Last year Epic Rides announced a new fourth event to the popular off-road series in Bentonville, Arkansas. I’ve raced a lot of places over my career, but I’d never been to this part of America. I had heard a few rumours about Bentonville though and was curious to check it out.
One reason I was excited was that we finally had an Epic Rides race that wasn’t at altitude and didn’t have a massive climb in it; this was definitely going to be good for the larger than average riders like myself. A big reason and push for the event is that Bentonville is the home of Walmart HQ and some of the Walton’s are big fans of cycling. I’d heard about their huge investments in singletrack, free museums, nice restaurants, and a good coffee shop which made it sound like an interesting place to explore.
I did some research during the off-season and made sure to book an Airbnb close to downtown; I really enjoy being able to easily walk around and check everything out. I actually booked the place in January and some friends bug me for planning so far ahead; no one was bugging me however when they were hanging out, washing bikes, showering, and chilling at my sweet pad so close to the event and expo though.
The month leading into the final Epic Rides event was pretty hectic with trips back to Canada, Golden Giddy-Up in Colorado, Interbike, CrossReno, and finally Trans-Cascadia leading straight into the race week. It was a logistical nightmare as I had to ship bikes, equipment, and pull favours to make sure everything was headed in the right direction.
Luckily, I survived five nights of good times and camping at Trans-Cascadia in one piece, my roommate Marty drove my Yeti SB130 and Enduro gear back to Canada, and I flew directly to Bentonville on Monday the week of the event. Luckily my Yeti SB100 arrived on Tuesday and I was all set to recover and explore the town and trails before the racing started with the Fat Tire Crit on Friday.
Sam Walton's first store is now a museum. Downtown Bentonville is where Walmart all started.
After coming from fall in the Northwest the first thing I noticed was how sticky it was still in Arkansas. With humidity and temps in the high 20’s Celsius I was breaking a sweat changing tires. Heading out for my first ride I jumped on a flow trail that descends straight from downtown; it was fun to see how cycling is such a big part of the Bentonville community. Pump tracks, jump parks, and flow lines next to sidewalks were everywhere. During the week it was nice to have some time to explore the trails but also the culture downtown. It was great to do some touristing checking out the original Walton’s store museum, the impressive and free Crystal Bridges art museum, and frequenting the downtown establishments. I have a lot of receipts to prove the coffee at Onyx Coffee Lab was top notch and the Pressroom was my favourite eatery.
During my career I’ve always enjoyed working with Maxxis on new tires and looking for any advantage I can find. The El Yucateco Fat Tire Crits at the Epic Rides are no different and the racing rules are simple; we have to use the exact same bike as the main 50mile with the only exception being tires which have to be at least 1.5in wide.
Flow trails, pump tracks, and jump parks everywhere. The investment in cycling was obvious in Bentonville
For the last several years I had been racing the 40c Maxxis ReFuse which is an absolute bombproof tire I recommend and use for training all winter on my OPEN U.P. curly bar bike. Supple or lightweight the Refuse is not so I was excited when Maxxis started working on a new 40c tire called the Velocita which was more performance oriented. Tire performance is often about construction, rubber compound, as well as weight, and the Velocita was going to be a big improvement.
I’ve been bugging Duncan over at Maxxis HQ about availability all summer and was psyched when the Velocita finally came into stock the week of Bentonville. The rest of the Maxxis sponsored riders also got new Velocita rubber but not before we had some laughs with a few of the guys. Duncan had some fun and sent an email letting them know the tires were available but only the ladies, not the guys, could use them at the Bentonville Fat Tire Crit per the sponsorship agreement with Kabush. The Maxxis ladies ended up sweeping the Fat Tire Crit on the new Velocita with Katerina Nash taking the win.
I snagged the first lap prime but missed the second lap move that stayed away to the finish. After getting a little frustrated in the chase group I attacked with 3 laps to go to come across the line solo in fourth. Interloper Brian Lewis joined us for the final race of the Epic Rides series and used his road smarts and power to take the Fat Tire Crit win from the breakaway.
My Yeti SB100 with skinny boots on.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! It was a wild and chaotic showdown for the extra big cheques in Bentonville. Oz Off-Road was putting up double prize money with a massive $10K for the win and $60K split evenly between the men and women. Last time I can remember a cheque that size was in the late nineties when I went down to NORBA Finals in Vermont. Travis Brown won the overall XC Series and received a $10K cheque and a Jeep! Unfortunately, when I finally won the NORBA National Series several times things had changed, and I just received a bunch of plaques for my tickle trunk. I have nothing to complain about though and it is really great to see the Epic Rides prize money that really makes chasing the series viable for so many more athletes. Big winners in Bentonville. These are some of the biggest novelty cheques I've seen in years. Photo: Kenny Wehn
Pre-riding the trails with friends all week I didn’t see any flats tires so the chaos during the main event wasn’t really on my radar. A little foreshadowing happened on Saturday when I started hearing stories of multiple flats from the amateurs. Sunday was unlike anything I have ever seen in my career however. Rain on the start line and heavy thunderstorms during the race added to the drama and challenges fixing mechanicals. After a tactical start to the race we all filed into the endless singletrack that weaves its way around and through the surrounding communities. It seemed status quo at first as I settled into a train of riders but after the first hour shrapnel started to fly.
Maybe the slippery moisture increased the slicing and danger but tires started popping unannounced right and left on the hundreds of sharp embedded razor like rocks. It was impossible to tell what place I was in the race and during the first couple of hours I felt immune to any problems. I passed through the second feed zone in third but my luck changed immediately after on some sharp ledges. A massive slice required three plugs to sort out a rear flat and then I had to use a fourth a little later on my front tire. Many riders didn’t even make it to the finish, so I was happy to just survive and surprised to still end up just inside the top ten in 9th. Keegan Swenson was definitely a deserving winner riding at the front all day and amazingly arriving at the finish with his tires intact. An informal tally had only three men in the top twenty surviving without a puncture.
The women’s race had a really compelling storyline as well with Erin Huck taking a dramatic victory; she had a big comeback and passed Catherine Pendrel in the final kilometres to win by seconds. The real drama happened early on though as Erin and Chloe Woodruff flatted within meters of each other. This led to a selfless sacrifice that really demonstrated the camaraderie and friendship among the competitors at these events. They both had catastrophic slices in their tires; it happened that Erin’s was in the rear and Chloe’s was in the front. Realizing neither would be able to contend for the victory Chloe made the decision to give her rear wheel to her friend Erin who charged back through the field for the win. The ladies are now stage racing together in Greece and rumour is Erin is buying all the drinks! Lots of interesting art, museums, and food to check out around town during the week.
At the finish I was puzzling along with others about what we would change to survive the event next year. No matter what tires, sealant, or bike the rocks were just deadly. Kenny from Stan’s NoTubes even flatted an Enduro tire, a 2.5 EXO Aggressor, on an innocuous section of the course. Talking to the Maxxis guys we might have to look at a special XC tire with the new EXO+ construction; a special Bentonville rocks edition. Regardless probably look at some fatter tires next year to soak up some of the sharp edges.
Like many others, the race didn’t work out quite as I’d hoped to finish off the Epic Rides series but I definitely enjoyed visiting Bentonville and already looking forward to the challenge and coming back next year. If you are wondering I’ve already reserved my sweet downtown Airbnb too!