Epic Rides Oz Trails Off Road 50 – Race Recap

So we went on another race adventure, but before I tell you about it I need you to understand Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s in the top left corner of Arkansas they call NWA (North West Arkansas), almost all the way to Missouri. Did you ever play the old game Sim City?  Well Bentonville is a town where it felt like a Mountain Biker was playing Sim City and just designed his or her dream town…

Miles and miles of trails in the woods? Check.

Roots, rocks and ruts? Check.

Insane jumps/berms/whoops/dips/doubles all perfectly sculpted? Check/check/check/check/check.

Paved green-way paths connecting each trail system in and around town so you can ride to and from all the trails? Check.

Cool downtown area that caters to cyclists with coffee shops, bike racks, markets, bike-themed breweries and restaurants? Check.  

This place is specifically designed to attract mountain bikers, it’s absolutely amazing. The Mayor of Bella Vista got up in the racers meeting and told everyone to enjoy the 50 miles of single track in the race, because in the next 18 months there’s going to be another 50 miles of new single track cut! Where else does the mayor of a suburb go out of his way to make sure there are great trails to ride for its residents and visitors?  INSANE!

So Epic Rides puts on some legendary events I’d yet to attend but hear nothing but good things about, like 24 Hours in El Pueblo and the Off Road Series including the Whiskey 50, Carson City Off Road, and Grand Junction Off Road. All of these races are out west, so when they added Oz Trails in Arkansas to the Off Road series this year as the finale I knew I had to find my way out there for the Inaugural event.

This event is basically a 3 day bike party with a race in the middle: Friday night is a Fat Tire Crit race where the pros are on their MTB racing a road circuit for ~20 minutes all out for the fans, Saturday is the Amateur race of 35 or 50 miles, and Sunday is the Pro 50 mile race.  In between all that there are vendors, manufacturer demos, live music, food trucks, beer garden, and so much fun stuff in downtown.

They truly come into town and turn it into a bike party. If you’d like to hear more about Epic Rides and founder Todd Sadow, check out this podcast, he’s got a great vision about what mountain bike events should be and I can say first hand they are doing a great job!

I was able to get out to Bentonville a few days early to scout the course, not knowing what to expect my first time in the Ozarks.  I had heard from others who’d ridden there to watch out for the sharp rocks. I had been running the Vittoria Barzo TNT 29×2.25 tires previously which are very sturdy, however I exchanged them for the Vittoria Barzo TNT G+ 29×2.35 reinforced version with Graphene.  There’s a ~70g penalty per tire for these reinforced ones, but I hoped they would keep me from having any issues.  Combined with 4 oz of Orange Seal in each tire, some tire plugs, a couple CO2’s and a spare tube I hoped to have my bases covered for race day.  I pre rode the course in sections over a couple days, and one recurring theme was rocks, sharp rocks, lots of rocks covering all of the miles of amazing singletrack.  It had been a dry September up there so the course was a little dusty and loose, but so insanely fun as they were perfectly shaped and with great features.

Being the inaugural event you couldn’t go back and look at last year’s times to gauge how it would stack up, so after checking out the course I was planning on a 6hr day riding 50+ miles of singletrack with about 6k feet of climbing.  The climbs were unlike any I’d raced in Colorado and North Carolina. There you had 1hr+ brutally relentless climbs followed by long sections of downhill. In Arkansas it was more of “a little up, a little down” over and over. The longest sustained climb felt like it may have been 10 minutes.  I went into the Phat Tire Bike Shop downtown and chatted with them about the course while they changed my Raceface 36t chainring for a 28t chainring.  The guys there told me they didn’t run the Maxxis EXO reinforced tires because they were too thin, instead they usually ran the Maxxis Double Down casing and still got flats on the trails we’d be racing on.  GREAT! I had mounted the heaviest tires I’d ever run at ~750g and they were telling me 1000g tires might be barely enough.  

You can basically see the tread from here…

We watched the Fat Tire crit which was really entertaining, got to cheer on superstars like National champ Erin Huck, World Champ Catherine Pendrell, Chloe Woodruff, and Katerina Nash in the ladies race and Howard Grotts, Jeremiah Bishop, Payson McElveen, and Keegan Swenson in the men’s race.  Afterwards the pros stuck around and the entire week you could just talk to them like regular people which was really cool.

