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Revolution is a strong word. Even so, it feels appropriate to describe how Northwest Arkansas has incorporated a complete mountain bike experience into the region. The ambitious strategy that began in Bentonville, and now expands throughout Northwest Arkansas, paints an exciting new paradigm for what’s possible when developing the sport. These days in northwest Arkansas, mountain biking is molding an entire region into a community of like-minded shredders.
Like many, I had heard about Bentonville’s significant push for mountain biking. Thanks to the support of my sponsors, including Ibis, Camelbak, Kitsbow, Kali, and the local Best Western locations, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to visit Arkansas to experience the scene for myself. With my own appreciation for how legitimate and mainstream the sport of mountain biking has become in the Pacific Northwest, I figured I could make the most of this visit by meeting and riding with the people responsible for this revolution in the Ozarks. I wanted to learn what they were up to, and perhaps build a new picture in my own mind of how we could bring these strategies to other areas. How can we spread the revolution?
Once I finalized my plans to make a trip, I did what I’ve always done, ever since I was a kid: I asked a fellow rider for some guidance! I shot a quick call to the local bike shop in Bentonville and chatted with long-time local Dave Neal at Mojo Cycling. After explaining what I was up to, it was clear that southern hospitality was alive and well: Dave didn’t hesitate to get me in touch with several key figures in the Northwest Arkansas (NWA) scene. Dave connected me with Gary Vernon, program officer for the Walton Foundation with an emphasis on Arkansas-focused trail and cycling projects, as well as Scott Schroen, director of Oz Trails. Even before I flew in, I already felt like I was going to Arkansas to meet old friends. Little Rock: A Nascent Destination
Before diving into what’s specifically happening in Northwest Arkansas, I wanted to better understand what the scene was like before the revolution began. En route to Bentonville, I visited Little Rock, a 3-hour drive southeast in central Arkansas. I first heard about the riding in Little Rock in about 2009. I was working at Ibis, and our company sent a few employees to visit Competitive Cyclist, located in Little Rock at the time. Reports were that there was indeed a riding scene in Little Rock. I’d made a mental note of it, but hadn’t heard much about Little Rock since then. With how much fan fare Bentonville has been receiving, I was eager to visit for myself, and see something perhaps less discovered. And it turns out that it’s still a fairly nascent mountain bike scene, at least in comparison to Bentonville and the Northwest Arkansas region.
Paul Norris, the president of the mountain bike advocacy group Central Arkansas Trails Alliance (CATA), explains, “I’d say we’re about four years behind Bentonville. We’ve been building for quite a while, working with the city, and now we’re seeing the land grants, the highway grants.”
Paul has an extensive trail building pedigree, having spent many years living and building in the Pacific Northwest, as well as riding all over the USA during extensive van life tours. In Little Rock, the trails utilize volunteer build days, and CATA is still a small organization at only 118 members--but it’s growing. In this central part of the USA, mountain biking is still a fairly “fringe” activity. It already has a stronger presence in Little Rock, though, than in many other heartland towns. In fact, Little Rock today feels like it’s on a similar path to that of Bentonville, growing in possibilities and popularity.
Paul, his wife Melanie, and I rode the Jackfork Mountain Bike trail at Pinnacle State Park, which is still a bit of a marquee trail for Little Rock. We then journeyed to a less affluent neighborhood in the community to ride a Boyd city park. That trail project, one of CATA’s early efforts, reflects its unique strategy of making mountain biking accessible to all.
