Scotti Lechuga was sitting in Oak’s general store eagerly awaiting her order when the familiar chime of her phone rang. She had been cycling on muddy gravel roads in the cold and pouring rain for the past eight hours. She was more interested in hot food than an incoming text.
A large pile of pancakes, eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee, or just about whatever was on the menu, was spread out on the table in front of her.
Yes, the journey had been long and tiring. An equally exhausting journey awaited him before the end of his day. His hope was that this abundance of calories would help him keep putting on the miles to the finish.
Chewing on a slice of bacon and cutting into a pancake, she pulled the phone out of her jacket pocket, then pulled it out of its waterproof pouch. The text was from her husband, Ernie.
” Congratulation ! You are the new leader of the Arkansaw High Country Race!
The race uses the Arkansas High Country Route, a 1,200-mile biking adventure on a mix of rural paved and gravel roads that totals over 80,000 feet of climbing. Traversing the Buffalo National River Corridor, the Arkansas River Valley, the Ozark and Ouachita Mountain Ranges, it has become a popular bike tour for cyclists nationwide.
Chuck Campbell of Russellville came up with the idea for the route in 2015. Going through the catalog of cycling maps produced by the Adventure Cycling Association, he spotted a gaping hole where there was no route. To his surprise, that void turned out to be Arkansas.
Campbell contacted the association about creating a route in the state. They asked him to mark his proposed route on a road map for them to review. Impressed with the plan, Adventure Cycling then posted the route on its blog, to gauge potential interest. The response was explosive.
One of those whose interest was piqued was Gary Vernon, program officer at the Walton Family Foundation. The foundation provided a $100,000 grant to the Parks and Recreation Foundation of Arkansas to map out the route and make it a reality.
The gap in Adventure Cycling’s maps has been filled. The association now publishes waterproof maps for the route, digital GPX packages, and also offers tours (see arkansasonline.com/1115route.)
Cyclists being cyclists, it wasn’t long before they started traveling all over the country to Arkansas in a bid to own the bragging rights of “the most famous era”. In 2019, the first Arkansaw High Country Race started and ended in Little Rock; this time the riders started on October 9 from Fayetteville. In 2022 and 2023, the race will be held in Hot Springs (see arkansasonline.com/1115HS).
THE PATH TO VICTORY
Lechuga, born in North Carolina, has been athletic throughout her life, doing trail running and cross country in high school. The run earned him a scholarship to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. After numerous running injuries in college, she left the program to pursue an artistic interest.
In 2008, realizing that she missed the sport, she climbed on an old bike she had pulled out of a garage corner.
When road cycling proved less damaging to her body than running, she stepped up her training to rack up mega miles. The high mileage and harsh conditions took their toll on his inexpensive hybrid bike.
Dealing with near-constant repairs, she became a regular at Chainwheel in Little Rock. She met a friendly mechanic at the bike shop named Ernie, who started providing advice on cycling and eventually became her husband.
Ernie grew up on a bike, racing professionally for teams such as Defeet and Jelly Belly. He finished his professional cycling in 2004 and went to work for Orbea, then headquartered in North Little Rock.
After the birth of their twins, Eli and Ethan, in 2011, he helped Scotti enter the world of professional road bike racing, including several years of racing in Europe. The duo now enjoy competing in ultra-off-road endurance competitions. In 2019, for example, they won the pairs split in a 1,056-mile slog through mountainous Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.
They have competed in two previous High Country Race events as a duo, each time setting best known times (BKT) in the category. In 2021, they have decided to compete solo.
Solo racing was a new experience for Scotti. She had to support herself. No collapsed vehicle. No food/equipment/water caches. However, riders are allowed to use services available to everyone, such as bicycle repair shops, accommodation and restaurants.
BACK TO RACING
The High Country Race attracts amateur and professional endurance cyclists from across the country, with riders hailing from as far away as Connecticut. Lechuga’s goals were to push his limits and finish the race, without thinking about winning.
