In honor of this weekend's 2019 Dirty Kanza, we tapped Allie Mariano, writer and cyclist from New Orleans, LA for her take on training for the most epic 200-mile gravel race in the country. In 2018, DK's women's participation grew to 25% overall thanks to their support of women racers and their 200 Women, 200 Miles campaign. This year, that percentage has grown even more. 

BIKING TO THE END OF THE WORLD

Words by Allie Mariano

 

When two of my friends talked me into entering the Dirty Kanza lottery, I thought why not, I might not even get in. I didn’t research it. I didn’t know about the 200 women, 200-miles initiative. I had ridden one century. I was coming off a season of trying cyclocross and feeling like maybe it wasn’t the sport for me. I did not think I could ride 200 miles in one day. It was absolutely beyond my comprehension. I figured I would find a way to get out of it.

To be clear: I am obviously not a professional cyclist. I’m hardly an amateur racer. I can keep up on some of the local club rides, but not the others. I work full-time and somehow sustain two side gigs. I got into cycling because my boyfriend built me a bike and spent a lot of hours riding bikes, and I wanted to join. I got into cycling because I needed a hobby that wasn’t drinking. I got really into cycling because I found a bunch of female friends that are also willing to get up at 6:00am on a Saturday and do a quick 40-60-mile ride.

When we got in, I felt mostly panic. The next six months loomed ahead, miles and miles of training that I was not sure I could do.

Luckily, my friends are great. They talked me down, and we set to work.

We knew we would have to log big miles to prepare for one of the most grueling gravel races in the country. We started riding more. We alternated between interval workouts, long training rides, and recovery rides. Building up miles wasn’t just important training, it also literally expanded our world. We made plans to circumnavigate Lake Pontchartrain, a 630 square-foot lake and a defining feature of our region. To circle the lake takes about 160 miles on roads of varying quality and questionable safety.

On our first attempt, we set out, a party of four, riding west toward the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a flood control system that allows the Mississippi River to flood into Lake Pontchartrain. We rode along the Mississippi, watched the city of New Orleans give way to the suburbs, then to the chemical plants that line the river. About 30 miles in, we had a shredded cable and had to rethink our plans. We turned around to head back to the city and ran into another cycling friend who decided to join us. Someone suggested heading to “The End of the World.”

The “End of the World” is in Delacroix, Louisiana. It is a place where the road simply ends and gives way to marsh and bayou.

After turning around and heading back to the city, we would have around 65 miles. Then, the trip to Delacroix would be another 60. It seemed like a solid plan. The point of the day wasn’t the mileage count, it was the hours spent in the saddle. Our end goal was not winning a race, but simply powering ourselves across the finish line. We stopped at a favorite coffee and breakfast spot, fueled up, got a replacement bike for the shredded cable and headed Southeast. We passed through the 9th ward, with its shotgun homes and corner stores. We crossed the border into St. Bernard Parish, known more simply as “The Parish”.

 

The region grew less inhabited. We traveled along a local highway where lifted trucks passed us at 70, 80 mph. The landscape was marsh-forest with the occasional gas station. We passed through a floodgate, and we were on the road to Delacroix. The road was dotted with fishing camps, lifted ten, fifteen feet into the sky. On either side of us, water. Then, we reached it. Around mile 95, we had reached The End of the World.

The road just ends. There is a small barricade and a green sign that says “End of the World Delacroix, LA.” And that was it. We bought water and Gatorade in the nearby baitshop, we laughed and took pictures. Then, we had to head back to the city. It wasn’t fun. We caught multiple flats. The wind and traffic harangued us. But, we made it home.

We rode 130 miles that day. Weeks later, we tried it again.

We set out early in the morning, heading East on the river levee path. In New Orleans, we don’t have hills, we have wind. It had stormed the day before, and the wind was still frenzied, speeding up as the day went on. We passed the Spillway without incident. We rode a beautiful stretch of highway, alongside the interstate. Vegetation crept into the shoulder, and the lake glistened beside us. The sun was out, and for that stretch, we had a tailwind. On the Northshore, we passed through the Ponchatoula Strawberry festival. The wind got stronger. We took a break from cars on the Tammany Trace, a 31-mile rails-to-trail path. The miles crept by, and we got tired. The gusts of wind slowed us to a snail’s pace. I wanted to quit. My friends told me I could do it. Around 7pm, we finished our trip, wind-whipped and exhausted with 160 miles under our belts. Later, I found out some of the gusts had reached 40 miles per hour.

As we built up our miles, we also got to see our region in an entirely new way. Rather than breezing through in cars, we were out in the elements, seeing our world at an observable pace. Before we started training, the commitment seemed unfathomable. But in those hours and hours spent on our bicycles, we got stronger, physically and mentally. We traveled to the end of the world and back, one mile at a time.

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