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, 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 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 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 felt like I was going to Arkansas to meet old friends.
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.
Bentonville: The Epicenter
Today 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 many ways at once.
The growth of the sport has been primarily within the last dozen years, with much of the growth happening very recently. The town of Bentonville didn’t begin building mountain biking trails until 2006.
Gary Vernon, who’s been a key player in advocating for mountain biking in Arkansas, 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.
“It is the path that the mountain biker experiences while they are in north west Arkansas. 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.”
-Scott Schroen, director of Oz Trails