Surviving the Dirty Kanza Bike Race With Duct Tape and a Stick

Riders take part in the Dirty Kanza 200 bike race around the Great Plains near Emporia, Kans. on Jun. 2, 2018. (Linda Guerrette Photography)

A week ago, 50 miles into a 206-mile endurance bike race on unpaved roads through the countryside around Emporia in Eastern Kansas, the derailleur on my bike failed. The mechanism that shifts the chain up and down gears on the cassette twisted and folded itself into the spokes of the rear wheel. My bike seized up, and I jumped off just in time to avoid crashing.

The surest way to understand the importance of any piece of technology is when that tech breaks. A functioning derailleur is a beautifully crafted contraption made of springs and arms and small cogs. Not only does it push the chain sideways to move between the gears, but as it does that it also extends outwards to adjust the chain length. When the derailleur breaks, the bike breaks.

The twisted remains of my once high-tech, electronic-shifting, derailleur. (Tom Taylor)

The race I was competing in, Dirty Kanza, is well known for wearing down humans and bikes. When 70 percent of riders finish, that’s considered a good year. In 2016, following an early morning, pre-race thunderstorm, sticky mud and sharp gravel wrecked dozens of derailleurs and chains just a couple of miles in.

On Saturday, Jun. 2, I picked up my bike and ran. Then slowed to a walk up a hill into Madison, the location of the first of three aid stations on the route. The mid-morning sun was already scorching the Great Plains.

At the top of the climb I found help. Bicycle component manufacturer SRAM sponsors Dirty Kanza and provides neutral mechanical support at aid stations. One of SRAM’s mechanics quickly helped me cut my chain, remove my damaged derailleur, and convert my bike from 22 gear ratios to a single speed.

There are things you can only learn from experience. Replacing a derailleur with nothing is not as simple as it might sound. Real single-speed bikes are carefully set up so that the chain is just the right length. Too long, and it will bounce and rattle around, and possibly come off. Too short, and the rear wheel and pedals will seize up.

Even without a derailleur, a multi-speed bike will continue to shift gears, or at least will try to do that. The teeth on each cog aren’t identical, with flatter sets that help the chain links switch across. If the chain placement on a cog isn’t perfect—and a multi-speed bike without a derailleur is far from perfect—the chain can be grabbed by cogs on either side.

As I rolled out of Madison, my bike wanted to shift down, slipping the chain across to a larger gear and jamming the rear wheel. Occasionally, I managed to move forwards perhaps half a mile before it did that. Often, I got about 50 feet. Each time I would have to stop, flip my bike upside down, remove the rear wheel, and peel the chain off the wrong cog.

I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Some of my friends are bona fide rocket scientists. I’m an editor at a (sports) technology publication. While none of those qualifications are particularly useful in solving real-world problems, I was too embarrassed to quit because of a mechanical failure.

Luckily, I had a roll of duct tape in my saddle bag. I figured that if I taped over the teeth on nearby cogs, then the chain simply couldn’t switch to them. Quite remarkably, that actually worked.

But unable to shift down, my bike now started shifting up. The chain jumping over to the smaller cogs and rattling uncontrollably as it was far too long for those gear ratios.

This time, tape wouldn’t help—I tried—as the chain would still fall into the space where the smaller cogs were covered over. Instead, I hunted around for a stick. Taped across the rear triangle of the bicycle frame, I theorized, I could use that to prevent the chain moving to the smaller cogs.

My home-brew single speed, complete with duct tape and a stick. (Tom Taylor)

The result was almost magical. For the rest of the day—and this turned out to be a very long day—my chain stayed where it was supposed to be. I was slow, unable to shift up and cruise along on the flats, and unable to shift down to easily ride up the hills, but I kept rolling forwards. My speed hovered around 11 miles per hour, well below my 18-mph goal, but just enough above the 10 mph that would keep me clear of time cuts.

The sun set long before I crossed the finish line back in Emporia, just after 1am CT. In 2017, my first attempt at this race, I’d beaten the sun and crossed the line before nightfall. This year, the battery on my front bike light ran flat in the hours of unplanned darkness. I finished the ride using the flashlight feature on my smartphone. But I still finished, proof, perhaps, that often the most important piece of technology is simple willpower. (And duct tape.)

My bike is still in a state of disrepair. Disassembled for the flight home and disabled by its brush with the gravel roads of Kansas. My legs are still sore with lingering exhaustion. My fingers and toes are still numb from the hours pressed hard against the handlebars and pedals. But my mind is already back on the Great Plains, planning a new assault on Dirty Kanza.