In its fifteenth year, the Ouachita Challenge, a 60-mile mountain bike race in western Arkansas, uses two greatly varying IMBA Epic-rated trail systems (Lake Ouachita and The Womble) and a bit of dirt and paved road to piece together an incredible day of racing. This year’s race saw perfect trail conditions thanks to recent rains, sunny skies and a mild temperatures.
The area’s rural nature, rolling hills, limestone rock and numerous creeks offers a perfect canvas for mountain biking. Even if you don’t go for the race, a trip to the region will offer mountain bikers of all abilities and tastes a good time.
- The course: The Ouachita Challenge, a 60-mile race through the mountains and woods of western Arkansas, with more than 6,000ft / 1,800m climbing, also taking some dirt and paved road
- The equipment goal: A light, capable cross-country machine suited to insulating me from a long day of rugged riding
- The horse: A mostly stock Niner RKT 9 RDO in X01 / RS-1 build kitted with a dropper, Maxxis Crossmark II EXO/TR tyres, Selle SMP Drakon saddle and JPaks RukSak stem bag
At 60 miles, this was to be my longest mountain bike race to date, so I sought advice from past participants on bike and tyre choice. In deciding upon an ideal bike, it became clear that a full suspension 29er would be a great place to start, insulating me from hours of rugged riding.
With more than 6,000 feet of climbing, a light bike would be appreciated. Niner’s RKT 9 RDO had caught my eye when it was launched in 2015. The carbon race bike looked like a light, capable option and it proved to be perfect for Ouachita.
The Ouachita Challenge traverses 60 miles (with more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain) through the Ouachita Mountains of west-central Arkansas
Confident in my bike choice I moved onto touch points and focused on getting myself and the bike to the finish line. Read on for mini reviews of my selections, all of which worked out exceptionally well.
Niner RKT 9 RDO
Niner introduced its new cross-country machine last fall. With wins in both the XC and short-track races thanks to Chloe Woodruff, its pedigree is well-established. The RKT 9 RDO offers 90mm rear travel paired with a 100mm Rock Shox RS-1. Shortish 440mm chainstays keep the bike balanced while leaving room for 2.4in tyres. It is also the lightest dual suspension frame Niner has produced, tipping scales right around 4.5lb/2kg. Weight for my complete bike was 24.32lb/11kg.
Like all of Niner’s bikes, the RKT 9 RDO is offered in several build specs. The $7,500 4-Star XO1 RS-1 build uses SRAM’s XO1 crank, chain, derailleur and shifter and the excellent Guide RSC brakes. Interestingly, Niner specs a Shimano XT 11-42 cassette instead of a SRAM item, as this allows the company to warehouse Shimano-only hubs.
RockShox’s RS-1 has been widely-reviewed and while some complain of its torsionally flexy performance, it offered 100mm of worry-free travel during my time aboard the bike. I will say that installing the front wheel can be a pain, as the dropouts can rotate and extend, making lining up the thru-axle a little tricky.
At the back of the bike, a Kashima-coated, Factory series Fox Float with three-position remote lockout handled the rear suspension. To be honest, during the race, I rarely touched the suspension lockouts, preferring to keep them wide open. At times though, the rear remote lockout did bind when opening it up again after having it locked out for a road section. I think this had more to do with the cable routing than the shock or the lockout design. Ditching the remote lockout would save a bit of weight and complication.
The rest of the bike is a house-brand affair, with Niner Carbon XC wheels, a Flat Top RDO 710mm carbon handlebar, RDO stem and a Niner saddle, though the latter was swapped out (see below). I had initially thought of asking for a wider 760mm bar, but was thankful that Niner’s Brad Cole talked me out of that – the Arkansas woods can create tight situations.
One concession I made to my XC weight-weenie selections was the addition of a dropper post. As a regular dropper post user on trail bikes, and thanks to the technical sections of trail at Ouachita, I asked Niner to install a RockShox Reverb. This was a good call. I felt like I was able to relax more on descents than many around me looked like they were doing.
