Arkansas rolled onto the world stage when the Arkansas Enduro Series opened its 2019 season May 18 with a two-day celebration of mountain biking in the Ozark Mountains surrounding Eureka Springs.
The Eureka Springs bike race was one of only three locations for the North American Continental Enduro Series, which is a qualifier for the Enduro World Series.
The world series requires that its events take place on world-class mountain bike trails, and before an event is invited into the series, it must demonstrate it has such trails. Candice Kozark, director of BikeNWA, explained that her advocacy group began courting the Enduro World Series two years ago.
In 2018, under the aegis of its soft-surface trail brand Oz Trails, BikeNWA held an Enduro World Series qualifier race on the Upper Buffalo Mountain Bike Trail, demonstrating its organizational ability. The world series took note, and Kozark says, BikeNWA cultivated the relationship with the Enduro World Series and earned its faith.
Enduro cycling appeals to cyclists from cross country and downhill mountain biking because it draws from the skill sets of both competitions to create a different kind of sport. It's a mountain bike race with multiple legs that are mostly downhill and technical.
Rather than cyclists battling to pass one another between a starting point and a finishing point, Enduro downhill legs are time trials; and in between are noncompetitive transition segments where racers pedal together or ride in shuttle buses. Only the accumulated time spent racing the downhills factors into a competitor's score.
At Eureka Springs, racers could red-line hammer a descent, and then wait at the bottom of the hill for their friends. Together they then rode side-by-side, talking shop and sharing war stories about their experience en route to the next downhill stage.
Enduro racers say they develop camaraderie because it is not just about the competition; it is more of a lifestyle.
While this was the first world Enduro event in the area, world-level events are no longer unheard-of on Northwest Arkansas' mountain biking trails. Still, it was a bit surreal to chat with Damion Smith, manager for Yeti Cycle's pro racing team, at the Eureka Springs Enduro and hear him rave about Arkansas' "buffed out trails" and include little Eureka in the same sentence with Portugal, Italy and France — other sites on his team's race schedule.
But being associated with the Enduro World Series wasn't the driving motivation for most of the racers who maxed out the 300-rider limit a mere two weeks after registration opened in January.
For amateur racers like Andy Lai, from Dallas, it was the opportunity to race in an Enduro style competition and also to ride Arkansas' bike trails. He had been reading about the trails in national cycling publications and hearing friends praise them.
After riding them himself, he said it was worth the drive.
LET THE FUN BEGIN
There were six stages laid out for Day One of the Eureka Springs Enduro, routing racers on the trails throughout the wooded mountain around Lake Leatherwood City Park.
At 9:15 a.m., the first wave of competitors launched from the "base camp village" assembled in the park's campgrounds. Composed of amateur women and juniors, they began their adventure in an atmosphere of boisterous fanfare, with clanging cowbells and cheers. In 30-minute intervals, waves 2 through 4, containing amateur men, experts and pro women and men, followed suit.
In typical Enduro style, as a warmup, cyclists were routed across a shallow creek bed, splitting narrow gaps between trees and up a steady climb to the beginning of Stage 1.
At the summit, they crossed a starter gate that automatically triggered each rider's timing chip, and they dropped into an awesome, steep descent.
For many of the less experienced racers, the descent was pretty much a slidefest. People locked up their brakes for a controlled slide through deep gravel switchbacks and then struggled to remain on course while avoiding contact with the trees closely bordering the trail.
Others coasted — or pedaled all out — down the course, their tires digging deep in the loose gravel for traction during turns, kicking up a natural rock berm for riders that followed.
At the bottom of Stage 1, riders clustered into groups for the transition ride to Stage 2.
The crew at Slaughter Trail Guides fashioned a course for the first day of racing that was a combination of the area's original handmade volunteer trails and newer professionally constructed gravity trails. All weekend racers were heard expressing an appreciation for the variety of conditions this provided.
Stage 2 began at The North Hub, an elevated circular platform constructed on native stone with multiple stone ramps angling off its bluffs in wagon-wheel fashion, resembling an Egyptian temple.
