Arkansas High Country, day 1: lots to learn

June 8, 2019: Little Rock to Crystal Springs 
123.5 miles - 7,616 ft elevation gain - 14:11 elapsed time/11:11 moving time

Mostly loaded and ready to go. I had to put the other cargo cage on my fork after driving to race parking because it interferes with my bike rack.
Race start was 6 a.m., so I loaded my bike as much as possible the previous night and woke at 4 to dress, pack up the few things I was leaving in the car, and drive to the business that was providing parking for the duration of the race (for $30). I made a quick stop at McDonald's and hit a big bump leaving the parking lot. No big deal until I looked in my rearview mirror to see my bike leaning way back in the rack. I quickly pulled over, readjusted my bike, and tightened things down better. The remainder of the mile drive to parking was without incident.

Mikey riding across the Arkansas River. We parked next to each other and he ended up being the person I saw most of during the race.
Once parked I still had to put a cargo cage onto my fork, which was easier said than done in the dark, and then two other racers and I made our way to the Clinton Presidential Library, a short two miles away. I was glad to have the company since I didn't really know where I was going and had no way to mount my iphone so I could follow Google maps. Lesson 1: figure out a system for on-the-fly navigation.

Nineteen of us gathered behind the race banner in front of a few spectators, and after some pictures and words we were off right on time, riding as a group through downtown Little Rock. I was glad for the company because I'm not super comfortable riding streets, even in early morning when it's not too busy, but as the first few miles passed by with everyone still clumped together I started to feel a little anxious. Looking at my fellow racers it was clear that most everyone was more fit than me; I fully expected to be at the back of the pack, so let it happen, already. Eventually we hit a few hills, the group spread out, and I was mostly alone.

First sight of Lake Maumelle
The first 36 miles were paved and nothing particularly special. I wasn't complaining about the ease of travel, but I wasn't blown away, either. Every once in a while someone would pass me, usually the same couple guys who I'd passed back while they were stopped. I chatted with one for a minute or two while he rode next to me, but after a couple of times where he was hostile to passing drivers who hadn't done anything wrong, I faded back, not wanting cars to associate me with him.

8:54 a.m.
First gravel!
My ride satisfaction improved as I turned onto the first gravel road and then soared as my surroundings became more rugged and scenic.

9:09 a.m., Tram Road
This was the first time I thought, "This is why I came here." Up until then, most of the riding was the same kind of thing I could see around Illinois/Missouri
The road was a mix of smooth lines frequently interrupted by chunky sections and potholes, and my big tires gave me confidence and comfort. The first mandatory selfie (these were to be posted on the race facebook page and served as virtual checkpoints as well as just a way to show people highlights of the course) was Flatside Pinnacle at mile 58, near the end of about 30 miles of climbing. By that point I'd already had to walk part of a big hill, one I probably could have ridden, but it seemed silly to blow up my legs so early in a long race. That conservatism continued to be my strategy throughout the race.

11:41 a.m. - Flatside Pinnacle mandatory selfie. The actual viewpoint was a .2 mile hike away. Before the race I kind of thought I'd be the kind of person to check out cool spots that were just off route. During the race, though, the idea of even a .2 mile hike in bike shoes didn't sound very appealing. And even though I wasn't moving particularly fast, I was trying to keep moving forward steadily.
I like to break long rides down into more manageable chunks; because there were no services listed for the 90 miles between the start and Fountain Lake, the selfie spot was my second mental checkpoint. The first was the crossing of Trail 86 and the Maumelle River at mile 47, where I'd stopped to filter water. Despite the 100 oz bladder in my frame bag, the day was hot enough that I was ready for a refill at that point. Another rider who was running low got water from hikers just leaving the Flatside Pinnacle area.

1:18 p.m.
Not sure why I took this. Maybe because it looks downhill?
 A few miles later I had my next "you're not in the Midwest anymore" moment when I lost 500+ feel of elevation in just 2.5 miles. I'm not particularly confident riding downhill, though I'm happier doing it on my Fargo than any other bike, and I didn't yet appreciate what a gentle introduction this was to the big descents in my future.

Approaching Hot Springs Village
Facebook post (3:43 pm): "Hit mile it’s time to start taking my friends’ money! It’s so hot. I’m being conservative and taking care of myself and moving forward."

I stopped at the convenience store in Fountain Lake (mile 91ish) for water and...some kind of snack? I didn't buy much because I was planning to restock in Hot Springs. This was a mistake, but I wouldn't figure that out for a few hours. Lesson 2: When presented with the opportunity to resupply, particularly in an unfamiliar area, take it.

