The Other Side of Nowhere
Mountain Bike Festival Highlights Remote IMBA Epic
Photos courtesy of Jim Rankin
Deep in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwest Texas—about as deep as you can go—sits the 69-year-old Big Bend National Park, a remote swath of land bigger than Rhode Island. It is one of the largest and least-visited national parks in the lower 48. Adjacent to it is Big Bend Ranch State Park, almost three times as large and with a mere fraction of the annual visitation (2,500 vs. 360,000). Both bleed into sprawling national park lands just across the border with Mexico. Mountain bikers know Big Bend Ranch State Park because it is home to one of the IMBA Epics: the 58-70-mile, Fresno-Sauceda Loop, a ride that bears the local tagline of "the other side of nowhere." Texans know the park because it is home and because it plays host to the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest.
The Fresno-Sauceda Loop is epic in every sense of the word. Ride it too late in the year and it will feel like a blast furnace. Ride it without enough water or beefed-up tires and you'll suffer the consequences. There are no bail-to-the-brewery points. It is remote desert riding with rattlesnakes by day and coyotes by night.
"It's a huge day in the saddle and super challenging," says Austin resident, former IMBA board member and Mountain Bike Hall of fame inductee, Hill Abell. "Even the most accomplished 4-wheeler would have second thoughts about traversing the rugged doubletrack segments, but you’ll witness incredible geography throughout the ride."
"You could spend weeks exploring all the riding options," says local advocate Jeff Renfrow, who works with the IMBA-affiliated Big Bend Trails Alliance. "The Epic is just a small portion of the riding in the park. There are huge areas that not even the locals have explored by mountain bike. You can’t say that about many places these days."
Growing up in San Antonio, I learned to consider both Big Bends sacred. My parents and I visited the national park at least once a year, usually in the freezing cold of early spring when we were the only ones crazy enough to be sleeping in tents (rather than an RV) in the Chisos Basin campground at 5,400 feet. It was a pilgrimage of sorts; a place we could experience the splendor of a national park desert landscape in relative peace. It is where I fell in love with remote backcountry places.
Big Bend State Park’s IMBA Epic is a solid 6-hour drive from the nearest major airport (El Paso), a few hours from anything resembling a normal person’s idea of civilization and within a day’s walk of Mexico. Most of the drive is remarkably desolate, and one tends to wonder if they’re actually going to get anywhere interesting until they near the park and the Chisos Mountains rise dramatically from the desert floor.
So why go through the trouble of throwing a festival in an inconveniently-remote park to celebrate a barren, harsh trail? It’s at least an 8-hour drive from the unofficial cycling hub of the state—Austin. But ask a Texan, and the question is more like, "Why not?"
"Desert mountain biking brings these scenic, unique, vast spaces up to you like primitive hiking and camping does," writes Jim Rankin, a member of the Austin Ridge Riders, "but you get to see so much more and feel the thrill of speed and trail features like never before."
The Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest is sponsored by Texas’s biggest bike shops from Austin, Houston and Dallas, along with the Big Bend Trails Alliance, Desert Sports of Terlingua and Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW). This year, Specialized drove its demo rig all the way down to the event. There’s a pool, beer from the Big Bend Brewing Company and a magically bizarre display from the Austin Bike Zoo (look it up; I can’t explain). More than 370 people registered, and it was estimated that at least 400 were out riding the trails.
"The fest drew its usual unusual crowd of keep-Austin-weird-type characters," Rankin writes. "It was rumored that the hard-partiers were considerate enough to set up as far from the campground as possible, had a bottomless beer tap sticking out of the side of a converted bus, and completed their fun with fireworks. One rider was inquiring of every ‘senior’ rider on the trail, looking for the rumored hip-replacement patient who was still cranking on knobby tires. The perennial ‘Tequila Man’ was back with a new toy: a long, shotgun-shaped bottle filled with top-shelf mescal reposado. He offered shots to any and all takers, even over the hot bonfire pit during the public showing of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure."
The event offers several, daily riding options of varying distances and difficulties, including interpretive rides with local professors and rangers describing everything from the area’s flora and fauna to geology and history. (You can even ride in the national park, but only on dirt roads.) For the IMBA Epic, TPW offered the option of a two-day ride with an overnight in the park’s guesthouse and chef-prepared meals at the Saucedo Station, plus a shuttle to transport each rider’s camping gear. At least 56 people conquered the Epic in one day while 30 others opted for the more leisurely, two-day ride.
The TPW efforts both in the office and in the field have been headed up for the past three years by Dan Sholly, the organization's deputy director. Sholly has owned a mountain bike since 1990 and has been very serious about it for six years, writes Rankin. Each day of the event, he rode as rover all day making sure everything was proceeding smoothly. There were at least 35 TPW staff involved in the event, including 21 TPW bike patrollers, from parks all over the state.
Desert Bike Fest, which takes place in February on President’s Day weekend, should be on the bucket list of every avid mountain biker, writes Rankin, but you need to do it sooner rather than later, since "you are only getting older, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s extensive man-hours and financial contribution may not always be available in tight budget years."
I think it’s about damn time this displaced Texan packs up and goes to Desert Bike Fest. Maybe I’ll see you there next year. Just remember: water, tubeless tires (or at least tires with extra flat protection inserted) and a sense of adventure are required.
To learn more about Big Bend State Park's place in mountain bike lore and history, read "No Country for Old Goats," a great BIKE Magazine article.