Big events have an impact on more than just your physical body, you think about them through the days and nights leading up to the race, and then when you finally put it behind you, you are left in an emotional slump not really knowing what comes next. This year's Dirty Kanza 200 was the punctuation mark at the end of a series of long difficult events for me.
It's not so dramatic, I'm still getting daily riding in but without an event on my near horizon there isn't that same spark and drive that I usually feed off of when getting ready for an adventure. Also, I haven't felt like writing and I've been putting off this post which was part of the deal made with Lauf to be a part of the Dirty Dozen. Three posts, and I've only submitted two. I've been waiting for someone from the Icelandic mafia to show up and try to take my fork back. Since I'm not ready to give it up, I figured I should sit down and tap out some words to pay the piper. Here are my final thoughts on the Lauf Grit.
There were a couple things I hated about the fork and I feel like I would be doing a disservice by not laying all my feelings out there so let's get that stuff out of the way. First, the stem cap. It is not like most other caps where the bolt is separate from the cap. Why is this important? Because when you tighten the cap down it does not allow you to align the print on the cap with the bike in a proper orientation. I absolutely love what it says, "Just Ride," but the crookedness drives my need for symmetry in life nuts. If you don't have that need for proper alignment, you won't be fazed.
The other complaint I have is less superficial and what I consider an actual functional issue. It has to do with the thru axle. For some reason, I am guessing to save weight, a tool is needed to remove the thru axle. This does not change the way the fork rides in any way, of course, but the need to dig out my multi-tool whenever I want to remove the front wheel is frustrating and annoying to me. I wish they had designed it with a lever like the Maxle.
The final potential negative I'll mention is the cost. If you are the type of person to purchase your bikes at Walmart, you are going to have some sticker shock. Ringing in at close to $800 this product might not be for everyone. However, if you ride thousands of rugged miles a year like I do, and suffer multiple bouts of sore neck and numb hands every season, the price gets far less ridiculous.
Far and away, the most common discussion I have with people seems to be about the look of the fork. Many are intrigued but some act appalled as if it is just too ugly to ride. I find this hilarious and juvenile. My bike is a tool, a means to an end and not a high school fashion statement. If something works in a superior way, I'm going to use it. Whether it offends your delicate sensibilities or not is irrelevant to me. And to be honest, after having it on for the past 6 months, I kind of like the look of it.
As I've said before, I didn't think I would like the fork at all. Suspension seemed like overkill for a lot of gravel roads, or so I thought. Sometimes we don't even consider that a thing could be improved. That's part of being tough, right? We just suck it up and deal with it, especially in this crazy ultra-endurance community. Late in the day pain is something we just assume is a normal part of the game. Sore neck and shoulders, aching wrists and numb hands, if you ride for 12 hours or more things are going to hurt. Not necessarily. Unlike my first five trips to the Dirty Kanza, this year my hands weren't numb and tingling for a week after the race. They haven't been numb after any of the rides I've done this year. That is a huge improvement.
I heard after his first DK, Ted King, former pro tour rider and Kanza winner, had said one of the things he appreciated about having suspension at DK was that he could stay down and tucked on the rougher roads. This didn't mean as much to me when I first heard it but after riding with the Lauf it makes perfect sense. In the past, with a rigid fork, I would have to sit up and brace myself when the road conditions deteriorated. With the Lauf, I could stay on the aero bars through ruts and deep gravel and not feel like I was riding a bucking bronco. Being able to stay in an aero position, relaxed and in control no matter what the terrain was doing, was my favorite thing about being Lauf equipped.
In the end, despite any of the complaints I made above, the Lauf is still on my gravel bike and won't be coming off. I think the Lauf Grit makes me faster on rough terrain and I know for a fact it makes me more comfortable and relaxed. If my single speed frame would take a Lauf I would likely put one on it too. Having now experienced the benefits first hand, suspension just makes sense. Sure, there is a point where too much spring is energy sucking, that isn't what you get with the limited 30mm of travel in the Grit. It's just enough to eat up the typical bumps and ledges found on gravel. It's just enough to save you when you are tired and not paying attention like you should and sleep your way through a surprise pot hole.
For those of you tuning in to see if I beat Collin or not, I have some bad news. He somehow, I'm going to assume cheating, managed to finish in front of me again. I have to go back to the Dirty Kanza at least one more time to get that five time finisher goblet, and next time, Collin is going down!
