This marked the third (I think) occurrence of the Hazel Valley Gran Prix – a 55-mile gravel grinder on the forest roads and back roads of the Ozark National Forest in Northwest Arkansas. I had friends who had done the ride/race in the past and lived to tell the tale. Now it would be my turn to put my mettle to the test. Ever since I drove away from Hazel Valley Ranch last spring after the Saddlebock Mountain Bike Festival, I was looking for every reason to return.
I consider Hazel Valley Ranch to be one of the hidden gems nestled away in the mountains of Northwest Arkansas. They have a wonderful lodge on 200-acres of property that served as the start and finish of the race. While most of the riders that showed up came to race, I was treating it more as a tour, hoping to survive and finish. I was especially excited to show off all the amenities Hazel Valley Ranch had to offer to my wife who was visiting for her very first time. Her reaction to seeing the lodge was the same as mine when I visited back in May. In the first five minutes, she felt right at home and didn’t ever want to leave. She was especially excited about the heated outdoor private showers which Roger Rains, the ranch manager, had just installed before our visit in the spring.
For a small registration fee of $30, riders were treated to an adventurous ride, a pre-ride pancake/waffle breakfast, a tech-tee shirt, all-you-could-eat meat, beans, brick-oven pizza, and all-you-could-drink adult beverages. They allowed free camping on site which a few of us took advantage of.
The weather in late September can be especially unpredictable, but fortunately this year, we were treated to ideal riding conditions. It was raining when we left Little Rock Friday afternoon, but it had stopped by the time we reached the ranch. The rest of the day would remain cloudy and cool, but Saturday graced us with sunny, breezy and cool to warm temperatures.
Reading the race reports from previous years and talking to veterans of the race gave me an idea of what to expect. Several long, grueling climbs mixed in with thrilling descents, and some great views of the surrounding hillside and White Rock Mountain. The first half of the race to White Rock would definitely be the hardest, defined by three major climbs, enough to sap the legs for the rest of the course, which was mostly flat and had some rollers, with some shorter but nasty kickers thrown in for good measure. My only goal for the day was survive and hopefully not get too lost.
Riders started showing up around 7 am Saturday morning, just as the fog was starting to burn off. Those who elected partook of some yummy pancakes and waffles that Roger personally cooked up himself. By close to 9 am, the lodge was buzzing with cyclists, doing their last minute preparations for the day’s adventure. We were given a laminated handlebar map, a topo map with the course, and printed directions. This was to be a self-supported ride, but Vince Cucco would be out on his motorcycle patrolling the course, while Roger would drive a SAG vehicle that would also double as sweep. Dr. Wayne would be leading a shorter, easier 20-mile ride for the day. The rest of us had a strenuous ride ahead of us.
Shortly after 9 am, Roger had his son River ring a cowbell and shouted “go!” and a contingent of approximately 40 riders went off. There were quite a few doing the ride for the first time, myself included, so I hoped to find a group riding my pace that had some idea of where we were going. The course is a 55-mile counterclockwise loop that goes out to White Rock Mountain and back. The first of the 3 brutal climbs is within the first 5 miles of the race. That definitely slowed my pace way down, but I was still among other riders at this point so I wasn’t without company.
Alex Roberts gave a pretty good description of the course from last year so I won’t go into too much detail about the course this time around. In comparison to the Slobberknocker marathon mountain bike race (which is also a gravel grinder like this one), the Gran Prix has fewer climbs, but they are way longer and way steeper than the ones found in the Ouachita National Forest.
As we settled into the climb, the day’s groupings would start to form up. I was in a pack of about 6 riders at this point, and having others around me definitely gave me some encouragement. It was nice to have others around who knew the course and for the added moral support of doing the long climbs. At some point, we stopped to aid a fellow rider who had suffered a mechanical with his bike and half the group took off while the rest of us waited. I ended up doing the majority of the rest of the ride with two fellow riders – Chris Robertson and David Allen, two Northwest Arkansas locals who were out just touring the Gran Prix like myself. Chris had done the ride last year but since the entire ride was shrouded in fog, he didn’t get to see much of the beautiful surrounding landscape. He said this year was completely different and was definitely enjoying the views a lot more.