From there the course took us past Hot Springs National Park and into the city of Hot Springs. The amount of traffic on this summer weekend day was a little intimidating for someone who rarely rides roads, and it was jarring to suddenly be surrounded by cars and people after several hours of isolation from both. Hot Springs was packed with stores, and while I knew I needed to restock for the next section of the race I was focused on getting to Parkside Cycles, who were staying open until 6 for racers who wanted to come by. I mostly wanted a mechanic to look at my brakes, which were being noisy, but I also thought maybe I'd pick up a water bottle to replace the brand new one that had sneakily ejected from my fork-mounted cage earlier in the day, which brings me to Lesson 3: If you wonder whether a particular water bottle cage is a bad idea and might drop the bottle it's meant to hold, it probably is and probably will.

So I knew Parkside was along the route in Hot Springs but didn't know exactly where. I stopped once, hopping up onto the sidewalk to check my maps and then having a terrible time getting back onto the road with all the traffic, and was nervously watching storefronts to make sure I didn't miss it when a girl rode up with a big smile. Aerah hadn't been able to do the race because of work conflicts, so instead she spent part of her day hanging out at the shop helping people out.

After leading me there, she then brought me a sandwich and apple and refilled my bladder while someone looked at my brakes, which were fine. Instead of being super efficient with my stop, I dawdled in the air conditioning, taking advantage of a borrowed iPhone cord to top off my battery since the cord I'd borrowed from Jeff instead of bringing my own wasn't charging my phone. (Lesson 4: Better to potentially ruin quality gear than to bring crappy bargain stuff that doesn't work.)

Looking where Aerah had set my hydration bladder, I noticed it sitting in water. Hoping the top just wasn't fastened securely, I picked it up to find two tiny pinprick holes leaking water. (Lesson 3b: If you wonder if folding over the poorly fitting hydration bladder into your frame bag might cause a problem, it probably will.) Someone mentioned it could probably be mended, but I didn't want to take any chances and just bought a new bladder along with a few food items. Instead of letting me throw it away, the Parkside gang kept the old bladder along with my address, and a week or so after getting home it arrived in the mail, repaired and accompanied by some homemade lip balm (thanks, Aerah!). 

I'd passed by all of my Hot Springs resupply options in my haste to reach Parkside, and rather than ride backwards on the course I decided to make do with what I still had and the items I'd just bought, pushing forward in the hopes of making it to the BBQ restaurant in Crystal Springs before closing. This interlude of full cell service might have been a good time to call ahead and check their hours (we'll call that Lesson 5), but I basically crossed my fingers and pushed on. The owner of the bike shop was less optimistic and put another PBJ and apple into my hands as I left.

Ten miles later, after passing over Blakely Dam and partway up what Strava calls Blacksnake Mountain before dropping another 450 feet over a mile, I reached the convenience store in Mountain Pine, where I was able to buy a new phone cord which at least intermittently worked. I asked one of the clerks if he knew the hours of the BBQ  place in Crystal Springs; he didn't but suggested an off-route restaurant in town. Rather than detour or wait for a gas station pizza to cook or look around the store and buy something that would be a good calorie source, I stubbornly clung to my dreams of pulled pork and baked potatoes and rode on.

I arrived in Crystal Springs just before 8 pm and met Mikey and Alex, who were riding back towards me with the news you've most certainly guessed by now: the restaurant was already closed. The only store in town with any food was the liquor store we were standing outside of, and that food consisted of chips and Slim Jims. I bought some Fritos and a Slim Jim, then followed the guys to a nearby campground. 

Facebook post: "About to find a campsite and hang it up for the night. Should be around 123 miles for the day. I’m fried.".

Their plan was to stealth camp in a little pavilion. Ever the rule follower (and not wanting to be woken up by a park ranger at midnight and forced to move), I rode ahead to the campground and, after finally finding a host (rarely an easy task during this race), was informed that the campground was full. But, she helpfully added, I could try campground XYZ several miles away. I gestured to my bike: "I've already ridden 123 miles today." She shrugged, not unsympathetically, and went back into her camper. Lesson 7: Corps of Engineers campgrounds in Arkansas don't have a "no turn-away" policy for guests arriving under their own power.

Chagrined, I returned to the guys in the pavilion. I sat there for a few minutes before deciding to go back to the hotel where Chuck, the race director, had emailed that he was staying and that other racers were welcome to join him. I tried knocking on his door and, after getting no answer, went to the office and got my own room. It wasn't fancy, but it was clean, I didn't end up with bed bugs, and no one killed me in my sleep.

Angler Motel room
Things hadn't exactly gone according to plans, but I was a tenth of the way finished and had survived the first day. I showered, ate my Frito's and half of the PBJ, readied my bike for day two, and then slept like the dead.

Day 1 Strava link


  1. Good thing someone kept slipping you PBJs, or you might have starved!


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