Branham Snyder gets a taste of Americana at the original Walmart. Tim Koerber photo.
Scattered throughout North America, there exist those select few towns that can called true “destinations” of the mountain bike world: The Crested Buttes, Moabs, Bellinghams, or Whistlers. The list is short but sweet, but they have one big thing in common (besides awesome riding, of course): riding in the winter tends to not be great. Enter Bentonville, Arkansas.
This newfound mountain bike mecca, tucked away in the Ozark Mountains in Northwest Arkansas, or NWA as the locals call it (take that as you will), may be the next destination American mountain bike town. During a full week of riding in January, a handful of friends and I were treated to everything the area had to offer. Trails, museums, food, more trails, and did I mention trails? All jokes aside, this small corner of America may hold the key to mountain biking’s future.
More Money, Less Problems
A decade ago, Bentonville quietly cruised below the radar as nothing more than the home of America’s largest retailer, Walmart. Home to Walton family and the Walmart HQ, the city was a quiet bastion of Americana, with plenty of money but not much to do with it.
Connor Johnson at Blowing Springs, one of the original Bentonville trail systems. Tim Koerber photo.
Right around that time, Tom and Steuart Walton, the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, got really into mountain biking. So much so that they decided to invest $18 million into local trailbuilding infrastructure through the Walton Foundation in 2007. In case you were wondering, $18 million dollars goes a LONG way towards carving singletrack into a mountainside. Especially when that $18 million turns into nearly $74 million total for pathways in the area.
So, money was poured into mountain biking and singletrack was built, that’s nothing new. But what sets apart Bentonville from the rest of them? In a nutshell, the sheer quality and diversity of the trails. The bottomless budget coupled with a unique willingness of landowners to develop their land allowed half a dozen of the country’s best trailbuilding crews free reign to build whatever they envisioned. The likes of Progressive Trail Design, Rock Solid, and IMBA Trail Solutions to name a few. To put it into perspective, the state of Montana doesn’t have a single full-time trail crew, this town has several. The trail management is shared between various organizations, namely the city and OZ Trails NWA.
That meant building everything from 40-mile epic singletrack loops, to several pro-sized jump parks in the woods, all the way to pumptracks for sidewalks. While towns like Moab or Crested Butte may struggle with land use issues surrounding mechanized travel, Bentonville is struggling to find the time to build the sheer amount of singletrack already paid for and approved.
Branham Snyder and Ikhide Ikhigbonoaremen having some fun on their morning commute. Tim Koerber photo.
In the 12 years since trailbuilding officially got underway in the NWA area, over 230 miles of singletrack have been built, with nearly 100 more in the works. Statewide, that number is currently at 840 miles with a goal to reach 1000 miles of singletrack by next year. Literally anywhere we look, trails become visible weaving between backyards, through the city’s drainages, and alongside paved bike paths running through city parks.
A Private Bike Park
As much as we all love epic singletrack, there is something about a bike park that never gets old. Especially when it features endless flow trails and multiple jump lines over a mile long a piece. It’s the kind of place that, when we showed up in mid-winter without having ridden bikes in months, you got your jumping legs back in a matter of minutes.
Alaina Henderson goes full send on the big line at Coler. Tim Koerber photo.
Coler Preserve, located a few minutes outside downtown Bentonville, is exactly that. With a mellow uphill trail that whisks us to the Hub, an eclectic art piece/drop-in tower at the top of the hill, spinning a dozen laps a day is not out of the question. The recently finished Hub allows us to drop into three separate jump trails. We take turns chasing one another down each of them, enjoying the super tacky January dirt, railing berms and boosting the tabletops. Some bike parks have a certain sketch factor, where you’re not sure the lip you are boosting off will hold up, or whether you’ll have enough speed to clear the next gap. Each jump line is meticulously designed to make even the most timid of riders comfortable hitting them.
The Hub's drop in may have been the most unique start gate the author has ever seen. Tim Koerber photo.
Well maybe all except for one. For those of us wanting a little extra spice, the XL line, nicknamed Drop the Hammer, features a road gap step-down leading into a set of 20- to 30-foot jumps. This is not your average backyard dirt jump set up, but rather a professionally built and maintained downhill course. Its intentions are obvious: to put Bentonville on the mountain biking map in a loud, steadfast manner.
Ikhide Ikhigbonoaremen tests the limits of his trail bike on Coler's Drop The Hammer. Tim Koerber photo.
An Art Museum for the Rest of Us
On the opposite end of town, we found something completely different. What does an art museum have to do with mountain biking, you may ask? Well, when the entire area surrounding the beautifully landscaped museum is a maze of singletrack, the connection becomes pretty obvious.
Ilka Hadlock, Anne Cleary and Branham Snyder take in a bit of American culture at the Crystal Bridges museum. Yes, it's very bike friendly. Tim Koerber photo.
