Stephens attacked with five miles to go to take the win at the biggest gravel race in the USA.[Emporia, KS] Mat Stephens from the Panaracer Gravel Team took the win in Saturday’s Dirty Kanza 200 race. The Texan was racing his debut DK200 and lined up with little idea of how he would respond to the rolling 200-mile course. After some early season success in gravel events, Stephens went into the race knowing a podium was a possibility, and a win could be on the cards if everything went smoothly. “I didn’t know how the body would respond after mile 130. That was my limit this year for training, but I started feeling better and better throughout the day” said Stephens.
Stephens chose the Panaracer GravelKing SK 40c tire for his winning race. He was riding the tires set up tubeless on Stan’s NoTubes Avion wheels at 26.5 psi front and 29.5 psi rear.
The race quickly whittled itself down to a lead group of 10, and this pack stayed together for the first half of the race. Crossing the 100-mile mark, however, Stephens started to get frustrated with riders not doing their fair share of work, “I started to get annoyed with people sitting on. I could see they were tired but I still didn’t want to pull them along.” Stephens made a move up one of the rolling climbs at mile 130 and managed to draw the eventual top three away from the rest of the field. It would be Stephens, Menso de Jong (Clifbar Racing), and Jake Wells (Stan’s NoTubes) together for the rest of the day.
It was with 10 miles to go, passing Preacher Bridge, that Mat Stephens went for the decisive race winning move, “We had a bit of a cross wind for about 15 minutes, and I knew I could put some pressure on the front. I hammered up a small climb from Camp Alexander and managed to gap them both. I kept riding hard to gain some time before we hit the edge of town.” Stephens wisely did not want to take any risks when entering Emporia, with many turns and railroad crossings to contend with in the final miles. He pulled out 30 seconds over Menso de Jong, and that was enough to cruise through town and down mainstreet with his arms in the air. Menso de Jong and Jake Wells entered mainstreet together, just two minutes back on Stephens, with Wells taking the sprint for second place.
For Stephens, a rocky run-up to the event including breaking a rib just a week before the event in an unfortunate mountain biking accident. He hid this throughout the race, making sure to stay in the saddle for the entire event to avoid inflaming the injury. With the exception of a failing GPS unit, Stephens said his day could not have gone much smoother, “Everything went well. Being my first attempt at the race, maybe I didn’t know how much could go wrong out there. But it was really smooth. My pit crew was super dialed, and that made the whole day much less stressful.”
Stephens credits his wife, professional road racer Lauren Stephens, with helping him on the path to success. “She’s my training partner, and it’s great to have someone who understands what I’m doing and what I’m going through. She’s been a huge help in preparing for this race.”
Taking the win at his debut Dirty Kanza won’t change much for Stephens, who splits his time between gravel racing, and racing criteriums and stage races. He’ll keep juggling both disciplines, but will be lining up at select other gravel events throughout the year aboard his Panaracer equipped 3T Exploro bike.