The United States has long been a nation with a pioneering spirit, which seeks out the unknown and the road less traveled. The National Road, the first federally funded road in the U.S., began construction in 1811 with the goal of unifying the original colonies with the new western settlements. It expanded and eventually merged with US 40 before fizzling as it was supplanted, like so many roads, by the Interstate highway system.
During the 1950s, people measured progress with pavement. It was newsworthy when a town’s roads were converted from gravel or dirt to concrete or asphalt. The postwar era was characterized by a booming economy and a taming of the rugged edges of our built landscape. Rural kids lamented riding their bikes on rough agricultural roads, school bus stops often only went as far as the pavement, and parents couldn’t wait until the pavement came to their town so they didn’t have to get dust on the family automobile.
To this day, the Ozarks have an intricate network of unpaved roadways. Between the National Forest and low-traffic county roads, the paths to many of our favorite spots are still loosely marked with dirt and gravel, subject to seasonal flooding, and never looking quite the same. What was once an inconvenience is now fuel for an entire new genre of cycling, which has fueled new races and even a change in how the industry builds bikes to cater to explorers of the road less traveled. We are drawn to rocky roads and quiet vistas, far from traffic and red lights (and far from an easy Uber home or stop at the local bike shop if something goes wrong).
Gravel bikes and mixed-surface events are trending, not because of a fad but because as more people flock towards the nation’s cities, it is growing ever harder to find peaceful and challenging places to ride. For many, riding bikes is not just exercise, it is an escape from the predictability and security of life in the 21st Century. Most days, that means studying a map and heading off on a somewhat-familiar route for an hour or three of zen and steady cadence.
But sometimes, event organizers with a penchant for masochism design routes that challenge man and machine alike. Then they charge a nominal entry fee (plus a couple of six packs for the collective beer canoe), email out a GPX file, and name a date and time. Rapha, a well-known cycling lifestyle brand, has been organizing events like this for a few years, inviting cyclists from around the world to test their mettle on rarely-ridden roads in America’s most beautiful, least likely venues.
From Iowa to Minnesota to this year’s Rapha Prestige Ozark Plateau, their rides seek out faint lines on the map, places where the conditions are challenging and the scenery surprising for first-time visitors.
This year, I hosted two friends from Texas and one from Northern California for our four-man team in the 120-mile event, which promised enough gnarly gravel to make you think twice about riding a road bike and way too many steep, paved climbs for the toughest (and thus heaviest) bike you own—everyone had to compromise somewhere. The day began with the organizers reminding us that this was absolutely, definitely, not a race and that aside from two checkpoints, we were entirely on our own.
Teams rolled out in waves, spaced two minutes apart to discourage crowding or racing. Almost immediately, the route hit gravel and the carnage began. Ardent roadies who pedaled fast got flats within the first five miles.
We took deep breaths and shook off our four hours of bad sleep, stayed steady through the rough terrain, and felt smart for bringing gravel-oriented bikes. Right around that time, our team got its first flat tire even with our rugged setups; other teams flew by, only for us to pass them again as soon as we were back rolling and they were back to dealing with another flat.———
On a direct northeast heading out of Bentonville, we passed by farms and rode through streams that covered the road. Within an hour, it was impossible to believe that we were only a county over from the home of Onyx Coffee and the Crystal Bridges Museum. Another hour and we’d climbed all the way to the highest peak above Beaver Lake, where out-of-town visitors were overwhelmed by the sight of a large lake snaking through the Ozark Mountains.
From this checkpoint above the lake, we took a borderline terrifying descent down some of the steepest semi-paved roads in the Ozarks before setting course due north on an old gravel road. We passed through Civil War battlegrounds and then into Missouri, before winding east along a creek and bending south back into Arkansas. The few houses which are still occupied along old county roads enjoy some of the most peaceful and scenic commutes imaginable, even if their dogs like to bark at everything that passes by.
We stopped at a convenience store on the state line, where between our team we purchased a Bud Light tallboy, a large Red Bull, two Gatorades, a gallon jug of water, peanuts, potato chips, and a Snickers ice cream bar. Teams congregated at this air-conditioned oasis and downed sugars and salts with alacrity, knowing that there were precious few opportunities to refuel along the way.
It was “just” forty more miles to Eureka Springs, and “only” another forty-five after that back to Bentonville. You have to speak in these white lies to survive a day like this.
All the while, teams leapfrogged as mechanical issues and physical weariness required breaks along the winding path. We followed the guidance of GPS devices and cue sheets, checking our every move twice for fear of adding even an extra mile by way of wrong turn.———
Passing familiar sights that I’d only seen on day trips was surreal; it drove home just how far we’d come and how far we still had to go. We exchanged biker waves with motorcyclists in Eureka Springs and stopped for emergency beers and questionable gas station fried food in towns with no stoplights at all. I helped tape up a new friend’s tattered knee after she took a spill on a vicious gravel section, only to very nearly get dropped by her while climbing the crooked and steep road from War Eagle to Hobbs State Park.
The final zigs and zags around Prairie Creek were painful, clearly on the map only to add a few more miles and a lot more climbing before heading back into Bentonville. They also showed me new streets in an area I drive through often, reminding me that even though there was a familiar road nearby, there is still so much to learn about the wrinkled and wooded Ozarks.
We rolled into Bentonville nearly nine hours after we left—most of that time spent on the bike, the rest spent passing around bottles of every fluid imaginable trying to survive the heat and humidity that summer brings to this corner of the country. It was hard to tell where the dirt ended and the tans began, but one thing was certain—locals and visitors alike saw a new side of the Ozarks and new possibilities in roads just one turn beyond the familiar. Whether they drove in from Little Rock or flew across the country to be here, every participant found something new on the old and battered gravel roads of the Ozarks. For all the progress in this region, there are still so many ways to get lost on faint roadbeds that haven’t changed in a century or more. Let’s hope it stays that way.