by Joe Bollig
EMPORIA — There’s a reason the cross-country bicycle race here is called the “Dirty Kanza.”
“You get dirty on the gravel roads,” said Father Nick Blaha, pastor of St. Catherine Parish and chaplain/director of the Didde Catholic Campus Center in Emporia.
“You just get filthy. The roads are muddy, and you ride through runoff,” he said. “In fact, the dirt is one of the hazards of the race. You’ve got to keep your bike clean or you’ll have mechanical problems.”
As a last hurrah before he leaves for an assignment to another parish, Father Blaha is participating in the 2019 Garmin Dirty Kanza on June 1. It’s an ultra-endurance challenge called a “gravel grinder,” and takes place on the public access gravel roads of the Flint Hills.
The Kansas Cyclist website warns that “this is not an undertaking for the inexperienced bicyclist.” And, “If you have never completed a solo 24-hour bicycling event, you might want to think twice about participating.”
But it’s so popular that organizers have a lottery to limit the number of participants. Father Blaha won a coveted spot, but his friends didn’t.
About 3,000 riders are expected to participate.
Father Blaha began riding because it gave him the satisfaction running couldn’t.
“I grew to love biking as a form of exercise,” he said. “I saved up and purchased a bike that would fit these kinds of races, which I’ve heard about for years.
“When in Emporia, do as the Emporians do.”
In addition to riding a lot, his preparations have consisted of purchasing equipment, selecting his energy supplements and organizing a group of people to be his support team — because you don’t want to be left out on the lone prairie.
The longest he’s ever ridden in a single stretch is about 55 miles, but the race he’s signed up for is 100 miles. The race offers six riding distances.
But he isn’t doing it just for the saddle sores and glory.
Father Blaha is seeking sponsorships as a way to bring support and attention to the Didde Center, the Catholic campus ministry at Emporia State University. People can make a one-time pledge or pledge by the mile. Whether the pledge is for a quarter, a buck or even more a mile, all donations are appreciated and will go to benefit the campus ministry program.
“I’ll shave my beard for $50,000!” he joked. “People hate the beard.”
People who want to make pledges can do so by going to the campus ministry website at: diddecenter.org/events.
The race begins at 6 a.m. Father Blaha isn’t making any predictions about placing, but he is incentivized to make good time.
“My goal is to finish in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “I have 6 p.m. confessions and 7 p.m. Mass that evening, so I better be there.”