Bentonville’s Ernie Lechuga Smashes Record to Finish First in Challenging 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country Bike Race
It was a year of perfect weather for the Arkansas High Country Race (AHCR). For the last two years, the race has been launched out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. This year and next the start/finish is hosted by Hot Springs, Arkansas. While in Fayetteville, racers had the option of racing the full 1000+ mile course or the northern loop staying primarily in the Ozark Mountains. Either course could be done clockwise or counter-clockwise.
For 2022, Hot Springs switched the shorter course to the southern loop, through the Ouachita Mountains and added a more mountain bike specific race, the Ouachita Triple Crown, a 180+ mile course utilizing the three International Mountain Bicycling Epic Trails that surround Lake Ouachita, the Womble, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, and the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. (Opinion: the Ouachita Triple Crown race should continue even if the AHCR changes host cities in a couple of years.)
Bentonville’s Ernie Lechuga smashed the existing record to finish first in the 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country bike race Wednesday night.
Lechuga completed the challenging 1,000-mile course through some of Arkansas’s most rugged mountain terrain in 4 days 14 hours and 13 minutes. The previous fastest time, set in 2020, was by Ted King in 4 days, 20 hours, 51 minutes. AHRC is 1,000-plus miles with over 75,000 feet of elevation gain on paved and gravel roads.
Dozens of friends, fans including Hot Springs Mayor Pat McCabe, himself an avid biking fan, were on hand to see Lechuga finish. Some sprayed him with champagne as the exhausted Lechuga crossed the finish line in Hill Wheatley Plaza in the heart of downtown Hot Springs.
“That was a hell of a ride,” Lechuga said. “It was a perfect ride, everything that could go wrong went wrong.” He slept only six hours during the race.
Andrew Onermaa, the AHCR race director, said, “This year was a perfect storm for Ernie’s attempt. I couldn’t think of a better person and a better time in his life for all of this to come together. It’s fitting that an Arkansas rider has the new fastest known time, and I dare anyone out there to try to take it. From the bottom of my heart, kudos to Ernie for being an inspiration to us all.”
Ernie Lechuga grew up on the bike. He spent his teenage years competing around the world and won junior TT national championships for Mexico. He raced for Defeet, Jelly Belly, and Mercury cycling teams before retiring. He’s also competed in Ironman triathlon, but now enjoys off-road ultra-endurance racing such as the AHCR.
Ernie now focuses on athlete development — he is Leborne’s bike fitter, a personal coach, and a race strategy expert. He’s also worked as a pro team mechanic and is the head coach/founder of the OZ Development junior mountain bike team in Northwest Arkansas.
“To have what is quickly becoming one of the toughest races in the country start and finish in Hot Springs has been so inspiring and exciting to watch,” – Traci Berry, Visit Hot Springs Trails Coordinator
“To have what is quickly becoming one of the toughest races in the country start and finish in Hot Springs has been so inspiring and exciting to watch,” Visit Hot Springs Trails Coordinator Traci Berry said. “Ernie came back with a mission this year and he completed it. How awesome that an Arkansan now holds the fastest known time. Congratulations, Ernie.”
@arkansasoutside75 Full-distance race leader Ernie Lechuga came across the Big Dam Bridge on his way to the finish in Hot Springs. Over 900 miles into the race. #arhighcountryrace #AROutside #ArkansasOutside #ThisIsMyArkansas #ExploreArkansas #OutdoorAdventures #OutdoorPhotography #OutdoorLife #Arkansas #VisitArkansas #Outdoors #Outside ♬ Rainbow – Instrumental Version – Raw
Jeff Kerkove of Colorado was the first finisher Sunday after completing the clockwise option of the 180-mile Ouachita Triple Crown segment. He arrived back in Hill Wheatley Plaza in downtown Hot Springs 23 hours and 5 minutes after the Saturday morning start. Christopher Farney finished second at 32 hours and 29 minutes. Robert Orr was third at 36 hours and 33 minutes.
Alex Kowalski, riding a single-speed bike, completed the counterclockwise option of the 180-mile OTC segment in 31 hours and 4 minutes. Zachary McCool was second at 33 hours and 57 minutes. Larry Wagner of Hot Springs, also on a single-speed bike, finished third, completing that route in 35 hours.
In the 500-mile AHCR South Loop clockwise option, Jan Heine of Seattle, Washington completed the 500-mile South Loop option first at 46 hours and 59 minutes then relaxed in a cast-iron bathtub at the finish line in Hill Wheatley Plaza.
Hannah Simon, of Austin Texas, was the first woman to finish the 1000+ mile course in 6 days 9 hours 4 minutes and 20 seconds! Maggie Livelsberger finished the south loop on a single-speed in just over 70 hours and Lindsey Sherard was the first woman to complete the Ouachita Triple Crown in 38 hours and 29 minutes, also on a single-speed.
Seventy-six cyclists, representing 23 states, set off from downtown Hot Springs Saturday morning in the challenging multi-day biking event.
The AHCR route covers most of Western Arkansas. Riders must be self-supported (no help from friends) as they ride pavement and gravel road segments totaling 75,898 feet of elevation gain.
The Arkansas High Country Race was developed in 2019 by Arkansas’s own Chuck Campbell in partnership with Adventure Cycling.
Spectating was an option for this race. Besides being at the start/finish line or trying to see riders at specific spots along the route, fans could watch the progress in real-time at https://www.followmychallenge.com/live/arhc22/