#Journeyto100 – Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp

Michelle Duffy is on a journey – a journey to ride the Dirty Kanza 100. She is documenting and sharing her story for all to read, as part of the Life Time Women Ride the World initiative, with the hopes that her honesty and vulnerability will help others decide to take on a challenge for themselves. She’s being mentored along the way with the help of Salsa Cycles Ambassador, Crystal Kovacs and is using the Journey(wo)man as her steed of choice. Follow along as she takes this journey bit by bit!


Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp

The cycling journey happened fast for me. I committed to a goal of riding the DK100 next year in early September and chronicling that journey (check out the first blog here), and then decided what-the-hey let’s go to Dirty Kanza Women’s Camp and see what I really got myself into here.

For those that don’t know, DK Women’s Camp was started by Kristi Mohn, one of the OG owners of Dirty Kanza prior to Life Time’s acquisition. She has spearheaded women’s initiatives in cycling not just at her own Dirty Kanza events but across the country, most recently kickstarting our newest Women Ride The World initiative. The camp is a place where women can come ride in an environment they’re comfortable in, talk about women-specific cycling things, share goals and network with one another, ride the Bleeding Kansas gravelduro event (50m or 100m) and of course gain entry into the 2020 DK race.

Kristi and I talked about how possible it was for me to pull it together and attend camp in 3 weeks (uhm what!!) and ride 50 miles at the Bleeding Kansas while there. Is it insane to go from not-owning-a-”real”-bike to this on that timeline? Yes. But we’re insane and working together likely only fuels that. I decided why not, let’s try it, and very quickly my reality and focus became riding this darn, intimidating bike as much as possible in the given timeframe.

Tangent thought but something I find crazy and ironic – truthfully, I’m intimidated by my bike. It scares me more than it should. Maybe its because I’m not an “adrenaline junky” but the stress I feel through my neck and wrists when I approach a steep downhill, especially on sandy, windy gravel trails like I have around my house, is intense. How funny, given that I spent my childhood days riding my bike around my neighborhood on Long Island, to friends’ houses, to the beach and home. I was the kid that’s like Bambi, long and dangly but super awkward. The one with the scraped up knees from falling off my bike over and over, but without fear would just hop back on that thing (after some tears) and do it all over again. Face-to-pavement, it didn’t phase me. But now, my (semi-)adult brain struggles to let go of the fear factor at times, knowing the possibility of a really hard fall, hearing the awful stories of bike mishaps and misfortunes, and I’m probably putting myself at more risk, holding onto those thoughts. Fearless childhood Michelle – where you at? Anyway, back to camp…

8 rides in, only 3 of which were on my new Salsa Journeyman (with drop bars, that’s new!), and 2 of which I clipped in for the first times, and I was off to DK Women’s Camp to ride with what I knew was going to be a group of rockstar ladies, but quietly hoped would be a few more beginners like me. They were totally all rockstars.

Women’s Camp was the first time I met Crystal Kovacs, who I was connected with through Salsa. It was great to finally put name-to-face, especially after we had only previously communicated virtually. She was the first non-Dirty Kanza face I recognized and there was certainly a sense of comfort in that. We chatted on our warm up ride to do an FTP test and it was so good to be able to just share what a lot of my concerns were, where I’m struggling, and essentially freak out a little to someone I knew, albeit just through a few conversations prior. Crystal was so calm, and shared a lot of her journey, and that banter definitely helped me calm my nerves.

Day 1 featured an FTP (Functional Threshold Power) test. Layman’s terms – let’s see where your fitness is at and if you’re riding at your optimal cycling performance level. We wore heart rate monitors which helped illustrate this, and pedaled hard for 20 minutes. Our coaches Amy Charity and Kristen Legan transcribed the data for us and let us know if we blew up, were too conservative, etc. It was for sure the first time that I realized I’d been riding way to conservatively in the weeks leading to camp, and I don’t actually think I ever really got to my threshold during the test until the last minute or so. It was a fantastic exercise and I think super valuable for beginners and experienced alike. I mean the more advanced rider definitely got more data they care about from the test, but for me as a beginner it helped show that I was riding way too far within myself, and gave me a lot of confidence that I could do more. 

Day 2, it rained. Like rained and rained. It was muddy and windy and the first time I was on some real chunky Flint Hills gravel. And hilly. We were spoiled on day 1, riding on a flat road for FTP, but on day 2 we saw those infamous rolling hills everyone talked about. We had the choice – ride 25 miles or 37 miles this day. With the 50-miler the next day I went for the shorter ride (which was still I think my 2nd longest ride to date?), which was 100% the right choice for me. Through this journey the internal competitive side of me tries to poke its head out, and there was a part of me that had felt so on top of the world the day before that made me think I should ride 37 miles. But that’s not what this journey is about for me, and I keep having to remind myself of that. I want to ENJOY this experience, as I only get to be a beginner once. And putting myself into a scenario where I may end up riding beyond myself, or killing my legs the day before a 50, was totally not worth it. It was the right call for sure. 