Riding the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200 with Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road
While it has not lead me to any valiant victories at the races I’ve taken it to so far, as if any fork could do that, I now have quite a bit of experience with the Lauf Grit. Since mounting the Grit at the beginning of January, I have traveled about 4,000 miles on the fork and ridden it in two difficult events. I wanted to regale you with success stories about those races with this post. Here, just a couple short weeks from Dirty Kanza, a motivational post is the music I wanted to be playing, but life doesn’t always serve it up the way you dream it will.
The first event I took the Grit to was in March at the Land Run 100. I decided to face the inaugural Double Land Run this year, a 31 mile run on Friday, and a 100 mile ride on Saturday. I knocked the run out on Friday in beautiful spring like weather that could not have been better, and then, I had the rug ripped out from under me when Mother Nature blew in frigid air and dumped a load of rain creating a freezing mud-pocalypse on Saturday. I started off feeling good, then right about the time I was warming up I ripped my rear derailleur off only 30 miles into the course. I was able to cobble the bike into a single speed and continue rolling but the derailleur had broken a spoke and put a wop in my wheel that ended up rubbing a hole in the chainstay of my frame as I pushed through another sloppy 50 miles of muddy riding. The day ended 20 miles short of the finish line. A friend reminded me that if you count the 31 miles of running and the 80 miles of riding together, I still saw 100 miles of Land Run this year, it just wasn’t quite the way I had planned it.
The thing that didn’t give me any problems that weekend at Land Run, was the Lauf. The loads of clearance never touched the pounds of mud caked to my front wheel. When I was able to roll on the sketchy slick and rutted roads, I wasn’t having as many handling issues as I saw many other people fighting. It could all be in my head but something about the Lauf makes it feel like the front end is more firmly planted than with a standard fork.
After Land Run I stewed in the self-loathing brought by failure for a week and then got back to the business of training. With the 330 mile Trans Iowa v. 13 looming just a month away there wasn’t much time to mope around feeling sorry for myself. I put in four solid 300 mile training weeks and felt ready to handle anything that was thrown at me. I did make one change to my standard approach to racing, instead of calling Mother Nature out in the weeks leading up to the event asking her to give me all she’s got, I decided to keep my mouth shut. I’m not superstitious at all but for some reason old Mother keeps hammering every race I go to and I was ready to see if just maybe keeping quiet would help. If you have heard about this year’s Trans Iowa, you will know it didn’t help me in the slightest.
The morning of the race brought near freezing rain and a roaring north wind over 20 mph. The course quickly became a soft muddy pit of gloom and despair. I fought the rain and soft roads for 12 hours and 140 miles before convincing myself there was no way I could handle the conditions through nightfall and another 200 miles. I pulled into a convenience store, bought a bag of Cheetos and a cup of coffee, and then called Sara to come get me. Having faced my regret after dropping out of a race before, she did her best to talk me into continuing, but once the mojo is gone it’s game over.
Once again, the thing that didn’t give me any problems that weekend in Iowa was the Lauf. Only 6 people were able to finish that ride. 330 miles of cold rain and muddy gravel. An interesting note, Dan Hughes, the person who won that day with a phenomenal showing of strength and gritty determination, had a Lauf on his bike. That dude rode 330 miles in cold rain wearing like just a wind breaker. I'm still in awe of his accomplishment, and the other 5 that finished too, actually.
So since I don't have any stories of fortune and success to tell, I thought instead I would share what I'll be riding at Dirty Kanza this year. With five years of Kanza experience behind me, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what is needed.
After destroying my beloved Kona Jake the Snake at the Land Run, I went to Queen City Cycles for their opinion on the bike I should get next - sporty but not too crazy geometry, clearance for at least 40 mm of rubber, and most importantly, because I rip derailleurs off like they are going out of style, I wanted an adjustable dropout. If I were going to keep losing derailleurs, I could at least make the conversion to single speed in the field easier. And, of course, it had to work with the Lauf Grit. He directed me to the Kona Private Jake.
My plan for DK is first and foremost, to finish, preferably ahead of Collin, but I really just need a finish to wash away the two failures of this past spring. I need to ride my own race and not get caught up in chasing people or numbers. The Kanza always brings a bag full of tricks to stop you from making it to the finish line and it’s often not the challenges you are expecting. Weather, flats, dehydration, crashes, and more are out there to stop you in your tracks if you let your guard down. If you see me laying in the ditch tell me to get off my butt and start moving!
