A few years ago, a buddy of mine called me up on a Friday night around 5pm and told me he had a few questions to ask about a training ride that he was planning on doing the next day. He was training for the Leadville 100 MTB and was heading to Mena, Arkansas with a friend of his. He wanted to know the details on riding the Talimena Scenic Byway that I had ridden several times before while training for the Hawaii Ironman. Believe it or not, true to the athlete that I am, I had my bachelor party there as I was going to get married a few weeks before the 2003 Hawaii Ironman. It wasn’t the ideal place for a bachelor party but the riding there is the best you can find within a 4 hour drive from Dallas. Yes, even better than Austin and the Texas Hill Country.
A little about the ride
It’s a 56-mile ride (one way) that goes between the towns of Talihina, OK and Mena, AR. Doing the ride from Mena to Talihina and back is 112 miles with several thousand feet of climbing.
The Talimena National Scenic Byway or, for short, Talimena Drive extends west to east along the ridgeline of the Winding Stair Mountain and Rich Mountain in southeastern Oklahoma. These are the highest point in elevation between the Appalachians and the Rockies. These fifty miles are filled with sharp curves and 13% grades extending from Talihina, Oklahoma on the west end to Mena, Arkansas on the west end. There are several vistas that overlook the valleys to the north and south as well as picnic grounds along the route as well. Some of the most breathtaking scenery in Oklahoma can be found along this drive.
The questions that my friend asked that Friday night were:
where are the rest stops?
Well, after hearing his questions I started to think he might be a little over his head as it’s 112 miles, extremely hilly and there really aren’t any rest stops since it’s a National Scenic Byway.
I told him that I thought he was going to die without some guidance and told him I would ask my wife (this was after I was married) if I could join them. She said yes, so I got my gear packed and headed off to Mena, AR. I got there about 10 or 11pm and went straight to bed as I knew it would be an early start… or so I thought.
Morning of the Ride
On Saturday morning I was up and ready to ride (helmet and gloves on and tires pumped up) by about 7am when the sun was just coming up. I looked over at Dave and Randall and didn’t see any movement. I asked them when they wanted to head out to ride and they grumbled something about sleeping in and then getting some breakfast. Okay, I guess we can ride into town for breakfast before we get started riding. A few hours later they are ready to go grab breakfast but for some reason, I am the only one in my cycling clothes. They wanted to drive into town and get breakfast… not ride into town like I was planning on.
10am – we make it out of the hotel and get onto the road and start the first climb. It’s a 14-mile doozy … not all straight uphill as there are some gradual downhills between the climbs but for the most part, it’s a suck all the air out of your lungs type climb. As Dave came by me on a downhill I was surprised by how fast he was descending. He looked like someone in a race trying to break away from a group on a decent as the course headed towards the finish line. He was flying… but then something looked a little strange. His front wheel started wobbling uncontrollably and at such a high speed it looked like he was going to be heading directly into the pavement as there was no way he could control that front wheel. I can’t remember if he screamed out loud or if that was my brain reacting to it but I can remember getting prepared to come to a stop and call the paramedics as it was going to be an ugly crash. Somehow, maybe by the hand of God, he was able to not go down and we soon caught up with him as he slowed to a stop. We were all visibly shaken by this incident and were worried that something was wrong with his bike and that it would come back and cause a crash later on. This ride that got off to a late start to begin with, had now averted tragedy and we were back on the road to the top of the climb.. we made it up Rich Mountain.
After taking some time to enjoy the vista and take some pictures we were back on our way. I don’t think that any of us noticed what time it was.. but it was already approaching noon before we got back riding and we were only 14 miles into a 112-mile ride. A non-hilly 100-mile ride takes good cyclists about 5 – 6 hours if you are moving at a pretty good pace. So having about 100 miles to go on an extremely hilly course would take us much more than 6 hours… with a sunset around 8:30pm… we had no time to waste.
