Thaden School in Bentonville, Arkansas offers one extracurricular activity for their students that few, if any, other high schools do: a competitive gravel riding team. Announced to the school and community last November, the Thaden School Drop Barnstormers currently boasts six team members, and they’re planning to compete in major gravel races around the country this season.
Situated in the Ozark Mountains in Bentonville, Arkansas, is widely known throughout the cycling community for its mountain biking trails. But it may soon work its way onto the map as a prime gravel riding destination, too, according to Sam Slaton, Thaden School’s Cycle Education Specialist and English faculty member.
“I think the gravel community has risen to the fore in the past few years because we have so many great roads around here,” Slaton told Bicycling. “While Bentonville is certainly best known for its mountain bike trails, I expect gravel riding will become increasingly more of a draw.”
Thaden School, which opened in the fall of 2017, is an independent school for grades six through 11, funded by the Walton Family Foundation—the same foundation that’s poured millions of dollars into developing the local singletrack system. Starting next school year, it will expand into grade 12.
In addition to an educational foundation in the sciences and humanities, Thaden School offers three signature programs to its students—Meals, Reels, and Wheels. The Wheels program, Slaton says, focuses on “riding, wrenching, and reshaping communities.” The school even has its own pump track, and it’s about to open a new building where students can design and fabricate their own bike frames.
The school’s Wheels program convinced student and gravel team member Isaac Raymond, 17, to attend. In fact, Isaac, who was heading into his senior year, wanted so badly to attend Thaden School that he repeated his junior year, since the school didn’t yet offer grade 12.
“My old school hadn’t been able to offer some of the courses that I needed to take, and Thaden was able to offer them, so that was part of the draw,” Isaac said. “The cycling program is one of the focuses of the curriculum and it was really well-developed … so coming into something that was already well-developed, that I could innovate in, has been really nice.”
Isaac pitched the idea of a school gravel riding team to Slaton (Thaden School has had a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) mountain biking team since it opened), after conceptualizing what the team might look like, they sent the proposal to the school.
“As far as we can tell, it’s the world’s first high school gravel team,” Slaton said.
Though his background is primarily in mountain biking—with a bit of road and cyclocross thrown in, for good measure—Isaac has decided to go all-in on gravel riding. He even sold his Pivot mountain bike in order to buy an Allied Able gravel bike. The company Allied Cycle Works relocated their headquarters to Bentonville last year, and Isaac says he appreciates that the bike was made in the U.S.
“I live down a bunch of farm roads out by the Arkansas and Oklahoma border, so that’s kinda just where I train anyway,” he said.
What drew him to focus on gravel riding?
“The community part of it is really cool. I don’t think it’s because it’s just unsanctioned,” Isaac said. “And arguably, I think it’s one of the harder disciplines. Because it combines the skill that you need from mountain biking, with a kind of unpredictable surface, with really long road, one-day stages.”
When they put out the word about the new gravel team, six students showed interest—three girls and three boys. Their coach, Luke Hall, is also a NICA coach and, according to Slaton, knows the gravel roads of northwest Arkansas like the back of his hand. Most of the students had never been on a gravel bike before, let alone owned one.
“We told prospective team members that they might have to do this on their NICA mountain bikes,” Slaton said.“We didn’t want the allure of the team to be dependent on the prospect of cool gear.”
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The school’s gravel team has been enthusiastically received by the local cycling community, and some of the students have been lent more suitable bikes. The team even had their first team ride alongside pro cyclist Logan Owans, who was in town for EF Education First Pro Cycling’s alternative training camp, Camp EF.
“It’s an auspicious beginning,” Slaton said.
Right now, the Thaden School Drop Barnstormers train together every Wednesday, with a long ride on Saturday. They’re also looking to do some overnight bikepacking trips. To kick off the season, half of the team rode the Hazel Valley Grand Prix in northwest Arkansas on February 22, alongside Coach Hall. The 55-mile route featured over 6,000 feet of climbing, and all three team members finished.
They have their sights ambitiously set on many major gravel races around the country next, including Dirty Kanza, The Mid South 100, and Big Sugar. Isaac is also planning on riding the Arkansas High Country, which was first held last year and features over a thousand miles of riding through the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains.
Isaac’s goals are loftier than just his racing schedule. Along with competing in the 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country race, he’s hoping to one day film a documentary during it. But the documentary wouldn’t focus on the race itself. Instead, he wants to illustrate the severity of food insecurity in small towns scattered along the race route. According to the Arkansas Food Bank, Arkansas has the second highest food insecurity rate in the country at 17.2 percent.
“My family has worked in hunger relief and food insecurity for a long time. Arkansas is usually right up there with Mississippi for food insecurity,” Isaac said.
There’s a lot you can miss passing through an area by car, Isaac noted. New people, different lifestyles, and even issues like food insecurity are just some of the things he’s hoping to uncover as he explores the unpaved communities of his home state and beyond.
“Gravel cycling, for me, has shown me a part of rural America that is kind of unseen, once you get off of the paved roads and down into the hollers,” Isaac said. “I think that giving people kind of a window into that lifestyle would be really valuable.”