DON’T SLEEP ON ARKANSAS: The MTB mecca

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.

Little Rock

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 Norris, president of the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance

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.

“I moved here in 2003, and really, there was no mountain biking in either Bentonville or Bella Vista. But it wasn’t until 2006 that we heard a rumor about a trail coming to Bentonville, and that’s the trail system that Tom Walton went to the city council and got approval for, to build 5 miles of trail in Bentonville.” 
 
Gary Vernon
 

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.

Candice Kozark

“It’s exploding, and it’s not going to stop.”

 – Candice Kozark special programs coordinator for Bike NWA.

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.”

   
Chatting with Scott Shroen (left)

“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

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 and runners see mountain biking up close and personal.

It’s true that Bentonville really doesn’t need much of an introduction to any mountain biker who stays current with the scene, 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.

Bea Apple runs a successful restaurant, The Pressroom, and a textile boutique in downtown Bentonville. She’s also a mother of three- AKA Bea is an all around superstar.

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.

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.

Dennis Kremenetskiy

“I wanted to bring my expertise and knowledge of the bike industry back to Arkansas, where the bike industry is growing and developing every day. There is much more opportunity to start a new business here than in California, where the market is already saturated,”

-Dennis Kremenetskiy 

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.

Pro enduro racer Rich Drew

I wanted to work around mountain bikes, my passion, and this is the land of mountain bike opportunity,” says Drew.

“The people behind everything that’s happening have such incredible vision, and to see a whole community rally behind it, and to be able to be a part of that, there was no I way couldn’t take up that opportunity.”

-Rich Drew

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.

Garrett Hubbard, CEO of Gravitas enduro team

In a pleasant twist, Hubbard found the growing sport actually imbued his work world as well.

“25% of what I do is actually work within the bicycle segment. That’s a dream come true, and one that would have never happened if we have remained in Washington DC.”

-Garrett Hubbard

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.

Produced, written, and edited by: Jeff Kendall-Weed @jeffweed.
Filming: Logan Patrick Nelson@loganpnelson.
Photography: Denis Kremenetskiy @denismrkt22.

Supported by:
Best Western
Camelbak
Ibis Cycles
Kali Protectives
Kitsbow Cycling Apparel

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jack Pate says:

    I think it’s Boyle Park, not Boyd?

    1. jeffkendallweed says:

      You are correct! My mistake!!!

  2. Jade says:

    I can’t believe the gravity trails at leatherwood didn’t make the video! I love that place. That’s where I learned about the awesomeness of rock solid trail construction.

  3. Great article, Jeff! You covered many of the biggest players, including those who helped start the movement and those who were drawn to it after it was clear it was going to keep growing. So cool when a rider and writer of your caliber visits and makes a deep dive into the scene.

    Did nobody mention the Trail Adoption Program, a completely volunteer-driven effort to keep all those miles of trails rideable through Spring and Summer’s fast undergrowth and wind storms’ aftermath? The paid people could not possibly do it all, and often get tips from volunteers on location of particularly large blockages.

  4. Next time you’re here, check out the newly opened Rattlesnake Ridge trail near Pinnacle mountain in Little Rock. Thanks for the great article!

    1. jeffkendallweed says:

      I also want to ride the bigger jump trails near Bentonville, too. Wil make it out one day again!

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