I’m not sure if the churning in my stomach was from nervousness about getting back into the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series after a brief hiatus or the overdose of gas station coffee fueling the early morning drive to Northwest Arkansas for the cross-country mountain bike portion of the Slaughter Pen Jam. Either way I hoped it would pass by the time I arrived in Bentonville. I had good reason to be nervous, I’d only raced here once before and flatted twice in the first mile or so before doing the walk of shame to my only DNF last year. I really wanted a finish this time.
The Slaughter Pen trails are neatly wedged between a nice residential area of north Bentonville and the last mile of interstate 540, utilizing the entire side of a hill and spilling out into a field filled with jumps, walls, ramps, berms and all kinds of fun. In a small piece of real estate they have clustered cross country trails, a downhill course, jumps, trials area and even kid friendly trails all connected to the vast bike path system that takes riders all the way to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and on to the Bentonville town square.
By the time I arrived at the park at 9 a.m. the air was heavy and warned of the heat that would dominate the day. The kid’s race would start the day’s events off with a couple of laps of the lower field. Kids rode on everything from barbie bikes with baskets to miniature versions of racing bikes through the grassy hills, finishing to much applause and more than a few cowbells. We teach them early here, the clang of cowbells means “Go Faster!” All the kids won first place medals made of chocolate that were quickly devoured so official proof of the ride soon vanished. By 10:30 the junior racers along with a first timers race were ready to go. They would be doing 6 miles of the course. I really like the idea of a first timers race, growing the sport by allowing people to give it a try for just the cost of the one day USA cycling license.
My race would be starting around noon but first I needed to take some photos of the kids and beginners in the woods. After staying as long as I could by one of the scenic bridges for photos, I made my way back to the truck to start getting ready. I knew my nutrition would be messed up with a noon start but when I walked out of the shaded woods I realized that hydration was also going to be an issue. I took my time getting the bike ready and getting changed while taking time to talk with friends who were showing up. A glance at my watch made me realize that my warm up ride would consist of getting from the truck to the starting line…perfect.
The party was in full swing now with kids playing on the jumps, music blaring across the field, last minute repairs happening at the Phat Tire canopy and people trying to escape the sun under large tents. For me, waiting near the starting line with no shade was already zapping what little energy I was bringing to this party. The positive thing is that I have really enjoyed hanging out with the 50+ Cat 3 guys this year. We have a good time, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and generally just hangout calling each other sandbaggers (the 50 year old equivalent of punching each other in the arm, guys don’t really change).
This race was about finishing for me so when they yelled go I hung out toward the back putting a few behind me and keeping the main pack within sight for now. The turn into the woods starts the first climb of the day. We would go all the way to the top of the ridge line and then begin zig-zagging down for the first two-thirds of the race. I passed one guy on the climb and then settled in to the ride. It wasn’t long before I passed the spot of my second flat of the previous year which cheered me up. Now to hold on for the rest of the race.
Slaughter Pen is one of the more technical races of the series with some rock ledges and gardens that make picking a line like picking a horse at Oaklawn, it helps to be lucky. Race organizers had started Cat 3 women before us which led to a lot of maneuvering to get around them as I hit technical climbs and serious rock gardens. My bike was riding beautifully, it deserved a better engine on this day. Another obstacle that added to the pucker factor on this race was the dry condition of the trail making many turns loose and sandy. This didn’t leave much chance for reaching for the water bottle and that would be a problem, dehydration is never good and on a hot day can spell disaster.
I finally reached the bottom of the hill where we picked up portions of the Seed Tick Shuffle trail, I got some water down but was taking it easy when I came up on the CARVE tent where the guys waiting for the CAT 1 and 2 races encouraged me to get with some pedaling. I’m probably glad I couldn’t hear exactly what they were yelling at me.
The course then crosses a bit of the paved trail before diving back into the woods for the big climb of the day. The next two miles would be up, up, up. As I reached the top I finally pulled off to drink and with that, instantly felt better. Coming down off this section was the most fun I had during the race. I even opted for crossing a log stack feature instead of taking the easy way around. Now back on the paved trail I drove the speed up to about 16 or 17 mph enjoying the breeze I created, cooling my sweat soaked body. Back in the woods for a short section, across a bridge and arrrggghhh! someone put a last climb right before the finish. I stood on the pedals as I struggled with the climb. Someone yelled that another bike was closing on me, so much for the easy finish. My back tire spun just a bit as I crested the hill, grabbing a big gear I pushed as hard as I could for the finish. I crossed the line and looked back, there was no one right behind me, I’d been duped into exerting myself.
I didn’t do well even by my standards but I finished a tough race under tough conditions, a race that I hadn’t finished on my previous attempt. I was satisfied. Now to go cool off, get changed and get back in the woods to watch the Cat 1 and 2 racers as they would do 3 and 2 laps respectively of the course on which I barely completed one lap. Orbea-Tuff Shed pro rider, Frank Webber, took the overall lead early and never let it go but was pushed by Heath Banning and Austin Morris who despite taking a bad fall in the first lap did a trail side repair on a brake rotor and held on to third overall and second in the 19-29 age group. Tough guys, heck if you raced you were tough.
Dale Bailey at Friends of Slaughter Pen Trails sent us this history of the friends group and the Jam:
Slaughter Pen XC trails and Free ride Park opened: April 2007
Actually the first Jam (2008) was the brain child of Woody (Progressive Trail Design); he wanted to showcase/promote the first publicly owned skills park in the State of Arkansas. Below is the original flyer:
Our volunteer group Friends at Slaughter Pen Trails (FAST) was also started that year, (08) as several of us wanted a way to give back to the community and the individuals responsible for the creation of the Slaughter Pen Bike Park. Our original intent was mainly focused on trail improvements and maintenance. However back in 2007 / 2008 you could go out and ride the Park for 2-3 hrs and not see a single individual. Why are they not coming? Hardly anyone knew of the parks existence.
Well, well… someone needed to promote Slaughter Pen! Why not FAST….?
A call to Woody… hey man how about FAST becoming the promoter for the JAM? Woody’s business (PDT) was beginning to blossom and required his undivided attention… So it was agreed FAST would take the bull by the horns so to speak.
The first Jam had about 100 participants and has grown each year to over 300 this past weekend. Dale hinted at a plan to get the Jam to over 1000 by next year so stay tuned, sounds like it’s going to be a blast.
We have tons of photos on Facebook but since I was riding Cat 3 my buddies have mercilessly been left out on this race. I also wasn’t able to make it for the Trials in Bentonville square on Friday Night but I hear it was over the top. We hope to see everyone next week at the 25th anniversary of mountain bike festivals in Arkansas. See you at Devil’s Den.