I was lucky enough last week to be able to talk with Neil Shirley. Neil is a retired pro road cyclist who recently worked as the editor for Road Bike Magazine and now works for the Lyman Agency representing several bike brands. He continues to ride in cycling endurance events throughout the year and has a love for gravel riding. I love that he was still in the 2017 Dirty Kanza Finish Line tent still giving out high fives and hand shakes to all finishers as late as 3am. I’m not too far removed from finishing the DK after the midnight hour and I can tell you coming down that chute at 1am, 2am or even 3am…those cheers mean so much to the riders.
CASUAL: Neil thanks for taking some time with me. I know you won’t believe this but our Facebook “Friendiversary” is next month. June 2016. One year. I have a gift for you! Can’t wait see what you’re getting me!! Seems like just yesterday I started stalking…I mean following you on Facebook. How time flies…
So. The catalyst of our friendship was/is your participation in The Dirty Kanza here in Emporia, KS. I love our town. I love our gravel roads and I love this event. Something we have in common. I don’t want to turn this into an advertisement for the City of Emporia or Dirty Kanza, haha, but I’m curious when both popped onto your radar and what keeps you coming back? How many DK’s have you been to now?
NEIL: I heard about Dirty Kanza five years ago when my buddy at Specialized told me about it and some guy named Dan Hughes. How did I not learn about the legend of Dan Hughes back in elementary school? I’m not sure, but he should part of every educational text book from now on. It’s honestly guys like Dan Hughes, Jim Cummins, and a number of others that make DK truly unique from anything else out there. I didn’t know that coming into it for my first time four years ago, I simply wanted to try and win it and didn’t realize it was so much more than just a 200 mile event. After that year I had true respect for what Dirty Kanza is. It’s the people.
CASUAL: I think that’s what so many people fail to realize about the “gravel scene”. A race is a race but it’s the almost family like bonds that drive these events. You can’t create that overnight or by attending one race. Locally we have Gravel Worlds, LandRun, The Dirty Kanza…there’s so much family atmosphere there and social media has helped to extend that family. Many of us have virtually been “raised” as cyclists by the gravel scene within the past 5-10 years. It’s what we know best. Having said that…I’ve always wondered about your take on that family scene compared to say the pro-road discipline. Same but different or does the cloud of competition weigh heavier? I hope that doesn’t put you on the spot. Not looking for any juicy details just curious what the atmosphere is like leading up to a long stage race for example and even during the event itself.
NEIL: I’d say there are few similarities. There is a deep bond between you and your teammates as a pro on the road since you might spend nearly as much time with them over the course of a season as you would with your own family. At the events themselves, there’s a job to do and although that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not friendly with riders from other teams, that is put on hold while you do your job. It’s not about the experience, it’s about performing. That creates a much different perspective and one that I was happy to leave behind. The vibe and atmosphere around gravel is similar to what first drew me to the sport when I started riding mountain bikes at the age of 14. It’s nice to have that perspective again.
CASUAL: We’re glad to see you out on the gravel with us man. So I’m a gravel guy. I’ve got a narrow view of the cycling world. I’ve had the good fortune of riding in the Dirty Kanza, LandRun100, Gravel Worlds, Dirty Reiver and Rebecca’s Private Idaho. What am I missing out on? What needs to be on the bucket list for a mid pack weekend warrior gravel rider? What needs to be my next gravel road trip? Is it even gravel? Is there a mixed surface event someone like me really needs to get to at least once? Follow this up with what Gravel event is on Neil Shirley’s bucket list if only that dang schedule would line up perfectly?
NEIL: One event that’s a must-do in the U.S. is Crusher in the Tushar. It’s in Beaver, Utah and by DK standards is quite short at just 69 miles, but don’t let that fool you. You go over 10,000 feet in altitude twice, finishing at 10,500 feet. It’s one of the best run events out there and the promoter, Burke Swindlehurst, keeps it right around 500 riders so it retains the feel of a small event. Only problem is that it fills up the same day that entries go live, so you have to be fast. As far as events I would like to do, the Dirty Reiver sounds exceptional and is definitely one on my bucket list. The cool thing about gravel vs. pavement is that everywhere you go it’s slightly different and you never quite know what you’re in for. On the pavement, the road conditions never change.
CASUAL: Crusher in the Tushar. I have two friends going this year. Smitty and Jeffy. Definitely on my list for 2018. So many gravel rides popping up and so little time. Does your family ride much Neil? Wife or your girls? Family rides? Or do you hide from cycling a little when at home to take a break? My oldest can tackle a few hills but the loose gravel on downhills makes her nervous. My youngest is 7 and rolls downhill like a runaway train. Screaming and smiling the whole way. I love watching her but I know one of these days a Fall will happen and I’m hoping she’ll get back up and go again.
NEIL: My wife doesn’t ride, and I think that’s maybe why we’ve had 17 wonderful years together She runs and that’s her thing, which is fantastic–we’re able to keep the sporting objectives separate while supporting each other in our goals. My two girls on the other hand, they are 9 and 5 and want to race me all the time. We recently took the training wheels off the youngest ones bike and I think she’ll be a ripper. My older daughter wants to beat everyone on the bike path until she sees a cool leaf or something else on the ground, then we have to stop and inspect it. Those rides are priceless.
FIVE QUICK SHOTS
Love it bud! Okay we’ll see you in a few days in Emporia Kansas for 2017 Dirty Kanza. Let’s wrap this up with 5 quick questions.
1. How many times have you watched the movie Frozen?
NEIL: Too many times to count, seriously. And then if I add in the hours I’ve spent listening to “Let it go”, well, let’s just say if I had a nickel for every hour I’d be a very rich man.
2. Four star hotels or roadside Bates style motels on cycling trips?
NEIL: I’m not entirely sure what a 4-star hotel would even be. Probably like a Super 8? Motel 6 is my go-to resort.
3. Favorite after ride craving if the food truck menu was your choice?
NEIL: Mexican food is really tough to beat. When I lived in San Diego there was a Sun Taco next to my house that would always fix me up after a big training day. A carne asada burrito with a horchata to wash it down is the bees knees.
4. Sprint to the City Limit sign…you, Dan Hughes or Yuri?
NEIL: Well, I’ve seen the destruction that Dan can do (to himself) in a city limits sprint, so I’d say once safely navigating around that I would use my wheel sucking roadie prowess to execute a perfectly timed bike throw to beat Yuri on the line.
5. Family vaca bucket list. Theme parks or national parks?
NEIL: I hear Disney is making a National Park theme park. That should be amazing. But as much as I do love cotton candy and corn dogs, I’d say we’re more the National Park types. After Crusher in the Tushar last year we spent two days hiking in Zion, and this August we’re going to Yellowstone for a week. Can’t wait for that trip!
Neil thanks again for taking the time to chat with me. Always great seeing you in Emporia for the Dirty Kanza. Can’t wait!
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