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story.lead_photo.caption Andy Chasteen of Oklahoma City, Will Stoffel of Bentonville, Sam Pickman of Little Rock and Austin Morris of Fayetteville break from the pack after topping the first climb Feb. 23, during the Hazel Valley Gran Prix in the Ozark Mountains. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/NANCY RANEY)

Looking for a challenge? How about bicycling 55 miles on gravel roads through scenic Ozark Mountains — more than 6,600 feet of climbing, and with several climbs requiring almost 30 minutes to complete.

Sound tough enough? No? Add in Mother Nature's weather whims: Let's say rain — steady and cold.

Throw on some mud.

If that's your idea of fun, then put the Hazel Valley Gran Prix on your calendar for February 2020.

And you might want to start training for it now, so you have some hope of being ready.

Like many cyclists in Northwest Arkansas, I had heard tales of the Hazel Valley Gran Prix that's staged by Ozark Cycling Adventures at Hazel Valley Ranch, 16330 Olive Road in Fayetteville. Always I found an excuse, or rather, something always came up so that I was unable to participate. But I decided 2019 would be the year.

This type of bicycling event is called a "gravel grinder." Although people have been riding bikes on gravel or dirt roads since the German forester Baron Karl von Drais first sat astride his "Draisine" invention in 1817, "gravel riding is one of the fastest-growing styles of cycling," according to Bicycling magazine.

Gravel grinding was new to me, so I had a decision to make: What bicycle should I ride?

I had taken two of the four bikes I already owned on gravel roads, but they aren't the most efficient. Even though I told myself the Gran Prix is not a race, and someone has to finish last, I didn't want to be that person who finished last.

Ask most bicyclists how many bikes a person should own, and you'll hear: X + 1 = number of bikes to own, where X = the number of bikes you currently own.

As with any sport, I soon discovered there is no ceiling on how much you can spend on a gravel bike. I also learned there are a lot of choices: skinny smooth tires or wide knobbies? Rigid frame or suspension? Fork shocks or stem shock? Drop handlebars or straight? This is the age of specialty equipment. It can get complicated.

I was sure that I would get a lot of use out of a gravel bike, because a lot of my friends are getting into the sport. And I truly believe any money spent on equipment that encourages me to exercise is money well spent. But I do have my limits.

After shopping around and deciding I couldn't justify spending big bucks for a specialty bike, I described the type of bicycle I was looking for on my Facebook page. Friends quickly provided a range of options. I settled on a used mountain bike with front suspension, somewhat narrow and small but knobby tires, a lightweight aluminum frame and straight handlebars.

It worked just fine.

LET THE "FUN" BEGIN

When Feb. 23 finally dawned after a night of steady rain, temperatures were in the low 40s as I pedalled to the starting line. Light rain beaded on my helmet and trickled down my face. Not the best of conditions, but in the middle of February, it could be a lot worse.

Riding up the ranch driveway, I was impressed by the facility Wayne and Gina Hudec have built. I knew it was used for weddings, reunions and other events, but I was not expecting the 5,000-square-foot, native stone lodge, complete with an inviting "Buffalo" saloon with rough-cut cedar walls and rustic cowboy decor.

Gallery: Hazel Valley Gran Prix

Wayne Hudec and several of his cycling buddies founded the Gran Prix while Hazel Valley was still a working ranch, about eight years ago. They developed the route while prepping for the 24 Hours of Moab race in Moab, Utah — a famously difficult event. Since Hudec's property in the heart of the Ozarks is surrounded by miles of gravel roads, their training rides all started at his place.

Their regular route from the ranch to outstanding views atop White Mountain was such an epic adventure it inspired Hudec to share it by hosting the Hazel Valley Gran Prix to promote bicycling in the region.

But transforming his ranch into a fully functioning event center consumed his time, and after four years of conducting the Gran Prix, Hudec passed the baton to Robin Grunnagle, owner of Ozark Cycling Adventures.

"I took over the Hazel Valley Gran Prix because it was a perfect fit for Ozark Cycling Adventures because OCA is all about showcasing the beauty of the Ozarks," Grunnagle said.

