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Bentonville’s Ernie Lechuga Smashes Record to Finish First in Challenging 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country Bike Race | Hot Springs National Park Arkansas

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Bentonville’s Ernie Lechuga Smashes Record to Finish First in Challenging 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country Bike Race

(PHOTO CAPTIONS: [1] Hot Springs Mayor Pat McCabe (back to camera) congratulates Ernie Lechuga in a cast-iron bathtub at the finish line Wednesday night. [2] Friends shower Ernie Lechuga with champagne at the finish line Wednesday night. [3] Ernie Lechuga films his ride across the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock on his way to record finish in 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country Race. — Photos by Kai Caddy)

HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, Arkansas — Bentonville’s Ernie Lechuga smashed the existing record to finish first in the 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country bike race Wednesday night.

Lechuga completed the challenging 1,000-mile course through some of Arkansas’s most rugged mountain terrain in 4 days 14 hours and 13 minutes. The previous fastest time, set in 2020, was by Ted King in 4 days, 20 hours, 51 minutes.

The race started and finished in Hot Springs, the host city for 2022 and 2023. AHRC is 1,000-plus miles with over 75,000 feet of elevation gain on paved and gravel roads.

Dozens of friends, fans and even Hot Springs Mayor Pat McCabe, himself an avid biking fan, were on hand to see Lechuga finish. Some sprayed him with champagne as the exhausted Lechuga crossed the finish line in Hill Wheatley Plaza in the heart of downtown Hot Springs.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Lechuga said. “It was a perfect ride, everything that could go wrong went wrong.” He slept only six hours during the race.

Andrew Onermaa, the AHCR race director, said, “This year was a perfect storm for Ernie’s attempt. I couldn't think of a better person and a better time in his life for all of this to come together. It’s fitting that an Arkansas rider has the new fastest known time, and I dare anyone out there to try to take it. From the bottom of my heart, kudos to Ernie for being an inspiration to us all.”

Ernie Lechuga grew up on the bike. He spent his teenage years competing around the world and won junior TT national championships for Mexico. He raced for Defeet, Jelly Belly and Mercury cycling teams before retiring. He’s also competed in Ironman triathlon, but now enjoys off-road ultra-endurance racing such as the AHCR.

Ernie now focuses on athlete development — he is Leborne’s bike fitter, a personal coach, and a race strategy expert. He’s also worked as a pro team mechanic and is the head coach/founder of the OZ Development junior mountain bike team in Northwest Arkansas.

“To have what is quickly becoming one of the toughest races in the country start and finish in Hot Springs has been so inspiring and exciting to watch,” Visit Hot Springs Trails Coordinator Traci Berry said. “Ernie came back with a mission this year and he completed it. How awesome that an Arkansan now holds the fastest known time. Congratulations, Ernie.”

Jeff Kerkove of Colorado was the first finisher Sunday after completing the 180-mile Ouachita Triple Crown route. He arrived back in Hill Wheatley Plaza 23 hours and 5 minutes after the Saturday morning start. Alex Kowalski completed the 180-mile OTC in 31 hours and 4 minutes on a single-speed bike. Christopher Farney finished third overall at 32 hours 29 minutes.

In the 500-mile AHCR South Loop, Jan Heine of Seattle, Wash., completed the route in 46 hours and 59 minutes minutes then relaxed in a cast-iron bathtub at the finish line in Hill Wheatley Plaza.

Seventy-six cyclists set off from downtown Hot Springs Saturday morning in the challenging multi-day biking event.

The cyclists, representing 23 states, chose from one of three routes: the 180-mile Ouachita Triple Crown loop, the 500-mile South Loop, or the 1,000-mile AHCR route. They had the option of taking on their selected routes traveling clockwise or counterclockwise.

The AHCR route covers most of Western Arkansas. Riders must be self-supported (no help from friends) as they ride pavement and gravel road segments totaling 75,898 feet of elevation gain.

The Arkansas High Country Race was developed in 2019 by Arkansas’s own Chuck Campbell in partnership with Adventure Cycling.

For more information call Traci Berry at 501-321-2027.