The junior riders in the first wave had maintained their early start advantage and were the first to arrive. After the steep gravel descent of the first stage racers were ready for this fast and flowy ride through sweeping, high banked earthen berms and rollovers tall enough to grab airtime if they felt the urge. Or they could merely pump over the top.
Stages 3 and 4 were intentionally configured to be more challenging — variety being the spice of Enduro racing.
Slaughter Trail Guides had spliced and diced the existing downhill trails, resulting in some very exciting flow lines. Racers would leave the Hub on one trail and then suddenly be routed across a temporary connector trail to assimilate a series of jumps or rock garden of another.
Stages 5 and 6 once again routed cyclists onto more of the original old-school trails.
On Stage 5, when the trail followed long stretches of straight double track, trail workers had sprinkled in short, squiggly, crescent shaped turns up a bank and then back onto the trail — for no other reason than it was fun.
Day One ended with all the racers hanging out at the base camp village, visiting sponsor tents, wolfing down pasta and socializing.
The weather guessers had forecast rain throughout the day, but everyone was off the course before it finally arrived. By that time most of us were safe and dry under the New Belgium Brewery beer tent.
WAIT, THERE'S MORE
For Day 2, Kozark and the Slaughter Trail Guides crew decided to juice the ride up to the 11 dial, beginning Stage 7 on the grounds of the famous Crescent Hotel and sending cyclists careening through city streets, up sidewalks, down steep stairways and across grassy greenways — a one-of-a-kind urban adventure.
Adam Craig, EWS North American Continental Series rep, called this "equal parts city infrastructure and natural trails."
I watched the competition with Chris Crone of Fayetteville, as he awaited his son's start. He told me Beckham had been riding since he could walk. The boy had progressed through every wheel size available until at his current age — 12 — was well prepared for this style of racing.
Enduro is a spectator friendly sport. Rock walls and curbs along the Urban Stage were maxed out with people shouting encouragements, ringing cowbells and blaring air horns as racers bowled through the makeshift course.
Often racers were given the option of following a faster A-line, which might drop them off a 5-foot rock wall, or a slower B-line that flowed down a grassy descent. The crowd loudly applauded the A riders for their courage but gave words of encouragement to the B riders, too.
As the riders cleared the final section of stairs, on the transition ride to the next stage, they were excitedly chattering away.
A PASSION FOR PEDALING
Stages 8 through 11 routed racers across several of the professionally constructed trails on the hillsides surrounding the venue of "America's #1 Attended Outdoor Drama": The Great Passion Play. This outdoor drama depicting Jesus Christ's last days on earth has been performed at the site since 1968.
Overnight rains left some slippery sod on the rocky trails, providing a not necessarily pleasant surge of adrenaline for speeding racers. However most riders seemed aware that in mountain biking, "momentum is your friend," and spectators saw one after another stretched back over their seats to enjoy the flow.
Many racers had arrived Friday to pre-ride the courses, but even a lot of these had not tried out the Passion Play trails. On sections like the 8-foot drop for the A-line on Atonement Trail, it was obvious who skipped the pre-ride. As those cyclists approached the ledge of the drop they had no idea what lay ahead. It wasn't until reaching the very edge that they had a view of the landing.
Many riders locked up their brakes and came to a skidding stop or neatly steered onto the easier B-line.
Those who chose to send it off the ledge looked like poetry in motion as they instinctively bent knees and extended elbows to shift their rear end back behind the saddle and gracefully sail 12 to 15 feet down the hill — accompanied by a musical score of cowbells and cheers.
BikeNWA is not merely interested in attracting people to trails, Kozark said. Cycling can provide an economic boost to the communities around the trails and improve quality of life for residents.
"Large scale events like this work to showcase the diverse trails and incredible communities that we have here in Arkansas," she said.
On my drives into downtown Eureka Springs during the event, whenever I saw "MTB" inserted in a business' customary "Welcome Bikers" sign, I thought: Mission accomplished.
Bob Robinson is the author of Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail, Bicycling Guide to Route 66 and Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail (spiritscreek.com).
Style on 06/10/2019
Print Headline: Eureka!