Howdy. It has been a long time since I have done a proper ride report. I took February and March off from randonneuring, but other than those months I have done a few brevets and permanents but time has been a little sparse and after PBP local brevets have not seemed noteworthy enough to sit down and do a ride report. But 400km, riding in Oklahoma and Arkansas, epic climbs, rain, and the buzz from 20 hours of riding was near magic and most certainly noteworthy.
The event started in Antlers, Oklahoma and would serve as my 400km brevet as part of the ACP Super Randonneur Series. I had already knocked out the 200km and 300km back in January and it was now time to ride the longer more difficult 400 and 600 brevets. I really did not know what to expect going into this ride. From previous experience I knew that 400km were difficult, and my least favorite distance primarily because I like sleeping. I was also under the impression that Oklahoma was flat as a pancake till I started reading what my club-mates were posting on the club forum. The forum was stacked with comments about “so much climbing” “our hardest route” “3 mile hill with 18% grade” “10,000 feet climbing in just 50 miles”. I hate to admit this publicly, but I had very little, okay, no knowledge of the Ouchita Mountains before I went on this ride.
I cleared the dryness that had formed in my throat after reading the forum threads and then tried to put it out of my mind. In the end of the day, I really didn’t know what to expect till I got out there, so there was not much point thinking about it too much before hand. Plus, I really enjoy climbing. I am not saying I am good at it. It is kind of hard to be good at something you don’t get a chance to ride ever living in Texas. But, I love hills, I love mountains, I love climbing. I think it is the ultimate test in cycling. My friend Kelly recently gave me the poster featured below, and the saying “Earn the Downhill” has now become my mantra.
The ride started shortly after 6 a.m. and there was a pretty small turnout for an LSR brevet. It might have been because it was a hike to get to Oklahoma in the first place, it was also Mothers’ Day Weekend, or maybe because it was “our hardest route” and the previous year’s event had been a beating delivered during the June heat that kept the bulk of the club away. There were severe storms the night before and the rain had still not let up when we all rode out together. Collective feelings of imminent doom were interspersed with the rain drops. “Was it going to rain all day?” ” How long did it take y’all last year?” ” So, how tough are these hills really?” ” You really had to walk some sections?” “Will the roads be wet while we descend?” This was what most of the conversation was over the first few miles as we rolled out in the rain.
Even though it was raining, it was not cold so I stopped to take my rain coat off. “It rains, I get wet” is another mantra of mine. It is just a little water, and I would rather be cool and wet than dry and hot. The rain actually felt quite nice. I knew my wool jersey would provide the right amount of warmth and dry quickly after the rain passed, and my fenders would at least keep my butt dry.
We started hitting a few rollers 20 miles in. I have a hard time trying to climb in a group and I like a clear path on the descents. Gotta go my own speed on the climbs, so I jumped ahead of the others and scurried up the short climbs. I was soon joined by David from Austin and my good buddy Bernie owner Trinity bikes. A little ways down the road I saw Texas Rando Legend Jeff Newberry trying to bridge up so I dropped back and pulled him up to the other two. Jeff is from Austin and I have ridden with him on a few brevets and a little bit during PBP. Because he has similar taste in steel constructuer style bikes, whenever I tell someone I am into randonneuring they ask me if I know Jeff Newberry. The guy is apparently a celebrity in Austin, because everyone I meet there knows him.
Attacking these early climbs essentially split the group, but we had a good strong group now and it would be easier for everyone to get over the hills and through controls in smaller groups. The first control was in Honobia, OK about 53 miles into the ride and we arrived a little before 10 a.m. We refilled our bottles, made clothing adjustments, and had a quick snack before rolling out. The rest of the group was arriving right as we were leaving. About 200 meters past the control, BAM! The hills start. It was unbelievable. The road just kept going up and up. The 4 of us instantly start getting spread out along the hill. David is a little in front of me, and the other 2 are little bit back. It quickly became apparent that my recent change to a 52 and 39 tooth crank set was a bad move in regards to climbing. But I used to ride a fixed gear bike all over Scotland for 5 years, and I saw plenty of folks ride fixed or single speed during PBP, so I was just gonna have to man-up and “deal wit it” as we would say in Glasgow. Sometimes you gotta just ride what you have.
It felt like we climbed for 2 miles or so till things plateaued. There was short downhill and then another climb. This repeated itself for about 14 miles. We were essentially climbing over one of the Ouchita Mountain ridges. Eventually we dropped down into the valley and rode about 4 miles into the control in Tallihina, OK. David and I arrived together and had our brevet cards signed, ate and fueled up before Bernie turned up on his own. Bernie told us that Jeff had flatted about a mile away from the control. We waited for him to turn up. David was on a mission to improve on his time from last year so after Jeff arrived he promptly left. I waited a little longer, but it looked like Jeff still had some adjustments to make to his tire and wheel, along with getting drinks and food etc. The main group arrived and Bernie and I figured Jeff could roll out with the them so we went ahead and hit the road.
