The half-mast flag outside the youth center lay still on its chrome pole, the lazy breezes having little affect on the stars and stripes today. The sun was hard at work warming the morning from 35 to 65, the racers hard at work prepping their two-wheeled companions.
Harrison, AR is a picturesque little Ozark town, a small river through the middle of the city, 250 foot hills on all sides. Another spectacular two day weekend was just getting started. With my air topped off and one last FRS energy shot down the hatch, my race was underway.
The Tour de Hills road race was aptly named. The 58 mile course had two 800 ft climbs and rolling hills throughout. It didn't take too long for the elevation to break up the peloton. The snaking roads of the second ten miles was hilly enough to drop half the pack. I took several turns pulling up, over, down and around the wildflower-covered hillsides and occasional splashings of a mountain river.
A group of about 10 of us led when we hit the town of Jasper, the start of the first major climb up Mt Sherman. Not knowing any of these other cyclists before today, I was hoping the stairways to heaven would work to my advantage. I set the pace for a good portion of this climb, though a couple others tried to do me one better, surging once and a while before I pulled them in again.
After a water bottle hand off at the top we made our way to the first big descent, seven of us remaining in the lead group. Multiple road signs warned of "Sharp, steep turns," the black on yellow lettering warning of 15mph turning speeds. The first couple corners were tight but didn't cause too much trouble. The trend didn't hold. A guy infront of me slowed to navigate the next bend and I didn't realize it until a moment too late. The loose gravel patch on the road didn't help either. Without thinking, I locked up my rear wheel and went full on Tokyo drift around the courner, only a short guard rail between me and the mountian side of death. The speed sensor on one of my rear spokes even registered that the wheel had stopped turning. I'm convinced an Invisible Force kept me from spilling all over the green slopes. The guy behind me saw everything and mentioned how good a save it was.
The rest of the descent was slow and steady and I ended up 200m behind our dwindling group. The scenic strip of road through Ponca would have otherwise been a nice area to spin around at a relaxing pace, checking out the recreational rafting, canoing, and fishing venues filled with outdoor enthusiats, but I had to catch up. The next ascent was just ahead.
Again, I found myself taking point and setting the pace up Pruitt. About a third of the way up the climb, a guy rolled up next to me asking if I could hold the lead with him for the remainder of the race. I looked back and realized I just dropped 5 more people.
Once we reached the crest, the guys behind us were out of sight and wouldn't be seen again until after we finished.
We worked well together and made good time for the last 40k. Most of the day's 5600 ft of climbing was behind us. At one point my front derailleur started acting up and was throwing my chain onto my crank so I had to be very careful with my gear shifts. This ended up being my last ride with that old chain.
With about 2 miles left, the dude took off and I didn't have the power at the time to catch up. I wouldn't let him have it easy but he took first while I slid on in with a rewarding second.