I've heard it's sometimes baffling why people run marathons, compete in Ironmans, ride centuries, or participate in a host of other endurance type events. If it's painful or difficult or not at all "fun", why do people subject themselves to suffering and misery? The Hazel Valley 100, which took place this past weekend at Hazel Valley Ranch, is one such example. Even moreso, as there is no prize money, no press releases, or any sort of official recognition of the accomplishment.
The Hazel Valley 100 could be considered the bigger and badder version of the White Rock Classic which takes place in the spring. The White Rock Classic is a 50-miler out-and-back mountain bike gravel grinder from Hazel Valley Ranch to the top of White Rock Mountain. The Hazel Valley 100 does that exact same route, except it adds an additional 50-miles from White Rock Mountain to Turner Bend and back. It has an estimated 12,000+ feet of climbing and is not for the faint of heart or weak of legs. To add an additional degree of difficulty, this year's Hazel Valley 100 would start at night so riders would have to ride a good portion of the course in the dark. The course was described as extremely tough, brutal and challenging. Only the fittest of the fit and the toughest of the tough need to enter this event.
Seeing as how Hazel Valley Ranch is one of my most favoritest places to visit in Arkansas, I jumped at the opportunity to go up with my family to cover the event as an emissary for ArkansasOutside.com. Roger Rains, the ranch manager, tried to entice me to do part of the ride as a 2-person team, but seeing as how I struggled mightily during the Hazel Valley Gran Prix a few weeks ago (and this would be an even tougher ride), I respectfully declined, knowing full well the limits of my fitness. Nosiree Bob, I was content to play journalist this time around, and helping Roger with providing support in the SAG vehicle.
When we arrived at Hazel Valley Ranch Friday evening, the temperature had dropped to the lower 50s, and there was a steady rain coming down. I asked Roger if the event was still on. He replied, "as long as there are riders to ride, we will do whatever it takes for however long it takes to keep the event going." I admired his spirit. The start was originally set for 9pm that night, and by 8pm, we only had 2 potential riders show up out of 12 or so that had committed to the event. Looks like the cold and wet had kept the majority of the would-be participants at home.
Roger held a pre-race meeting with the two riders who had showed up - Nickel Potter, the defending Hazel Valley Gran Prix champion (I know this is correct this time, Gerald), and Nick Clausen(sp?), one of the Friends of Hazel Valley Ranch. A decision had to be made - start the race at the pre-appointed time of 9pm no matter what, or delay the start of the race until the rain had stopped. Nickel was ready to go. He was ready to go right then if he had to. He had outfitted his cyclocross bike with 700x45 tires, had rain gear on, a plethora of lights, and enough sustenance to last him the entire ride. On the other hand, Nick wasn't so sure. He hadn't planned for the rain so he wasn't prepared to do a ride in the cold and wet. Roger said he'd hook him up with some gear if he still wanted to ride or he would even delay the start until the rain stopped but Nick decided the warmth of the lodge and the freely flowing beer on tap was a much better alternative. Not that I blame him.
Nickel set off promptly at 9:18pm. I was so occupied trying to get ready to do support in the SAG vehicle that I didn't even get to see him when he set off. Roger and I soon got the SAG vehicle loaded up and we set off on the course to find Nickel. In addition to the steady rain, a good portion of the route was shrouded in fog, as the lights from the truck struggled to illuminate the road ahead. At times, the visibility was near zero, and I was glad Roger was driving as he was intimately familiar with the back roads. I'm sure if I was driving, I would have driven us off the side of the mountain (or close to it) numerous times.
The conditions couldn't have been much worse, in my opinion, and my respect for Nickel grew with every passing minute. I mean, seriously, one has to admire his resolve in attempting the ride with no other competitors, no prize money, no trophy, no glory other than whatever he takes away from the ride. We finally caught up to him somewhere on the first big climb, his taillight barely visible through the thick fog and rain. As we passed him, we asked him how he was doing and if he needed anything. He gave us a thumbs up and looked to be in decent spirits.
We drove up ahead to where he'd be making the turn onto Hurricane Creek Road, and we set up "camp" there to wait for him. By this time, the rain had stopped so we felt that would help Nickel's morale. Roger managed to get his propane stove lit and made himself a double shot of hot chocolate while we waited. We shared war stories of the various places we had raced or ridden and took the opportunity to get some "bro" time in. After a while, Nickel passed us and it looked like he had shed his rain gear. He zoomed by without even a thought of stopping. If the rain stayed away, it would definitely improve his chances of finishing the ride.
We stayed put a while longer, then packed everything up and set off to find Nickel once again. The better conditions were not to be, and the rain picked back up once again. It was now bitterly cold and the rain didn't help. When we finally found Nickel again on the climb up to White Rock Mountain, he stopped to get his rain gear on. We drove slowly behind as he climbed steadily. Eventually we met up with him at the turnaround at White Rock, and his face had the look of defeat all over it.
He said, "you know, I'm not having as much fun anymore, so if you don't mind, I'm going to jump in the truck." The time was 12:18am. He had made it the 30 miles to White Rock in exactly 3 hours, not bad considering the conditions and limited visibility. We would have been more than happy to continue to support him had he continued, but I think the rain had dampened his spirits and the warm lodge and cold beer back at Hazel Valley was beckoning. Nickel's excuse was that he felt bad for us being out there supporting only him, and he didn't want to keep us up all night. Whatever, Nickel, you still rode 30 miles more than anyone else and he was declared the 2013 HVR 100 champion. (Author's note: Please excuse the lack of photos during Nickel's EPIC ride - I didn't want to use the camera flash for fear of blinding Nickel and sending him plummeting off the mountain.)
The rest of the weekend was perfect - perfect weather, perfect company, perfect food. We spent a leisurely Saturday lounging around the lodge, taking a tour of Terra Studios (an art center just down the road from Hazel Valley Ranch), and getting some singletrack mountain biking in. The highlight of Saturday was playing some makeshift bicycle (and on-foot) broom ball. With a ball made from plastic bags and duct tape, goals made from surveying flagging, and a bunch of brooms dug up from the garage, we engaged in some free-for-all broom ball on bikes which resulted in everyone playing having a grand 'ol time. I can say everyone playing was laughing giddily at one point or another. Everything was sort of cobbled together at the last minute, but Roger assured me that broom ball will be improved upon for the future. The kids got to feed the buffalo, cook s'mores over the buffalo gas fireplace, and just in general act like a bunch of kids having a great time playing with each other, or was that the adults? We had a bonfire Saturday night which warmed the cold night air, and we just enjoyed each others company.
One has to wonder why Nickel attempted a solo effort in such horrible conditions? I think it's because we truly don't know what we're made of or what potential we have or what we can accomplish unless we put ourselves to the test and take our bodies to the very limits. It's only in these situations where our physical soul is laid bare and we discover that we can go just a little bit further, go just a bit faster, or endure a bit longer than what we thought we could achieve. Or in Nickel's case, maybe he was just bored and needed another challenge? In any case, congrats to Nickel for his perseverance and effort when no one else was up to the task. Nickel Potter, you ARE the fittest of the fit and toughest of the tough.
As always, the environs and hospitality at Hazel Valley Ranch is top notch, and a huge thanks goes out to Roger Rains and the staff for keeping the beer flowing and putting us up for the weekend. We had yet another fun and memorable weekend. Here's to hoping the weather gods smile more favorably on Hazel Valley Ranch for next year's Hazel Valley 100.