Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

~ Joe

If cabin fever has set in on your cold wet January and you have the itch to ride, check the opportunity for a weekend ride at end of January for the annual Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge, comprising one of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) EPICS designated trails in Northwest Arkansas.

I took the opportunity to ride the 2017 and 2018 Upper Buffalo Challenge with 500 like minded mountain bikers to embark on a festival experience with local microbrews, enjoying the scenic, remote back country single-track trail.  Sunday you are rewarded breakfast and downhill runs without the rigorous climbs (taken to the top by shuttle). Mark your calendar for end of January to join me riding the Upper Buffalo Challenge. Refer to the Ozark Off Road Cyclists (OORC) Facebook community page for details of the event. facebook.com

Check out my 2-minute YouTube video!


Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge


Will You Accept the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge?

The annual Buffalo Headwater challenge is located at Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest.  Events kick off in Red Star, Arkansas and are hosted by Ozark Off Road Cyclists (OORC) and generous sponsors who provide the three-day mountain bike festival.  Activities start on Friday for campout setup, pre-ride imbibing with local Arkansas microbrews, meals and a local band.

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

Getting started at the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge


On Saturday breakfast and registration commences with the option for a 17, 25 or 40-mile ride, dinner, bonfire, local musicians and jambalaya.  On Sunday the “Hoot and Holler” downhill ride is offered sans grueling climb up the top.  Volunteer shuttle drivers pick up and drive riders and their bikes up to go back up again or return to the camp.  So even if you skip the challenge ride you can do downhill without the tough climbs.  That in itself is worth the entry fee.

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

Getting some grub!


Challenge Accepted

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge


My wife and I started a Friday trip from Memphis and stay at a local hotel near Fayetteville, AR.  I sold the idea to my wife about the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge” by selling up the opportunity for my wife visit her daughter at the University of Arkansas.  So it was set!

I missed the pre-ride festival of music, brews and bonfire shenanigans and camping under the stars.  If you have the opportunity take time to arrive early Friday.  However, I was undaunted so on Saturday morning I drove 1 hour along highway 16 over to the destination of Red Star, Arkansas.

As I approached I felt the excitement mount with other riders from the area and afar as we gathered and shared the camaraderie of the challenge.  There was a hustle and bustle as those who spent the night on Friday were up for breakfast at the Headwaters School in Red Star.  Cycling shop sponsors, coffee vendors were setting up.

I signed up at the registration desk which was a well oiled machine with each registration tied to a number and assigned with a color coded band for the challenge route for the available trail distances of half of the half at 17 miles, half ride about 25 miles and the full challenge of 40 miles.  I felt the ego kick in to elect the 40-mile route.  Little did I realize the physical and mental challenge that it would take for this for this flatlander to complete this quest.  So with green band on wrist I ventured out to get some local coffee.

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

Gathering for the ride


That morning I met grizzled veterans and new riders and wandered around the sponsor tents.  Phat City Cycles told me about all the cool mountain bike test rides and the new cutting edge technology offered with the new rigs. How awesome!  Although if I bought another bike, the wife would probably kill me!


The Kickoff of the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge

At the start, the OORC had an awards ceremony for the trail volunteers.  It is these fantastic volunteers who maintain the Northwest Arkansas single track trails which include the Upper Buffalo.  At 10:30 am, the challenge started with the 40-mile riders starting as the first wave followed by the 25-mile challenge and 17-mile challengers.

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

Trail Map


The Cold Ascent

With the brisk air of 29 degrees it didn’t take long to warm up as I started a slow slog up the 2-miles of fire road balancing the pedal rotations and timed breathing to minimize the lactic acid build up in the legs.

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

The ascent begins!


This was indeed the namesake of the ride!  The challenge started immediately,  climbing up to the fire road and onto single-track path with very little down slopes or plateaus to catch your breath (2194 feet of ascent). There were frequent sections I dismounted to walk several hilly sections and ride stream crossings .


Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge


Weight Gains

Groups of riders took frequent breaks to hydrate, and commiserate the levels of elevation.  Even with a bail out gear of 42 teeth, the challenge culminates in simple physics–propelling 250ish pounds of mass comprising of 198 pounds of me, 5 pounds of clothing (wet), 28 pounds of the bike and camelbak (10 pounds of water and emergency gear).  Although there were preset checkpoints along the trails route,  there were hazards and obstacles to render you stranded.  So the OORC challenge support team highly suggests carrying along all the gear for cold inclement weather, tools and spares to get you to next checkpoint or to the finish.

There was several times propelling all that mass was too much to overcome on the challenge.  I didn’t feel bad at all pulling to the side and have others passed to then pass them again ahead during their rest break.  It gave me the excuse to stop as well and commiserate with locals and out of state riders.


Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

Made it to the top!

Fire Tower Checkpoint

So forging ahead onto a fire road, I followed the arrows for the 25-mile and the 40-mile challenge route which ran along together.  There was hope for me to bail out from the 40 to drop down to the 25-mile challenge.  At the top was a sight to behold the Fire tower, OORC volunteers and local bicycle shop support crew.

The smell of grilling bacon and hot dogs permeated air.  A 50-gallon fire pit was setup to warm cold wet feet and rest muscle cramped calves and hamstrings.  I was actually happy to get off the bike and walk around soaking sun, smell the aromas and stare up at the looming shiny steel fire tower structure overhead and view an awesome scenic valley.

The support team and bicycle shop mechanics were wrenching on bikes.  Some folks had broken derailleurs and plenty of cuts and bruises.  I had a mechanic check out an ominous squeak on the front wheel disc brake. They were able adjust it, so I could go on my way.  I had a local micro brew, a monster energy drink and refilled my Camelbak to hopefully quell the muscle cramps.


Burned Out

The challenge for this Memphis flat lander was apparent as my legs burned out after 14 miles to the fire tower, so I opted for the 25-mile challenge instead of the 40.

The fire tower was one of the highest points of the challenge and with all that climbing comes the reward of the downhill.  It was a sweet relief to let gravity take you down the trail with technical terrain and the switchback tight turns. I managed a safe ride down, but grabbed a fistful of brake lever with fear and excitement.  I was relieved to finish the downhill sections unscathed without equipment failure or injury!


The Last 10 Miles

Despite the rewarding down hills there were more knee-deep stream crossings and hills to climb. I had wet feet and cold was setting in with the sun setting. I ended up walking with other riders to an only road sign welcoming those to the Upper Buffalo.

Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge

Crossing the stream


End of the Ride

At the end of the ride I savored the finish and entered into the building where dinner would be served (tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches). This was a welcome sight after burning 1500 plus calories and ingesting only water and energy gels.  Afterwards the beer would flow; local musicians strumming and lines of folks would wait in line for jambalaya cooking in a large cauldron over an open fire. I stood around bon-fire warming up, reminisce of the challenge, compare wounds and swap stories.


Hoot and Holler

Sunday morning after breakfast OORC volunteers offer the closing ceremonial experience of the challenge shuttling folks and their bikes to the top for a descent to the bottom without the rigors of climbing to the top on you own.  So grab some breakfast for the last challenge of the day.  Downhill riding at its finest!  With this last activity, you will be hooting and hollering’ home and won’t be able wait until next year.

So are you a mountain biker?  Please share by commenting below!  Any questions?  Please ask!

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~ Joe

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Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Challenge






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