Monday, April 2, 2018

Don't Bet With Mother Nature - Ouachita Challenge 2018

If we would have believed the dim forecast near Hot Springs, AR, or let the defecting commenters on Facebook sway our minds, we would have skipped the 2018 Ouachita Challenge. 

Instead, we put our faith in Mother Nature and our fellow travel companion, Rafal the Polish Punisher, that maybe for once, he'd be right. All but one of us doubled down and hit the road for our first mountain bike race of the season and for some of us, the first tires to dirt this year. 

Unfortunately for Ryan (or should I say his competitors) he decided not to race. His deep chest cold wasn't going away and racing in potentially cold and wet weather was not the remedy he was looking for, so he shifted into support mode and needless to say (but I'm saying it anyway) it was the most chill I've seen him traveling to a race.

This was the maiden voyage for the #mtblimo with a group of people. We arranged the seats to accommodate two of the tallest racers we know and had room to spare. I think we made the right call buying the Ford Transit.

We went part-way to Bentonville Friday night, picking up Boo-Noah in KC, who had driven down from Des Moines. We arrived late in Walmart-town but the hotel was great and made for a good night's sleep. 

Towel Monkey

The morning was good times with waffles & Rafals.

We arrived at the perfect time to Big Brushy trail head to pre-ride. Most of the tour crowd had already been through so the trail was open for riding. We saw the usual suspects from KC. Ryan tried riding because you had to when it's 70 degrees out but it only confirmed his lungs didn't give a shit if it was springtime and the trails were dry. So while he rode back to the van, the rest of us put in some time dialing in the legs and what I thought was a working fork. More on that later.

After the pre-ride we hit up registration. Nobody was around so we got right in and out. Then it was time to head to the cabin, but knowing eating options were scarce I mentioned we should probably get something before going to the cabin. We went to a place I've been wanting to try b/c they claim they have the best burgers this side of Heaven, despite being a sketchy looking structure, half former gas station, half house. So we all put in or order for something fried with a side of fried and it was delicious. I know some were skeptical and I agree that OSHA probably hasn't ever been there, but like I say, Put Some South in My Mouth!


After lunch, we headed down the winding road to our cabin. It was nice. There isn't an abundance of places to stay near the racecourse but we scored with a cabin that was only 25 minutes away with enough room and beds for all of us, plus a nice yard and pond. It was close to the main street but other than that, it met all of our expectations for cabin life, complete with a friendly dog from next door who enjoyed resting on the deck with us. 

Race Day.

The weather was going to hold until later in the day so the goal was to finish before the rain. The start temps were in the 40s and it was only going to get into the 50s so I went with just arm warmers and wool layer under my summer kit. I took a camelbak since it wasn't going to be hot to ensure I'd drink regularly.

We got to the start finish around 6:40 after a delay trying to find Eyberg's computer which he did find but then didn't have his HR strap so he borrowed Ryan's. After a good warm up and got in line about 1/3 way from the front.

The start of this race is neutral for quite a while so one can continue warming up until the single track. The river crossing wasn't as deep this year (in fact none of the crossings were as deep as last year). It was still rushing over the road but at least we could see the road this time.

As we entered the single track the race stacked up per usual on a rock garden at the top of the first power climb. Two women were there, one on SS and the other geared so I made sure to keep them in site (the category is women open so all women are contenders). The SS rider was tough but didn't descend very smooth. She and the other woman were yo-yoing together until the geared rider had to dismount. Then it was me and the SS rider yo-yo-ing. We popped out of the single track at Big Brushy not really knowing our place. I was able to shove down some food before making my way to Blowout Mountain. I was feeling pretty good. Ryan was at the road crossing cheering me on saying we were 4th & 5th place. The SS rider was with me and asked to go ahead, which I let her do knowing it was going to get steep and rough quickly and I'd see her again. Which I did. I dismounted as soon as I could pedal efficiently and took to hike a biking. My trusty rubber-soled shoes were perfect for this situation. No slipping on carbon shoes! 

