Tales of perseverance on the Kansas prairie and the growth of gravel cycling in California and beyond
By Kurt Gensheimer
TOUGH TIMES NEVER LAST, but tough people do. And there’s no better example of this than Yuri Hauswald, a professional endurance cyclist for Scott Bikes and Community Development Manager for GU Energy Labs. Hauswald is known for his singlespeed mountain bike exploits, his achievements as a solo 24-hour mountain bike racer and the organizer of a grassroots spring cycling event in his home town of Petaluma called the Bantam Classic. But Hauswald might be best known for bringing home the title of 2015 Dirty Kanza Champion at the prime age of 44 years old.
If you’re not familiar with Dirty Kanza, it’s a brutal-yet-beautiful 200-mile gravel bike race in Emporia, Kansas held the first weekend in June. It has the reputation of being the original – and toughest – gravel grinder event in the country. Thousands of cyclists toe the line each year in the Dirty Kanza, not only subjecting themselves to 10,000 vertical feet of climbing across the Kansas prairie, but also surviving razor sharp rocks, apocalyptic mud, rain and wind often coinciding with the event.
The 2015 edition of the Kanza was one of those days; torrential downpours, brutal crosswinds and paralytic mud turning bikes into giant non-rolling clumps of earth. To prevent his bicycle from breaking in the mud, Hauswald had to shoulder and run his bike for several miles that day. Hauswald’s shoes became slippery mud boots that wouldn’t clip into his pedals, and he stopped at water crossings to free the mud continually plugging between his tires and frame. But thanks to his strong physique, his unwavering determination and not abusing his equipment, Hauswald handily dispatched all his competitors en route to the victory. Well, almost all of them.
After 200 miles of racing – nearly 100 of it by himself – and one of the hardest days on a bike in his life, Hauswald found himself rolling back into downtown Emporia with another racer right on his tail. After a punishing 13-hour day on the bike, Hauswald couldn’t believe the finish would come down to a sprint, but through all that he endured, Hauswald was determined to cross the line first. With his big, powerful riding style, Hauswald led out the finishing sprint so fiercely that his challenger didn’t have a chance; making for the closest and most exciting finish in Dirty Kanza history. Hauswald let out a guttural, tribal scream as he crossed the line, then collapsed on the ground an exhausted champion in the arms of his wife, Vanessa, who flew out to the race the day before and surprised him with her presence.
Going Even Bigger
If racing 200 miles across the Kansas prairie doesn’t sound tough enough, the 2018 Dirty Kanza introduced a new category called the DKXL, a 350-mile, fully self-supported route limited to only 34 of the strongest and most seasoned ultra-distance gravel cyclists. One of the invitees was Hauswald, and although the distance was on the upper end of his limit, Hauswald wanted to honor the invitation extended by Dirty Kanza founder, Jim Cummins.
Months of training for Hauswald culminated on June 1 as an intrepid group of DKXL riders rolled out of Emporia at 4pm on Friday evening. The Kansas air was thick with temperatures in the low 90s, so Hauswald used an old racing trick of freezing a 70-ounce Camelbak hydration bladder and wore it on his back. The block of ice got Hauswald through the first 80 miles of DKXL, a time when many contenders faded in the heat. Even after the sun set over the Kansas prairie, the stifling heat barely let up. But at least skies were clear with no sign of rain and the debilitating mud that comes with it.
“The fireflies were incredible as was a big, bright crimson moon,” recalled Hauswald. “With how clear the skies were, I thought there was no way we’d get hit with a rain storm, but two hours later it was like Gilligan’s Island.”
By 4:30am, the skies opened up and torrential rains, hail and lightning overwhelmed the riders. It rained so hard that back in Emporia, the 6am start of the 200-mile Dirty Kanza was pushed back by 30 minutes; the first time a delayed start has ever happened in event history. Then came the mud, and with it the paralysis of Hauswald’s bike, but thankfully he was prepared with an essential piece of gear.
“A Benjamin Moore wooden paint stick is your best weapon on the prairie,” Hauswald said with a chuckle. “We call it a mud stick, and it absolutely will save your day when your bike gets clogged.”
