The bulk of my weekend in Bentonville, Arkansas, would be spent at an ideal hub for an event where like-minded people could witness all the mountain bike action unfold. Before arriving, I pondered a few questions: How good could it really be in northwest Arkansas? How does the average rider get to a trailhead? Are they in the lucky bunch that can leave from their front door and head to the dirt? Perhaps they’re in the “drive to the ride” club or the shuttle category. If you are a rider who falls into the “driving to the ride” category, as I typically do living in Los Angeles, or if you are like many of us who have yet to explore beyond our local spots this past year, then no doubt you’ve been itching for an outing. There are, of course, the bucket-list riding meccas that each rider can rattle off as their mountain bike fantasy destinations, but, to my surprise, Bentonville, Arkansas, has been added to my list of must-visit riding spots.
Yes, the very same Bentonville is known best as the world headquarters of Walmart. This past June I was able to head out and cover the Bentonville Bike Fest that was originally scheduled to kick-off last year. Before this venture, I heard through the grapevine how the Walton family (Sam Walton’s heirs of Walmart) was turning the surrounding area into a mountain bike mecca. Quite literally, it is becoming the mountain bike capital of the world. Since this was my first trip to an event in well over a year, I was yearning to see some racing and visit with fellow riders. As with any journey, there were moments of, “What did I just get myself into?” and unexpected thoughts of, “Whoa, I didn’t expect this from this town.”
Landing and getting to my hotel on a Friday at 3 a.m. due to flight delays could be an entire article in itself. Nonetheless, I made it safely! Unfortunately, I knew I needed to be awake again in the next few hours to venture out and get situated at the event. This time of year in Arkansas can be very hot. Being accustomed to SoCal dry heat, I wasn’t the most prepared for 85 degrees with 85-percent humidity. Walking out of the hotel each morning felt like getting hit with a wet wave of warmth. Best I can put it, it felt like I was just getting out of a warm pool and could never dry off. Luckily, I had a Trek Remedy rented for the weekend from the fine folks at a local shop called Phat Tire. Seeing that the hotel was just over 2.5 miles (about a 15- to 20-minute ride) from the event and the local downtown area, I did my best to avoid unnecessary car travel all weekend.
With little sleep and a body running mostly on caffeine and stoke, the first day kicked off with a ride to show the media the lay of the land and an information session with the local chamber of commerce about the area. According to the Walton Family Foundation’s website, it has spent upwards of $75 million over 10 years to build over 200 miles of paved and unpaved trails that are being added to rapidly. Thankfully, they use professional trail builders with plans to create sustainable yet enjoyable trail systems. As reported at this gathering, there is an average of two to three miles of fresh trail being cut every week. I’ll say that again—two to three miles every week! This blows my mind, as I know how painful it can be in my home state of California to get the go-ahead to start building trails. As one local who works at the Bentonville Chamber of Commerce said to me, “We just can’t keep up. Every time you ride a spot you think is familiar, there is something new or a new trail system that branches off of it.” My favorite quote from this local was, “We are just glad the Waltons are not into golf. Could you imagine?” Yes, we riders can thank the grandchildren of Sam Walton, Tom and Steuart Walton, who are passionate cyclists, for this continuously developing community network.
Now with my ears full of info about the trail development, I was even more eager to ride than before to see what all the hype was about. Once I experienced the trails, it hit me—there’s no hype needed because it is reality. Within a few blocks, the group ride went through a quaint little downtown area and straight off a path that seemed overly manicured. This was a spot where most riders would expect to see a “No Bikes!” sign.
I said out loud, “Wait, is this for bikes?”
A fellow rider in the group replied, “Yes [chuckling with a grin], and this is just the beginning.”
Although the conditions were hotter and more humid than I am used to, each moment of the trail ahead made me forget the stifling heat. With such a vast system weaving on and off paved greenways, you would think it would be easy to get turned around, but that is far from the case, since every single section is marked properly. These trails featured the most trail-level indicators, blind corner mirrors, marked merges, and single-way signage for terrain that I’ve ever seen when not at a paid bike park. Within minutes of the first sections of flow, berms, and short table tops, we were deep in Slaughter Pen (a trail network of over 20 miles). Everything was so intuitive and well-marked that finding my way was mostly a question of just riding and occasionally consulting a local to confirm where I was. Trail features, right down to the root, were clearly marked with signs reading “FEATURE” or “DROP.” There were also alternate lines if I was feeling the need for a change-up. Overall, everything joins into a network of dirt with hand-crafted berms, flush stonework and wooden bridges.
It is difficult for me to compare the riding I am accustomed to on the West Coast to the layout of Northwest Arkansas. I found myself reflecting on how sparse our trail network is. Rarely do I see signage, and, honestly, it can take a full season to figure out the lines back home in California. While we do have great trails, nothing that I’ve ridden to date compares to the cycling community that is being built throughout Bentonville. With more exploring to be had after just a taste of what the small town had to offer, I pedaled back to the event, made my rounds to the vendors, watched a few pro athletes perform stunts, refueled, joined the Outbound Lighting crew for a night ride on the same loop from the morning, and finally pedaled back to the hotel on surface streets. I thought I’d be dead tired, but, in reality, I felt the complete opposite. It was hard to get some shuteye, as I was excited for the main events after an already impressive start to the weekend.
