I knew nothing of the lore of gremlin bells when I signed on for Ozark Gravel DOOM, at the urging of a friend after a coveted spot opened in the sold-out 2023 event. The race had been on my radar for some time, though I was intimidated by its 390-mile, mostly dirt, route that starts and finishes at the iconic Oark General Store, in a small town by the same name, and traces the boundary of Arkansas’ Ozark St. Francis National Forest. Anything billed as a throwdown by one of the hardest riders around – route designer and event organizer, Andrew Onermaa – was sure to test my limits.
Seth Wood Reflects on the 2023 Edition of Ozark Gravel DOOM
Researching the route online didn’t set my mind at ease. The map promised over 42,000 feet of climbing over the 390 miles (the ACA Arkansas High Country Route, by contrast, totals about 76,000 feet of climbing over 1,015 miles). And, I intended to ride singlespeed. The route rarely strays beyond the boundaries of the Ozark National Forest, so resupply points are scarce, and stores along the route have limited hours of operation. No resupply spot along the route is open 24 hours, unless by the grace of the people staffing it. (You can try calling to place advance food orders, if you’re lucky enough to find cell service.) The amount of climbing urged me to pack light while the likelihood of traversing over 200 miles without buying food urged me to pack heavy. I’ve completed many multi-day bikepacking races and ultras, but the logistics of this one seemed daunting—scary—by comparison. Then there’s that ominous name, often written in foreboding all-caps: DOOM.
I had the money at the time, the urge to retool a bike that had served me well on two runs of the Arkansas High Country Race, and the desire to visit with friends that I usually see only on bikes. I knew a bell came with the cost of registration, but I assumed it was a bear bell – a misunderstanding perpetuated when I learned about the event’s short, required gear list, which included a GPS tracking device, a full-body waterproof kit, a water filter, along with this bell. (When the forecast started promising better weather than originally expected, Andrew let the riders ditch the waterproof kit if they wanted, and most people did.)
The Lore of Gremlin Bells
I still knew nothing of the lore of gremlin bells when the other riders and I were told to circle our bikes, laid on the ground as if for a Le Mans start, and ring our bells – each bell unique to each rider – for a full minute-and-a-half (this ringing, circling ceremony at DOOM is known to have lasted for as long as five minutes), before the start of the race at 7am, Saturday, Easter Vigil. A half hour earlier, Andrew had donned his Ghostface mask, with a pair of festive white bunny ears perched atop, and passed each rider their gremlin bell contained in a brightly colored plastic Easter egg from a brightly colored plastic basket.
The dispersal of the bells/eggs seemed entirely random. I opened my egg to find a zip tie and a small black satchel containing my pewter bell. Embossed and engraved on the side of each bell was a unique emblem or design: one rider got a hand flipping a bird; another, a raptor with its wings arched; the brow of an anatomical skull with the letters USA engraved; a massive hog on wheels. Typing out these words for the handful of icons I can recollect, I see clearly what I should have known then. We were engaged in a tradition of motorcycling culture – motorcycle touring culture specifically, as I came to learn. My bell has the emblem of Route 66 embossed on its side. It all seems obvious now that I’ve learned a bit about gremlin bells, but I was jittery about the course, my fitness, and the assembly of impressive riders. It still wasn’t adding up.
I was initially a bit stung by the symbolism of my bell, to be honest. I hail from Oklahoma these days, so receiving the Route 66 bell seemed on the nose, but I have my own complicated history with cars, and I knew someone killed on that stretch of highway – struck by a car – while trying to run it just last year.
One thing I did learn about the gremlin bell before the DOOM ringing ceremony (from Jacob Loos, who went on to set a new single-speed FKT for the course of 2 days, 4 hours, and 27 minutes), is that it’s best mounted low – not all caught up in the folds of a bag, or the tangle of wires and mounts of your cockpit – with the bell mouth facing down so as to have as little interference between it and the ground as possible. The way a tracking device needs to face the open sky, the gremlin bell needs its yawn turned to the earth, whence the forces it keeps at bay might come or be returned. I zip-tied my gremlin bell to the chainstay brace on my Rodeo Adventure Labs Flaanimal after 90 seconds of ringing and circling and, with difficulty, hoped for the best.
What I’ve learned about the lore of gremlin bells since returning from DOOM has cast my experience of the ride in a whole new light. Some reports on the tradition read like origin stories: A lone biker motors by night, making the long way home through an apparently deserted stretch of road, panniers loaded – Santa-like – with gifts, small tokens for family members and friends. Ahead, lurking in roadside shadows, is a horde of demonic beings, who throw refuse into the road causing the lone biker to wreck. Sprawled out in the road, little treasures from the panniers scattered all around, the goblins close in to finish their nasty work. Desperate, the biker throws any small object within reach at the horde, but nothing stalls their murderous approach until a small bell is shaken madly into the dark. The ringing arrests and eventually drives away the goblins. Two bikers happening to be motoring down the same stretch of road come upon the wrecked biker. Knowing now the hazards they face, the wrecked biker tears two leather tassels from a vest and strings them through two bells that the others are told to attach to their rigs to keep them safe through the miles ahead.
There are other versions of the story, of course. (Pilots of bikes with electronic drivetrains and droppers might consider historical accounts that date gremlin bells back to WWII-era flying machines, and the desires of engineers and operators to ward off midair malfunction.) One of the most consistently mythologized aspects found in the lore of gremlin bells is that they work best when received as a gift. If you want to sell or buy a bike with a gremlin bell, then it’s best to detach the bell and exchange it separately to keep its protective virtues intact. Stealing a gremlin bell will cause the evil it houses and deflects from the proper owner to befall you. Don’t expect borrowing a gremlin bell from a previous rider of DOOM to do the job, or just take care how the bell’s passed from one rider to another.
This is exactly what Andrew is doing when he insists on the minutes of riders ringing their gremlin bells, circling their bikes, before the start of his event: taking care. It’s what he’s doing requiring waterproof gear, knowing how many water-crossings are ahead and how a wet haze can hang, visibly frigid, in the deep valleys, and how drastically conditions shift between the bottom and top of every climb. It’s what he’s doing sleeping at random intervals for days in the back of his truck at the finish line, waiting for the crunch of gravel on tires to wake him to greet every finisher, if an alarm he set based on Trackleaders updates doesn’t first. It’s what he’s doing making a dedicated post on social media to celebrate every finisher. Andrew takes care to protect and respect every participant in his event, and when he can’t be there in person, he knows the rider has their bell. That piece of gear required for all conditions.
Most special about the guardianship Andrew extends to everyone who travels to the remote start- and end-point of DOOM is how the goodwill spreads. It was Jeff Kerkove—first place finisher for 2023 with a new FKT of 42h23m—who waited for 12 hours at the pavilion of the Oark General Store to witness the arrival of Jacob Loos and taught me about gremlin bell placement before the ride. After my finish (9 hours and 5 minutes behind Jacob), I stayed in Oark to see the new women’s single-speed FKT holder, Maggie Livelsberger, finish up her ride with now two-time finisher of DOOM, Ryan Bruce (their times: (3d04h03m). Riders who had finished earlier or scratched from the event kept making runs to towns with open restaurants to bring hot food (and one delicious ice cream cake) for the finishers, and people who rented AirBNBs near the Oark Store kept a steady stream of frozen pizzas baking to fill empty bellies and opened their hot showers to relieve stinky, swollen bodies.
The night before the race began, I never felt more uncertain about starting a bike event. I arrived in Oark after the General Store had closed for the day. The only internet access in town was on the porch of the burger- and pie-haven, where I never got to eat. It was unnerving to be where no last-minute grocery shopping or gear purchases were possible. What preparations you make for DOOM before arriving in Oark are what you have to go on. Due to lack of reception, I couldn’t easily communicate with family and friends I might have called to vent my anxiety. Nervous anticipation was in the air, whether that of first-time riders, wary about what lay ahead, or veteran riders who knew all too well. Ghostface kept appearing and disappearing among the jittery group busy prepping bikes. My uncertainty lasted well into my first day of riding.
A friend of mine who’d ridden before gave me the excellent advice to approach DOOM as two events in one: there’s the ride to Jasper (about 90 miles in), and then the ride back to Oark (300 miles further), between which it was best not to consider resupply a guarantee. As I made my slow way to Jasper, my mind was mired in doubt. Miles passed more slowly than any ride I have ever done. I’d lowered my usual single-speed ratio before the event in anticipation of all the climbing, but other single-speeders were geared lower and having an easier time. I ran through food and water more quickly than anticipated. I pedaled and walked my way to Jasper over steep-graded climbs, down teeth-clenching loose descents, through sodden rock-strewn streambeds, wondering how I would make it the rest of the way.
About ten miles from Jasper my body found surprisingly fresh reserves of energy and my mind a sense of clarity and drive I didn’t expect. I ate well and quickly, topped off the charge on electronic devices while filling my bike with groceries, and rode into the fading day for the adventure ride starting on the other side of town. That night, and the night after, I got myself to safe, illuminated spots on the course, where nothing was open, but I was able to lay down in relative comfort to rest my eyes, service my bike, and make hot coffee with the stove setup I carried. Riding back to Oark, I made frequent use of my water filter in areas where I couldn’t smell cattle and where hidden caves hadn’t siphoned water underground. When I reached the sections of fast, rugged and forested doubletrack in the second half of the route at nightfall, I found myself riding happily at the edge of my ability. I bypassed an open drug store atop White Rock Mountain after refusing to turn up a long, steep climb that led the way off route, and remained nervous about that choice until arriving at the most lavish Dollar General I’ve ever seen in St. Paul, where I ate cold Beefaroni from a can and a king-sized Drumstick ice cream cone. I ended the ride with more than enough food and water.
For much of the last 300 miles of my ride, I pondered what had shifted in me, what I had let go of or embraced that left me suddenly feeling so much better about my ride. Only after returning home and doing a little research into gremlin bells did I realize – I just had to clock some hard, wary, weary miles before mine could do its good work. I finished 13th – lucky, indeed.
Seth’s Rodeo Adventure Labs Singlespeed 5.0 Flaanimal — Tyler Siems
I shot the bike portraits of Seth’s bike after he finished Ozark Gravel DOOM this year, just to document this iteration of his Flaanimal while it was still covered in Arkansas grit and grime. After he told me that he had submitted an essay of his experiences here, I wanted to reach out and send in this gallery and some info about his unique setup to serve as a footnote to his essay. Seth is one of my closest friends and his riding adventures always inspire me. We worked together at District Bicycles for many years, and I’ve watched each of his bikes evolve to suit whichever adventure he was planning at any given time. This version of his Flaanimal is the aesthetic culmination of every bike he’s owned since I’ve known him. I love how much the bike in its current state reflects Seth’s style of riding and his experience as a highly experienced ultra-endurance rider. The bike just looks like Seth and I dig that vibe!
For Ozark Gravel Doom Seth Wood rode a single-speed Rodeo Labs Flaanimal 5.0. For the singlespeed curious, Seth’s gear ratio was a 42-tooth Wolftooth chainring and a 22-tooth Surly rear cog. This total shop-rat build features Rodeo Labs’ carbon rims laced to a trusty DT Swiss 350 rear hub and to a SON dynamo up front, rolling 27.5×2.1″ Vittoria Barzo tires. Other highlights include a well-worn Brooks B17 saddle on an equally well-worn ENVE seat post, classic Thomson stem, prototype handlebar from Merman Bicycles, Sinewave Beacon dynamo headlight, those sweet Cane Creek bar ends, ESI grips, Shimano brakes and levers (with those retro little gel grippers). With the pop of red from the Chris King headset and those clever bottle cages from Arundel, Seth’s build looks perfectly dialed for his style of party.
The bikepacking kit is an amalgamation of all Seth’s ultra-endurance cycling experiences and is among the sleekest setups in the game. Front harness and bag are classic Porcelain Rocket Horton. Seth’s Cedaero “Waxwing” canvas three-quarter framebag with matching “Tank Top” and “Wedgie” bags all clearly show the miles of adventure and showcase the bike’s beausage perfectly. Vargo Titanium BOT HD cookpot for the luxury of hot meals and coffee, Lezyne mini floor pump and emergency tool kit bag from Bedrock Bags. The unique rear rack setup is a converted Porcelain Rocket “Mr. Fusion” connected to rack struts using old Surly rack hardware, with a dry bag secured with Voile Rack Straps, a system affectionately called “Ms. Fusion.” For rugged terrain, this type of system makes a lot of sense to increase the durability of the rider’s load.
The most critical bit of gear on this build is the “Route 66” DOOM gremlin bell dangling below the bottom bracket, warding off danger and bad trail vibes. This bell was chosen specifically for Seth and given to him as part of the opening ceremony for Ozark Gravel Doom.