As he trudged through the heavy weather, Hauswald’s experience intensified, having a significant spiritual encounter with a bobcat. The bobcat happens to be Hauswald’s spirit animal, as the bobcat symbolizes his father who passed away in 2006 from an aggressive form of cancer. On the day of his father’s passing, Hauswald had a bobcat cross his path while out on a ride. Since then he’s seen numerous bobcats while riding, and encountering one on the DKXL provided Hauswald the energy he needed to make it through the night.
The sun came up and the rain abated, but the mud was far from over. With 70 miles to go, Hauswald came into even more debilitating mud that forced him to walk more than a mile with the bike on his back.
“It sucked the life outta me and totally brought back memories of 2015,” said Hauswald.
Eventually Hauswald found a spigot and was able to clean the bike. Although he suffered a bit of a mental breakdown through the sea of mud, Hauswald’s endurance racing experience, perfectly executed nutrition plan, ability to turn off the voices in his brain and maintained focus got him through to the finish; that and an entire bottle of chain lube. Nearly 25 hours after starting, Hauswald completed the inaugural DKXL in second place.
The Growth of Gravel
Although Hauswald’s two Dirty Kanza tales sound physically and mentally punishing, there’s an element to his experiences that has helped fuel the growth of gravel cycling and events like Dirty Kanza: having a true bicycle adventure.
“Although Dirty Kanza is a race, it’s really more about having an adventure and sharing the experience with others,” said Hauswald. “Of course there’s a competitive element, but most people do events like Kanza for the camaraderie and slapping high fives with friends. Instead of folks asking ‘how did you place?,’ the most often asked question is ‘how was your ride?’”
As one of the more prominent names in gravel cycling, Hauswald’s engaging personality, social media presence, nutrition expertise working with GU Energy Labs and involvement with Dirty Kanza has helped broaden the popularity of this knobby tire, drop bar movement. But perhaps the biggest catalyst getting cyclists off pavement and onto dirt is how much more enjoyable riding dirt roads can be.
Due to the epidemic of distracted driving, road cycling has become more dangerous, but not having to worry about cars buzzing by at high speeds is just one of many pleasures of gravel cycling. Dirt roads engage the senses far more than pavement can, delivering riders to more remote and beautiful places. Because there is less traffic on dirt roads, riders can enjoy nature around them; the rustling of trees in the wind, the soothing din of running water, a bird’s song and even the sound of knobby tires on gravel. But you don’t have to be as fit as Hauswald or compete in a grueling event like Dirty Kanza to consider yourself a gravel cyclist. All that’s required is a sense of adventure and a capable bike that can handle dirt roads.
“Gravel riding can be done on any kind of bike that’s comfortable on dirt roads,” said Hauswald. “Gravel riding is less technical, threatening and scary of an entry barrier than mountain biking. And particularly in the midwest, because there are hundreds of miles of dirt roads everywhere, you can go hours without seeing a car, so gravel riding is quite safe and far more peaceful.”
Much like the mountain bike community, Hauswald added that the gravel community is inclusive, welcoming and supportive. Especially at events like Kanza, there are no egos.
“The midwestern hospitality that everyone speaks of is absolutely a thing at Kanza,” said Hauswald. “You feel it as soon as you roll into Emporia.”
Although Hauswald regards Kanza as the nucleus of the gravel movement, gravel grinder events are popping up all over the country, including many in California. Events like the Grasshopper Adventure Series in Northern California, the Sagan Dirt Fondo in Truckee, Lost and Found in Portola, Grinduro in Quincy, Gourmet Gravel in Nevada City and the Rock Cobbler in Bakersfield give folks who want to try a gravel event plenty of options.
When asked what he would recommend to someone just getting into gravel riding, Hauswald had two main pieces of advice.
“Most importantly, you don’t have to buy a new bike to ride gravel. Just make sure your current bike setup is comfortable for riding dirt roads,” said Hauswald. “And if you don’t have many dirt roads within riding distance of your house, consider doing a gravel event. You don’t have to race it, just go ride it with some friends and see some cool new places along the way. The essence of riding gravel is about getting outside and having a bike adventure, and that’s why I think we’ll continue to see this form of cycling continue to flourish.”