We are lucky enough to have two IMBA classic trails within an easy drive from our Competitive Cyclist headquarters. The Syllamo MTB trail system and the Womble Trail are both awesome places to ride and we are proud to have them. Each year, a number of events are held to showcase these resources. After torrential rainstorms battered the Ozark hills for a week, Syllamo’s Revenge was held. This is an event which takes in nearly every foot of the roughly 50 mile total of the Syllamo trails. In perfect conditions, it will test you. This year, Syllamo’s Revenge was a war.
A few of us drove north from Competitive Cyclist HQ at 4:30 in the morning with trepidation as rain lashed across the windshield, and lightning streaked the sky. As we neared Mountain View, the rain ceased and it looked as though the weather was going to give us a break. Syllamo’s draws folks from all over the country and is a destination event for many who’ve begun their racing careers in Arkansas but have followed their jobs elsewhere. It is a good excuse to take a long weekend to catch up with family and slip away for some spectacular racing. As such, we found ourselves slapping backs and shaking hands with old buddies we hadn’t seen in years.
Some of us were there for a first time and were eager to set a personal benchmark. Others…ahemm, were there as more of a social event and planned on meeting some friends and riding the 50 miles together. So there, in the throng assembled at Blanchard Springs Campground, our pilgrims were distilled into two complete and separate groups – some in the front and some in the back.
Now anyone who knows anything about mass start mountain bike racing knows that you race for the singletrack, no matter how far or what is in your way. Syllamo’s Revenge starts with a 1/8 mile paved lollygag before it turns right and explodes up a 3/4 mile double track hill with the singletrack waiting for you at the top. This writer can’t speak for what happened at the front, though he’s been there in previous years, but he can say that the back of the race was without a doubt a mess as it turned into the climb. The situation should be described as no less than a major clusterfuck. Visions of mayhem on the Koppenberg came to mind, although being caught in the thick of it all made it much less romantic.
Right then and there, the race became two distinctly different events. Those at the front race, and those in the back survive. While our front runners were hammering through the mire, our social team was caught between a rock and a hard place – the rock being the rock, and the hard place being the exhausting notion that we were stuck behind a sinuous clog of humanity. Confusion and the rigor of the climb split our social group again. This writer/rider waited at the top to enter the singletrack with at least one of his old riding buddies. As many people passed by, some saying ‘hi’ and others just huffing and puffing, it became obvious that we were in a different race than we’d previously known. It was the same trail, and we’d ridden in these conditions before, but not here…never at the back. Our old friend came up and we entered the first trail section together. We were quick to realize that the trail was in epic shape. Where it wasn’t impossibly rocky, it was muddy, reminiscent of a wintery day in the UK. Downed trees and sink holes served as painful reminders of the wrath of a recent ice storm. As such, our cyclocross skills were tested repeatedly. An untimely front tire blowout for our buddy, left us making a split decision -- wait and maintain that social connection or leave him for dead. Once a racer, always a racer -- the inner competitor made the decision to go on and try to catch our other friend before the first check point, 15 miles up the trail.
It was here that the distinction between the front and back of the race became painfully clear. We are now at the main point of all of this. The rabbits were up the trail, sweetly hammering away. We should have just curled up into our turtle shells on the side of the trail and taken a nap. Instead we were bent on making pass after pass on tight singletrack to get back into the race. It was an exhausting exercise -- mostly mental. It was our fault. We should’ve raced from the gun. We know what we like and we deviated from the script. We blew up anyway, but at least we’d have done it our way.
As it was, we were in the back trying to race through the survivors. In trying to avoid pissing anyone off who may read this, we want to say first that anyone who did survive that day was a hero. The attrition rate was astounding, considering that the weather and temperature for the race itself was absolutely perfect. We simply came to a sobering conclusion that we like to be up front more than we like to be at the back. The experience of riding with folks at the same level of fitness and with similar technical skills as ours is easier on the brain. On a day like that -- it is an important part of the recipe for success. There were many folks there that day who were stretched to their limit to get through each section of trail, whether on the bike or off. The look on everyone’s faces at each checkpoint was a mix of uncertainty and determination. As the day wore on, exhaustion and frustration took its toll on the majority.
We never did catch our other friend. Someone there at the first checkpoint said that we closed to within 5 minutes. It took another 45 minutes for our flat-tire buddy to get there. We tried valiantly to talk him into bailing and riding back to the campground, but as a first-timer, he wasn’t going to give up. We called him an ‘Oak’ for not swaying to our coercion and wished him well. We had plenty of time for reflection as the easy ride back to the truck took about 45 minutes. Should we still be out there waging war against the mud? Were we sissies for bailing? Heck no to both, we got a good workout and our bodies and bikes were still fully functional. We’d just go soak up the sun and revel in the glory of the first few finishers. A burger sounded awfully good, too.
In the end, we were disappointed and for a few good reasons. Our preparation for the event was much too casual, and our positioning at the start was ridiculous to say the least. We are hares. We need to remember that the next time we line up. Tortoises have their style and we have ours, and it’s tough to mix the two. As for our first time buddy, he was slow as shit. His finish time was one second under nine hours, but major props to him for gutting it out. All we can think about is how we can’t wait to see him again and shake his weathered, manly hand.