At first when I saw the email from the good people at Dirty Kanza I thought it was another of the reminders they regularly send out. Having been to the race five times previously, I confess I don't always read them all. I have already secured lodging and I have read the rule book, several times, so occasionally I just delete them. (I’m not recommending this cavalier and disrespectful behavior and you should definitely read everything you can find about the race. Especially if it is your first time!) This email I had received was different, however, this one was only addressed to me and it was from race director Jim Cummins asking me to participate in a special opportunity.
I'm still not sure exactly why I was chosen, the closest I have ever been to the podium was in 2013 with my 47th place finish achieved only by holding tight to the wheel of my teammate Jamie Wynne who drug me through the windiest DK ever. Of my five trips to the Flint Hills for the 200 mile test I have only crossed the finish line on three of them. Two times it has ended around mile 130 after puking on myself in a ditch, bonking hard is kind of my thing. Make no mistake, Dirty Kanza is difficult, even if you know what to expect and complete the proper training, it is going to hurt and you should be ready to face that.
The special invitation in the email was the chance to be one the Dozen Dirty Riders training and racing on a new product from Lauf Forks, the official suspension provider of this year’s Dirty Kanza. I didn't know much about Lauf at the time. I had seen one of their forks at Gravel Worlds last year and had been intrigued by the design. Honestly, I didn't personally feel I had a need for suspension and would often think the people who did need it could just use more physical conditioning. That's my general philosophy with many things in life, don't buy a new product to help with weaknesses, train more so that you don't have the weakness in the first place. But, the opportunity to try a high-end product from Lauf was a chance I didn't want to pass up and I quickly sent my response to DK accepting the offer to be on the team. I figured if I hated the fork I could probably sell it to someone after DIrty Kanza was over.
I wasn't sure how reviewing a product like the Lauf Grit would be for me, if you are one of my closer friends you will know one of my trademarks is that I'm a ridiculous cheapskate. I will ride bike parts long past their service life and then I'm not afraid to use duct tape and twine to extend the life of something for a few years more use. My entire bike is worth less than the wheels some of my friends ride. I see it like a punk rock guitar - stickers, leopard print bar tape, and chrome skulls on my Gevenalle shift levers. In all fairness, while I do rib my riding buddies for their more expensive toys, it's not that I don't lust after their deep dish Enve wheels and carbon cranks, and not that I wouldn't ride it into the ground if I somehow finagled myself some custom gear. I do like and appreciate nice things, I would just never personally spend the money on luxury items like that. I have too much buyer's remorse to enjoy any benefits expensive things bring so this chance to roll on a premium product was exciting to me.
I had accepted the offer to be on the team and receive my fork for review before I realized that I couldn't take it straight out of the box and use it. I didn't own a through axle wheel and none of my bikes are disc brake equipped, two prerequisites for using a Lauf. I was going to have to buy a wheel and a brake. I turned to Facebook friends to find a wheel and one materialized for $50, thanks again, Aaron Wiseman! I found an appropriate brake set up online for another $50 and it looked like I would be in business for just over $100. Shortly after obtaining the needed parts a box with the new Lauf arrived at my house and I took it all up to Queen City Cycles to have them mount everything, and also to show me how to set up a disc brake properly since I'd never used one. They are amazing by the way. So nice to use a finger's pressure in wet conditions when I'm used to grabbing a fistful and praying while the bike hardly slowed with my old caliper brakes.
Now we set out to ride this fancy Lauf Grit into the ground! While Dirty Kanza is the ultimate goal of this particular campaign, I have a few other challenges I plan to test the Grit with before we even get to Emporia. First up we’ll be heading to Oklahoma for the Land Run 100 which is always a muddy party. Next, we head north for the 340 mile Trans Iowa v. 13. To be honest, with the final 50 teeth rattling hilly miles of last year's Trans Iowa still fresh in my nightmares, I'm looking forward to some wrist and neck saving suspension there more than anywhere else.
There was a small part of me that sort of wanted to hate this fork. A dissenting opinion is always good to have in the mix for entertainment value, just to keep things balanced. Unfortunately, after putting a few hundred miles on the Grit, wherein I've been bunny hopping every dead animal I see and charging into pot holes at speed trying to break the fork, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to find anything to complain about and I definitely won't be selling it.