I had always heard that Palo Duro Canyon in Texas was an amazing place to ride a mountain bike. At 120 miles long and 6 to 20 miles wide, it is the secondlargest canyon in the country (next to some “grand” one in Arizona.)
Although Palo Duro is home to an annual mountain bike race that is part of the Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association’s (TMBRA) fall marathon series, I had never made the seven-plus-hour drive from San Antonio to get there. Heck, it’s closer to more places in Colorado than Texas.
When USA Cycling announced that the Nationals would be held there in 2019 and 2020, I decided it was time that Palo Duro and I finally got acquainted. Little did I know the race itself wouldn’t be the only unforgettable ride that weekend.
As I was mentally packing my Jeep for the trip, I saw a social media post from Joel Carroll offering fellow racers a ride to the Nationals on a converted school bus. Although I didn’t know Carroll, I’d seen the bus at previous races and always gotten a kick out of it. It’s the official bus of Team YEAH, a dozen or so Austin-area racers who ride and race together and can count several Cat. 1 state championships among them.
“One of our buddies, Justin Carver, brought up the idea of buying a bus at a team meeting,” said Carroll. “Most of the team shrugged it off, so Justin decided he was going to do it himself.”
Justin found an old bus being auctioned by the Lubbock Independent School District. He pulled the trigger, and for $1200 he was the proud owner of a 28-foot International Harvester 3800 T444E. Five other members of Team YEAH ended up chipping in.
The conversion from an old-school bus to the “’Chool Bus” (pronounced “cool bus”) took some time and an additional $1500. The team removed rows of seats and built four wooden bunk beds into the back of the bus. (The bus also has bench seating that pulls out to an additional double bed.) Carroll installed a sweet sound system and threw a Rekon Racks five-bike system on the back. And, of course, they peeled the “S” off the “SCHOOL BUS” stencil.
“When I first drove the bus, it was a white-knuckle experience, but I got used to it,” said Carroll. “The engine has a governor that prohibits going faster than 65 mph, and the hardest part is keeping the gas pedal pressed to the floor during a long ride. It’s very tiring for your calves when you’re trying to stay fresh for a race.”
The driver’s seat, on the other hand, smooths out the bumpy ride; it has what Carroll estimates to be 10 inches of travel and bounces to absorb the bumps.
The Team YEAH bus has become a fixture at local races. They will often park the bus at the top of a climb and pump tunes during the races. The inside is plastered with stickers from its many adventures.
We arrived in Palo Duro in the rain and the last gasp of a (Texas) winter cold front. I was immediately grateful that I had abandoned my tent-camping plans and ridden on the bus. A foam mattress and a solid roof over my head made for good prerace sleep.
When the weather cleared the following morning, the bus proved to be the perfect home base for race weekend. Camp chairs and a table, a grill, coffee press and more were slid out from the rear emergency door as we all kitted up and prepped our bikes for the challenge ahead.
The race was a brutal 46.5 miles through rugged, red clay that was made more challenging to pedal through by the rain the day before. When it wasn’t muddy and slick, it was technical and steep. I didn’t meet a rider out there who didn’t suffer immensely.
Rose Grant won the women’s pro race. Russell Finsterwald beat defending champion Payson McElveen for the men’s title, and Team YEAH’s Carroll found himself on the podium for his age group. We all celebrated a fantastic day of racing that night.
After a glorious recovery ride Sunday morning, we packed up the bus and hit the road, which became another adventure in itself. Just as an epic mountain bike ride hasn’t really started until you’ve gotten lost in the wilderness, a ride on the Team YEAH ’Chool Bus apparently hasn’t really started until the old bus shows its personality.
The engine made a few funny noises, and Andrew Stough, who was driving at the time, noticed that the governor was now stubbornly prohibiting speeds greater than 60 mph.
We pulled over on the side of some farm-to-market road, and Carroll, who carries a bike shop’s worth of parts and tools on board, demonstrated that he is equally adept as a bus mechanic. He removed the air filter, cleaned it, poured some fluids in the engine and added some oil.
“You have to have some kind of diagnostic skills,” said Carroll. “We had no issues with the bus for a long time, but it’s been in the shop twice this year.”
Before long, we were rolling again, and each of us realized we were going to have to drag our tired legs into work the next day after all. But, after several more stops-and-gos, I found myself repurposing the old Jens Voigt quote: “Shut up, engine!” Just get us home.
When we finally pulled into Austin, it was quite a bit later than we planned, but our group of weary mountain bikers was relieved to have finished what we started. It took some grit, determination and knowhow, but we pushed through, not unlike the mountain bike marathon the day before. As I threw my bike on the back of the Jeep and prepared to head home, Team YEAH was already making plans for the race next weekend.
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