Brian Lopes: On the Road in the Land of Oz
Flying into Northwest Arkansas, it’s easy to see why Arkansas is dubbed “The Natural State.” As my airplane flew over an expanse of green – emerald squares dotted with livestock, aqua lakes with spindly fingers, and most intriguing to me, lush forested hillsides. I knew that underneath those treetops was the reason I’d made the voyage to Northwest Arkansas: hundreds of miles of pristine singletrack.
Northwest Arkansas’ has emerged as a darling of the Mountain biking scene in recent years evidenced by the region being selected to host the 2016 International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit. I’d never been to Arkansas, but I’d heard a bit about the trail revolution happening in the northwest corner of the state. When I got the invite to visit, I grabbed my Ellsworth and my pal, Andre Pepin, and bypassed the Rockies for the Ozarks.
The first thing that struck me about these trails is how much time and determination has gone into creating what is now known as Oz Trails. The rocky soil is not forgiving and would seem to stubbornly fight against any effort to mold it into ribbons of dirt. But homegrown trailbuilders learned how to tame the soil, creating berms, big jumps and a trail system that reminds me of Squamish. A behemoth collaborative effort between local nonprofit groups, trailbuilding companies and municipalities in the region has forged, over just a few years, a world-class mountain biker’s paradise.
I’ve had the good fortune of riding bikes all over the world. From my teenage days of BMX to the heady days on the World Cup circuit. Northwest Arkansas stands apart in its connectivity. I stayed in the small city of Bentonville which has a population of around 40,000 but is nestled within a thriving region of 500,000. Our Airbnb was located in the downtown district of Bentonville and from there we could ride our bikes everywhere – to restaurants, to bars and, best of all, to about nearly 60 miles of mountain bike trails that are literally on the doorstep of the town. A 36-mile multipurpose trail known as the Razorback Regional Greenway connects Bentonville to the southern part of the region through quaint downtowns to the college town of Fayetteville. Across the region, mountain bike trail systems are located in several communities creating a network that would take weeks to complete.
On the trip, I barely scratched the surface of what Northwest Arkansas has to offer. While we explored three fantastic trail systems, there are around a dozen in the area.
We started our ride on a new trail system in Bentonville called, Coler. Coler is being designed as a mountain biking preserve that when complete will have various types of trails that will appeal to all levels and styles of riders. When we arrived on site at Coler we were amazed at the amount of work that had gone into these trails. We spent much of our time on the north end of Coler. This section of the preserve is focused on gravity and flow and includes a series of fun jump lines that allow riders the ability to stay and session. We enjoyed the challenge of the cease and desist line with its challenging 10-foot drop and combinations of table tops, step ups and tight berms. Our first ride in Oz impressed us and had us hungry to see more.
We also took in Slaughter Pen, the first mountain bike trail built in Bentonville. Around 20 miles of singletrack crisscrosses varied terrain, circling the world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and culminating with a downhill course that ekes out every inch of elevation in the rolling Ozark hills. Art is a big part of the trail system, with thoughtfully curated sculptures lining the paved trail that serves as a connection between mountain bike segments.
Our adventures also took us to the Railyard just east of Bentonville in Rogers. We drove through a small neighborhood of tiny homes, turned the corner and there was a bike park that looked like it dropped out of a major ski town. A massive wooden viewing platform overlooked a carefully designed park. The 20-foot jumps on the pro track were impressive, taking you through rail cars, but just as impressive was the attention given to the beginner level courses. And following the pattern of connectivity stressed with Oz Trails, the park flows into a 10-mile mountain bike system called Lake Atalanta and is just across the railroad tracks from a downtown filled with local flavor and entertainment.
Speaking of food, that’s one thing this region has in spades. In particular, Bentonville venues cater specifically to the mountain bike crowd. Even the fanciest restaurants have bike racks out front and are accustomed to seeing mountain bikers trudge in ravenous after a ride. Downtown is full of restaurant choices from seafood to barbecue to wood-fired pizza. You’re bound to see local mountain bikers who want to tell you all about the local trails and make sure you don’t miss any highlights – on the trails or in town.
What really stood out was how diverse the experience is in Northwest Arkansas. I could bring my family here without a word of complaint. There are art museums, a children’s museum, miles and miles of easy paved trails and a wealth of shopping and exploring. I could meet them for lunch on my bike without missing a beat on the trail.
Andre and I are both determined to go back and spend more time in Oz. We didn’t step foot in the Upper Buffalo system, an IMBA Epic Ride; Devil’s Den trails, the state’s oldest mountain bike trail system; or the dozen other trail systems that highlight almost every community in Northwest Arkansas.
My main takeaway was how ingrained mountain bike culture is in Northwest Arkansas. In just a few short years, cycling has become a predominant way of life accepted by its governing bodies on down to its school kids who ride bikes as part of their physical education program. If you haven’t been to Oz Trails, believe the hype. This is one ride you won’t want to miss.
Images By Novo Studio: