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Deanna's story: Highlands Gravel Classic

BaseCamper Deanna Duke shared her experience at the 2023 Highlands Gravel Classic in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


I thought I'd do a little (okay, very long) race report of the 2023 Highlands Gravel Classic in Fayetteville, AR, which was the only U.S. qualifying event for the UCI Gravel Worlds event in Veneto, Italy, in October, 2023.



I registered back in December (just as I was recovering from Covid) with the intent to ride and possibly race, but mostly to support my boyfriend. The cool thing about this event is that the top 25% in each age category automatically qualifies for the Worlds. Did I think I would be a contender? Not really, but I dare to dream and wanted to challenge myself.


Anyway, we drove to Arkansas from Central WA, taking over 3 days and seeing more states than I currently remember. Our home rental was a pretty phenomenal place that had a huge pond with many resident bullfrogs, turtles, bass, and an elusive water snake. Each evening we enjoyed the parade of fireflies, raccoons, red cardinals and, on our last night, a red fox, jaunting through our backyard.


Did you know there are armadillos in Arkansas? No, I didn't either. But we saw a lot of dead ones in our travels and, unfortunately, no live ones. Roadkill was pretty much the theme of our trip, but I digress...


Bentonville, AR, is a major hub of mountain biking, and they have a fairly spectacular set of trails both for mountain and gravel. Same thing with Fayettteville, where the race was held.

Did I mention it was hot? We went for a pre-race recon ride on Tuesday and quickly realized that heat + humidity plus a lot of elevation gain in the form of a million tiny hills far exceeds my capacity for cooling. I knew the race on Saturday, with predicted temperatures of 95 and high humidity, was going to be a challenge, but I figured, hey! It's only 52 miles. It's the same distance as RPI French Fry with the same elevation gain, which I've done twice. Easy peasy! Plus, at such a low starting elevation, this oxygen rich environment would help.


Race day. It was hot. It was humid. It had some technically challenging sections. At the bottom of the first sketchy descent, there were literally bodies waiting for aid cars. I was told there was worse to come. I persevered. I figured I didn't crash and I so far haven't soiled myself, so I soldiered on. More bodies. It will be fine. My race plan was going great! I felt strong. I couldn't wait for miles 40-52, which played to my advantage. I channeled Rebecca. Nibble, nibble, sip sip.


It got hotter, I passed people, I started running out of water in spite of having a pack and bottles. Near the top of a long climb where nearly everyone was walking and my forward progress was pretty grim due to heat exposure, a support 4x4 came down the hill. I watched as the two men in front of me got water bottles, pouring water over their helmets in slow motion. I couldn't wait to fill my pack. I was going to make it!


I got to the support and plunged my hand into the barrel of EMPTY WATER BOTTLES. There were none left. Did I swear? You bet your sweet southern patootie I did. How many horrific miles until the next aid station? 14 mostly uphill miles. Was I already experiencing signs of heat stroke? I think you know the answer.


I do not like DNFing. I do not like it one bit. But I was in good company. 37 people got carted off the race that morning. About 20% of the field. I was one of the lucky ones. The woman in the van sitting next to me had crashed at the descent at mile 12. She was impressed I made it to mile 30. Lots of broken bodies and bikes. Am I disappointed? Good lord, yes. Could I have done things differently that week to set myself up for better success? Absolutely. In spite of it all, it was a great growth and learning experience. Lots to take away from this event.


The biggest thing I'm taking away is the pride in helping support my boyfriend, who finished 3rd in the 55-59 age group! Needless to say, he qualified for the UCI Gravel Worlds event in Italy in October. And we're planning on going! I'd love to be able to participate in the event, but I'll just have to suffer with riding sections of the course ahead of time. Which will be more than enough excitement for me. 🥰


Takeaway: If you ride bikes, go to Bentonville/Fayetteville! Just go when it ain't so freaking hot.


And watch out for those pesky armadillos. They carry leprosy, so don't pitch one in the back of your truck to add to your dead animal collection, like someone I know was thinking of doing.


Thanks to all of my fellow BaseCampers who followed my travels on my Instagram account. It made 60+ hours of driving soooo much more entertaining!!

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