EF Education First promised to venture into uncharted territory for a UCI WorldTour team in 2019, and the US program run by Jonathan Vaughters is living up to those words as Taylor Phinney, Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes prepare to race a 360km, mostly gravel, mass-start race next week.
EF Education First Pro Cycling's 'alternative racing program' begins in Emporia, Kansas, at the Dirty Kanza one-day race on Saturday, June 1, when the trio of EF riders and more than 2,000 of their closest friends will line up for the 360km adventure run over the Flint Hills' gravel roads.
The quickest riders typically take about 11 hours, and only about 80 per cent of the riders make the 20-hour cutoff. There are minimal course markers along the demanding course that runs over primitive roads through desolate areas of the Sunflower State. There are just two checkpoints along the way where riders can restock supplies and repair equipment with help from their support crews, but getting assistance from any support crew or any non-participant at any other point along the route results in immediate disqualification.
"We are going into the unknown with this race," said Morton, who was previously featured in a documentary chronicling his own long-distance 'Whereabouts' ride. "I think it will be a huge mental challenge, which is what makes it exciting. Nerves are good. I don’t really get nervous racing anymore, so it’s nice. It means I’m out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I want to get out of this.
"Long days on the bikes are my favourite days," Morton said in a statement released by the team announcing the riders' participation. "I’m hoping that counts for something."
All three EF education First riders are coming off the Amgen Tour of California, where they rode in defence of Tejay van Garderen's yellow jersey after he took it on stage 2, and then they launched Sergio Higuita into second place overall when van Garderen faltered on Mt. Baldy. After a tough week of racing with four stages that went well over 200km, the trio should have plenty of preparation in their legs.
"To prepare for Kanza, I spent a week riding on the front at Tour of California," Howes said in the team release. "I also did a 155-mile ride on a mountain bike almost exclusively through deep desert sand with nothing but the hot sun and ravens for company. That was four years ago, and I just now recovered, so I expect to be flying next week. Most importantly, my grandparents are also from Kansas, so this will most definitely give me a major spiritual and potentially genetic upper hand."
Former road pro Ted King won the race last year in 10:44:22, averaging nearly 31 km/h over the 360km distance. He beat fellow former road pro Josh Berry [10:54:33] and mountain biker Geoff Kabush [11:04:55]. There's more than timing at stake at the 14-year-old event, however, as the annual tradition has become a focus of community and fun, with some competitors riding all-out for the finish and others taking time to enjoy the ride and company at the aid stations along the way. Either way, Dirty Kanza is a very long day on the bike.
"I’m thinking of that moment when only a pancake flat, windy 'schlog' consumes my awareness, where I wish I had never started but somewhere deep and fleeting I want it to last forever," Phinney said in his unique bicycling-philosopher way. "I’m here to have fun and ride my bike because I love it.
"I’m looking forward to experiencing a radical shift of perception and the gratitude that accompanies it," Phinney added.
Howes admitted to being a bit nervous.
"But there’s also something quite calming about knowing a full day of suffering is right around the corner," he said. "I’m looking forward to Kansas. That big wide-open ocean of grass. The empire of the Comanches. Tornado scars. Ghosts of a frontier. Weather-beaten windmills. Shiny tractors. Humble pie."
Morton summed up the trio's feelings as they head into the unknown for their first 'alternate' event with EF Education First.
"The buzz of a big race in a small town is hard to beat," Morton said, anticipating the finish in Emporia, where main street will be ablaze in lights well into the night welcoming racers home. "I think the anticipation before such an epic ride creates a unique atmosphere."