Alex and I loaded up the bikes early Saturday morning and set out for Harrison, AR. Many Arkansas Outside readers are probably familiar with this area because of its proximity to the beautiful Buffalo River. We, however, were making the trip for the Tour de Hills road race.
We rolled into town to find a large crowd of riders preparing for the race or tour, both of which would follow the same course. Speaking of the course, we would be racing the aptly named “Jasper Disaster” route. The 58-mile route features three notable climbs (Pruitt, Mt. Sherman, and Ponca) in addition to more rollers than I care to count. In total, there is well more than 5000 ft of climbing. I’m told the route is also quite beautiful, but I was typically too anaerobic to see anything other than the road ahead.
We had around 20 racers line up for the CAT3-4 race, several of which were sporting the “emaciated Greek god” look, a sure sign of a strong climber. The race started with a neutral rollout. Even after the neutral start was over, we continued to roll neutrally. As we began the Pruitt climb, I expected someone to make a move. To my surprise, everyone rode a calm tempo, apparently with their minds on the two considerably larger climbs that were just a few miles down the road.
After descending the backside of the Pruitt climb, we continued slowly on our way to first large climb of the day, Mt. Sherman. Somewhere in this time, Alex rolled off the front of the pack. I hesitate to call it an attack, because there was nothing attacky about it. None-the-less, he soon had a descent gap. At one point, I wondered if anyone had even noticed he was off the front. However, as soon as the climb up Mt. Sherman started, everyone’s fangs came out and the peloton rushed forward, intent on bringing Alex back and dropping as many opponents as possible. Heart rates push into the red as legs began to cry for mercy. A car passed in the opposite direction, leaving behind the distinct smell of burning brakes. Or, maybe that was just my legs cooking… In any case, what was once a comfy peloton quickly became a group of five or six pain merchants surging up the road followed by a string of lonely, anaerobic remnants (I was one of those remnants).
As I neared the top, several cars that had been held up by the full size peloton now easily passed the single riders. At the top, everyone who had been dropped had the same thing on their mind: “Its finally over! Also, how do I get back to the leaders?”. Small groups quickly formed and set about the task of hauling themselves back into the race. My group would be the first to return to the front, but first we would have to make our way through the line of cars that were now between the leaders and us. We maneuvered around and between the cars, carefully picking our way forward. Shortly after the neutral feed zone, we caught back on. Several other chase groups joined back also.
We were now quickly traveling toward the second and final big climb of the day, Ponca. First, however, we would need to go down the thrilling descent to the Buffalo River. We flew down the road in single file, free-hubs screaming, eyes watching for any change in the road that could cause disaster. We reached the bottom without incident, although with heart rates a little higher than you would expect after a couple minutes of not pedaling.
Our time in the river valley was to be very short, and we soon started making our way back up. As we started the climb, a couple cars passed going down the hill. I once again smelled car brakes burning and felt a sense of superiority to cars as I had just navigated a much more difficult descent without burning my brakes.
The pain of Mt. Sherman was still in our legs, and the group that had rebuilt itself was quickly destroyed, leaving only six survivors. This time, I was one of them.
At the top, Alex had to jump off his bike to make a quick fix to a mechanical problem he was having. I hung back with him, expecting to have to chase hard to get back with the group. To my surprise, the group had sat up and soft-pedaled while we were behind. I don’t know if they wanted an honorable race or if they just wanted the extra help on the final drag to the finish. Maybe both.
Two others soon joined our group, giving us an impressively strong group of eight racers. We organized a pace line and went to work ticking off the final miles. At this point, I would like to draw your attention to an interesting detail regarding the day’s climbing. The course has over 5000 feet of climbing. However, the three named climbs only accounted for about half of this. The extra climbing came in the form of dozens of small rollers. As our group raced down the road, we made our way up and down roller after leg-crushing roller; each one bringing back the memory of the thousands of feet of climbing already in our legs.
At last, we reached the final big descent. This one was straight down, with no need to even think about touching the brakes. At the bottom, everyone sat up, apparently no longer concerned with being caught by any chase group. It was now time to figure out how to win what was certainly going to be a sprint finish. The slow pace encouraged one rider to attempt several unsuccessful attacks. Each attack caused a surge in the pace, but was then followed by a return to the slow pace.
Soon, the finish line came visible at the end of a long and slightly down hill road. The pace jumped dramatically as everyone rushed for the win. Alex would cross the line second, and I would drag across in sixth. Good enough for me to go home happy!
After spending a little time talking at the finish line, we rolled back to the start and enjoyed a meal of pasta and pizza compliments of the race promoters. It was a beautiful day for a bike ride; although, pretty much any day on a bike is a beautiful one.