About 4 miles past the control the hills started. Bernie dropped back and I soon caught up with David. By this point the rain had been off for an hour or so and the road was luckily starting to dry out, though, it was still overcast. Bellows of fog lazily rolled horizontally across the road as we turned onto the Talimena Scenic Byway. Once on the byway the climbing began in earnest. The byway was essentially a low traffic paved road that ran 60 or so miles along the top ridge of the Ouchita Mountains from Tallihena, OK to Mena, AK.
I was in the easiest gear I had and was back to my Scottish Highland track bike-esque climbing technique of pushing a really slow cadence in a totally unsuitable gear, while out of the saddle and down in the drops instead of on the brake hoods as if I was riding brake-less track bars. It burned like hell climbing the grades, but I was loving every second of it. The fog kept everything in a mask, and it was hard to tell when, if ever, the climbs would stop.
Occasionally, what seemed to be very short descents gave a break to the onslaught of climbing. Fully trusting my bike with its 650b tires and low trail front geometry, along with my abilities, I descended as recklessly as possible. I was laughing and smiling half out of enjoyment and half out of fear. I wanted to go fast and I wanted that buzz that only riding a bike 40 mph gives you. I tried to touch my brakes as little as possible. This pure gallus behavior put me ahead of David. Soon, I would look back while climbing and wouldn’t even see him on the previous descent.
The constant up and down continued for another 20 miles. The fog was beginning to lift and the grey skies eventually parted, opening spectacular views of the green valley below and other mountain ridges off in the horizon. Mesmerized by the scenery, I found myself saying to myself “This does not seem like Texas at all.” I would quickly remind myself that I was in Oklahoma so I had to change it to “This does not seem like I am anywhere near Texas.”
100 miles in was supposed to be the next control at the Winding Stair Campground. Charlie, the event organizer was going to man the control as there wasn’t actually a store of any sort up there. Before I arrived I saw a sign that said Winding Stair Picnic Ground and even though I did not see Charlie I got a little confused. The cue sheet said “campground” not “picnic ground”. I rode up the next hill while contemplating turning around and investigating. I have a tendency to think I am lost before I actually am, so I turned around and rode down the hill I had just climbed. As I approached the sign David rode by and told me that wasn’t the control and we still had a couple more miles. Problem solved. I turned around rode back up the hill. A bonus climb, just what I needed. I don’t know if it was that one extra climb or the fact that I had not eaten anything for the past 2 hours due to the relentless climbing and hair raising descents, but shortly after linking back up with David I bonked big time and with that all gallus-ness evaporated and I crawled over the last few miles to the control.
I suppose if you are going to bonk, the best place to do so is within 2 miles of a picnic table with a full spread laid out. Being a seasoned randonneur himself, Charlie knew exactly what the ravenous randonneur would want to eat and duly had everything imaginable available for us. I was very pleased to take a break from climbing and get some food in me. After a couple pb and j’s, a banana, plenty of chips and cookies I was feeling a millions time better. I was very pleased and thankful that Charlie had set up the control for us, the climb was not over and it would be a long ways to go without a feed stop.
As David and I were about to roll out, Jeff appeared. We said hi, found out how the status on the others and then headed out. Immediately after leaving the control we had a sharp technical descent. This time I did have to apply the brakes a few times as there were plenty of sharp corners.
The descent brought us to the bottom of the infamous 3 mile climb. This beast was steep, relentless, and unforgiving. I got out of the saddle, back into the drops track style and slugged along in my far too big of a gear. David had a little bit better gearing, or at least that’s my excuse, so it was not long till he was ahead and out of sight. I kept my head down and stared at the white stripe on the side of the road, never looking up. I did not want to know how much more I had to climb because the hill never seemed like it was going to end. Occasionally, to break the monotony, I would turn my head and look off to the side and take in a little scenery of the valley below. It was a breathtaking view, but I was suffering too much to enjoy it properly and more focused on getting the climb over with.
Still not looking up, I eventually realized I was at the top when I could feel the gradient mellow out and I was returning to a normal cadence and eventually was able to sit back down on the saddle. Shortly after, the road turned to loosely packed gravel as it was apparently under construction. I took this as an opportunity to recover a little from the last climb and took the next few miles at cautious yet leisurely pace. Before I knew it, there was a sign welcoming us to Arkansas and I had just crossed the border; by bike.
