Sometimes when I go to a race, I knock out a pre-ride the day before, get a good night’s sleep at the hotel and wake up refreshed and ready in the morning. The Fat Tire Festival is not one of those races. Fatty Fest is three days of non-stop riding and partying that will leave you needing a vacation day on Monday.
Set in picturesque Eureka Springs, this year’s festival featured five competitive events from Friday to Sunday. The festival is put on by Progressive Trail Design, a group that knows good trail and good fun. There was no shortage of either.
The weekend kicked off on Friday evening with the Short Track race at Accord’s Moto Track north of town. Riders did from 12 minutes up to 20 minutes on the narrow track based on their category, with two bell laps at the end. It’s nice to see short track coming along the AMBCS. The Three Legged Dawg in Arkadelphia also added in a short track earlier this year.
We camped at Lake Leatherwood on Friday night and woke bright and early Saturday morning to fit in a few miles of the cross-country course before all the activities started. The Downhill Race started at 10 a.m., and I posted up at my favorite spot to watch the action – the jump just above Miner’s Rock. Riders came barrelling down the trail, sailing off the edge of a giant boulder and landing on the packed dirt before a quick left-hand turn on down the course. I didn’t see any wipe-outs, though the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists crew had their hands full during practice patching up a guy who ended up with a triangle-shaped stake in his calf. Steve Schneider kept the long bloody piece of wood in a bag for the rider, who turned out still bloody to cheer on his friends at the downhill race.
The Big Town Ride started at noon, but I opted for a slightly later ride so I could enjoy more of the downhill activities. I always have as much fun on the Saturday town rides as I do on the Sunday race. Eureka Springs has so many ungroomed, hidden slivers of single-track, as well as a fun atmosphere when riding through town. Our guide was kind enough to lead us around the local trails, through what locals call “Larryland,” and ending up on some spectacularly fun single-track at Black Bass Lake.
I missed the Super D race and Observed Trials while meandering through Eureka, but I caught some of the trials riders practicing in the dry creek bed near the Lake Leatherwood ballfields. Those guys are fearless.
Sunday was much cooler than I expected, with a nice breeze taking the edge off typical July heat. Racers would need every advantage on this tough cross-country course. The race started in front of the Basin Park Hotel at the foot of a long climb out of town. Phat Tire Bike Shop set up in the city park at Basin Spring and did a brisk business in tune-ups and last minute tire fixes. As I filled up my water bottles at the spring, the long-haired Cat 3 rider across from me joked about the magical properties of spring water. It would turn out to be prophetic for him as he blew past me at about mile 6.
The Fat Tire cross-country start is the most epic in the AMBCS. Hundreds of racers pack into the historic narrow street as curious onlookers in the Victorian town for a quiet weekend get that look on their faces that all non-racers get when looking at us. The look that’s a cross between incredulity at our insanity and admiration for our willingness to embrace it.
Cat 1 racers started the climb up the winding streets first, followed by Cat 2 and finally Cat 3. The support from spectators is fantastic downtown and helps with motivation up steep Spring Street. But the onlookers fall away and the climb gets even steeper just below the Crescent Hotel. By the time I hit the single-track at Clear Spring School, I was feeling the 25 miles from Saturday’s rides.
The climbing is relentless out at Lake Leatherwood, but the challenge is one reason for the race’s popularity. I saw about a dozen flat tires out there and witnessed one man actually throw his bike down a hill in frustration. All before the daunting climb at Miner’s Rock.
After going through the ballfields at the lake, the categories become a giant jumble with Cat 1 and 2 riders on their laps and Cat 3 riders heading toward the finish. I love the integration of it all, cheering for the speedy riders as they roar past me and encouraging the few riders I make it around. But as much fun as the trail is, I’m never so happy as when I see the finish line looming up ahead.
Cat 1 racers and Cat 2 men under 40 put in 22 miles. Everybody else did 16 miles, with the exception of Juniors at 8 and 12 miles.
The cross-country race was capped with great food and live music. Phat Tire gave away a New Belgium Cruiser bike, won by the owner of the Pied Piper Pub and Inn in Eureka. PTD’s Dave Renko, Fatty Fest director and all-around Arkansas trail legend, distributed awards in his own unique way. He thanked the many sponsors and volunteers for their help in putting together what he called “a labor of love.”
The Fat Tire Festival truly does feel like a labor of love. It’s a big event, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but there is something for everyone. Nightly parties, daily kid’s events, as much trail as you can stomach. And, for me, a much needed nap at the end of it.