We would get somewhat spread out on the climbs to White Rock Mountain as we climbed at different speeds but we would always regroup at the summit of each hill. My legs started cramping a bit as we approached White Rock but I kept moving as best I could. My only mistake of the day was leaving my salt tablets behind. I had misjudged the cooler weather and thought I could do without. I did have a bottle of pickle juice which I drank before we got to White Rock, and it probably helped keep the cramping from being completely immobilizing. The views from White Rock Mountain were spectacular and on a clear day, you could see as far as Clarksville, Ozark, and Mount Magazine. We took a few minutes to rest our weary legs and refuel with energy bars, Gu, and slimjims.
I decided at this point that there were essentially three grades of steepness to the climbs out here: 1) Steep, 2) OMGMyLegsAreGoingToFallOffStee
Upon exiting the overlook to refill our water bottles, we ran into Roger who had cold burgers and hot dogs in case we needed something more substantial to eat. He briefly improved my morale by saying he had cold Cokes in the cooler but it was not to be as someone had forgotten to put them in. He promised next year he’d have hot burgers and cold soda.
The remainder of the ride was pretty uneventful. We managed to stay on course and kept ticking off the miles. My bike computer stopped working at mile 41 so from that point on, I had no idea how much further I had to go. Vince would ride by every once in a while checking up on us and he would give me periodic mileage updates. I think he felt sorry for me as he watched me working the cramps out of my quads. We soon emerged from the forest-like terrain and got on some flat, wide-open dirt roads. I was pretty exhausted by this point and could only sustain a moderate speed. David took off and left me and Chris literally in his dust. I’m pretty sure Chris could have gone with David as well, but he was kind enough to stay behind and pace me. With about 9 miles to go, Roger drove by one last time asking if either of us wanted to quit. The thought did enter my mind briefly, but I had never quit a race before and I wasn’t going to start now.
We were the last few on the course and I kept going, looking for the paved road which would signify the last 2 miles of the course, all downhill. We had one last nasty short steep climb and once we topped that, I felt like we were in the homestretch. I stayed on Chris’ wheel the whole time, bombing down the paved state highway, which was an absolute thrill and fun way to end a difficult day in the saddle. Vince said he clocked us doing 47mph on mountain bikes down the final steep descent. We rolled in to the cheers and applause from everyone who had already finished. I think they were just cheering because now they could get their awards and go home.
In addition to smoked meats, boiled beans, and bottomless pint glasses of Fat Tire, 1554, Shiner Bock, and Diamond Bear beer, this year Roger had a real treat for the cyclists by bringing in Kevin Bennoch & Pedaler’s Pub who provided wood-fired personal pizzas. Not only did they make mouth-watering, delicious pizzas, it was entertaining to watch them do so.
For the first time in the history of the Hazel Valley Gran Prix, Roger had trophies made in the shape of a buffalo that would be awarded to the top male and female finisher. The male winner of this year’s Hazel Valley Gran Prix was Nickel Potter with the defending White Rock 50 champion, Austin Morris coming in only a few minutes behind after taking a wrong turn and adding an additional 4-miles to the race. The winner of the female trophy was Aly Racheotes. Just about everyone who stayed behind also won in a raffle for a plethora of gift cards donated by local bike shops in the Fayetteville and Bentonville area.
People were welcome to hang around and stay after the ride was over. I need to express a special thanks to Chris and David for sticking with me through the day. They definitely made the ride 100x more fun than riding solo. And I did get to utilize the outdoor showers both during the day and at night. It was pretty amazing taking a hot shower with the stars overhead. All I know is that the outdoor showers were worth the price of admission. I think everyone had a great time, spectators and riders alike. In fact, I was glad to have stayed for 2 nights – it was just a wonderful place to rest and relax no matter what your interests are. I was missing the Hazel Valley High before I had even left, and my whole family and I look forward to our next time there. Hmm, Hazel Valley High, Arkansas – someone should write a song about that.
Huge thanks goes out to Dr.Wayne, Roger Rains and the staff at Hazel Valley Ranch for their wonderful hospitality and making it another fun, memorable weekend. It was wonderful to reacquaint with old friends and to develop new friendships. And thanks to the sponsors of the event -Ozark Surgical Associates, Ozark Off-Road Cyclists, and the local bike shops: Phat Tire Bike Shop, the Bike Route, and Highroller Cyclery.
If you want to experience the fun and hospitality that Hazel Valley Ranch has to offer, they will be hosting the Hazel Valley Trail Half-Marathon on October 5th, and the Hazel Valley Ranch 100 gravel grinder which starts on the evening of Friday October 18th and lasts well into the day on Saturday October 19th.
All photos by Cliff, Jennifer and Braden Li (and Vince). More photos available on our Facebook Page, share, download, tag and comment on them.