I eventually passed the SS rider and reeled in the 3rd place rider. We didn't exchange places but I pretty much glued myself to her hoping I'd wear her down, hoping I'd force her to go harder than she was wanting to or make a mistake. We came out of the trees together and into Simms where Ryan was waiting with a fuel-up and I took a much needed nature break. Whew! It's amazing how much better it feels when you're a liter lighter! Unfortunately, the seal was blown on my fork and from the look of it, it was staying down in it's travel. 

The good news I was through the most technical part of the course but I still had about 3 hours of rough riding ahead without much suspension in the front. Oh well, run what ya brung. That break dropped me back from the 3rd place rider and the SS rider caught me as I left Simms but with the open road section and more gears than she, I was able to drop her and catch the wheel of a lone dude. Once the road went up, I took a turn at the front and didn't look back. In the trees for a quick out and back, I found and passed 3rd place and upon the next gravel road connector, 2nd place was soon in my wake. 

Womble - an IMBA epic trail that starts out as flow and then just when you finish yelling "Wheee" for the 5th time, it turns into a never ending grind. Though not really technical, the fact that it just winds and winds in and out of the classic folds that make up the Ozark Mountains, your mind starts looking for the end sooner than it should. The good thing is my stomach was doing great and my legs were in their zone too. The bad news, I was on the front of a train that had the woman from the beginning of the race and she was riding well. Nobody asked to pass so I just held my pace. I didn't go faster than I wanted and nobody complained. I did mess up one switch back but I was back on the bike and no foul was called. Finally, we came out on the road. There were 3 guys and us two ladies. One of the guys asked if we wanted to work together on the gravel so I got in behind since I pulled everyone through Womble. When it was the other woman's turn, she attacked. It wasn't a huge attack but I had to answer so I kept her insight knowing there was still another short single track segment coming. We had to slow down to get our bracelets too so I was able to catch back on to her wheel. Once out of the trees though she used every tooth in her 52 or whatever to blow my doors off on the straights until she was out of sight for good. Well crap. The rain started too. Ryan had been at every station and had pulled around me on the road yelling my gap time. I still finished strong with the best time I've recorded there ever at 5:49. I gave 2nd place a high five and congrats on a strong battle. First place was another 20 minutes ahead of my time so wasn't even close. Not sure I'll ever win this event but I'll keep trying.

The guys all had great races as well. Eyberg tried tackling a tree but other than that, it was a great race for everyone - even Ryan, who true to his nature, had tunes blasting from the mtblimo at the last gravel climb and was giving everyone a push over the top. The day finished out with petting a baby goat, taking a hot shower and then devouring mounds of ribs in Hot Springs. That's doing things the Southern way if ever, right?! 

Back at the cabin, we rested a bit and watched horrible horror movies on TV. Then we forced ourselves outside and around the fire pit to properly end the evening looking at stars above while enjoying drinks below. It's as if Mother Nature had bet we would.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Great Escape - Palo Duro Canyon

I'd had enough. Enough winter. Enough gray skies. Enough wind. Enough cold, dark nights. Enough trainer rides and enough gym nights. Enough.

I had 5 days of vacation to use or lose and I wasn't losing nuttin' except maybe my sanity. I took to the interwebs for weather forecasts and searched for the warmest places within 12 hours drive. In fact, we even lowered our expectation to just be dry. Warm is relative but had it to be dry and sunny. For the love all mankind, there had to be sun somewhere.

RF: "Ever heard of Palo Duro Canyon?"
ME: "No. Is it dry and sunny?"
RF: "Yep."
ME: "Perfect. We're going...where is it?"
RF: "Texas."

Palo Duro Canyon: the 2nd deepest canyon in the U.S. But unlike the Grand Canyon, where one spends most of the time on the ledges looking down, at PDC, one goes into the canyon. It's also quite wide in the actual park boundary, with open meadows full of scrubby evergreen bushes and prickly pear cactus and yucca plants. It seemed more like western Colorodo, specifically like Fruita, with true single track that combined flat and rolling high speed sections on one side with much more technical rock drops and climbs on the other. Of the 26 miles of rideable trails, only a few sections were too steep to climb but that was due to it's proximity to the top of a high cliff. It really had trails for every kind of cross country rider. That's right. You'll have to pedal. This is still Texas after all.

