Gravel Rides Are Saving Small-Town America--starting with Emporia, Kansas | Bicycling Magazine

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When the Dirty Kanza gravel race began in Emporia, Kansas, in 2006, with 34 participants, it departed from a hotel parking lot with little fanfare and almost no knowledge from townspeople that it was even going on. Now, it’s grown exponentially—1,000 participants signed up for the 200-mile race this year, with an additional 1,350 people riding the 25, 50, 100, and 350-mile versions of the ride. That growth has been a huge boon for Emporia. The racers who stay in town spend money on hotels, food, gas, and last-minute ride supplies and repairs. “We have merchants that tell us Dirty Kanza weekend is worth more to them than Christmas,” says Jim Cummins, race director and founder of the event. The total economic benefit for the area? Nearly 2.2 million dollars, says Susan Rathke, Executive Director of the Emporia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This one-day event has transformed Emporia in surprisingly permanent ways. “You can walk up and down our main street on any given weekend during the year and you’ll see out-of-state and out-of-county license plates and bike racks—that’s people who drive to Emporia to ride their bikes,” says Cummins. Emporia, which struggled to support even one bike shop 13 years ago when the Dirty Kanza first started, now boasts three thriving shops. The area now positions itself as an outdoors destination. Emporia has four billboards along the highway advertising the area’s cycling and disc golf opportunities.