“Yes, I say ‘beta’ now,” King told me, laughing over a call from his home in Vermont.
King is three days out from the 1,037-mile bikepacking race, and he’s realized that beta is more valuable than gold when it comes to embarking on a journey where ‘self-supported’ takes on a whole new meaning. Like all ultra-distance bikepacking races, the Arkansaw High Country Race requires riders to be entirely self-sufficient, only utilizing resources along the way that are available to any other participant.
In short: no SAG wagons, no mid-ride beers with buddies along the way (unless those buddies offer beers to every single participant), no drafting, and everyone must use a SPOT tracker and register on the Trackleaders website.
Despite the countless hours King has poured into studying the maps of the route, purchasing equipment for his bike, packing and repacking his bags, and poring over ‘beta’ on the Internet and Facebook forums, he is smart to realize all that he doesn’t know.
“Sure, I’ve camped a little, I can ride long distances, I know how to ride off-road,” King said, “but until you do something like this it’s such a massive element of unknown.”
Helping King wade through the unknown is his friend Bobby Wintle, the director of The Mid South gravel race in Stillwater, Oklahoma. With most participatory races canceled this year, including King and his wife Laura’s own Rooted Vermont, King has spent most of his hours on the bike around his home in rural Vermont, choosing not to travel to the few events remaining on the calendar. When Wintle mentioned The Arkansaw High Country Race a few months ago, King’s interest was piqued.
Since then, Wintle has been an invaluable resource.
The race kit
“I’ve been trying to tell him – ‘Dude I’m bringing you a sleeping bag,'” Wintle said. “And he’s all ‘I don’t have room.’ I’m like, ‘well, we’re gonna find room!”
On Sunday night, King learned the hard way that the sleep system forms an integral part of a bikepacking setup. Per Wintle’s advice, he purchased a bivvy sack for easy and lightweight shelter, but he opted for down pants and a down jacket rather than a sleeping bag. It didn’t go so well.
“It was . . . difficult,” King said. “At 1 AM I had to come inside ’cause I was so cold. That was the first time I’ve ever been in a bivvy. I’m going to have to make some decisions in the next few days.”
King said he was glad he realized the dilemma at home, six days before the race, rather than during it.
Wintle, on the other hand, is an experienced bikepacker. He’s raced the Tour Divide, the Oregon Outback, the 350-mile DKXL, and also done plenty of not-for-speed tours on a loaded bike. As such, he’s a fountain of . . . beta.
Despite his years of WorldTour experience, King therefore let Wintle call the shots when it came to some of his gear for the upcoming ultra-distance race. Although Wintle will ride his Moots Routt 45 and King a Cannondale Super X (you’ll understand why he didn’t choose the Topstone in a minute), they’ll both be on the same set of hoops.
“Declan at Zipp built us some sweet new 303 Firecrest wheels laced up with Schmidt SON 28 dynamo hubs,” Wintle said.
“And the Sinewave Beacon light will be linked to a dynamo hub,” King said, adding, “does that sound right?”
The two differ on tire choice, with King opting for the 700c x 44 Snoqualmie Pass Rene Herse rubber and Wintle running 700c x 38 Vittoria Terreno Zero’s. Both tires have a smooth center tread.
King will carry his gear in Apidura bikepacking bags, while Wintle will use his tried-and-true set-up from Revelate Designs.
One particularity of note for the 2020 version of the race was a ‘deer season’ amendment to the race rules:
“Riders are required to wear blaze orange or chartreuse on their torso and head by Arkansas Law when they are ‘in areas where (hunting) seasons are open.’ Muzzleloading deer season, and youth deer season will be open.”
Wintle solved that by grabbing an orange Giro vest off the floor at District Bicycles, his Stillwater bike shop, and King purchased an $11 hi-vis construction vest to wear with his orangey-red and yellow jerseys from Velocio.
Saturday’s start day marks the second edition of the Arkansaw High Country Race. The race follows the perimeter of the Arkansas High Country Route which was published in 2019. The roughly 1,037 miles take riders through some of central and northwest Arkansas’ most stunning terrain through a series of three gravel and paved road loops, including an optional 67 miles of single-track.
When the riders gather in downtown Fayetteville on Saturday morning, they will have made countless decisions regarding gear, sleep deprivation, and calories. Then, they’ll see the choices each other have made, which will cast a shadow of doubt on everything.
“The thing that I get a total kick out of is that they say ‘ready, set go,’ and half of the people go clockwise and half go counter-clockwise,” King said. “That’s where this whole realm of research, or “beta” comes in. You have to do your due diligence on ‘what’s a simpler route’ — do you wanna have climbing early or late in the route? Especially of concern is distances between rest stops and food stops and if you do roll into a town, is it even open? All sorts of things I’ve never had to juggle before.”
What King may lack in bikepacking experience, he might make up for in speed on the bike. That said, he’s approached his training for the Arkansaw High Country Race very differently than in the past.
“I do think I have speed on my side, but that’s only a portion of it,” King said. “Bikepacking is not hell-bent on speed. The training has been interesting. I haven’t really changed the way I’ve ridden. I’ve done a couple more really long rides and tried to pay attention to how I feel. Knowing that you can’t finish the ride empty after five hours because that’s ⅓ or ¼ of the day. So metering out a slow effort of energy is a very new ballgame.”
The route traverses a whopping 80,298 vertical feet of climbing.
Currently, ultra-distance cyclist Jay Petervary holds the ‘FKT’ of the route for men with a time of 5:12:06. Rebecca Rusch has the women’s record of 8:03:33. Bikepacking duo Scotti and Ernie Lechuga recently set a pairs record of 4:22:05.
Will the 2020 race see records broken?
“‘Maybe’ is probably a better word,” King said. “You can’t go in guns a-blazing and say you’re gonna set a record in something you’ve never done. Maybe I find out on day two that I don’t operate on four hours of sleep and it will take me a week.”
Wintle, on the other hand, feels confident that he will finish the race in less than six days, largely due to his ability to deprive himself of sleep. In fact, he says, it’s his secret weapon. During the Oregon Outback in 2015, Wintle rode 370 miles and was awake for some 45 hours. During the inaugural 2018 DKXL, he also kept his eyes open for 40.
Next week, Wintle plans to put at least 300 miles on the bike before stopping to rest. He also plans to keep himself as unexcited about sleeping as possible by not carrying a sleeping pad or pillow and only sleeping outside, even though hotels are fair game.
His other secret to staying up?
“Pistachios in the shell,” he said. “Roasted and salted. As soon as I start to get sleepy, I’ll get one, play with it, crack it, spit out the shell, eat the pistachio. It give my mind enough to do to take my mind off of everything else.”
“I don’t recommend it except for bikepacking races.”
Although King says he’s been working on his sleep deprivation strategy for eight months (his daughter Hazel was born in March), he’s not sure if he can keep up with a plan like Wintle’s.
“I’m certainly curious to see how that cumulative effect adds up,” he said. In general, I can do well on light sleep. That said, you look at the distances and times of people who crush these events and they’re sleeping for a very short amount of time.”
It’s far too early to tell if King will pivot from his current trajectory as a gravel racer to an ultra-distance bikepacker, but given the uncertainty of participatory racing in the times of COVID-19, he’s not ruling it out.
“We don’t know what events will look like in the future,” he said. “In the latter half of this year, we’re seeing more and more smaller, more underground stuff. I don’t think we’ll necessarily see a mass movement toward this, but I think we’ll see more of it so I’m excited to be on the early learning curve of that.”