Having smashed through some proper Arkansas rock for the day, we set our sights on the Northwest corner of the Natural State. The drive from Little Rock to Northwest Arkansas provided a beautiful tour of Arkansas, from the flat lands of the central region to the rolling hills of the Ozarks. And while the Ozarks might not be the tallest mountains in North America, to see the flat lands they rise from puts their elevation into perspective. They might not be massive, but they are mountains, and they are beautiful. Little Rock mountain biking trailsBentonville: The Epicenter
Today, in fall 2018, we are reaching the point where Bentonville needs no grand introduction. It is among the most popular riding destinations between the Rocky Mountains and the eastern seaboard. But the mountain bike experience isn’t just Bentonville; it’s the entire Northwest Arkansas region. Currently, anywhere from three to as many as five professional trail building companies are continually employed in the region. Yes, this means many people earn a living building trails. This is an important point to remember, as it shows one of the benefits of growing mountain biking as a sport: it creates paying jobs, helping communities in lots of ways at once.
The growth of the sport has been primarily within the last dozen years, with much of the growth only recently. The town of Bentonville only began to build mountain biking trails in 2006:
Vernon now works as a program officer for the Walton foundation focusing on trail and cycling projects. He is also a 30-plus year veteran employee of Walmart.
Within Northwest Arkansas, about 150 miles of trail are open to the public. And it’s not just rugged Ozark trails through slick limestone and thick clay-- this includes an astounding number of professionally built trail, much of it with a sinuous flow through tall oaks and pines. And that 150 mile number is actually a low estimate. New trails continue to open weekly.
Bike NWA is the lead advocate for biking in general in North West Arkansas. Bike NWA supports programs and events that foster a thriving, fun cycling culture, and mountain biking is indeed a big part of that. But it’s not the only part. During my visit, I learned that a big part of the leadership and vision for the growth has come from Bike NWA, as well as their bike alliance. The alliance is a consortium of cycling related non-profits that can all benefit through mutual communication and common goals that serve the community. In addition to the trails, Bentonville now has an extensive urban bicycle infrastructure. Greenways and bike lanes crisscross the rolling hills.
One unique aspect of the scene in Northwest Arkansas is the Oz Trails brand. Under the Bike NWA umbrella, Oz Trails has a specific goal of promoting mountain biking in Northwest Arkansas. Oz Trails works on events as well as raising awareness and furthering the stoke for the trails through a content marketing type strategy. Developing the Oz brand for the trails presents a simple, catchy title for businesses to rally behind.
Scott Shroen, director of Oz Trails, explains, “Something I find myself repeating very often to explain what Oz Trails is all about. It is the path that the mountain biker experiences while they are in north west Arkansas. So it’s the breweries, the trails, the bike shops, the rider themselves, all of us together. It’s not me, per say. I might be the one behind the scenes, but it’s not just me. It’s all of us.”
Local advocacy groups FAST and OORV both advocate for the growth and maintenance of mountain bike trails. With each group’s mission specifically defined, the groups can then focus on exactly what they need to do. This targeted approach has led the mountain bike scenes’ tremendous growth.
One of the coolest things I noticed about Bentonville is that the accessibility to trails could not be better. Right in the heart of downtown, on Northwest 3rd Street, lies the All-American trail, a pumptrack-esque ribbon of golden brown singletrack painstakingly sculpted to bring riders through three trails networks: Crystal Bridges, Park Spring, and finally, to the Slaughter Pen network.
The All-American trail is particularly visionary. It was designed with a goal of exposing the population to what mountain biking is, intentionally built alongside a multi-use path. Walkers see mountain biking up close and personal.
Yes, Bentonville really doesn’t need much of an introduction to any mountain biker who stays current with the scene in the central USA, but it’s worth noticing all the great things happening there, just as the kids along the All-American trail notice. The All-American trail is a great marquee piece for the town, and as we pedaled from a trendy downtown coffee shop, we passed a public bicycle maintenance station. As the locals told me about their growing enduro race series, as well as about the IMBA world summit, we also waved at droves of Sprinter vans heading into town for Outerbike. Already strong, the scene grows and grows. A Mountain Bike Community: Portraits of the People
Visiting Northwest Arkansas, I didn’t just want to ride the trails; I wanted to meet the folks whose lives have been positively changed by the growth of mountain biking in this town of 35,000 people. In about 15 short years, the sport went from an insignificant blip on the radar to a mainstream activity, and this has directly shaped many local lives. Southern hospitality is alive here in many ways. Arkansas blends the best of southern culture with heartland Americana, welcoming cyclists who bring even more positive energy to the region.
