Arkansas has been getting loads of attention for the push to make it a cycling destination, with trails being built, races being held and bicycle industry companies moving there. In this post we’ve got a guest riding/writer to recount his tales of the Arkansas High Country Adventure. Randy Windle writes:……229.6 miles. That is what remained between Me, my Moots Routt 45 and the finish of the 2021 Arkansas High Country Race (ARHC).
We’ll get back to that…
Words by Randy Windle, images courtesy of: Andrew Onermaa, Kai Caddy,
The ARHC course is a 1,037 mile looped masterpiece created by Chuck Campbell, an Arkansas native. The full 1,037 mile route is the outside perimeter of three separate shorter loops. The route, in its raw form is nothing short of genius. It meanders up and over the ancient Ozark and Ouachita mountains, creating a challenging yet rewarding experience. 80,000ft of vertical gain is not what most people think of when they think of Arkansas, but it is there, trust me. The route has various surface types, split fairly evenly between pavement and gravel. The hills roll fast but you are treated regularly with a hefty grade north of 15%. There are several extended climbs. One of which that immediately comes to mind is Poteau Mountain, nothing short of grueling.
I first learned of the route a little over a year ago when the 2020 race was going on. Andrew Onermaa, one of the founders of the cycling collective known as Ozark Gravel Cyclists was racing the route and going head to head with none other than Ted King. The excitement was palpable. The route just so happened to travel less than half a mile from my house and both of these guys were about to cross paths in my quaint part of the world. I had to see it for myself. Using Trackleaders to find their whereabouts I did my best to pinpoint their passing. As I waited and the excitement built, I knew I had to know what this was about for myself. I knew then and there that I would be at the start line the following October.
In late December 2020, I reached out to Brent Whittington (owner of Moots) about a new frame. I had been admiring Moots’ frames from afar for a while. Knowing that Brent was from Arkansas and that he had a great deal of understanding of the landscape, I bent his ear about what bike would be best for the area. He immediately suggested the Routt 45. I ordered the frame after a brief conversation with the sales manger and five months later I had my new frame. My local bike shop (Hot Springs Bicycle Touring Co.) worked with me to build this bike to last. I should note that my chosen profession is in retail. Each item selected comes with great thought and the quantity of hours I had to work to purchase it. This is why I believe that though on the higher side (dollar wise) of some expectations, a Moots frame is a bargain in the long run.
Cycling at a greater distance is new to me. I’m a long time ultra distance runner who found cycling as necessity when a series of back injuries slowed down my already slow running pace. I’m glad that happened. Don’t get me wrong, running is fulfilling, inexpensive and in a way the purist form of travel for me but man do I love to roll. The compliance and forgiving nature of the Routt 45 really suit my style of riding which usually consists of statements that start with “I wonder where that goes”.
Fast forward 5 months. The training was over and I wheeled the start line on October 9th (my lovely wife’s birthday) as physically prepared as I was going to be first for my first cycling event. With a lot of water and way too much food strapped to my bike we headed out of Fayetteville at a semi-speedy pace. No matter what kind of racing you do, the first few miles are at a pace that you think is “just fine” until it’s not. Getting out of town and heading toward the unpaved roads of Southern Washington County things started to settle in to a comfortable rhythm. I had my mind set on making it to Russellville, 150 miles from the start.
Russellville came and went with only a quick stop for some scattered/smothered/covered, a bacon cheeseburger, and Coke. Ultra distance bikepacking races are equal parts eating contest and cycling event. I prefer “real food” to pre-packaged bars but they all come in to play when necessary. At points during this race I ate everything from ice cream bars to pot roast. If it was available and high calorie, I ate it. I pushed on to Delaware where the comforts of a pine needle bed await me just outside the confines of the local Post Office. Over 160 miles and 13,000ft of climbing for the day.
I’m not much a racer. For one, I’m not fast. Secondly, as if reason #1 wasn’t enough, I probably do not spend enough time researching the logical attributes of racing longer distances. In my defense, this was my first race and I had no idea what I was doing. Kind of a “you don’t know what you don’t know” sort of thing. Any ultra running project that I’ve done over 100 miles was solo and I made it through those by purely relying on my ability to suffer better than some. I took that approach here, “I’m not fast, but I can suffer with the best of em’”.
The logistical requirements of this race are similar to many ultra distance cycling events but one of the more unique attributes of this race comes in the form of selfies. There are twelve spots throughout the race route that require you to take a selfie to prove that you were there and to help promote the event. The rider then post’s these selfies on social media. It’s great for the riders and dot watchers alike. People comment with encouragement and general good vibes.
Richland Creek Bridge–mandatory selfie stop
The days came and went, the dogs came and went. Except for one. Just West of Hot Springs, nearing the halfway point, I spooked a particularly jumpy fella late in the day and he retaliated by puncturing my 50mm Panaracer Gravel King SK+ tire and my calf. The sealant did its job (at the time) and the dog apparently had the proper meds on board because nothing particularly negative came from the bite wound other than some apprehension down the road on my part. A second interesting attribute to the race is that you have the option of completing the route either clockwise or counter clockwise. I love this because you get the opportunity to meet so many great people riding towards you. People you may never get the opportunity to meet otherwise when you are a middle of the pack rider like myself. You swap stories and things to look out for with regard to what you are each about to experience.