Having prepared as much as I could, I had a good dinner and went to bed knowing there was an early start in the morning for a 50 mile adventure.  I went through my normal pre race routine, with my Infinit Nutrition bottles ready and packed 2 servings of the powder to mix at an aid station of which there were 3 on course, and headed to the start line an hour before race start.  Nobody was there!

Unlike XC races I’d done before, this kind of event was way more laid back, so I hung out and waited for the queue up to start. I was lucky enough to line up next to my friend Terry who lives in Arkansas.  His race prep had involved not riding for a month as other responsibilities had taken precedence, so there was a small glimmer of hope I’d be able to hold his wheel for a little bit (this is the same guy who did Leadville under 9hrs with pneumonia).

The start was fast, we took off after a shotgun blast (pretty cool) and raced down the city streets out of town with little to no warmup.  A couple surges up near 30mph and I was questioning my gearing choice as I was close to spinning out, though I was able to hang with the large lead group as pavement turned to gravel.  There was a nice steep gravel road climb after a few miles that really started to separate everyone, and I was caught in the 2nd group with the leaders riding away at an insane pace. I knew I couldn’t expect to do huge efforts early in the day and still have legs at mile 40, so I settled in with the 2nd group and started to work our way up.  We actually ended up catching that lead group as we entered the first singletrack about 20 minutes in which was perfect, as there were some tricky sections that you wouldn’t want to enter with 300 other racers.

 

Once we entered the trail I settled into my 6 hour pace, holding my heart rate and power in a sustainable place.  Since the climbs were shorter than I’d done before, I knew I could go a little deeper on those since they never lasted TOO long, and I had a great group of racers around me who had a similar pace.  Having people to race with is one of my favorite parts of endurance racing, as you’re all suffering together and having a chat makes the time fly by. I don’t remember all the names, but I raced alongside guys from Alaska, a college professor from Nevada, and a high school senior from Mississippi among many others.  It started raining pretty good which made me laugh, because what could be more Epic? The rain actually seemed to pack the trail in to be faster and grippier (aside from the bridges and a couple wet roots). I was clipping along so well that we were through the first aid station at 12 miles before I knew it! I was only 1 bottle in, so I decided to roll straight through and stop at the next one. There was a continual stream of people on the side of the trail repairing flats, mile after mile, and we hadn’t even gotten to the worst of the rocks yet!

There were 3 official Aid stations on course but also “rogue aid stations” scattered throughout.  These rogue stations had everything from beer, bacon, trumpet players and Elvis impersonators (yes, seriously), but also water which I definitely needed when I got to one around mile 22.  Topped off my empty bottle with water and some Infinit Nutrition custom mix and I was back on the trail headed to the 2nd official aid station.  The rain had mostly subsided and I rolled into the aid station definitely on empty. The volunteers at this race were amazing, filling up my 2 bottles with Tailwind and water so I could mix my Infinit Nutrition Mix and have 2 fuel bottles for the next couple hours. They even had Handup Gloves there giving out brand new gloves, unfortunately my tired hands couldn’t put them on so I stuck with my old soggy ones.  

 

In my tired efforts to refuel I actually put my mix in the bottle that already had Tailwind in it instead of water, so I couldn’t figure out why that bottle sure tasted funny!  Halfway through the bottle I switched to the other bottle of plain water and realized my mistake, though my stomach was turning from the supercharged sugary mix I’d been dumping in it.  I knew we were approaching the Ledges section and I needed to be at 100% as I’d crashed there earlier in the week. The Ledges is a section of trail that’s literally jack-hammered in the side of a mountain, sharp jagged rocks snaking along side through the woods.  It’s tough and technical, so much so that they actually had medical staff positioned halfway through this section just in case. I made it through without incident, CX dismount and running a couple sections that were too tough to tackle while wet and tired, but otherwise made it through without any issues.  Knowing I’d gotten through the most flat-prone area I was excited, and began to push towards the final sag stop.

 

the ledges – hewn into the mountain

I came into the last sag at mile 40 knowing I was somewhere in the top 100 and the high school kid I was with kept doing math to tell me we were going to finish well under 6 hours which was great.  Even though I was less than an hour from the finish I went ahead and took 2 bottles, as I’d rather have it and not need it despite the extra weight. We finished on some cool trails I hadn’t pre ridden, with amazing rock faces and steep climbs which were tough on tired legs.  Coming out of those onto the greenway I spotted pro rider Chloe Woodruff just cruising along before her race the next day. She pedalled alongside me for a couple minutes and gave me some words of encouragement which was awesome! There was one last big climb at the Slaughter Pen trails and then into the famous A Street pumptrack sidewalk which I suffered through with a smile knowing I was close to the end.  A section of greenway connected that to the All American trail which dumped to the finish, and I actually crashed on the paved greenway trail hitting a slick painted section of concrete as I entered downtown. Out of all the sections I could have crashed in the day, the paved sidewalk was the last place I expected to go down but there you go.

Coming into the rhythm section at the end of All American I had another racer pass me so I knew I had to pass him as we entered the finish.  Even though I was probably competing for 100th place I still opened up a sprint like it was for 1st place, flying down the finishing boulevard like I was contending for the win.  The streets were filled with fans and pros who cheered us all on and it was a great scene at the finish with racers swapping stories of flats, crashes, and an overall EPIC day on the bike.  

I ended up only a few minutes behind my friend Terry, finishing under 5 hours for 55th place overall and 33rd place in Open Men category.  With 200-300 people on the start line that felt really good, and I definitely had legs to go hard all the way to the finish.

Found out after the fact I was out there racing with Lance Armstrong, though he punked out and did the 35 mile race. Note: I won’t mileage shame you unless you won Leadville and 7 Tours de France. Then you better race the full distance with the rest of us fools.

Incognito in baggies and all black. The only clue is the rainbow stripes on his sleeves.
We grabbed our finisher beer and chatted with some of the pros and mechanics who were interested to hear how the course was running with all that rain.

Turns out the next day the pros got some more rain, and flats hit them hard.  Of the top 20 pro men, only 3 didn’t get a flat, with most getting multiple flats.  I count myself fortunate that I got zero flats all day, though counting the number of slices and cuts on these Vittora Barzo TNT G+ tires showed how many near misses I had: 19 front and 39 cuts on the rear tire(over ⅛”). Somehow none of them made it through the tough casing and no sealant was showing, with the tires holding air still a week later.

My Trek Top Fuel was the perfect bike for the job, climbing like a goat with the 28t chainring and eating up every bump on the descents with it’s Fox Factory suspension.  

So after looking back at the race I had a few lessons:

  • 28t ring was a good choice again, paired with the Sram 10-42t 11 speed. I can definitely see the advantage of SRAM Eagle 10-50t though for sure.  Having enough top end to hold with a group on the road at 30mph but also to enough low end to grind up 20% grades is where a 500% range shines.
  • Vittoria G+ tires are truly impressive.  I’ll write more about them soon as I’ve been riding and racing them for the last year, but wow.  After passing so many other riders on different brands, I know which tire I’ll pick for my next trip to somewhere with sharp pointy things.
  • Not knowing how long the course would take from past years results made it a little tricky to come up with a good pace.  I’ve got my 6 hour pace dialed but finishing in under 5 hours meant I left a little bit of time out there (as evidenced by my 900w sprint at the end).
  • Keeping positive when the rain started helped a good bit, I could have gotten bummed out about it but it was actually really fun (and made the course faster I think).
  • Sharp punchy climbs are a little easier for us flatlanders as that’s all we usually see, I felt much better on these than the long grinding climbs I’ve raced in NC and CO.  
  • Being closer to sea level and decently humid made me feel right at home, no issues with recovering after big efforts.
  • Infinit Nutrition delivers again, I had like half a cramp for a minute around mile 40 but other than that I was well fueled and no GI issues aside from my Tailwind/Infinit cocktail snafu.  If you want a few bucks off your order at Infinit use the coupon INFINIT-COLEMAN, also helps support Bikeminded :).

This event was really awesome, and the NWA trails in and around Bentonville are truly some of the best I’ve ever ridden.  It definitely won’t be my last trip to Arkansas, or my last race with Epic Rides. I wasn’t too far off top 20 in Open Men and with a little more training maybe top 10?  I hear some of my local Florida boys are headed up for 24 Hours in El Pueblo…should the Bikeminded crew tag along?

My dad was there to shoot photos and we wanted to share them with all of y’all who raced. We tried to get as many as possible. Here are a few teaser photos to get you stoked. Then check out the full gallery of Oz Trails 2018 Photos here. The photos are free, just create your login and you’re all set!

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