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What comes down must go up at the Dino Enduro bike race.


It was a moment. My heart was so full, I thought it might burst. My nephew, Ike, was straddling the tiniest of pedal bikes, a green-and-black, 12-inch Specialized Riprock.

“Keep the training wheels,” I told the salesman a week earlier. “This kid isn’t going to need them.”

I gave Ike a push, and he pedaled away. It was three days before his third birthday.

On Your Mark!

Fast-forward 13 years — my heart is in my throat.

Ike’s straddling one of the most advanced mountain bikes made, a full-suspension, carbon-fiber Yeti, with electronic wireless shifting and disc brakes. He’s at the top of a 30-foot descent, capped by a 3-foot cliff. The landing is perilous, littered with tire-snatching roots, a scree field of saucer-sized rocks and slabs of bone-splintering limestone.

I nervously wait at the bottom of this topographical minefield with my other nephew, Jax, 18. We just rode a bypass to avoid what Ike is about to jump.

Ike scouts his line.

“OK. I’m gonna huck it,” he says casually.

“I really wish he wouldn’t do that,” I tell Jax.

“This is what he does,” Jax says. Truth.

Ike disappears. Silence, then the sound of tires on gravel. A front wheel appears, and Ike is airborne. He lands. His tires create a plume of dust as they meet terra firma and he navigates the cedar trees, roots and small boulders, then slides to a stop in front of us. I start to breathe again.

“How was it?” He shrugs.

“No big deal,” he says nonchalantly. “You just got to hit it fast.”

That sums up Ike’s life philosophy: Go fast and see what happens.

We are on the hardscrabble trails of Dinosaur Valley State Park outside of Glen Rose, pre-riding the course for tomorrow’s Dino Enduro. It is one of the six races in Southern Enduro Series (Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma).

Enduro racing is a series of individual timed stages that, for the most part, are descending in their trajectory, so it’s very similar to downhill racing.

Here’s the kicker: You have to ride uphill to each stage. (The transition is not timed.)

Tomorrow’s race will be five stages with transitions for a total of eight miles in the backcountry of Dinosaur Valley State Park. We’ll do two laps through the course during the race. It’s the first Enduro for all three of us.

Get Set!

Sunday morning is race day. There are tents and RVs scattered about an open grassy field. A canopy, Sprinter van and speakers blaring ’80s rock designate the race check-in. Folks mill about with no particular urgency, except for the occasional wheelie. The scene feels more music festival than race.

There’s one telltale sign that some calamity is afoot. The gear. Most everyone is decked out in body armor: chest and back protectors, elbow and knee pads, full face helmets with goggles.

In my standard-issue mountain bike helmet, my nod to the race website’s recommendation to “Pad up!” is knee pads. This rookie feels a bit underdressed.

After the riders’ meeting, my group is the first to hit the course on the way to the starting line. A group of us break away and climb along the Cedar Brake Outer Loop. I ride with unnecessary intensity. I’m in the lead pack of a race that hasn’t started yet. 

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Clockwise from bottom left: The Dinosaur Valley course is filled with rocks and roots; bikers must walk, ride and sometimes carry their bikes uphill to the beginning of each race stage; riders battle to keep control on the downhill sections; the race's final stage features turns and jumps; riders "pad up" with helmets, goggles and pads.

GO!

The starting gate’s marked by blue vinyl tape. I line up and wait my 30 seconds. Timing chips are assigned at race check-in; there’s a sensor at the start and finish.

I push off and hear a beep from the cedars. The clock is running.

I fly down the Limestone Ledge Trail, normally off-limits to mountain bikes, a dense thicket of heavy cedar swooshing by on my left. To my right is a 50-foot drop to the Paluxy River. The murky green water flits in and out of my peripheral as I descend.

The trail takes a left into the trees. The Paluxy is gone. I drop down a long series of natural rock stairs and round a bend when the path suddenly juts up.

Ahead, there’s a rock shelf framed in wispy cedar roots. Momentum’s needed to make it over that feature.

I slam into the shelf and grind to a halt. The clock is ticking. I remount.

The stage descends into heavy tree cover, casting the trail into intermittent shadows. Multiple lines appear through a section of gnarled roots, slinking in and out of the soil between buried boulders. It looks like a petrified snake pit.

The A-line is to my right, a two-step cliff drop that dumps you into a series of tree gates. I opt for the B-line and thread the needle down three narrow wooden steps to avoid the drop. My speed is measured, and I navigate the trees free and clear.

I cross the blue tape at the finish gate. A beep emits from the thicket. My time is 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The top pro today will run this stage in 1 minute 36 seconds.

The finish deposits me into a dry creek bed. The transition ascends the opposing bank at a near-vertical incline. What goes down must go up! I hike-a-bike up the wall en route to Stage Two. 

