The 2015 Ouachita Challenge was a blast! I had a wonderful time and the weather was superb but I temporarily lost my Garmin on the top of Mauldin Mountain which caused me to lose about an hour and a half of time trying to find it. After that, I vowed to not let stupid things like that happen again so I got a Garmin tether from Matt Malone and haven’t ridden without that tether ever since.
Fast forward to the 2016 Ouachita Challenge. 2016 marks my 2nd year as a participant in the Ouachita Challenge; both years on a single speed. While the OC is amazing and I love coming up to Arkansas, visiting my relatives, eating great food, and enjoying the company and camaraderie of some amazing mountain bikers, I hadn’t really prepared for it. When I say prepared, I don’t mean physically. I mean, the week of the race I hadn’t packed anything, written anything down, planned my nutrition… nothing! I’m really not sure what I was thinking but I totally dropped the ball. The easy thing to do is to blame work so let’s go with that.
Friday morning rolls around and absolutely nothing is packed and my bike wasn’t ready as it was still setup with the 32/16 I had run at RCP on Tuesday. I’m scrambling to throw stuff together between conference calls and get somewhat packed which consisted of about three t-shirts, four pair of cycling socks, a pair of jeans, a hoodie, a single pair of tennis shoes, and my toothbrush. My cycling bag had several pairs of gloves, one set of bibs, and one (non-red-stripe) Big Pig jersey. What else could you need for three days?!
After my last Friday work meeting, I washed the bike, changed the rear code to a 20, replaced the chain, removed the skinnier tires, and put on my “fatty” Arkansas/Missouri tires and fresh Stans. I was really worried about the tires as the 2.35″ Maxxis IKON (rear) and 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent are ridiculously difficult to mount on these new Light Bicycle carbon rims. Luckily, the new Pedros tire levers made it somewhat easier. However, I realized there would be zero chance of actually being able to put a tube in either one of these tires on the side of the trail so I decided to ride without any tools, air, tubes, etc. and just walk out should I have a mechanical. Oh, and I decided to run 20 pounds in both the front and rear. These puppies would be hookin’ up strong!
12:30 rolls around so I kiss Julie goodbye and head out for the almost five hour drive to Mena, Arkansas where I arrive at my Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bobby’s place on the river around 6:00. My cousins have been there since lunchtime and all of their friends are there as well. The food, beer, wine, and lies have been flowing liberally for quite some time prior to my arrival. The photos below, which are actually from Saturday night, do a disservice to how epic the food was the entire weekend. Homemade lasagna, pizza, apple pie, venison burgers with bacon and Swiss, chicken and sausage gumbo, the list goes on!
Eventually, we have to ride and 6am Saturday morning arrives all too soon. As expected, breakfast is amazing. I skip the coffee as I am trying to eliminate all caffeine from race days prior to about halfway through the event to aid in hydration. It’s cold. It’s really cold. 36 degrees and there is a layer of ice on the windshield of the vehicles. I have a single base layer and a pair of winter gloves. No water-proof socks, no jacket, nothing for cold weather. So… screw it… it is what it is. I cannot find my Garmin tether. Apparently, I left that at home somewhere. My right thumb won’t bend and I’m just a big hot mess and running out of time.
I made it to the school about 45 minutes prior to start of the race (um, I mean “tour”!) and had just enough time to stretch in the cafeteria but no real time to warm-up on the bike. I’m thinking, “I’ll just warm up on all the road we have to deal with at the beginning. Yeah, that’ll do.” (idiot!). It is difficult (for me) to focus at the beginning of races as there are a lot of people running around, chatting, having a great time and I know I need to tune that stuff out and get my head into the game so I got away from everyone and stretched for about 15 minutes.
Then it was off to the line-up. Seeing as we have so much road to deal with again and again throughout this race, I figured I would start near the back as I was single speed so I wouldn’t be in the way of all the geared bikes. While this might be true, what it doesn’t take into account is all of the space between you and any single speeders who decided to line up in the front. This is important and can easily be the difference between 1st and 2nd place!
We pause for the national anthem and a quick prayer and then we’re off. The sun is shining. It is a magnificent day albeit a bit cold. After 46 minutes of blacktop and gravel road, I finally get to ride some trail and it is sweet! The trail is immaculate. No leaves covering the trail like last year. It is simply pristine. For the next hour and change, I fight to get around a ton of geared guys who were literally afraid of rocks, sticks, roots, and elevation changes. Just before mile 16, we hit the road again and stayed on the road until we reach the Sims checkpoint at mile 30.
During that 14 mile stretch of road, another single speeder caught me and we rode together all the way to Sims. He, Jonathan Putnam on the Arkansas “Bell and Company Mountain Biking” team, was cramping a lot so I gave him my bottle of pickle juice and that seemed to solve his problems. He pushing a 32/19 so I had to work to keep up with him on the road. We had a great chat about single speeding, life, and how he came to live in Arkansas after growing up in Louisiana.
