I enjoy hilly rides. I wouldn’t have shipped my bike to the West Coast, paid for plane tickets, and used vacation to go out for the 2011 Ride of the Immortals if not. Climbing hills to me seems one of the purest forms of biking. It’s just you and your fitness versus the road ahead. There’s also a certain element of solitude about climbing hills, which I think is another reason I like them so much. This area of the state is fairly undulating in general, but if you are looking for plenty of miles with lots of hills and little traffic, grab your gravel-grinder of choice and head to the forest roads around White Rock.
On Saturday, September 29th, that’s exactly what 34 cyclists did as they participated in the Hazel Valley Gran Prix. I rode the Gran Prix last December and Saturday’s route was the same. My GPS file from December showed the course was just under 55 miles and slightly over 5700 feet of elevation gain. Honestly, having ridden the route, I was not upset driving the course to photograph the riders and mashing a gas pedal instead of bike pedals.
Roger Rains always does such an excellent job with these and other events at the Hazel Valley Ranch. I arrived around 6:20 AM and there were already a few riders gearing up and others ready to roll. Even a full 40 minutes before the tentative start, Roger was bright-eyed, and he and the crew had breakfast and coffee waiting for the riders. When I first ran into him, Roger was putting more firewood into the fire pit, though this area was not nearly as popular as it was in December.
Prior to the start, Roger made sure everyone got signed-in and that each rider received a topo map, a very well thought-out laminated map that could be wrapped around their wrist or handlebars, and turn-by-turn directions. Roger also gave verbal instructions to the riders before sending them off.
It doesn’t take long for the course to show just how hilly it is going to be. In fact, one of the steepest climbs of the day starts around Mile 3. It’s definitely steep enough and long enough to get the legs and the lungs burning. It’s also one of those hills that tend to blow-up the group. And for a lot of riders, it was where the group ride ended, and the solo ride began.
After the first climb, between Mile 6 and 15, there is a little bit of respite as the road somewhat flattens and even offers the first real descent of the day. Just don’t make the mistake of getting comfortable with this; it’s not going to last.
Not long after the turn onto Bidville Road, the road starts up again. The climb up to Bidville challenges riders with the longest continuous ascent of the day. They are forced to grind up 1300 feet of elevation gain in just under 5 miles. As the riders neared the top of Bidville Road, the fog began to settle in. There were sections along the ridge at the top where visibility was down to 50 feet or less. I heard several riders debating afterwards whether the fog was a blessing or a curse. The fog acted to take away one of the few rewards a day heavy on climbing offers: beautiful views as you crest the hills. But it also prevented the disheartenment of being able to see just how much of the hill still was left to be conquered. Sometimes it’s better to just not know.
Shortly after the hill leveled-out around the community of Bidville, the course threw out one of its cruelest tricks of the day. As the riders turned off of Bidville Road onto Hurricane Creek Road, they began what I consider to be the most fun descent of the day. It’s 4 miles long and drops the riders about 1200 feet. “What’s cruel about fun,” you ask. It’s the realization that sets in as soon as you bottom out and begin climbing again that the price you pay for the descent is to regain all that altitude lost and then some. With the exception of some rollers, it’s all up to the summit at White Rock.
Arriving at White Rock was a morale booster for me last year, and it also seemed to be for a lot of the riders Saturday. I’m not sure it would have been the same again for me, however. White Rock is about 30 miles in. Though it’s the highest point on the route, it’s definitely not all downhill from there. The typical Ozark undulations mean there is still a lot of climbing to do over the next 25 miles.
In another cruel twist, the view from the top of White Rock and the overlook was non-existent. 50 foot visibility due to fog pretty much looks the same whether one is riding through the forest or standing on the edge of White Rock Mountain. Still, smiles abounded as the riders took a break at the overlook.
As alluded to previously, the course from White Rock consisted of fewer long, sustained climbs and was mostly rollers and short but steep descents and ascents; different, but not necessarily easier. The rollers meant the hills weren’t as long, but neither were the rest periods compared to those offered by lengthy descents.
There were also more sustained “flats” challenging the riders to keep the legs turning. Coasting was not possible in many places, even with the flats. The recent rains meant that where there was not mud, the surface was still pretty soft. Add gravel and rocks into the equation, and even the flat sections meant that the legs were spinning a lot.
I will say I saw a lot more smiles on this part of the ride. Both the fog and the spirits of the riders were lifting. Waves and thumbs up became the norm. I think the happiness was due to both a realization that the end was drawing near and that the beautiful scenery of this part of the state was now visible; especially as then there were no big climbs left for the fog to need to conceal.
Back at the lodge, the stories, food, and drinks were plenty. The camaraderie created by the common bond of suffering had united the participants. Stories of grinding up nasty grades, near misses on sketchy descents, mud, fog, equipment failures, et cetera swirled as I moved from group to group while the guys and gals refueled with the ample food and drinks provided free-of-charge. Smiles were everywhere at this point. New friends were made while old-friends reminisced. Children played while dogs ran and begged different people to throw the stick one more time.
As I sat and talked with the lady who was preparing the burgers for all the riders and guests, she began to ask questions about the route and its difficulty. We also discussed cycling in general. Finally, the question was posed to me, “Why do you all do that?’’ Several answers came to mind. I finally settled with, “We tell ourselves it is fun.” However, I think with regards to certain rides, especially this one, it is more appropriate to borrow the answer from the proverbial man that was hitting himself in the head with a hammer. When he was asked why, he said, “Because it feels good when you stop.”
Alex Roberts grew up riding WalMart and Sears specials around his family’s land just south of Little Rock. Alex bought his first ‘real’ mountain bike from Paul’s Bike Shop just before moving to Fayetteville for college. Alex stayed in Fayetteville after college and still resides there. He pretty much exclusively rides on pavement these days. Alex loves being on country roads, especially before the sun’s up in the mornings. He also enjoys finding hard rides to push his limits. His current crowning achievement is the 2011 Ride of the Immortals. Outside of biking, Alex loves his wife and dog, and he’s quite fond of Formula 1, Radiohead, and the PS3. He also doesn’t find it offensive when he’s called a “beer snob.” Keep up with more of Alex’s work at IndustryOutsider.com.
(Editor’s note: I was first exposed to the hospitality of Hazel Valley Ranch during the White Rock 50 last winter. My hope is to make it up there for the Hazel Valley 100 next month. It is such a wonderful place and if you have an opportunity to go, take it. It’s a truly unique Arkansas experience.)