All told, Niner’s RKT 9 RDO proved a great cross-country full suspension bike. The CVA suspension felt as bottomless as 90mm of travel can. The light weight was fantastic and even the little details like two usable bottle cage mounts were much appreciated.
Maxxis Crossmark II EXO/TR tyres
Based on trail information shared with me, I wasn’t entirely sure that Maxxis’s new Crossmark II tyres would be up for the Ouachita Challenge. At 2.1in wide the Crossmark II is narrower than the tyres I typically ride, but that didn’t keep them from excelling in Arkansas.
The new tread pattern borrows from other tyres in the Maxxis line. Compared with its predecessor, the new Crossmark transitions more like a trail tyre. The square lugs on the edges of the tread did a great job of hooking up on rock, over roots and across beds of dried pine needles. The 60tpi, EXO/TR casing held up well even during a couple sloppy moves on my part in the middle of edgy rock gardens. I can’t say for sure that the dual compound tread helped or hurt, but the tyre was exceptionally fast on road, gravel and trail and the cornering limits of the tyre are far beyond my own skills.
Selle SMP Drakon saddle
I’ve ridden a lot of different saddles over the years and few of them have an appearance as strange as Selle SMP’s line. With curving lines, a radical dropout and a bizarrely dropped nose, the Italian company’s cycling perches are certainly different. But they are also the preferred saddles of several bike fitters that I know and respect. The exaggerated hammock and large cutouts allow many riders to rotate their pelvis forward in a supportive saddle that isn’t harming soft tissue. Despite my initial resistance, I demoed a Drakon several years ago and after a week, I was in love.
The Drakon saddle features more padding than other SMP models, making it, in my experience, more comfortable on long rides, whether paved, gravel or off road. While pricey at $260, these saddles are unique and if you find a comfortable place to rest for hours upon hours of riding, the value increases by the mile.
If you decide to try a Selle SMP, give it a little time and work with a fitter. In my experience, subtle changes to saddle tilt can have big implications. If you’re struggling to find a saddle that works for you, do consider Selle SMP.
JPaks RukSak stem bag
I really dislike wearing a hydration pack. There, I’ve said it.
In some instances it may be the best way to go, but I do avoid it whenever possible. Thanks to the recent explosion in bikepacking, however, there are more options for carrying items on your bike than ever before. Denver-based JPaks is a favorite. I bought a RukSak stem-mounted bag from maker Joe Tonsager a couple years ago and love it. It will easily carry a large water bottle and small food items, even when riding rugged trails. It supplemented the frame mounts on the Niner, kept a bottle handy and acted as a visual reminder to eat and drink.
Backcountry Research frame and saddle mounts
In keeping with foregoing a hydration pack, I called on Backcountry Research for clever, reliable ways to carry what I needed on the trail. I carried two tubes, a multi-tool, Co2 and inflator using BR’s Race MTB Saddle Mount and Hypalon Mutherload Frame Mount. Using robust straps and good design they keep essentials handy, keeping them safely out of harm’s way. The saddle Race Mount is dropper compatible. I also used Backcountry Research’s Tube Tarp to protect my spares.
Ergon grips/bar-ends GS2
I know, I know. Bar-ends went out of fashion shortly after Bart Brentjens won the inaugural Olympic mountain bike race in 1996. But for long days, especially ones that involve dirt road climbs, it’s so nice to have another hand hold option. Ergon’s GS2 grips offer additional support and stubby two-finger bar-ends in one smart package. No regrets here.
Bar Fly 4 MTB Garmin mount
I’m not the number cruncher that I used to be but I do like to know my mileage and amount of climbing accomplished. (Good bragging rights and all…) Bar Fly’s computer mounts have never let me down and the 4.0 MTB was no exception. I like the over stem mount for mountain biking as it keeps expensive electronics out of harm’s way.
Bontrager TLR Flash Charger floor pump
For any road trip involving a bike with tubeless tyres, a way to seat a new tyre is a good idea. I’ve yet to find a better solution than Bontrager’s Flash Charger pump, aside from visiting a bike shop. It acts as a human powered compressor, allowing you to pump up a certain amount of air and then releasing it all in one go. Very clever.