JAX ATTACKS

Back at the trailer, Jax has succumbed to the chill vibe that permeates camp. He finishes a granola bar and casually rides to the staging area. The PA system blares.
“If you are in the 18 to 29 group, you should be gone.”

Jax hustles it up to Stage One and starts. He seems at one with his bike as he flies down the trail, hitting all his lines.

“Today is a good day,” he tells himself, and makes his transition to Stage Two. At the gate, he sits on his bike and feels his rim hit dirt. His tire is completely flat. The rider behind him gives him a CO2 cartridge attached to a trigger valve. Jax gives the tire a quick jolt of air, and he’s off. He makes it 10 yards down the trail and it goes flat again.

This stage is over for him.

I’m deep into the transition between Stages Three and Four. There are long sections that are so steep you’re relegated to pushing, carrying and dragging your bike, hence the term “hike-a-bike.” I strangely enjoy this aspect of the race. You’ve got to earn your turns out here.

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Some 2021 events may be canceled due to COVID. Many parks have capacity limits; make advance reservations for day visits and camping.

Ike on a Bike

Ike begins Stage One like a hurricane but bobbles on the same rock shelf that hung me up. He remounts and rails the rest of the course hitting all the A-lines with no hesitation.

Exuberance catches up to him on Stage Two. Ike’s “shredding the gnar” — riding fast and ripping up the course. He approaches a scaled rock hump between two trees that looks like an entombed prehistoric whale.
He hits the rock fast and realizes the backside drops down 20 feet. Ike locks both brakes, but he’s already airborne.

He holds it together as he jumps the whole descent.

Go fast and see what happens.

I’m enjoying a pleasant ride through the woods. The transition from Stage Four to Five is long. It feels like a cross-country race, which makes me happy. I’ve been mostly alone on this first lap with no rider lines at any of the stages. That will change.

Jax’s day keeps getting worse. He sorts out his flat tire. The culprit? A loose valve stem. He rides back to camp to fix it, but in all the scrambling, he realizes he’s lost his sunglasses. Not a big deal, but it elevates his frustration. 

Move Over, Guys

Cindy Abbott, 31, the favorite in the female pro category, hasn’t even started the race. The Austin Parks and Recreation forest technician (a professional tree climber) likes to savor her mornings.

Cindy puts on her helmet, a long braid draping over her shoulder. Cindy looks fast standing still. On a bike, she’s poetry in motion.

“No brakes” is her mantra.

Cindy starts Stage One. Something seems to feel amiss with her bike, and she’s bouncing around like a pogo stick. She comes to that notorious rock shelf and bobbles, cursing at herself for the stupid mistake. She finishes the stage, makes some on-the-fly adjustments to the suspension on her bike and flies through the rest with ease.

Finish Line

I start my second lap through the stages and it’s suddenly rush hour. All age groups are now on the course, so there are lines 10 riders deep to start each stage. This is the social aspect of Enduro racing unlike any event I’ve ever raced.

People chat, laugh and cheer each other on. Lots of gloved hands wave while they tell stories of perfect lines and dramatic crashes.

It’s fun, but I’m yearning for the long ride between Stages Four and Five. When I get there, I take in my solitude. The lines have thinned; my race is coming to an end. I finish and turn in my chip to race control.

“You’ve done two laps?” he asks as I hand him the little orange sensor. I nod. He seems to think I needlessly rushed through the course.

Jax is struggling to get his head back in the race. He keeps missing his lines on his second lap through the stages; frustration is getting the best of him. He diverts from the course to search for his sunglasses and finally decides to call it a day. Jax finishes in one last glorious pass down Stage Five.

Ike wraps up his race in typical fashion. I walk over to the end of Stage Five and catch him coming down. Spectators are whooping and cheering. Ike rails the outer line and wills his bike across the ruts, rocks and roots to finish.

“That’s the best line I’ve seen all day,” a man up the hill exclaims.

“That’s my nephew!” I proudly shout. 

Final Shots

Cindy is at the top of Stage Five, poised for her grand finale. Her second lap has been perfection. No brakes!

She takes a moment to soak in the view. She’s going to let it all hang out on this final run of the day.

Cindy drops in and pedals like a banshee, catching air and whipping the bike — dialing in some style. She lands, grabs the rear brake and slides the bike through a hard left-hand corner. Her braid bounces and whips as she descends the steep, rooted switchbacks at the end of the stage.

Cindy’s combined time for 10 stages is 13 minutes and 41 seconds, easily clinching first place in the female pro division.

Jax, Ike and I load our bikes into the trailer. None of us won our division or even placed, but clearly, I won, just sneaking in some time with a couple of teenagers I cherish dearly.

We recount our favorite moments
and lines of the day, our own gloved hands waving with enthusiasm, and head for home.

Their favorite part of the weekend? They are unified in their answer.

“Riding with you on Saturday.”

There goes my heart, about to burst again.

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