MUDDERS

Following the obligatory group photo, 120 cyclists rolled down the narrow lane, anticipation so high that we didn't even notice the light drizzle had progressed into a steady rainfall. One learns to tolerate such conditions after miles of training in a "typical" Arkansas January or February. Besides, the weather did not matter at that stage of excitement: The day had finally arrived, and I was riding in my first Hazel Valley Gran Prix.

The group remained bunched together during the initial miles, packing all the space between ditches that bordered the muddy rural road. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who, caught up in the spirit of the moment, maintained a foolishly fast pace considering the miles still ahead.

Even though I didn't believe it at the time, reaching the base of the first steep climb was actually a blessing in disguise. It was well disguised. As the true "class" riders continued to crank out a steady cadence driving hard up the 20 percent grade, we mere mortals were forced down to a more sustainable pace, one we could maintain without collapsing at the summit.

Although this was not one of the longer climbs of the day, I had been told it was the steepest. The grade, along with recently dumped, loose gravel and muddy sections, had some riders progressing so slowly it was dismount and walk their bikes or topple over.

After topping the climb the road leveled out, but with the mucky, rain-soaked clay clinging to our tires and refusing to let go, it wasn't an easy ride.

But with the first nasty climb behind us, several in my group were laughing and teasing one another. After wiping caked mud from around his mouth, one rider joked, "The things we do for fun."

The rain finally stopped, but the air was damp as we penetrated lingering, dense, low-hanging clouds. Riding through the forest in this thick shroud of haze, I had visions of Tolkien's mystical Middle-earth. The shadowy figures hunched over their handlebars around me easily fit my vision of prowling Halflings.

I was quickly snapped from this reverie as my speed began to intensify. Ahead lay a 5-mile screaming descent. My knobby tires began slinging mud in my face, forcing me to lower my stained glasses and peer over their tops.

Yes, I thought to myself, this made the trudge up the previous climb all worthwhile.

ANOTHER WORLD

The weather was entirely different on the southern side of the mountain. There had been no rain, and the gravel was pretty much dry. As we peddled across somewhat level terrain, the pack of cyclists I was with were busily chatting away, enjoying the scenery.

Several paused to take pictures of a cascading waterfall alongside the road, and others stopped to check out the Stonehenge-like gateway into a cow pasture. Then came another long 4-mile climb, with grades surpassing 20 percent. So much for my information that the first climb was the steepest.

But it was all good because I knew I could trust Isaac Newton and his claim, "What goes up must come down."

More ups and downs, and then one final, long ascent to White Rock Recreation Area. Here cyclists were greeted with much-needed snacks, drinks and one of the more expansive mountaintop views in the state.

ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE

At least that was what my friends had told me.

However, following a short, fun descent out of the lookout rest stop, I was soon in my lowest gear once again.

I almost snapped off the shifter lever with my thumb searching for an even easier gear, as my tired legs struggled to keep the bike inching forward up yet another monster grade.

However, following this climb, the remaining 20 miles threw only a few kickers in our path, and they were brief. We were pretty much cruising across open ridgetops, with views for miles in both directions.

Other than a few more-than-30-mph gusting crosswinds — which had me bent forward with my chin over my handlebars, fighting to stay out of the muddy ditches — it was an enjoyable return ride to the ranch.

August Bailey of Bentonville took a little mud in the face Feb. 23. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/NANCY RANEY)
August Bailey of Bentonville took a little mud in the face Feb. 23. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/NANCY RANEY)

As I pedaled up the knoll to Gina Hudec's cow bell greeting and cheers from those riders who had already finished, all was well with the world once again.

After receiving my much-sought souvenir Hazel Valley Gran Prix silver flask and then wolfing a bowl of hot homemade chili, and washing it down with an adult beverage, any bad thoughts I had possessed during the ride had been forgotten.

GOOD THOUGHTS

The Gran Prix truly was a challenge — one I plan to add to my calendar annually. Training will motivate me to continue to ride my bicycle during the winter.

And the lodge was so nice, it almost made me want to get married, so I would have an excuse to rent the facility. Then I remembered Hudec will rent it for friendly gatherings, too. I could use it as training base camp for next year's Gran Prix. In the long term, the base camp idea would be way less expensive.

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 03/11/2019

Print Headline: PHOTOS: 55 miles of scenic mud and Ozark inclines put bike riders to the test

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