Buffalo Headwaters Challenge

“Some light rain overnight.”

The weather forecast leading up to the event had been horrible. So much so, that they had placed a post on FB, letting everyone know that they would make a final go/no-go decision on Wednesday by noon. Wednesday’s post arrives, and after consulting with the weather oracle, the decision was made to go ahead with the weekend of MTB shenanigans in Red Star, AR.

This year marked the 13th running of the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge, an entire weekend dedicated to mountain biking on the IMBA Epic designated  Upper Buffalo Trail System. The weekend is the annual membership gathering of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists (OORC), the local IMBA chapter that maintains the area, and starts off with a pasta dinner on Friday night, the Headwaters Challenge on Saturday, and then an enduro on Sunday (shuttled). Camping is allowed onsite, and this year there was a $40 festival ticket that was all-inclusive for the weekends food, drink, and entertainment. You must be a member of IMBA in one way or another to ride this event. If you’re a member of OORC, the ride is free, but if you’re a member of another chapter, there’s a $40 fee to become a “Friend of OORC.”

The weather forecast had greatly improved all week, calling for some light rain overnight and eventually clearing around dawn . We sat listening to the pre-ride instructions in some lingering misty drizzle, with temps in the mid 40’s. The instructions included some volunteer accolades and awards/prizes for volunteers of the year. This seemed to take an eternity in the cold, wet morning, and eventually I went off in search of a port-a-potty, and when I opened the door, the ride has just started, with the first dozen or so riders following the start car out onto the forest road.

I jump on the bike and roll-out with the leaders, only to find the forest road to be a nasty, muddy, water pooled mess. The first half mile the road was red clay, which showered everyone with a red spray, and stuck to tires if you ventured off the high lines. The mist and fog continued as we climbed up the road, and I was curious to see how we would find the early crux, which is a steep rocky climb on a jeep road as you turn off the forest road.

We make the right turn and can see people already walking in front of us. The climb is gnarly, with large exposed rock bands, and the mud making traction difficult. The wheel I’m following slides out, and I narrowly miss plowing into him. The first part of the hill levels out for a bit, and then it’s straight up again. More people are walking it, as I ride by happily choosing my own line, and finding the second part of the hill easier than the first. The hill eventually ends, and we ride a bit before being spit back out onto a forest road.

There’s a group of  8 of us rolling down the forest road. The road is a bit firmer than the previous one, but riddled with more standing water. We spread out to avoid the tire spray… and totally miss the green-arrowed sign that designates the full 40 mile route. We instead take the orange-arrowed one that takes us on the”Half Route,” which is shorter, only 28 miles. Unfortunately, we realize this after a long, sweeping downhill enduro section, that drops us down to Buffalo Creek. We stop, realize our error, and some decide to turn around, ride back up the hill and continue on the “Full” route.

Decision time: Do I want to ride the mile back up the steep hill into oncoming bike traffic in the misty, foggy air? Not no, but hell no. Having ridden this ride before, I know that all I’m missing is more forest road, with just a smidgen of singletrack. I’m more than happy to ride the half, and miss out on the helluva climb back up to the other route.

We split up and 2 other guys go with me. I drop them pretty quickly, as they stop to scout an easier (read:drier) line across a creek, and I just plow through it. Once again, having ridden this before, I know that keeping my feet dry isn’t going to happen. The course has you hop-scotching Buffalo Creek dozens of times. Some you’ll be able to wheelie across, others you’ll have to wade through and hike-a-bike.

There are now no tire tracks on the trail, and I realize that I’m obviously the lead rider. I would only see other riders at trail intersections, and I came across a couple of riders that had pulled the plug and were headed back. Having no one in front of me, the trail was in very good shape and not rutted up. The mist and the fog continued, robbing me of the views and sights that this trail provides. I pedaled on, crossing the creek every once in awhile. I had cursed all the creek crossings last year, but this year it was keeping the mud on my bike to a minimum, washing it off as I plowed through.

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Climb, descend. Climb, descend.

Wait a minute, I don’t remember this section? Right before being spit out onto a forest road, there was a section of new trail that rode like a creek bed. Rock after rock after rock. Pop-up the front wheel, pop-up the back wheel. I even had an audience of guys that knew that section was going to be tough. It wound up a small hill, and was by far the most technical spot of the whole ride. I eventually get out onto the fire road that will take me up to the fire tower, where hot dogs and bacon await. I stopped by some old farm implements and removed my rain jacket, as it was now clearing off and warming up finally.

I take the turn off the main forest road, and onto the crap climb up to the fire tower. I get to the top right at the 2 hour mark. I grab a hot dog, chat with the volunteers, and head out. The wind was whipping pretty good at the fire tower, and I didn’t want to hang out too long, as the last third of the ride is rather tough. I roll down to the next section of trail, the Forest Tower Trail. This is the section that everyone raves about, and it’s also where you can make up some time, or get in way over your head, depending on our skill level. It’s a 15 minute down hill that’s twisty, rolling, and bermed. You can let ‘er run as fast as you are willing to go. I was still alone and ahead of everyone else, so the trail was pristine. I can only imagine it became a goopy, greasy mess, after a couple of dozen riders tracked it out. The descent brings you back down to the creek, and you zig-zag your way across it again for a few miles. There’s a pretty good sized crossing here as well, where you’ll be forced to ford it on foot, as you can’t see the bottom very well. It’s knee deep here, but the temps have increased, and the cold water has no lasting effect on my feet (wool socks!).

I stop to take a few pics of the creek by a cliff band, and continue out to another forest road that is used as a high water bypass. This road is obviously suffering from some freeze/thaw issues, as the loamy road compresses and sinks several inches under my tires, and I curse a bit and pedal on. The next trail section (Bear View) is quite flat, and meanders around a few hills, bringing you back down to the creek for the last few miles to the finish. This is the Buffalo Creek Trail section, that has you crossing wide swaths of the creek, like crossings in excess of 15 feet. I get wet again, but I know this section of the trail and know that it’s almost all over.

The trail is an eroded and washed out mess from recent rains. There’s some ice formations in the shadows, and I pedal along, knowing that the last aid station is coming up. The aid station sits on the other side of the creek (of course) and the crossing is tricky and deep. I plunge across, have a beer with the volunteer, and notice that my crank arm is very, very loose. This is a blessing to realize, as the bolt is a 10mm… a size that my multi-tool doesn’t have. He tightens the bolt for me, and we talk about how bad it would of sucked to have to walk the final 2 miles.

I roll on, cross the creek 57 more times (it seemed like it), and grind up the last climb that’s a ball buster. I glance up and see the gate that signifies the end of the climb, and that the end is just a short 1/4 mile descent on pavement. I bomb the hill, hit the stop on my Garmin, and ride to registration to sign back in, letting them know that I’m present and accounted for.

Post ride, they serve grilled cheese and tomato soup. There’s about 7 different kegs flowing, and everyone hangs out around the fire telling stories of the days activities. This year, my buddy and I didn’t stick around. We headed back to civilization, and to stop at the Burger Barn, a little hole-in-the-wall place in a mountain town called Ozone. That my friends, was a damn good burger.

Notes:

This ride is remote. Bring everything to be self-sufficient, and maybe even be prepared to over night as you can get lost quickly. There are maps at every trail intersection, but that 3 mile ride back to a road, might take over an hour+.  There is no cell service of any kind. You can normally get a signal from the fire tower, but that’s about it. I wouldn’t ride these trails alone, there’s no easy way out.

Hotels are available 60 miles south in Clarksville, and 60 miles west in Fayetteville.

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