“Watch out for that toothy four legger down the way” and “You’re about to have over 100 miles with no water or food, enjoy the crispitos in Hatfield”. Mmmmm, crispitos. There were a number of people I was looking forward to meeting. Scotti Lechuga (eventual Overall Winner and Female FKT holder), Spencer Ralston, Josh Allen, Ry “Indy” Schulz, Lindsay Shepard (Female Single Speed FKT holder) and Dr. Seth Wood.
Dr. Wood was of particular interest because I was mildly familiar with some of his recent life changing events. I had been holding his podcast on Bikes or Death with Patrick Farnsworth hostage for months to use as inspiration for the ARHC route. I knew he had completed the route and had quite the story to tell so when I realized he was going the opposite direction as me I forced myself to not listen to it until after I met him. This was harder than I can express because there is nothing more inspirational to me than a story of perseverance that is built from within. I had a pretty rough couple of days prior, not to mention I had just ridden 12 miles off course in one direction because I had carelessly loaded the incorrect GPX file. So, I was really jonesing for something tragically uplifting. I got my wish.
When I met Dr. Wood he was stoic with a great deal of sincerity, just like I like my hero’s. Our conversation was brief, “You get rained on yet” and “Be prepared for the long stretch”, etc….After our brief encounter and pleasantries I immediately loaded the podcast and made it halfway through before the tears started streaming. The streams creating a clean meandering path down my soiled face. I am grateful for these people and the platforms in which they feel comfortable to share. By “these people” I mean people that find a way. You know what I mean. My pace quickened as I realize that my suffering is self-induced and so minutus in the scheme of things.
My high held on through Mountain View, AR (roughly mile 673). A quick stop for three double cheeseburgers and some tots got me back on the road and heading toward a monster storm and a welcomed descent. On that descent I promptly heard “pssssssccccchhhhhh” coming from my rear tire. At the same moment the clouds opened up and decided it was a good time for me to have a cleanup. Upon hearing the air escaping I immediately thought of my four legged friend near Hot Springs and his special way of saying howdy. The whole was on the edge of the tread and two plugs seemed to do the trick for the moment. Until…I ended up with two small and two large plugs in the cavern in my tire. You’re probably thinking the same thing I was thinking while in the moment, just take the tire off and tube it. Unfortunately, I had lost most of the feeling in my left hand due to excessive pressure on my ulner nerve. Despite my better efforts I could not grip the tire enough to remove it. Heck, I couldn’t zip my jacket up without the use of my mouth. I chose to roll on and nurse the tire every 20 miles adding air as it had a series of slow leaks forming. From where I was at on the course, I wouldn’t be near a place to get mechanical help until I reached Eureka Springs. That felt like a trans-continental journey in my current state. I rode on, trading earbud time between Hiss Golden Messenger, Kevin Morby, and when I wasn’t in a sad bastard type of way I resurrected sounds from my youth with Pavement providing the soundtrack.
Photo taken near Blue Mountain.
The views alone are worth the thigh screaming climbs. People drive from miles around to see these places. I am riding up to them, under my own power. Chin up, dude.
In the past 48 hours I had slept 2 hours. It was midnight. The rear tire let out an exhale like I just told the world’s worst dad joke. I grabbed my trusty pump to see if this was a new puncture or one of my old friends. The pump had it’s own plot twist in mind. I am not familiar with the failure rate on your garden variety hand pump, my assumption is that it is low, which is why I had one with me. In this case I’d be wrong. The pump would not create a seal and I was either too ignorant or too sleep deprived to figure out if it could be repaired. I was 10 miles away from Mount Judea. With a population of 457 and little to no services I was not optimistic. I reluctantly made the hike, feeling shattered and falling asleep while leaning on my bike every couple of miles. Jasper, AR would be my best shot at finding a place with a bike tire and someone that could throw it on for me as my hand was not in a good way. Jasper was another 10 miles from Mount Judea and Mount Judea felt like a lifetime away.
Nearing 3AM I made it to the Post Office in the little town and proceeded to convince myself that I was done and that finishing this race was out of my control. I know now that I just didn’t want it bad enough to find a way. In that moment I don’t think Zig Ziglar could have convinced me to go on. I’d like to tell you that I made the right decision, that it was the smart thing to do. The truth is I regret not digging deeper.I lay there on that Post Office floor and thought back to something Dr. Wood said on the podcast, “Where are you going to get the energy from if you’re not happy”. When I was listening to the podcast those words really spoke to me. So much so, I stopped riding and noted the quotation. I was happy in life, but not with my current situation.
My shortsightedness in that moment has been the source of great inspiration since the race. These learning failures stick with you, as they should.
This one is seared into my psyche. Arkansas High Country, see you in 2022.