When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art first opened in 2011, the city of Bentonville was already in full mountain bike mode. The Slaughter Pen Trails, the Walton’s original hometown project, wrap around the museum grounds, taking advantage of the unique topography the museum is built on. Located in a shallow gorge, with steep woods on either side, the trails twist and turn through the trees with views of the museum’s stunning architecture.
Directly above the museum, we rode the All-American trail, a fast flow trail riddled with berms and small jumps that parallels the paved bike path. It’s the kind of trail that is fun on any kind of bike, featuring dozens of tech options and larger features to add some fun to your ride home from work. Think of it as the world’s best commute.
When there's singletrack next to the bike path, Branham Snyder chooses singletrack. Every time. Tim Koerber photo.
Bikes and Beer Go Together
Of course, in a place like Bentonville, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city’s first commercial brewery is operated by a diehard mountain biker. With a selection of craft beer named after highlights of the local trail system, Jeff Charlson owner of Bike Rack Brewing sees the new mountain bike-obsessed Bentonville as something the community worked hard to achieve and absolutely deserves:
“Mountain biking has opened up our natural beauty and allowed us to experience what once were wooded areas that were seldom visited. We've become a travel destination that pulls people from throughout the US to experience our trails. Our brewery "latched on" to the biking theme, because of the sense of community that arises from biking. Going on a ride with friends bonds you in a unique way that can only be improved by a beer, or two with those same friends at the end of the ride. We've transformed from a small business focused town that people only visited to see Walmart into a cool, edgy outdoor sports destination, because of the enormous investments in our trails.”
To that point, the town's small business and outdoor interests are forming a new-age matrimony, with the results of that marriage seen peppered throughout Bentonville's downtown.
The growing town is home to a slew of bike shops like Phat Tire Bike Shop, boutique bike-and-boat shuttle services designed to whisk you to the best singletrack/white water drops like Ozark Spokes and Floats, and bike-inspired restaurants: Next door to Bike Rack’s downtown location, Pedaler’s Pub serves as the unofficial meeting place for the local mountain biking community. The pizza, beer, and buzzing atmosphere is one thing, but the real standout part may be one of the strangest tradition any of us had ever seen. Before every group ride, the bar serves up Irish Car Bombs to anyone heading out. Upon return, the crew comes back to a second round to refresh and refuel their minds and stomachs.
The crew enjoying the classic Pedaler's Pub post-ride drink: an Irish Car Bomb. Tim Koerber photo.
Aside from the somewhat heavy choice in drink, the pub food is insane. Missy Penor, longtime local and part of the local tourism board puts it nicely: “Guys, we’re in Arkansas here. We’re going to nix the healthy and just dip it all into bacon grease. After a long ride, y’all have earned it!”
To the uninitiated, it might sound like a bit much, but it’s damn tasty. After a long day of riding, our crew sat down with Loren Bates, the Pub’s GM who also happens to run Ozark Spokes and Floats, who showed us around the trails that day. To Loren, having grown up in Bentonville, the community aspect of the mountain bike world is what makes it all work for him.
Winter Riding at its Finest
Back to that year-round theme. We went to Bentonville in January, and no it didn’t suck. While it may have somewhat cold in the mornings, NWA’s winter climate is far more hospitable than most other mountain bike destinations. While the winter days are short, we learned to throw on a few extra layers and make the most of the light. The good part of chilly weather? Tacky, fast rolling dirt. Luckily, the soil here is very rocky, allowing for naturally fast-draining trails. So when it inevitably does get wet, wait a few hours and there will always be something to ride.
While these moody woods may look like the middle of nowhere, Ilka Hadlock and Anne Cleary are just a short pedal away from town. Tim Koerber photo.
The fact that the trails are so close to town makes winter riding much more comfortable. After a few hours, when we did eventually get too cold, a coffee shop or hangout was never more than a short pedal away. Recharging our spirits with a warm beverage got us back out on the trails in no time.
The Future of Mountain Biking?
The crew pedaling home at the end of a solid day of riding, stoked for what lies ahead. Tim Koerber photo.
If a town like Bentonville can reinvent itself in a matter of a decade into a place that embraces mountain biking the way it does, it can and will serve as example for other communities across the country. Most will likely not be as financially fortunate right off the bat, but perhaps some other mega-corporations can learn a lesson here? It goes to prove that money, when invested in a way to support the right people, can truly make a difference in our complicated two-wheeled world. Of course that's not all. Beyond the dollar bills, a community that embraces the sport like this is what makes it all possible.
So next time it’s too cold in your usual winter riding destination, pack the trail bike for a trip to Arkansas and ride the freshest set of trails in the country. If what is already there is any indication, whatever is next will surely not disappoint.
From The Column: TGR Playgrounds
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