We chatted with Mat Stephens of Dallas, Texas, after his victory at the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel grinder. The 35-year-old pro, who races for Panaracer/Stan’s NoTubes presented by Bicycle X-Change, won the epic dirt road race in his first time participating in the 200-mile event.

Stan’s NoTubes: Tell us about Dirty Kanza.

Mat Stephens: I have plenty of experience road racing and stage racing, but this level of gravel road racing with such a large competitive field was new to me. It’s also the first year that I’ve traveled to gravel races outside of Texas. So I made up my mind to stay with the front group, not to let anyone too strong get away and not to let too many guys go up the road together.

We had a headwind all day, and I tried to stay patient as long as I could and then force a selection whenever I could. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to go long or to try to leave everyone behind, but it was good to reduce the group’s size.

My Garmin ran out of battery around mile 90, so I had to be patient and ride with the others instead of doing anything crazy and attacking. [The course is not marked, so racers rely on their GPS devices. - Editor.] But eventually, the guys weren’t as willing to work, and I knew I wanted to get rid of them. I attacked at 220km and got the group down to four riders. A few miles later, we were down to the final three.

I picked up my spare Garmin at checkpoint #3, and with 11 miles to go, I threw down the first attack, and we dropped Jake Wells [who raced to second place on his Stan’s Valor wheels - Editor]. Menso de Jong and I were together, then I attacked him with 9km to go and held him off solo until the end.

Josh Patterson of BikeRadar documents Mat Stephen's Dirty Kanza race-winning bike, complete with Stan's Avion wheels.

Josh Patterson of BikeRadar documents Mat Stephen's Dirty Kanza race-winning bike, complete with Stan's Avion wheels.

SNT: What did you do to prepare?

MS: The previous weekend - Memorial Day weekend - I had just done four crits in Dallas. It was apparently a good way to get ready for the DK200, but I didn’t have time to think about it much since I have a busy road calendar.

SNT: You were out there racing for 10:49:08. What do you think about that whole time?

MS: What’s cool about gravel is that you are engaged the whole time. Years ago, when I was first stage racing and road racing, I’d do well when I was engaged, but if I relaxed too much, I’d find myself at the back and miss the move or the break. When my mind is engaged and I’m focused, I do well at applying myself.

In a gravel race, there is not one second when you can relax. There were maybe four miles of pavement all day. Every section can have an embedded rock, and you can sit on the saddle too hard and bottom out a rim or hit a rut.

SNT: Have you ever done any other event like the Dirty Kanza?

MS: Events like it are few and far between. I did a 140-mile gravel event in Texas plus a few 100-milers. Otherwise, I’ve just been racing the NRC as a road pro for the last 10+ years, but there’s nothing on the road circuit like it, and there are no road races that are 10-11 hours long.

SNT: What wheels did you bring to Dirty Kanza?

MS: We brought all of our team’s wheels - even spares from teammates who weren’t there! I probably had three sets just for me plus another two sets of spares, but I raced the whole time on my Stan’s NoTubes Avions (disc version) with Neo hubs.

My primary backup wheels were Stan’s NoTubes Valors since each member of our team has both Avions and Valors.

SNT: Why did you choose to race the Stan’s Avions instead of the Valors?

MS: I went with the Avions because they are the more aerodynamic wheel. I paired them with 40cc Panaracer tires at 26.5psi in the front and 29.5psi in the rear so I had plenty of cushion, but still enjoyed all the aero rim benefits. [Mat weighs 145lb. - Ed.]

If you look at the math, I won the race by 0.15km/hour. That’s three minutes - not a lot of difference over that much total time. Yes, other factors mattered - like drafting and not getting flats - but having an aerodynamic advantage was very important.

I did consider using the Valors like I sometimes do on rockier courses. However, using my Avions went so smoothly that I didn’t even need them as backup wheels. The only thing I did to my bike all day was lube the chain.

SNT: How important is your equipment at a race like Dirty Kanza?

MS: Much of the time you’re flying blind behind the rider in front of you. Yes, I hit rocks and dinged my rim a few times. Stan’s NoTubes Bead Socket Technology (BST) kept my tires seated perfectly and meant no pinch flats. I’d see guys pulling over with flats after they dinged their wheels, and then their race was over.

Getting to the finish line first is not just pedaling hard. It’s having great equipment and taking care of it all day.

SNT: What kind of Stan’s sealant did you use?

MS: I always use Stan’s Race Sealant. And since I have so many tire options from our tire sponsor Panaracer, I put on new tires before every race. That means having to check my sealant is never an issue because I’m always starting with fresh sealant.

SNT: Was your bike a ‘cross bike or a gravel bike?

MS: I had a 3T Exploro bike, which is a do-everything bike. I can set it up with 650s and cross tires or 700s with road tires. I went with the size 700 Avions wheels.

SNT: Thoughts on the current state of gravel road riding and racing?

MS: I come from  the road, where every race is consistent - thanks to USAC whatever you think of them. However, every gravel event is different, and you take the good with the bad. The promoter gets to tailor each one to how he or she wants to run it. You never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes, you’re racing on open roads with cars and no controlled intersections; other times, police stop traffic at every intersection for you.

Also gravel events don’t tend to get cancelled or postponed due to weather. A crit I did last week was delayed by hours until lightning passed, but at Kanza, we started as planned and rode despite a forecasted thunderstorm en route. It’s different attitudes for different disciplines.

Gravel is growing. Being more standardized would have its pros and cons, but at this point we don’t even have a calendar for gravel events.

Check out a race report from the Midwest Gravel Grinders here.