Walking the Hills
Logic says that when you are on a bike, you probably shouldn’t be doing much walking during your ride. However, when you are riding a course where 13 % grade signs are seen at several points in the ride, you know you are in for some serious hills. Yes, we each walked up a number of hills…. and probably spent a few minutes at the top of each hill to catch our breath. This was becoming one of those rides that you began to focus more on survival than getting in a good training ride. We were beat up pretty good when we came to our turnaround at mile 56…. looking at my watch I expected to see 3 or 4pm giving us at least 4 or 5 hours to ride back by the time the sunset around 8:30pm. I didn’t expect to see 5pm. With the number of stops we made and the necessity of walking up a number of hills… we were simply running out of daylight.
With the sun setting in a few hours and knowing that it took us that long to get half way through the ride, we had two choices. Choice one, the most dangerous was riding along the valley road (relatively flat) with no front or rear lights. Choice two, pull out the debit card and find a hotel and ride back the next day. Despite some of the crazy things I have done in training while getting ready for an event, riding 56 miles in the dark in the middle of Arkansas wasn’t going to be one of the crazy things that I wanted to add to that list. So choice two it was… find a hotel and stay the night.
The Only Hotel in Town
One of the easiest choices that day was where to stay. I believe there was one hotel in Talihina, Oklahoma so I guess that’s where we needed to stay. The next thing we needed to do was shower…. oh, and find some clothes to wear since we didn’t want to hang out in our smelly cycling clothes all night. So we hopped back on the bikes and road to the Dollar Store. Yep… it was time to find a wardrobe one dollar at a time. Luckily, not everything was a dollar and we were able to each get a pair of full-length pajama pants, a package of “wife beater” t-shirts and flip flops. We also found some great Dollar Store snacks as well. We were living large!
The Worst Time
Why is it when you come upon a stray pack of dogs while on a bike you are either on a hill or have something else going on to make it easier for the dogs to chase you down? In this case, we each had a sack full of Dollar Store goodies and that German Shepard had it’s eyes and teeth set on my left calf muscle for dinner. Luckily, I was able to swing my Dollar Store treat bag at the dog quickly enough to ruin it’s dinner plans. Well, he then moved on to the next cyclist in line and almost got one of my buddies. We made it back to the hotel room in one piece and soon figured out that after we took our showers that Dollar Store treats wouldn’t cut it for dinner after some hard riding.
Saturday Night in Talihina, Oklahoma
Imagine the scene as we walked into the only restaurant in Talihina, Oklahoma on a Saturday night during their weekly hoedown… three guys dressed in white sleeveless t-shirts, with pink, yellow and orange neon flip flops and cut-off pajama bottoms. Yes, the music literally stopped and everyone focused their attention on what just walked in. The waitress let out a chuckle under her breath and found a nice little corner for us to shirk into. I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life. But the fact that we were able to figure out what to do when an obstacle presented itself made me feel as though I had conquered something that day.
The Race Back
So the next morning….. I was the one that slept in a little bit as my friends had helmets fastened and bike shoes on and ready to go. I don’t think they wanted a repeat of the long day in the saddle we had just had. When we were talking about the route back and some of the hills we had to climb someone made a joke that I could ride on the scenic byway the way we came while they rode the valley road and I would still beat them back. What was that???? A challenge? Well, that’s how I heard it so the race was on. I was going to turn myself inside out just to try and beat them back. And I almost did.
Somehow the dedication of my two training buddies to go out to Mena, AR to train for Leadville must have affected me somehow as this weekend I will be doing the same. I’m also training for Leadville and I couldn’t think of a better place to go and train than this area of the country. The fact that its only 4 hours from Dallas and has low vehicular traffic makes it a prime place for cyclists to get in some hill training. Luckily, a few other guys who are training for Leadville are going their as well so I won’t be riding alone.
I’ll let you know how it goes but one thing is for sure… I know what I am in for and it’s going to be a brutal ride. I’m going to attempt to ride the 112 miles both days… if I can get back on my bike on Day 2. I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to be prepared for a race or any event is to train as hard or harder than the event itself. So by riding the 112-mile course, on back to back days, I might just get enough training in to finish the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race next month…. wish me luck, I’lll need it!