Its always fun doing a border dash on bike, and this was also the first time I had been to Arkansas. A few miles down the road I approached the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge where the next control. The lodge was apparently closed, so Charlie had leap frogged us in his truck and set up another manned control. I did not need to rest for too long. Simply refilled my bottles and got the brevet card signed. David had apparently put 6 minutes into me over the last climb. He was on a mission, and I was simply trying to survive.
After the brief stop I was back on the road and there was only a few more climbs before a much earned downhill cruise into Mena, AK. It might have been the setting sun, or the elation of finally being done with the climbing, but Mena seemed particularly picturesque. It seemed like a classic all-American little town, harking back to a by-gone era. The first building I saw was a well kept gas station with vintage fuel pumps. Behind it was a Studebaker garage. No one seemed to tell them Studebaker went out of business decades ago. Across the street was the local High School which was housed in an Art-Deco building(though it was closed down and for sale).
I rode slowly into the control as the next few minutes was really all the time I would spend in small town Arkansas and I wanted to take in as much as possible. When I arrived at the control, David was getting his things together and about to leave. I wished him luck with his goal of getting in under 20 hours. He seemed a little doubtful as he would only have 8 hours to do the next 113 miles, and it took us 12 hours to do the first 136. He was going to give it his best shot, and was off well before I came out of the control.
I downed a sandwich and was soon on my way as well. Beat from all the climbing, it was a slow start. Darkness began to fall and I stopped to don my reflective gear(the height of fashion) and turn on my lights. I figured I would save sometime not having to fiddle with my camera any longer and could simply honker down for the rest of the way. After cruising along for about 20 miles, almost unexpectedly, my legs and form decided to turn up and I began flying down the road.
It might have been from crossing back into Oklahoma and getting a buzz from crossing the border again, I am not sure. For some reason, I don’t seem to come alive or get my legs till after 250km. There must seriously be something wrong with me. At this point the road was cutting through the valley of the Ouchita Mountains, and there was thick forest on either side. At one point I saw a black bear cub crossing the road, and hoped the mother bear was not waiting for me down the way.
Just before 10 I arrived at the next control at Talihina. It appeared David had gotten his legs as well, because the clerk told me he was there 20 minutes ago. I was feeling strong, but I knew that would diminish if I sat around to long, so I was in and out of the control in 10 minutes. Along the flat roads my pace stayed high and I was cruising along hunched down in the drops. For some reason, riding in the drops has felt the most comfortable for me recently, and I figure it is a quicker position, so I try to ride like that when I can.
I don’t ride with a computer. I rely on the cue sheet and my wristwatch to figure out my pace and where I am and how long it might take to get to a control. It is a little tricky doing math 200 miles into a bike ride, even the simplest equations, but it is kind of a little game a for me to break the monotony and I like to see how sharp my mind can be even when I am exhausted. My calculations were right on the money that night and I rolled into the last manned control in Clayton, OK around Midnight. Charlie told me David had left only a couple minutes before I had arrived. Either he was slowing down, or I was hauling ass. Probably a bit of both.
There was still 33 miles to go, but I was amped up knowing David was so close. I had to try and catch him. I put in a big effort over the next 15 miles in an attempt to do so. This did not pan out, and I was left fatigued. I figured David must have slowed down earlier and that is why I was able to reduce the gap, but then he recovered and gave it a final push to try and get his sub 20 hours. My pace slowed down over the last 18 miles, but I had no means given up. That close to the end, I simply wanted to get things finished up, have a shower, some food and go to bed. It was that comfy hotel bed that was my total motivation over the final few miles.
There were a few small climbs towards the end, and off to the distance I kept seeing car lights zooming past on a perpendicular road. Being in the middle of no where, I was certain that was the main road and the final control/hotel was just at the intersection. One final push for about 500 meters, and I was turning into the illuminated parking lot. I was done. I could not believe it. I got my card signed and I had finished in 20 hours and 15 minutes. I was curious if David had done his sub 20 and how much he had on me and had a look at his brevet card that was sitting there. Unfortunately it looked like he had gotten in at 20 hours and 5 minutes. I would call that a sub 20. I am sure he could have easily done it 6 minutes faster if we had gotten through the controls as a group quicker. But that is part of it, what fun would it be riding by yourself all the time just for the sake of a few minutes.
It had been a very long day spent conquering mountain climbs and dashing back and forth over State lines. Though I did not catch David, it was fun having someone to chase. I was proud of how I rode, especially as 400km are difficult and I had not done such a big ride since PBP. I knew I was not going to set a PR for the 400km distance that day, but to my surprise I was only 20 minutes slower than my fastest previous attempt at that distance, and that route did not include 10,000 feet of mountain climbs.