At Sims, my teammates Brian Brennfoerder and Mike Frazier along with my Aunt Kathy, cousin Kim and 2nd cousin Logan were waiting for me. Mike and Kathy refilled my bottles with water and my e-Fuel mix. Brian gave me some of their buttermilk pie. Scrumptious!
I spent almost three minutes at this checkpoint which was way too long. Jonathan was gone and my other teammate, Aaron “Big Red” Daughtery came in and blew right through the checkpoint without stopping. Brian yelled, “Go get him Wil!” so I bolted out of there and tried to catch up to Red. He was booking and it took forever but I ended up catching him (he was running a 21T) and we rode together until the next checkpoint which really wasn’t too far; about 3.5 miles. Red decided to stop. I grabbed a few vanilla Oreos and took off as I figured Red would catch me in a few minutes anyway… as soon as we got off the gravel road. I consumed my last e-Gel and all the Oreos before getting back into the woods where we enter the Womble trail.
I didn’t see any single speeders again until I started the long Mauldin Mountain climb (roughly mile 41). At that time, Frank Etier (strong Cadence rider) and Red were right behind me and I’m thinking, “Great! Frank is about to cruise on by me. He looks fresh!”. He had a flat earlier that cost him about 10 minutes. After we got to the top of the Mauldin climb, I saw Jonathan, the kid running the 19T. This gave me a little bit of hope as I was thinking he was in first place. So, I just have to hold off Frank and keep from falling apart myself.
Basically, I started focusing on catching Jonathan and ignoring Frank as he was having a harder time passing geared guys for some reason so that was good for me. Jonathan just kept running off from me when there wasn’t much of an elevation change. When we went up or down, I would catch him.
The final checkpoint is at mile 46.5. I didn’t notice but apparently, Jonathan stopped at the checkpoint. I asked a bunch of guys crowding the table like fat kids on cake to move, they did, I grabbed some more cookies, and took off. Maybe 10 seconds wasted. As I was leaving the checkpoint, I see Frank coming in and that would be the last time I see him. Jonathan saw me take off and followed right behind me saying, “Oh, that’s a good idea!”.
I’m in front. But I’m fumbling around with my water bottles as the front one is empty. I’m climbing, shoving cookies in my face, and blah blah… I was a mess. I decided to take a 5-second penalty and just stop, fix the bottles, and start again. During that time, Jonathan comes by and says thanks for the pass. But I’m on him. I know he’s hurting and I’ve got the Oreo goodness kicking in. I can feel my second wind coming in and it feels great. I’m right on him. We are blowing past geared guys and I’m cutting him no slack. I’m talking crap right behind him for a good 15 to 20 minutes. Not so much talking “crap” as just talking to him. Kinda psyching him out a bit. We are bombing down some stuff again and again and at one point he just gives up and yields the trail and pulls completely over and says I can have it. And have it I did!
I started hauling as much ass as I could. There was no telling when he, or Frank, or Red, would catch me. I knew full well that if I didn’t put some serious distance on them before we got back to the road sections they would eat me up.
There were two more sections of road. The first is at mile 50 and takes you around to the lake where you jump back into the woods at mile 51.8. I didn’t see anyone behind me again until I was slowing down at the lake to get the wrist band at which point I saw Jonathan right behind me. I bolted back into the woods and flew through that section as fast as possible until I got to the final section of the trail… the 8 miles of road to the finish.
I came out onto the road and had my cadence between 110 and 130 until the big hill climb. I kept looking behind me again and again and never saw Jonathan but I knew he had to show up and some point and that point would probably be very soon. The only option was to keep the cadence as high as possible without blowing up. Use the hills. Only pedal when the speed dropped below 17.5 miles per hour. This was the only strategy I could come up with and it’s all I had.
Geared guys continued to pass me and I knew the finish was about 350 yards ahead. Volunteers directed me left, off of Ouachita Avenue, past the Oden Methodist church, and I turned to look over my left shoulder. There he was. Jonathan was about 30 yards behind me.
I exploded with everything I had left in me as I thought the only thing that can save me now is the final climb to the finish. Surely, that 19T would haunt him and my 20T would allow me a slight advantage.
The plan worked but just barely. As I crossed the line, Jonathan was about 15 feet behind so I was successful in holding him off to the finish.
Jerry Profeta finished about six minutes before either of us solidifying the first place SS win. I earned 2nd, Jonathan got 3rd, Frank finished 4th, and I think Big Red took 5th.
We all did our best, had a blast, helped others when needed, and smiled the entire time. What else can you ask for?
The next day, Sunday, was equally epic with course records being shattered, bacon, beer, whiskey, and donuts on trail and all other sorts of shenanigans occurring. That story I will leave for Pork Chop to provide.