We arrived at Devil’s Den State Park on Friday, unprepared. Just a week earlier, I participated in one of the hottest mountain bike races of the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series at Slaughter Pen about 45 minutes up interstate 540 from Devil’s Den. This week as we set up camp in Area A, we barely broke a sweat and by the time we got back from an evening of dinner and movies in Fayetteville it was downright cool. That’s where the unprepared came in, we had brought nothing in the way of warm clothes or sleeping gear and had planned on sleeping in hammocks. It was going to be a cold night.
Saturday morning welcomed us with perfect mountain biking weather, cool temps, clear skies and a dry trail. The Northwest Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Race has been marked by wet conditions the last few years adding mud and slippery roots to the normal mix of rocks and more rocks. The race this year would be fast.
I lined up with the usual suspects in the cat 3 group at 9 am with the goal of getting through the course faster than last year and just having fun out there. The start is a paved road sprint cutting through the campground before hitting an old rocky road, the start of the Fossil Flats Trail. After less than a quarter mile the course cuts sharply to the right over some rocks and into the singletrack. The next section along Lee Creek was rebuilt in the last couple of years due to a flood that washed out the previous route, most agree that with the short climbs and fast flow the trail is among the best in the area. Occasional overlooks of the creek bed, which was mostly dry this year, are beautiful but the smart racers keep their eyes on the trail as sharp turns, roots and rocks can have a way of ruining your day. Some flat out fast straightaways become places to grab a drink before the coming climbs.
The first serious climb comes shortly before the first crossing of Lee Creek. An old forest road that is somewhat washed out leaving few good lines and lots of rocks. Shortly after cresting this climb racers are faced with a fast bumpy downhill to the creek bed. Fist sized rocks keep those of us without rear suspension bikes pretty much out of the saddle. Once out of the creek, the course heads up Racer’s Hill, an iconic section that until recently went straight up another old, gnarly road bed. Today a switchback section has been added to the bottom half of the climb making it a little less stout yet still leaving the bitter taste of the climb along with the dry mouth from dust kicked up by racers scrambling up the hill. A sharp turn to the right at the top brings racers to the premier downhill section of the course. It is fast and flowing with few sharp turns and a lot of root and rock ledges, nothing really tall but a bit bone-jarring.
A junior rider had caught me at this downhill section during my race so I moved to the side a bit and as he was coming around me on the right he caught a root or rock or something and endoed spectacularly, sailing over his handlebars as his rear wheel passed my head. He went down hard. I stopped quickly and got his bike off the trail. He was going to be sore and a little scraped up but no major blood and nothing broken. His bike was fine and he told me that he would ride out behind me so I took off down the hill. Soon after reaching the bottom of Racer’s Hill the trail cuts along a bench-cut over the creek. This is a narrow fast section with one technical piece getting over a rooty section where failure was not advisable, the penalty for failure is steep. The park superintendent, Monte Fuller, was waiting here like he has in years past, just in case. I stopped to let him know that an injured kid was coming when the kid passed me. I never saw him again. Oh, to be young and able to self repair like that again.
After more rocks, roots and turns and I was soon at the “Gravity Cavity”, a fun, deep dip where the trick is to take it with speed, don’t touch the brakes, push your weight back a bit as you go over the lip and be ready to take a couple of strong crank turns near the top of the other side. Just for a little extra incentive to make it, a crowd is usually there to cheer on the racers. The end of the lap heads on through the hike-in campsites with one more quick easy climb then drops back to the dry creek bed again where racers re-enter the campground area for another quick turn on the pavement and then in for another lap.
Each lap is about 5.5 miles, Cat 3 racers did two laps, the Cat 2’s did 3 and the tough Cat 1/Pros did 4. As the Cat 2 and 1 racers took their turns at the course I walked it backwards cheering them on deep in the woods and looking at the lines I wished I’d taken. Much of my class was taken out by mechanical problems and flats. I got lucky and finished with my bike intact although my engine could have used a tune up.
This was the 25th Anniversary of the festival which has been split into a fall and spring event. The afternoon was spent watching the trials competition held on the large boulders placed by the Civilian Conservation Corps over 80 years ago near the Gift Shop/Cafe and then an evening of free food, awards and friendship. Next time you go to the park say hi to assistant superintendent, Tim Scott. He was not only there at the beginning but has also worked hard to keep this event going for over 25 years. Thanks Tim.
We have two sets of photos available on our Facebook Page, such a pretty day we just couldn’t stop pressing the button. Some are a little dark from shooting in the speckled light of the woods on a sunny day, feel free to lighten them up a bit and post, share, download, tag, comment…you know the drill.