ENDURO PRO WOMEN RESULTS:
1st Porsha Murdock – 07:20.1
2nd Zoe March – 07:53.3
3rd Xylena Hoppen – 08:03.7
ENDURO PRO MEN RESULTS:
1st Brian Lopes – 06:19.7
2nd Grant Lampson – 06:26.4
3rd Mauricio Estrada – 06:35.3
The people who put on the Bentonville Bike Fest are unique. Not only is the event free to attend, but without the Bentonville community, the sponsors, professional trail builders, the Walton Family Foundation, the dedicated volunteers and fantastic staff, nothing at the festival would be possible. Making it all come together is the current UCI record holder for the most podium spots at a World Championship in the discipline of trials, Kenny Belaey. He visited in 2013 and came back five years later; he couldn’t believe what the Walton Family Foundation and Visit Bentonville were able to accomplish with their trail systems.
Originally, this idea started as an all-women’s event combined with the Bentonville Film Festival to celebrate women on bikes through videos on the big screen. However, in 2020, as we know, things shifted and the event turned into a festival for all with a focus on becoming part of the global bike-industry event calendar.
I asked Kenny, “What is it like to bring this event to life?
He replied, “It feels like throwing one big bike party.”
The weekend did not disappoint. There were demo bikes, pro riders doing tricks on freshly built features, multiple disciplines of racing, Q&A panels, live music, and rider workshops. There was a women’s riding clinic with Anneke Beerten, the North American Trials Championship, a Strider Cup and Adventure Cross course for kids, the Supernola All-American Race, workshops with Mike “Hucker” Clark/Carson Storch, and my personal favorite, Mojo Cycling’s Enduro at Slaughter Pen. Given the active involvement of the community, it wasn’t just pros who were there to race. There were some up-and-coming locals along with riders who just wanted to push themselves and give racing a try. I could go on and on about the events and the highlights of each, but there were two that stood out to me.
The All-American race was a quick-flowing descent on the very trail I rode on my first day of exploring. Done right, the course can be completed in just under a minute. However, to be at the top, a rider needed to have a clean run with no mistakes. I had a feeling the locals would be on the podium, but I had no clue just how fast they could push on a blue-square-level flow trail. It was amazing to see the line choices of locals like Grant Lampson, Jared Calhoun and Zoe March, who put down the fastest laps possible on their home turf. Grant came in first for the men with a time of 58.6 seconds—just over a second faster than pro rider Barry Nobles, who came in second, with Calhoun just out of reach placing third. March, had a small gap coming in fourth with a time of 1:11.2. Impressed with local riders’ performances for this quick stage, I was eager to see Sunday’s enduro and how these racers would stack up.
The trails at Slaughter Pen are not your typical hard-hitting Enduro World Series stages by any means. That being said, this particular event was a great taste of what the Slaughter Pen trail system has to offer. More often than not, it can be hard to get from place to place to see all the action at an enduro event. Given the accessible layout in Bentonville, it was almost too simple to get from one spot to another to watch each racer. While it was simple for spectators, it was not so simple for the riders. Watching the pro men and women go all in for six stages in the sweltering humidity greatly increased my respect for these athletes.
There were three talented pro women that our readers should keep an eye out for in the future. Porsha Murdock took the “W” by 33.24 seconds from local Zoe March, with Xylena Hoppen just under 10 seconds behind March. The legend, Brain Lopes, showed up and knocked out all six stages on his Yamaha e-bike, taking the e-MTB win by just over 39 seconds. Then, Lopes grabbed his non-electric assisted machine to knock out another set of all six stages. To my surprise (although I should know better), Lopes also won the pro men with a 6.7-second lead over the much-younger local Grant Lampson, and even managed to keep a 15.5-second gap on professional downhill racer Mauricio Estrada, who came in third. Yes, there were many exciting moments beyond the All-American race and the Slaughter Pen enduro. Be that as it may, both are just the type of racing I like to spectate and photograph while they also provided me with a better lay of the land and a better understanding of the type of people Bentonville attracts.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
The weekend festivities were such a satisfying experience for an escape. Overall, this event was less pretentious than any other bike event I’ve previously attended. Every person I interacted with was extremely humble. It was a “run what you brung” atmosphere. No one was looking for your bike to be flashy; everyone was just making sure to keep it fun and let the good times roll. Sure, seeing all the terrain and trail work being done left me speechless, but I was just as taken aback by the art and culture evident in this small town.
To be fair, I barely scratched the surface of the trails Bentonville has to offer. The bulk of my riding was in Slaughter Pen, since I could easily make my way back to downtown Bentonville for the main event. I did venture out to Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, which is a few miles northwest of downtown. Noteworthy at Coler is the 20-foot-tall steel-and-wood structure that guides riders to the start of downhill runs. Although I sampled just a taste of the riding in Bentonville over the weekend, it was more than enough to make me mark my calendar for next year (or even earlier). The area is ideal for an outdoorsy family looking for a riding getaway or for a full-on shred-fest with a crew. Bentonville offers a perfect mix of technical sections so you can progress as a rider no matter your age or skill level. Bentonville is also great for travelers on a budget, as there are hotels in a wide range of prices. Very minimal gear is needed—just bring pedals, rent a bike, go ride, eat, forget about driving, go to the museums and be immersed in the unexpected culture, and then repeat.
It was bittersweet (mostly bitter) leaving Monday after the weekend. A storm was just rolling in to give new life to the dirt that had been dry all weekend. I managed to squeeze in one last lap on the trails to beat the heat experienced all weekend before it really started to pour. I returned my rental bike to the downtown Phat Tire and got my gear together for the flight home. As I reflected on the weekend, I thought about the camaraderie I’d experienced. The Bentonville Bike Fest was able to bring so many like-minded people together. Perhaps some riders are hesitant to accept the Walton family’s contributions with open arms, but if you appreciate the progression of the sport, the culture, community and art, you’ll be right at home.