It took me a little while to gain some confidence this day, as we were riding with a group and I had no real knowledge or faith in myself. I mean I thought I did, until about a mile in when I realized the type of gravel and hills we’d be on, and then I was like Holy $#!+. Truthfully, I unknowingly rode off the front  of the group while chatting to DK race director LeLan Dains a few minutes in and started smashing the hills (I love to climb), but then we got to our first downhill and it was actually comical how slow I went, got swallowed and fell to the back. This isn’t a humble brag about riding off the front, nor me addressing something that hurt my ego. It was just simply very evident to not just me but everyone around me that I am a true beginner, I am afraid of downhills and I don’t trust my bike. It’s frustrating that I don’t trust my bike because I see all these other women flying by me, fearless and effortless and graceful and embracing, and there I am, a 125 pound 28 year old white knuckling the brakes and totally afraid. But I can for sure say that when we regrouped for a little lesson on navigating downhills, the group of women I was with, plus LeLan shared their knowledge with me and their advice that day got me through. Watching Crystal fly and riding behind her as she navigated the uneven ground, having LeLan in my ear all ride encouraging me to let off the brakes, it was a transformative ride for me. I finished with LeLan after an amazing second half of the ride, in cold wet mud and rain like I’ve never rode in before, and feeling so accomplished. Heading into the 50 on day 3, what doubts I had originally had about ability to finish were gone. NOT because I felt invincible, or fit enough for 50, but because I had so much fun and was learning so fast and was inspired to find my limits. 

Day 3 – I woke up nervous. I had gotten my stuff organized the night before, but on the morning of I just felt totally disorganized. I wasn’t even sure if I had the right things with me. If I had enough layers. The right food. Weirdly, I have a heart-beating-hard feeling in my chest reliving that morning as I type this. It was totally a feeling of the unknown, even after we arrived in Manhattan, KS for the race. I mean I was excited, but was also like holy heck what have I just done and why do I think I have any business trying to ride over 50 miles on a bike I’ve had for a week, shoes and pedals I’ve had for 4 rides, doubt doubt doubt. Even in the first few miles I think I was crawling, I mean I was riding so slow. But weirdly I found myself around 2 women I admire so much – Celia Santi from GU and Lyn Blubaugh. Unbeknownst to me, these ladies had decided they were going to ride ALL DANG DAY with me. I mean, are you kidding? But I guess that’s what it’s all about and I hope when I get better at this whole cycling thing I can pass the carrot and inspire someone else the way they did for me. I had an absolute blast out there, laughing and learning and hurting and climbing and descending and learning how to eat and drink on the bike. I rode some of my fastest miles that day, and some of my slowest. I didn’t get off my bike on some crazy uphills while others around me hiked theirs, and I did get off my bike to hike mine for the first time ever. I went through a dark time for about 30 minutes after the half way, I rode the furthest in my life by 23 miles. 

And yes, I had a panic attack when we were spit onto the highway after an absolutely gnarly, long descent. 

I had the most amazing, fabulous day on the bike. But I’d be remiss in pretending that I finished and felt the most accomplished in my life, because documenting this journey is about being honest and raw and hopefully relatable. I hate riding on fast, paved roads more than I hate downhills. Combining the 2, well dang it was lights out for me. I had been telling Celia and Lyn to send it on the downhills and so I found myself totally on my own on this 2-mile, windy, paved downhill to busy road which eventually led to the finish. I mean I actually couldn’t breathe and did start crying. I was mostly just so mad at myself for being so afraid. How did I ride 46 glorious miles, and then be terrified of the last few? Why was I ruining my own experience? Why couldn’t I just let go of the damn brakes and enjoy a little adrenaline rush? But what if I fell off my bike and landed in a ditch and got seriously hurt and it took forever for people to find me? Ridiculous train of thought, but that’s how my mind was spinning. I’m so privileged to live across the street from trails and gravel roads, but I quickly hated myself for never forcing myself onto pavement and around cars and downhill before that day. I did stop and get off my bike, with only 1.5 miles to go, and talked to myself on the side of the road. This was not the highlight of my day and there’s part of me that thinks I’m spending too much time on the only negative part of a fabulous, enjoyable day on the bike. But it is real life. Riding your bike can be scary and intimidating and it is OKAY to cry through the process and that doesn’t make you weak. You just gotta give yourself a pep talk, throw your leg over the saddle and keep riding until trusting you, trusting your bike, trusting your peers becomes more comfortable. And most important, not dwelling. I gave myself a moment to cry and was pissed I tainted my own experience, and then a few minutes later relished all of the phenomenal experiences of my day. I still don’t like paved roads or downhills, but I like my Salsa Journeyman and I like riding and I like myself and I like Kansas. And that’s a win for me. 

Key Takeaways

Riding with other women is more than just inspiring. There is a level of comfort, despite the total variety of ability levels, being around a group like that. 

Pass knowledge on, no matter your gender or ability. You don’t need to be the fastest rider to impact other riders’ successes. Sharing knowledge makes everyone better and enhances the community of cycling. Sometimes people won’t ask questions but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to know. And with that…

Its OKAY to throw your hand up and ask a question, or share  your fears on the bike. Asking questions only makes you better. It helps you learn, it helps your confidence, and it opens the conversation and empowers others to lend a hand. 

Creating space for women in cycling comes from more places than the start line of a race. Social opportunities, like camps, or group rides, or clinics, help to provide a tool for women to connect with one another as well as learn. You have to see it to believe it! And seeing 20 women riding together inspires others to be a part of it all.

Empower women on and off the bike. DK Women’s Camp had 2 female mechanics, which is rare in the industry. All of our meals were cooked by a female staff. Our coaches were female. Our brand representatives were female (minus Nick Legan, hey Nick!). Our event director was female. Providing women with opportunities to find and fit into the industry in more ways than “cyclist” pays dividends for advancing the industry as a whole.

Embrace the learning process. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll only be a beginner at this once. Trying to just enjoy that, smile when you fail, learn when you can, push when you want to, and take a day off when you need to make the process so much more enjoyable.


#adventurebybike #salsacycles #journeyto100 #wrtw

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