Kristin and The Dirty Kanza: Keep on Rockin’ It, Baby!

The Lanterne Rouge is roadie speak for last place. That said, some of the most inspiring stories from the professional peloton are brought to light by that. One such is Ted King’s gritty ride during the 2013 Tour de France team time trial when he pushed through the obvious pain of a separated shoulder, was forced to ride his standard road bike due to that injury, saw the “team” aspect of that quickly transformed into an individual time trial, and still managed to finish within seconds of the elimination time. The race officials showed no mercy, applied a strict time-cut rule, and eliminated Ted.

Kristin at the first creek crossing.  Image Credit: Linda Guerrette

This is not a story about the Tour de France. This is about a bike race* on gravel in the Flint Hills of Kansas, but that is not to say there are not similarities. Both feature Mr. King (although this time he was head-and-shoulders above everyone else), both are grueling, and both offer abundant stories of sacrifice and personal triumph even for those who finish farther down the classification.

Being happy with my past performance in the 200, Kristin and I trained for this ride with a team mentality. This year’s goal was to ride together, enjoy as much of the ride as it allows, and get her that full pint glass to go along with her half-pint from 2014. Friday night date nights had us on the bikes for 5-7 hours as we trained our bodies and minds to work together when tired. After our last Friday night century, we were dialed. We knew what pace we could sustain, we knew what gear and supplies each would carry and contribute, and most importantly we had honed our patience for the inevitable frustrations that can come through a combination of long hours and late nights on the bike.

But the best laid plans… With less than a week until we hit the road for Emporia, I found out that a work commitment that could not be rescheduled was going to keep me from Kanza. Kristin was now going to go solo. It was crushing news for both of us and required a total rethink of pace, gear, and strategy. But there was no way she was not going to try, and Thursday night I watched her drive off with the unavoidable feeling that I had let her down.

I gave her all of the support I could over the phone Friday night and Saturday morning, but the finish was going to be all down to her. Knowing what a mental blow it was for me to not be there, I knew she was starting the ride with doubts.

I followed her progress as best I could while out of town and in meetings. There was the occasional text, and my mom would send me updates as Kristin passed checkpoints. The biggest help I could offer her was some encouragement around Mile 130. She was having heat and stomach issues. I knew she was going into a dark place, and I hoped my texts of encouragement and advice would be a small help to keep her going. A few hours later I received confirmation that she was at the last checkpoint and feeling better. She had joined a small group and a finish was looking likely.

I was relieved, but by 1:30 AM, I still had not heard any news of a finish. I was worried. I was thinking of how small problems can be amplified by the dark. I was hoping she was not facing the Kansas prairies alone. I got the call around 2:45. She was tired but elated. The finish was hers and so was that pint glass! I was so relieved and so proud!

I have seen Kristin’s pride in the finish somewhat diminished by being near the time-cut. Regardless, I will forever be indescribably delighted with her accomplishment. Finishing a 206 mile bike ride is no small feat, and finishing 550th out of nearly 1000 people who started the 200 is nothing to be ashamed of. Defeating heat, wind, mud, a left hand that refused to move the shifter, stomach issues, isolation, doubt, fatigue, and a desire to quit all make her a true rock star in my book.

I later learned that in a final twist of fate, making the time cut-off was put in jeopardy for her by being stopped at a crossing for a train near the finish. Though on modern trains that laterne rouge has been replaced with the end of train device (ETD), I still see an irony in the fact that waiting for that to pass meant she had to give it everything she had left to not miss the cut.

Kristin, I’m so proud of you, and I love you! Maybe we’ll ride it together next year. ;-)

*I considered not labeling this as a “race.” But it is. It may not be a race in the most traditional definition for a lot of the riders, but everyone is fighting something on course. Whether that nemesis is the conditions, personal doubts, fears, or past failures; every pedal stroke on course was putting these farther behind and crossing the finish meant these were beaten. And that’s the real reason why everyone out there is inspirational; whether he or she finished first or last.