by Don Stefanovich
Lajitas, Texas, has announced its second annual Chihuahuan Desert Dirt Fest will be held February 16 through 18. The three-day, non-race festival ride is the second in a series of annual events aimed at reviving a remote mountain-bike Mecca—a hotbed of marathon racing during the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s—that as little as three years ago, was off limits to those on two wheels.
Eighty miles from the nearest supermarket, Lajitas isn’t your average mountain-bike town. It’s far from average for any town, really. In fact, it’s not really a town at all. The unincorporated community in Southwest Texas—tucked between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park along the Rio Grande, near the Mexican border and about 300 miles from El Paso—counts to its credit a population of roughly 100 permanent residents, a 27,000-acre resort and a local government known for its alcoholic exploits.
It is, perhaps, most famous for the latter.
While accounts vary, local history has it that Clay Henry, A Lone Star-lager-loving goat, was elected Mayor in the early 1980s. The mayor was murdered by his own son, Clay Henry II, in 1992 during a drunken dispute over a dame. Despite his crime—or perhaps intimidated by it—the good people of Lajitas proceeded to cast junior the majority of the vote over another local candidate, allowing him to assume his father’s governing role. But the intrigue doesn’t end there. Elected in 2000, Henry Clay III was castrated by a drunken tourist in a scuffle over a longneck bottle of Lone Star, reportedly on a Sunday when local blue laws prohibit the sale of alcohol to humans. Clay Henry III survived, as did his love of the lager, but began to shy from the public eye, a shell of his former self. He eventually disappeared. Some say he was barbequed and eaten during a period of political unrest. Subsequent generations have since relinquished both the bottle and office.
One can pay tribute to the original Clay Henry’s taxidermied remains in the nearby ‘Ghostown’ of Terlingua—still a decidedly Wild-West relic in contrast to recent ‘sprucing up’ of the Lajitas resort. Terlingua began as a mercury-mining town in the 1800s. On its outskirts lies a cemetery with graves as old as the town itself, some marked only by weathered, wooden crosses jutting at awkward angles from the sand. Abandoned mines still pock the landscape.
Then there’s the gift shop.
Head tilted back, bottle in mouth, Clay Henry’s horizontal pupils gaze lifelessly among the cowboy hats, hot sauce and ‘Ski Terlingua’ memorabilia inside the Terlingua Trading Co., operated by Bill Ivey—local historian, owner of the Ghostown and Henry’s campaign manager during the ‘80s. The area, Ivey says, is “ideally suited for mountain biking.”
Like the eminent Clay Henry himself, Desert Sports bike shop got its start in Lajitas during the ‘80s but has since taken up residence in Terlingua. Current owner, long-time rider and river guide—with a snow-white beard that appears to sprout directly from his helmet and sunglasses—Mike Long remembers the glory days of mountain biking in Texas when the Chihuahuan Desert Challenge was one of the original 25 NORBA Classics. Mark Mills, the original Desert Sports owner, helped create the first sanctioned Lajitas race in 1988. There were 98 registered racers. Mills left town in 1990, the race skipped a year and Long became race director in 1992. By the late ‘90s, Long ran the shop and the races, and between 800 and 1,000 racers participated annually, drawing nearly 3,000 spectators. Nearly every big player in the industry was a sponsor and riders the likes of Hans Rey, Lance Armstrong and Dave Wiens tied numbers to their bars.
“This was classic racing in the early days of mountain biking,” says Wiens, Hall of Fame inductee and six-time Leadville 100 champion. “I remember banging bars with Herbold, Rishi, Tinker, Joe Murray, Russ Worley and others. Even raced against a young Lance Armstrong there in 1991. I think his mom brought him down.”
Mike’s shop and its races brought revenue and notoriety to the little dot in the dirt, but when the Lajitas resort and a good chunk of the surrounding desert changed hands, rising costs and dwindling sponsorship made racing a dim prospect. In 2003, for the first time since Mills left town, there was no race.
“But then,” says Long, “an incredible thing happened. People showed up anyway.” Over 50 people appeared at the race site and, unsanctioned, rode for three days.
The Mas O Menos 100 was born. In 2004 the marathon race was official. While the riding scene in Lajitas never fully recovered, for five years, the 100k drew nearly 500 racers annually for their shot at two laps on the 31-mile loop and Tres Cuevas, the Lone Star State’s longest, steepest climb.
Then in 2010 it looked as if Lajitas riding was going rubber side up. Again. For 20 years the race route crossed parcels of land belonging to 17 different owners without incident. After two decades, one of the largest plots was purchased and the buyer wasn’t exactly fat-tire friendly.
“But then,” says Long, “it happened again.” Undeterred by lack of an official race, about 100 people—roughly the equivalent of Lajitas’ own population—came just to ride.
There was something about Lajitas’ riding scene—like so many generations of its beer-swilling, livestock leaders—that seemed to stumble onward without explanation.
And why shouldn’t it? The chunk of the Chihuahuan Desert north of the border is a vast and remote wilderness with endless miles of terrain and trails. “You could spend weeks exploring all the riding options,” local advocate Jeff Renfrow says on the International Mountain Bicycling Associaton website. Renfrow, along with the IMBA-associated Big Bend Trail Alliance, managed to get one such trail, the 70-mile Fresno-Sauceda Loop on state park land, designated as an official IMBA Epic last year. They are pushing for the opening of more trails on national park land as well.
The Epic designation—the only one in Texas—certainly hasn’t hurt, but according to Long, support by the Texas State Parks department, including Deputy Director and mountain-bike enthusiast Dan Sholly, has been pivotal.
“You could be out there for days without ever even seeing or hearing any sign of civilization—not even a single contrail,” Sholly says. “It will be the Moab of Texas in no time. It’s not just a ride, it’s an experience.”
Sholly, working with the Big Bend Trail Alliance, has been the driving force behind recent expansion of State Park land for public use including 200 miles designated for non-motorized use, the product of over 1,000 hours of trail building on state park and surrounding lands over the last few years.
Last year also marked the inaugural Chihuahuan Desert Dirt Fest—a decidedly fun approach lacking a first or last place. This year aims to build on the concept. Even the strange creatures of the Austin Bike Zoo will be in attendance. Ride options for this year’s festival—both guided and solo—include the 30-mile Rincon Loop, the 18-mile Dome Trail and, of course, a 54-mile section of the IMBA Epic. The latter—an eight to 12 hour ride—can be split up over two days.
“A true backcountry ride, you have to be on your game to return from this one unscathed as the stunning vistas can distract your focus from the rowdy trail under your wheels in a heartbeat,” says Hill Abell, Hall of Fame inductee, former IMBA chairman and owner of Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin.
The trails wind through the Chihuahuan Desert mountains, past canyons and springs; archeological and historic sites; and consist of singletrack, old jeep trails and dry riverbeds. Sharp rocks and thorns threaten tires—only the brave run tubes. Temperatures can climb close to triple digits, even in winter.
“Most people don’t train for a festival,” Long says, “but you need to take the Epic seriously.”
The hospital isn’t any closer than the supermarket.