There’s a model for building a mountain bike community out of nothing but earth, sweat, and community support: Bentonville, Arkansas. And now the mountain bike boomtown is sharing a decade’s worth of knowledge so others can replicate it.
Before it became one of the country’s hottest mountain bike hubs, outsiders knew Bentonville, Arkansas, for one thing: the Walmart headquarters. A company of that size and influence drew some of the top business talents to the neighborhood. Many put down roots. Not surprisingly, the Bentonville population has quadrupled since 1990.
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But besides Walmart, the land has always been Bentonville’s boon. There’s a lot of it. Old mountains pockmark the entire northwest corner of Arkansas. And thanks to the efforts of a dedicated community, mountain bike trails now criss-cross the surface.
By the end of 2020, bike tourists will have access to nearly 300 miles of singletrack right from once-sleepy downtown Bentonville.
Bentonville Built It, Tourists Came
But it didn’t happen overnight. The trail infrastructure in Bentonville comes in large part from independent Walton Family Foundation funding. The Walmart family has long pursued outdoor activities.
“They are mountain bike advocates,” said Aimee Ross, who heads Bike Bentonville. “The grandfather was a huge hunter. They were always outdoors, experiencing nature for what it is.” She said many from the family’s next generation are road cyclists who took up mountain biking in college.
“Then they brought it back to their hometown,” Ross said.
Today, people visit Bentonville for more than weekday business. Spring Break is one of the biggest visitation weeks of the year. Families, individuals, and groups come specifically to ride rocky, undulating MTB diamonds in the literal rough. In keeping, breweries, bike shops, and biker-friendly Airbnbs built up around the influx of cyclists.
Not unlike the perception of Walmart, Bike Bentonville is “going for world domination,” Ross teased. Biking there is just that good.
“What makes us an anomaly is that people think it’s not possible to have good mountain biking in Arkansas,” Ross, a transplant herself, said. “But people, especially from the West, underestimate it. And they get their rear-ends handed to them out here.”
Ross looks at Bentonville like any other outdoor sport-focused town.
“We’re a mountain bike town, just like Breckenridge and Whistler are ski towns. Downtown Bentonville is like a lodge at a ski resort,” she said. “The trail access is right there, and the community built up around, attracting both families and super-shreddy MTB types.”
IMBA Trail Lab Starts Next Month
And as Bentonville’s reputation has grown, so have the requests for information. Other towns across the nation ask how they, too, can profit from mountain biking’s allure.
Now, after more than a decade building a dream out of dirt, Bentonville is sharing its trade secrets. Next month, the town will host a working lab for folks who want to start something similar in their own towns. Johnson City, Tennessee; Roanoke, Virginia; and Bend, Oregon, are a few in the running to become the next big mountain bike breakout.
Officially, the IMBA Trail Lab is a partnership between the International Mountain Biking Association and Bentonville. It started the biannual meetings last year and is now in its fourth session. After the June workshop, a fall lab will coincide with Bentonville’s first chance to host the national event Outerbike in October, which is primo riding season in Arkansas.
IMBA staff, trail industry experts, and Bike Bentonville stakeholders will lead the intensive, 2-day, 40-spot workshop.
The working laboratory lays out everything a community might need to plan, design, build, activate, promote, and measure mountain biking tourism. The point? For land managers, community officials, recreation professionals, and tourism/economic development staff to leave Bentonville with the next steps to bring more trails to their own backyards.
Marc Upton, SORBA Tri-Cities Board member, called IMBA Trail Labs one of the best workshops for creating or advancing your hometown trail community. “They really have the content dialed,” he said. “Oh, and the trails aren’t too shabby either!”
Bentonville a Model for Mountain Biking Tourism
IMBA’s local representative Jessica Rockson explained why Bentonville is the best model MTB trail community. First, “all the town stakeholders [local officials, parks department, visitors, local businesses, and funders] came together to work as a team,” she said. So it wasn’t just a Walton family thing.
Second, planners methodically integrated trails right into downtown and local neighborhoods. “That makes it easy to hit the trails from your home or accommodations and also to grab a pre- or post-ride meal,” she said.
Last but certainly not least is Bentonville’s sheer quantity and diversity of trails. Routes range from rocky to smooth, steep to rolling. You can ride a 30-minute loop from town or pack a lunch for a 3-hour grind in the woods. “By having something for every skill level, it allows all types of riders to enjoy themselves in the same location,” Rockson said. And that’s the key to building better bike tourism.
She describes riding in Bentonville like doing intervals all day long. “You’re always getting rewarded with a nice descent. You don’t have to ride for an hour to have fun.”
Folks who want to build more of that can now find some answers in Bentonville, the ultimate proving ground for building a MTB community from scratch. The next IMBA Trail Lab runs June 10-12. A $600 entry fee includes classroom work, food, shuttles for field workshops, and evening festivities.