Mark Horn left work on his bike around dusk on September 24.
There had been plenty of light when he’d pulled onto the road, but by the time he arrived at 84th Street and Mission Road, the sun was down. He was covered in reflective gear, and had lights on the front and back of his bike. An experienced cyclist, he felt relatively safe on the road even in the dark.
“I always ride in my drops, so I’m looking at the ground and can see a car’s headlights hitting the road when they come up behind me,” he said. “I never saw anything that night.”
His normal pedaling stroke was violently halted as he felt the car’s fender hit his calf, and then his body hitting the asphalt. He never lost consciousness, but says he can’t remember how he managed to pull himself from the street to the sidewalk, where he started yelling for help.
His left leg was broken. His right hand was a mess. And his bike was a twisted wreck.
On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, Horn pulled into the Shell station at 83rd Street and Mission — just a quarter mile from the site of the accident. Cyclists usually look plenty grimy after a while in the saddle, but this was different. Hit eyes were bloodshot. His shoulders slumped. He winced as he dismounted, and took short, apparently painful steps into the store. He emerged with a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola, opened it and took a swig. He winced hard again. Even swallowing was a challenge. But he needed the calories.
Horn had left his home in Mission the day before, had ridden 120 miles to Pittsburg, Kansas, and passed out at his dad’s house. Then he got up and rode the 120 miles back to northeast Johnson County.
That was 240 miles in less than two day.
Eight months after the wreck on Mission Road put him out of commission, Horn is back close to his top form, and is ready to achieve a goal he’d set for himself well before the accident: Completing his first Dirty Kanza race at the end of this month.
Billed as the “world’s premier gravel grinder,” the Dirty Kanza is a 200 mile bike race that takes participants over a daunting, rocky, and hot course through the Flint Hills. Founded in 2006, it has grown in popularity and now attracts more than 1,000 participants. If history serves as a guide, nearly a third of those who start the race this year won’t finish.
Horn’s goal is something more than finishing, though. He wants to compete.
“I know I’m not going to win the thing,” he said. “But I’ve ridden with the guys who have been up there toward the top before. I know what it takes to be competitive. I want to finish strong.”
When Horn’s training partner Adam Roeser heard the news about the wreck, he was devastated.
“He is kind of the guy who holds our whole group together,” Roeser said. “He organizes all the rides. He’s the motivator. It was hard to know that we were going to be without him for a while.”
But Roeser wasn’t surprised that Horn pushed himself back into a position to complete the race. The two had been riding together for more than five years, and Roeser knew that once Horn set his mind to something, he was going to figure out a way to make it happen. The Dirty Kanza was a big goal, and Horn wasn’t going to let it get away.
He worked on a stationary trainer at his house as soon the doctor would allow it. On January 1, his doctor gave him clearance to get back on the road. Several weeks later, Horn felt good enough to do a group ride.
“You could tell he’d worked really hard to get to that point,” Roeser said. “That first ride out, he was pushing the pace like he always does. Which was great to see. You knew he was back.”
Horn says he’s not 100 percent — not back to the peak level he was at last fall — and that he might never be able to get there again. There’s a weakness he can still feel in his leg, and it’s not as flexible as it used to be. But his training partners say he’s giving them a run for their money again.
And if Horn has anything to say about it, he may be giving the stronger competitors in the Dirty Kanza a run for their money on May 31, too.