Me and the hubs put the new #vanlife vehicle to the test. It was the first vamping excursion in the mtblimo and we were living in luxury. With lots more headroom (Ryan can almost stand full upright) and having more storage space, we could move around a lot easier. But we did find out one thing; our propane heater wasn't quite strong enough when the temps dipped into the single digits so we'll be making some upgrades. Overall it worked out amazingly.

We spent 4 nights in the canyon. Our campground was primitive but as long as I have a pot to piss in, I'm living large. But the crazy thing was the park put us right next to other campers even when there were plenty of empty sites AWAY from people. We didn't understand it. Then when we were the only ones left on Monday morning, by afternoon, there were new campers DIRECTLY ACROSS from us. There had to have been 20 sites open. It was an odd situation, but we did end up chatting with them and they were a lovely retired couple from North Carolina and even extended an invite to stay at their home and ride the famed trails around Pisgah and REEB Ranch! Schwing!

Our neighbors were not our only visitors in the campground. Every morning, a couple road runners would walk around the site, waiting for us to drop some scraps. I'd never seen one before and they're nothing like the cartoon version (meep, meep). 

And kid you not, there are scads of coyotes in the canyon so now we understand where the concept came from! We only saw 2 coyotes the whole time but man do they crap a lot. There was so much scat on the trails! Other birds began to show up too, like cardinals. We set out a bowl of water and suddenly there were a half dozen birds in our campsite.

With temps in the 50s-60s it was summer kit time! The winds were pretty high so we couldn't have a pit fire but it wasn't the end of the world. We'd get up with the sun and brew up some coffee and down some oats. Then we'd hang out a bit with the road runners and the cardinals before hitting the trails by 10 am and not returning until sometime in the mid afternoon. 

The first day we hit most of the trails to get a lay of the land. One side was easier than the other so by day 3 the harder side was harder still! We did manage to climb all the way up on top of the red rock cliffs via a popular hike & bike trail called Rock Garden. It gave us a great view of the valley but was gnarley going down. My favorite trail was actually on the easier side called Red's Rocks. It was a wide open trail that had some fun flow and technical outcroppings so we always had to stay aware but we could get up some good speed and get a little air here and there.

A few of the trails lead to some cool rock formations. 

The most famous is the Lighthouse Rock. We couldn't ride to it per se. We had to scramble up a deep crevice to get up onto the top of the mesa where the formation was. We didn't climb up on it but kinda wish we would have. The view from the ledge looking back was quite breath taking!

The canyon also had trails that got us close to the topography. It's crazy to get right up next to canyon walls that we usually only see from a distance. The colors and textures were amazing!

On the first day we discovered this little oasis stop along an out and back loop. Before we got there we stopped at at small steep hill with a winding trail and bench at the top. Of course I had to go up there. Looks like it was a favorite spot for someone pretty special.

At the oasis, there was a sign-in book. We signed it and on our second visit, left an R&R sticker on the stand. A little Briar Rabbit figure welcomed us to his patch.

By the last day we were cooked but we had to take advantage of the dry trails warm temps. The sky was a bit overcast but the wind had died down a bit. After our ride we celebrated with a long shower and a hike to the top of the rim for a sunset view. Though the sunset was blocked by clouds while up top, we were rewarded with a beautiful sky before the sun finally set. We spent the remainder of the evening chatting with our new friends and watching the moon light up the landscape at night. It was so bright we didn't even need head lamps!

For anyone wanting to escape the cold up north, Palo Duro was just what our hearts and minds needed. They have a cafe and trading post down in the canyon so you never need to leave. There are ancestral Texas long horns that live at the top when you enter. They are from a lineage of long horns that originated in the area. Though we didn't do it, visitors can zip line up top and ride horses. For a small canyon park, there was much eye candy and areas to explore. This could definitely be a place we get away to again in the future!