But the business opportunities aren’t limited to the service industry; the mountain bike culture here is growing some rather unique opportunities.
The town is aware that the community needs more than just trails, such as great places to eat, micro-breweries, and an art museum. Bentonville is developing a metropolitan experience with a small-town vibe. We were able to enjoy food all the way from typical American breakfasts to gourmet brewery style dinners, and even had some traditional and warm Vietnamese pho on a cold evening. Oven and Tap is a great example of the scene in Bentonville. The trendy restaurant actually sponsors the Gravitas enduro race team. Also notable? Scot Nicol, founder and part owner of Ibis Cycles, who was in town for Outerbike. Scot is another guy who absolutely rips on a bike.
While there is no single person in charge of and pushing the movement in NWA, the local mountain bike community’s positive vibe very much stems from the fact that there are many different key players putting in energy to develop the scene. That said, I was lucky enough to spend some time with a guy who has indeed been hands on involved with the mountain bike growth in Bentonville since the very beginning- Gary Vernon. Vernon has an important position as a program officer for the Walton foundation, with an emphasis on Arkansas focused trail and cycling opportunities, and he has held a key role in the local development. And the guy rips.
With an acumen of decades of riding experience, as well as BMX, moto trials and motocross influences, Vernon and I hit jumps together, rode wheelies for entire city blocks, and generally shredded the daylights outta the trails.
Denis Kremenetskiy moved to Rogers, AR, in 2004 to attend high school. He left in 2007 to pursue his dream of racing downhill and working within the cycling industry. After 10 years with top cycling companies all located in California, Kremenetskiy returned to Arkansas to open his mobile bicycle repair business.
Richard Drew has been teaching mountain bike skills clinics for years, and decided that Bentonville had sufficient mountain bike opportunities that he could actually leave his traditional 9-to-5 job and instead earn a living through skills clinics. There are only a handful of places in North America where that wouldn’t be considered financial suicide--and Bentonville is now on the safe list.
Professional digital storyteller Garrett Hubbard didn’t solely move to the region in pursuit of a bicycle industry gig. He came for the family-friendly culture, but the quality riding nearby only helped with that decision.
Historically, to work within the bike industry requires living in the industry hot spots-- California, Utah, Colorado--states known for big mountains. But with the massive growth of the mountain bike scene, many new opportunities exist in NWA. The costs of living and doing business are relatively low in Arkansas, and for anyone looking to set a stake in the MTB industry, Bentonville is now officially on the map. The Takeaway
As mountain biking’s popularity grows, it makes sense to (literally) spread the love. I was very attracted to visiting Arkansas because I wanted to learn how they have gotten to where they are. And you know what? I would love to apply this model elsewhere. It’s time to think bigger. Currently, many trails in the most popular hotspots are crowded. We clearly need more places to ride, and we do ultimately need a bigger presence of the sport as a whole. I was excited to see firsthand what an innovative community can develop to enhance mountain biking and all that goes with it.
The Arkansas state motto is Regnat Populus: the people rule. And they do. Bentonville mountain biking trailsLogan Nelson has filmed much of my larger productions in 2018. And he kills it on the bike as well! Note he is riding a borrowed hardtail, and even more notable, that’s a 40 pound backpack full of all our camera gear. He rolled right off this drop like it was nothing.
Riding with the faces behind the Arkansas MTB Scene Produced, written, and edited by: Jeff Kendall-Weed @jeffweed.Filming: Logan Patrick Nelson@loganpnelson
.Photography: Denis Kremenetskiy @denismrkt22.Supported by:
Kitsbow Cycling Apparel