The long awaited finale to the Epic Rides series definitely delivered on the summer full of hype. The “Oz Trails” of Northern Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains didnt give up their secrets or their shred easily and treated riders to a master class in #BeastCoast style rocks and roots, with more than a touch of mayhem. Nestled in Bentonville Arkansas the Oz Trails are one of the fastest growing trail systems in North America. Hundreds of miles of singletrack are already available from within the downtown district of Bentonville, with pump-track style trail adjacent to the sidewalk for little rippers to pump their way to school. Its a truly remarkable scene with remarkably varied and fun singletrack options.
Arkansas’s setting in the deep south of the USA marked a departure for the Epic Rides team from their traditionally Mountain region events in Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. Professional athletes from all over the country would be in attendance drawn by the promise of double prize money from the other series races; raising the weekends total to 60,000USD and bringing the whole series up to the largest back-country mountain bike racing purse in history at over 160K. 10K to male and female winners with payout flowing down deeper than any other event on the Epic Rides calendar. With several faces new to the Epic Rides scene showing their muscle on Friday’s fat tire crit Sunday’s race was guaranteed to be spicy!
Arkansas’s Iron Mountain trails have been home to USAC MTB Marathon nationals for the past two years. Many professional riders were familiar with the roots and sharp rocks of the Ozark mountain trails. Smart riders put in plenty of NoTubes Race or similar sealant to protect and prevent race ruining punctures. Still smart and experienced riders ran slight meatier or flat protected tires in preparation for the sharp rocks of the Ozarks.
Saturday’s Amateur races saw excellent turnout but also more than a little precipitation. As rain began to fall regularly throughout the day the Ozark trails churned up even more exposed rock and moved sediment out of the trail. Bony trail became a buffet of rock breaks and exposed shelves.
Start line rain is not a common occurrence at the West coast biased Epic Rides Backcountry events. It seemed the #BeastCoast side of Mother Nature may have been a little bitter for the matter and blessed the start with heavily falling rain. The Men’s race set off with a powerful start out of downtown Bentonville and on to the famous “pump track sidewalk.” Surprise fat tire crit champion Bryan Lewis (Cutaway USA) was quickly on the right wheels; sitting 3rd and 4th through the pump track trail before turning into the “Back 40” Loop trail. All eyes were on the usual players as Keegan Swenson (Stan’s/Pivot), Howard Grotts (Specialized), Geoff Kabush (Yeti Cycles) and others played a tactical start to enter the neverending singletrack. However within the first hour the danger of the Oz trails became apparent. Between the rain and the traffic of the amateur races the previously “buff” trail became intensely sharp with hidden angular rocks becoming increasingly exposed. Its said that curses of pro riders can still be heard echoing through the forest as rider after rider suffered flat tires. Within the first hour it became quickly apparent that the day would be a matter of attrition.
The challenge would become one of who could hold air in their tires to the finish line. As one-by-one nearly every rider encountered flat after flat with some reporting as many as 6-8 flat encounters during the course of the race. Flats of all kind and such flats that ultimately couldn’t be resolved via plugs or race quality sealant. Boots and tubes; traditionally the realm of only the heartiest of back country riders would have been required equipment for the days riding. Alas race focus kept these back in the pits as riders sourced anything and everything just so they could ride to the finish line. Through the “Back 40” and on to the figure 8 of the “Ledges” trail it was Stan’s NoTubes/ Pivot Cycles rider Keegan Swenson who would win the challenge of attrition. Whether through tremendous skill and talent or sheer luck Swenson would finish the Oz trails with a totally clean race to complete his series with another win in the Epic Rides Series. Swenson completed his entire 4 race series aboard the Pivot Cycles LES hardtail with Stan’s Podium SRD wheels.
While he was absent from one event over the summer his showing throughout the year had been incredible with only Luke Vrouwenvelder (LukeV Coaching) and Howard Grotts (Specialized) seemingly able to hold him honest. A rough survey of the top 20 men had only 3 without race altering flats. Moving out to the entire field only 6 survived unscathed. Thunderstorms throughout the day exposed more and more rock and as riders felt the danger of flats grow they sought riskier or more creative lines; further increasing the risk of flats.
In the women’s the card deck was again stacked with the usual hitters and a welcome influx of new East Coast or Southern US talent. The group was split early by a massive attack by Erin Huck (CZ Racing) who broke off all but Sofia Gomez-Villafane (Stan’s/ Pivot). The chse group of 7 riders included Evelyn Dong (Spry Cycles, Stan’s) and Chloe Woodruff (Stan’s/ Pivot) as well as Catherine Pendrel (Clif Pro Team) and enoiugh firepower to bring Huck and Gomez-Villafane back; or so they hoped. After about 2 hours of racing the group caught a fading Gomez-Villafane but Huck was out of sight. Time gaps began to increase to Huck.
As the group entered The Ledges downhill for the second time on their course back towards the finish riders had separated into individual groups as the OZ rocks took their toll. Gomez-Villafane with a tire gash requiring a plug, others with similar issues. On The Ledges downhill Woodruff would encounter a substantial flat front tire. A 2 inch sidewall cut that would require work to resolve. Woodruff briefly considered remounting and rolled about 10 feet down the trail only to find Huck resolving a similar problem with her rear!
In Woodruff’s words: “We spent a very quick moment evaluating the situation (like both of us were going to be there for a while). It always sucks to flat out of contention. And I wasnt in the right headspace to even believe I had a shot at that point. So I gave Erin my rear wheel, she gave me hers and her tube and I was like; ‘go get IT!’ and she did. Sometimes luck is on our side. Sometimes it isnt. And sometimes theres a Karmic reshuffling of the stars and two inch-long sidewall tears turn into something pretty cool. Huck would catch a flying Catherine Pendrel and take the Win aboard Woodruff’s wheel. The two share a wheel sponsor in Stan’s NoTubes.
With the series wrapped it was Howard Grotts (Specialized) and Evelyn Dong (Spry Cycles) who would take the series win in the Epic Rides Offroad Series.
The Inagural Oz Trails Offroad was dedicated to Tim Scott. Scott is a 38 year old veteran of the Arkansas Park Service who welcomed mountain biking into the land management plan for the Arkansas parks system at a time when many other regions were banning or limiting mountain bike participation.