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Interior highlands

Getting to know Tour de Dirt, Oklahoma’s mountain bike race series

Phat Tire Outback Mountain Bike Race in Sapulpa, March 5, 2017

James Gann

“Can you even mountain bike in the South, bro?” 

Honestly, a dollar for every time I get some variation of that question when I mountain bike out West would cover most of my post-ride beers. 

“You’ve got the Rockies, we’ve got the Ozarks,” is my go-to response. 

True story: the landscape of Northeast Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas makes for some great flowy and technical cross-country and enduro (timed downhill) mountain biking. The mountains here give you just enough uphill climbs to make you savor the downhill slopes.

Just like other mountain biking destinations, the South puts on epic races and events. In October 2016, Bike magazine spent three weeks in Ozark Mountain Country, Bentonville, Arkansas, testing new bike models, add-ons, and gear for their upcoming 2017 Bible of Bikes issue. Weeks later, in November, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) held its world summit in Bentonville. 

Just two hours east of Bentonville, in those same mountains, sits an even lesser-known mountain bike community: our own. 

You can mountain bike year-round here if you can handle the heat-stroke symptoms in the summer and the cold, dry air burning your lungs in the winter. Plus, Tulsa is a race location for the Tour de Dirt, one of the longest-running mountain bike race series in the region. 

Tour de Dirt features 10 races in 10 different locations in or near Oklahoma in the spring and fall. It got its start in 1996 and became an official series in 1997. TdD operates with non-profit status through the Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship (OEF) and uses races as a platform to bring awareness to local trails and advocate for their maintenance. 

This year, race organizers are trying out a new schedule, front-loading it with seven races in the spring and three in the fall.

“We wanted to finish before cyclocross season so we could draw more of those racers and not conflict with their season,” said Corey White, director of Tour de Dirt. 

Most TdD race locations are in eastern and central Oklahoma. White said the series averages around 125 to 150 racers every year, and they’re seeing an upward trend in participants.

“After four events so far this year, we’ve averaged 175 adult racers and 15 Kids Kup racers,” White said. Most of the riders are Oklahoma-based, but racers also come from Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri. 

Cass Willard, a Tulsa-based mountain biker, has ridden multiple Tour de Dirt races over the years. 

“One of the great pleasures of Tour de Dirt is the diversity of trails,” Willard said, adding that some are fast and flowy, while others have more technical climbs and descents. 

Each individual race in the Tour de Dirt series is sanctioned, permitted, and insured through USA Cycling, which gives the series an official structure. Though TdD uses USA Cycling’s guidelines and rules, races can be customized depending on location. 

Every TdD race has categories one, two, and three (Cat I, II, III) and includes various age groups. Kids from ages four to 12 can sign up for the Kids Kup series. White described the Kids Kup series as a shorter, more controlled course that’s especially designed for younger riders and even has a training wheels/striders category. At 13, cyclists can start racing in the junior category and (with their parents’ permission) participate in higher categories if they qualify.

“Racing in the Tour de Dirt series is more like a family reunion,” said Heidi Blackmon, a Cat II racer who has participated in TdD for over eight years. 

According to Blackmon, the mountain biking community in Oklahoma doesn’t form rivalries like some road races. Everyone pulls for each other and wants their fellow racers to do well. 

“I’ll be the first one to show you around Turkey Mountain if you’re new to the area,” she said. 

No matter where you ride, the most important thing about mountain biking is the sense of community. I’ve yet to ride anywhere that complete strangers haven’t invited me along on their local trails or to grab a beer. 

So, yeah, as far as Oklahoma is concerned, you can mountain bike in the South. The Ozarks are here with miles of flowy, vacillating trails, and the Ouachita Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma await with technical singletracks. Tour de Dirt helps you see it all, test your limits, and ride alongside some of the nicest, grittiest people you’ll ever meet.