fetch it. 

The learning lesson is dumping a bunch of sugar and saturated fats into your body at the halfway point of an endurance race might not be the best idea. Most of the third leg remains a blur to me, since the ancient condition of dragging ass zapped my energy. Several times Mike asked me if I was awaking, to which I replied, mostly. The funniest part of the race occurred during this leg. A section of the route takes you by the former CEO of Dr. Pepper’s sprawling ranch with the most perfect white picket fence. The area features an amazing downhill portion across the front of the house and up onto a ridge. Mike and I discussed how awesome a Dr. Pepper pit stop by the CEO’s house would be. Not even a minute after this exchange, a rider who was resting on the side of the road opened his bottle of Dr. Pepper and started drinking it as we passed. This forced us to start laughing at how perfect the moment was. That rider was not the only one with the idea to rest in the area, with numerous riders resting on the road side, under trees, and in the creeks.

By the time we hit the third and final check point, the desire to finish strong prevailed. We hoped the stop would be a quick one, but that would not be the case. If a single rider places a lot of torque on the drive train of a bike, expect some wear and tear. Now imagine the torque from two riders. Luckily nothing broke, but the front cogs nearly fell off the bike as Brent lubed the chain and belt. We came very close to dropping out of the DK due to mechanical failure, but we figured we could hobble the last 50 miles. Before taking off, Tom FaceTime with my 7-year-old daughter, Abby, and we received our final pep talk from her. She of course knew we would finish and win, but then I know better than to argue or cast doubt against what she says.

And so, we took off on the final leg, racing against Apollo to the horizon. The fourth leg starts off with a nice downhill out of Madison and through some smaller hills. The main concern arose to our south, as large thunderclaps formed over the route for the first leg and stood there taunting us. This provided a bit of motivation to make it through several miles of dirt, which could become a mud bath. Once again, I created the weak link in the chain thanks to an Achilles injury flaring up. Fortunately, the ominous clouds retained their distance and rain content, and we crushed the Percy’s Punch climb and the dried mud beds. Only a couple of small climbs and about 20 miles of gravel resided between Team Tandem when Mike spurred us on. Growing frustrated with my tired talking, Mike upped our pace. Upon passing the Pastor’s Bridge and seeing the Emporia water tower, Mike checked our timing and announced the potential to challenge Apollo’s chariot, so we poured our remaining efforts into finishing the race strongly. 

If the race’s kick off sounded like the Time’s Square New Year’s ball drop, then the last half mile was filled with a ball drop at every corner and the finish line featured the ball drop combined with Independence Day. To showboat a little over the finish line, Mike took his feet off the pedals and allowed me to pedal the last stretch into the finish line. Every inch of the area contained cyclists, SAG teams, volunteers, DK staff, and the entire town of Emporia cheering on finishers This left very little room to navigate a normal bike, much less an extra-long Calfee. Well when you are blind and the loudness of the noise overloads your remaining sense of positioning, yelling for e to stop pedaling will get you nowhere. I should have probably warned Mike that I could not hear in loud situations, but he learned the best way, the hard way. I am pretty sure everyone jumped out of the way, for I did not feel us run over anything, and we did not crash, so go us.

Did we beat the sun? Yes, barely. The Official sunset on June 3, 2017 in Emporia, KS, occurred at 2043. Our official time over the line, 2040, meaning we completed the Dirty Kansa 206-mile gravel race in 14:40. Well, technically, 210 if you count the warm up. My daughter’s belief in winning the tandem class also came true, with the next team finishing about 30 minutes later.

Once we dismounted, Joyce, Tom, Daveo, Peg, Brent, and all our friends and fellow cyclists enveloped our team. Even my Daughter joined us on Face Time cheering us on and crying out of happiness. This moment will remain engrained in my brain, as this type of celebratory bonding rarely occurs over one’s lifetime. During the DK awards ceremony, we would feel the sharing of gratitude, applause, and celebration by everyone. The awards ceremony pays tribute to the top five finishers in various categories. Jessie took fourth in the males 29 and younger category. Todd took 6th in the fat bike category. When it came to the tandem class, we grew worried when we did not hear the names of the wonderful Portland VAMC Psychologist, but felt very happy when the Marine couple from Columbia took the podium. Then much speculation transpired between Mike, Joyce, Tom, Daveo, Peg, and myself before the announcement of the 2nd and 1st tandem teams. I thought another team was ahead of us in the timing and was shocked when the 2nd place team took the podium, leaving us as the champions of the Dirty Kansa tandem class.

When the announcement came, the crowd continued the joyous cheering for all of those who podium. When Mike, Tom, and I reached the stage with Mike as my sighted guide, white cane in hand, and Blinded Veterans Association shirt, the audience grew very silent. Personally, I think this is because everyone wondered if I would fall off the podium, after several other previous 1st place winners struggled to lift their legs high enough, or as one young male nearly fell backwards after attempting to show off with a one leg jump onto the 3rd place podium. I did slowly approach the podium, and did think, oh shit can I lift my leg high enough? Well the answer was no, so I kneeled and then stood up on the small square as Mike, resembling a trained gymnast, simply hopped up with little ease. Once everyone realized the Facebook Live feed would not be on America’s Funniest Home Videos, we all received a standing ovation. Know how I mentioned the loudness and rarity to be immersed in so much celebratory love and pride, well that moment beat the finish line moment. On a side, everyone realized why my floppy hat completely covered my eyes under the helmet. As one rider asked, “is it dark under there?” I replied, “all of the time.”

The Dirty Kansa ranks on my greatest lifetime achievements, and it’s all thanks to Mike, my captain, and coach,’ Joyce, his wife and our lead SAG supporter’ Tom, my Dad who drove us around all over and was always there to ensure we were ready; Daveo and Peg, for showing us some serious love at the SAG’s and taking some photos of the ride; and Brent, for repairing what we broke and enabling us to keep pedaling. This story would not have been possible without the support of Matt, who served as my first tandem captain on the Freedom Fest Spur ride; Chris who is my sighted running guide; and Richard Hunter, who started me thinking about becoming a blind athlete through the California International Marathon. 

A single rider cannot complete the Dirty Kansa by themselves. Heck, you cannot even register without listing who will support you. 

The DK requires a team mentality. Teamwork appears between the cyclists and their SAG team keeping the bike rolling and nutritional supplies stocked. Team building develops between cyclists throughout the course, inspiring everyone to pedal just a little harder or to lend support to a fallen rider. Teamwork is a necessity both on the tandem and around the tandem, since tandems require a bit of respect for everyone safety. The team mentality filters throughout all the communities, individual farms, volunteers, supporters, and so many other countless and unnamed individuals who go out of their way to support every aspect of the Dirty Kansa. 

The Dirty Kansa is not for an individual to demonstrate their prowess, but for everyone to come together and support each other achieve their independent goals.

If you wish to be apart of a team who supports blind athletes achieve goals like this. Check out these links. We in the blindness community requires the support of our volunteers who make it possible for us to compete. If you wish to be apart of this movement or want more information, feel free to contact me.