He pointed out the window and said, “Right there in the woods in front of that junior high school is a pump track.”
“A pump track?”
“Yeah, the kids take hot laps when they get out of school.”
It was noon. I was sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV, on my way back from three hours of mountain biking. My legs were toast, and I was hungry. But the only thing I could think about was how I wanted to head back to that school after lunch and check out the trails in Park Spring Park. I can report that there’s 1.5 mi. of trails and while you couldn’t exactly complete laps, per se, a quick pedal back up the sidewalk would allow you to start right over.
None of this would have surprised me, but there was one variable that had thrown all my expectations to the wind, like so much confetti. I was in Bentonville, Arkansas. Yeah, the world headquarters Walmart, and a place that is simultaneously emerging as one of the most interesting mountain biking destinations in the country.
I first heard about Bentonville from a friend in Little Rock who worked for Competitive Cyclist before they moved to Park City. He’d spent a weekend up there riding the trails and when he told me the riding was good, my response was, in retrospect, rude. I laughed. Seven years later I’m in Bentonville.
A number of things happened in between, but most of it comes down to two conversations I had with Aimee Ross of IMBA, which held it’s world summit there in 2016. Prior to the event she enthused about how excited she was to have people from all over the world see what a great job people in Arkansas had done in building an amazing trail system. After the event, she did much the same, in past tense, but what really stuck with me was how she told me her husband, mountain bike hall of fame inductee Nat Ross was doubtful prior to the trip but afterward told her it was one of the three best mountain biking destinations he had visited in his life.
After checking into 21c, a hotel with an art gallery, or an art gallery with an hotel, depending on your priorities, I pulled on my cycling kit and walked over to Phat Tire Bike Shop where I picked up my rental bike, a Trek Fuel 9.8 27.5 Plus. I then rolled out behind one of the shop employees for some riding on a trail network known as Slaughter Pen. Built in three different phases, there are 18 miles of trails, all within easy reach of downtown Bentonville. And while the different sections aren’t contiguous, they are all connected by multi-use paths that save you from riding the roads.
We passed out of the open, grassy expanse the path snaked through into lush forest and immediately dropped into some very flowy terrain. Wider than traditional singletrack, the trail undulated up and down, bermed left, whooped right and dropped. I passed intersections with other trails at such a clip I barely had time to register that I’d just passed an option. Occasionally, I’d see a blue square or a green circle, but I was too busy feeling the pull of gravity and giggling to give it much thought.
Each of the three phases has at least seven different trails and they are all graded like ski runs with easy, moderate and difficult terrain. The majority of trails are those blue squares, but there’s such variation in terrain, and often the opportunity to take several different lines through a section that increasing your ability by tackling progressively greater challenges is almost unavoidable.
As I was visiting in May at the tail end of spring, the temperature was warm but not stifling. I could smell the pollen of spring and feel the humidity that would make summer a sticky, drippy affair. May; if there’s a better month for visiting the South, you’d have to send a full PR team—with beer—to try and convince me.
By the time we returned to town all I wanted to do was hit the loop again, but I needed to shower to head out for beers and dinner at Pedaler’s Pub, a craft brewery that welcomes cyclists (they even have a repair stand and a few tools in the front). And as much as I take pride in the IPAs coming out of Northern California, beer making is essentially cooking. The moment you think someone can’t make a good pizza because they aren’t Italian is the moment you find out you’re wrong. So it is with beer.
On the morning of my second day I went with another of Phat Tire’s staffer’s out to Bella Vista, a suburb north of Bentonville where a network called The Back 40 is located. Barely more than 15 miles at its opening, Bella Vista can now brag that there are more than 40 miles of trails looping around the development.
Had the trails been old game and hunting paths through the woods, I can say with some experience of riding in the South, they would have been pretty enjoyable, but apt to become slicker than nickels on ice; there tends to be a fair amount of clay in the soil. These trails had drainage, buffed-out construction, wooden features, rock shelves, rolling berms—in short just the sort of trail system that emerged in my childhood fantasy world where Walt Disney cut singletrack.
There’s only about 400 feet of elevation difference from the highest point on the trail system to the lowest, but it was enough to give more than 1800 feet of climbing in a bit more than 16 miles. What it means is that to make the most of the trails’ flowy features you’ve got to stay on the gas. Whereas with some trail systems you climb for a long while and then have fun on the downhill, the undulations in this part of Arkansas are shorter, more frequent, so if you want to take advantage of the flowy features, you can’t rely on gravity to deliver you.
For Part II, click here.