6:27 a.m., Friday the 13th, 2022. Twenty-four grown-ass adults are walking around in circles ringing bells and there is a dude wearing a Scream mask counting down the minutes until a bike ride begins. What the F%#k is going on?
Why sugarcoat it? It is a beautifully evil bikepacking route in the south. Deep in the hills and hollers of the Ozark National Forest lies some of the most phenomenal gravel and unpaved roads one can find. A convergence of drop bar stuntin’ and mountain bike stylin’ – it’s hard to describe or pick the perfect bike. Easy terrain? Hell nah. Captivating? Absolutely.
The elevation profile looks like someone snapped a photo of a busted-up jigsaw and called it a route. Riders are either buckling up for a rowdy descent or gritting teeth for a torturous climb throughout most of their journey.
Creek crossings, cutty connectors, tree canopies, sweeping vistas, and a few Arkansas High Country classics—this route has it all. It is 378 miles with a whopping 41,000 feet of elevation gain. The resupply run-outs are huge and cell service is mostly nonexistent. It is a quest into the unknown.
Getting to the start is a challenge in itself. Oark, Arkansas recorded a population of 43 people in 2020 and is tucked away far from any convenience. Need a place to park overnight? Well, here is an overgrown grass field filled with ticks. Need some food, water, or gas after 4p.m.? Sorry, the one and only store is already closed. Need cell service? Better stand close to the Oark General Store and bum the wi-fi.
Yet there we were, 24 riders, a small media crew, and an event director the night before the depart sitting around under a pavilion. While sipping on beers, eating a community spaghetti dinner, laughing at stories, and going over last-minute details before kicking off the Grand Depart, there was a nervous but exciting tension in the air. Anyone that showed up for this made an effort to be here and knows it is a tough challenge ahead.
A hazy morning leads to the sky opening to an unforgiving wave of sun, heat, and humidity. One-by-one riders throw in the towel. Stomach issues, cramps, underestimation of the demands of the terrain… the list goes on. Twenty-four riders to start, down to 17 by nightfall.
The event director drives around like a madman trying to respond to everyone that needs it and asks for nothing but a selfie with him wearing the Scream mask before providing a ride back to the start. On several occasions, the only remaining room in the truck was being jammed in the camper shell between a pile of trash, scattering of wet clothes, and a few empty beer cans. Fitting?
Some pushed through the night until they inevitably needed to stop and wait for a tiny gas station to open for a resupply. Others pushed until their bodies were depleted and simply needed to lay down in a ditch. A few found comfort in rolling with a group and sleeping at an old church cemetery together.
Heat and humidity transformed to severe storms including golf ball sized hail. Two more scratches of misfortune. Fifteen riders remain.
No one is dodging the madness. Except for Zeno Molteni. He finishes under 48 hours and sets a ridiculously impressive new FKT on the course. Severe thunderstorms everywhere. Trees are snapping from the wind, rivers of run-off are flowing down the steep gradients, every layer of clothing has been saturated through for hours on end and electronics are starting to fail if they were not already. Five more scratches. This is turning slightly more into survival than just a hard bike ride. Nine riders remain after Zeno’s finish.
Jacob Loos rolls in midday, shell-shocked but smiling. He is the second finisher overall and drops the previous single speed FKT by over 24 hours. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life” he says as the endorphins start to release. Throughout the evening and next 24 hours we see all remaining riders complete the course.
Each with a wild expression, they speak as though they have been gone for a month’s worth of time. Dylan Morton, Nate Griffee, Kyle Gilbert, Robert Orr, Nick Booth, Damian Wallner, Neal Okerbloom, and Ryan Bruce. A massive congratulations to them all.
Whatever the reason, there is a fire burning in each and every one of these participants that wants to rise to the occasion and take on something that is not guaranteed to work out. There is no prize and there is nothing tangible to show for it apart from a simple custom head badge if you complete the whole route. There is an internal drive to test what is possible – what the body and mind can experience and persevere through. The tiny glimmers of beauty and freedom accomplished by self-powered movement on a bicycle is amplified on days like these.
Finisher or not, this is a salute to the 24 riders that made it to the Ozark National Forest to embark on one hell of a journey. Your efforts were inspiring and encouraged others to test the waters of possibility in whatever aspect of life that may be.
Doom is not for everyone, but it is there for those that need it. It is not about crushing souls; it is about setting a lofty goal and trying to accomplish it in the face of adversity. It is an opportunity to learn about yourself and flirt with your comfort zones. Time travel is real when you leave modern society for a bike ride like this.
Thanks for playing along. Life’s too short to sit around and wonder “what if?”