At the start, she traded the lead position with two male competitors. As the days went by, it settled into a solid third position. She realized that the guys in front of her were stronger than her, but she believes in female endurance.
For her, racing was all about making decisions that would set her up to finish strong. She was always problem solving, thinking two steps ahead to prepare for the obstacles ahead and what to do to prepare for success.
This strategy paid off on the last night of his run. Seeing a storm approaching, she chose to sleep four hours in a motel in Russellville, avoiding the worst of the lightning. Refreshed from her longest break in the race, she was better prepared to face the difficult and wet conditions left by the storm.
When Rogers’ Josh Allen pulled out of the race on Day 4 with serious saddle injuries, Lechuga dropped to second place. During that big breakfast in Oark, Ernie’s message informed him that Spencer Ralston of Hebron, Connecticut had scratched due to mechanical problems and fear of being struck by lightning. Lechuga found herself leading the race with only 80 miles to go.
But she had competed in enough ultra-endurance events to know that victory was far from guaranteed. There had been 17 consecutive hours of rain. The ascent of White Rock Mountain remained to be done. Those rain-soaked gravel roads would smear like peanut butter, sucking up his tires with every stroke. In addition, his equipment and his body were worn out.
She kept going, however, and after five days, 10 hours and 49 minutes, she was the first runner up the final hill and onto the historic square in downtown Fayetteville. She finished almost two days faster than the previous BKT, set in 2020 by Ashley Carelock (see arkansasonline.com/1115win).
In addition to their races, the Lechugas opened Natural State Rock & Republic in February, at the historic Magnolia Garden estate at 500 N. Main St. in Springdale. They offer cycling retreats, overnight stays, tours and cycling clinics. The 10-bedroom home also includes a gallery of Arkansas artists.
NOT JUST FOR RACING
Arkansas’ High Country Route isn’t just for ultra-endurance runners. Using three interlocking loops to connect many of Arkansas’ most scenic natural areas, it’s perfect for most riders to customize their own outdoor adventure.
Recently, I invited several cycling friends to join me on a five-day tour that I mapped out on the central loop of the route. He took us through the Ozark Mountains and the National Buffalo River area.
Adventure Cycling’s paper map is a great introduction to the route, illustrating the route and including step-by-step directions, as well as towns, campsites, accommodations, restaurants, bike shops and other points of interest. interest.
As we pedaled along our adventure, the association’s GPX Data app proved more helpful. It provides the features mentioned above and your navigation location as you progress along the route. All runner has to do is follow the blue waypoint.
At the start of our ride, we began the first of many long, relentless, and messy climbs that all riders have endured climbing steep mountainsides on cold mornings.
High Country is a very hilly road. It seems like you are always going up or down. I constantly reminded myself that as soon as I reached the top, the elevation would reward me with sweeping views of the surrounding hollows and distant mountain peaks.
As we cycled along a gravel road north of Hagarville, we noticed a point of interest on the map that was worth checking out. We looked down the mountainside through colorful fall foliage and saw a towering rock formation known as the Arkansas Sphinx. Just wonderful.
At the end of a day of over 50 miles and at over 5,200 feet, our weary group cycled to the Oark General Store for a well deserved thick and juicy burger, fries and a craft beer.
With our support vehicle carrying our gear, we continued another five miles up Arbaugh Mountain Road. We pitched our tents in an inviting clearing, lay around a warm campfire, and enjoyed more adult beverages while sharing experiences from the first day of our Arkansas High Country Route adventure.
Each day offered unique experiences. We stopped to enjoy a hike to Hawksbill Crag, passed a series of beautiful waterfalls along Falling Water Road in the Richland Creek Wilderness Area, and saw many other scenic natural wonders.
At the end of our daily jaunts, we rewarded ourselves with a hearty meal to fuel the day of driving ahead. Then, gathered around a roaring campfire with adult beverages, we reflected on the day’s adventures.
Good memories. Once again, I was grateful to live in the natural state.
Gallery: Arkansas High Country Adventure