Words by Yuri Hauswald @yhauswald
If beer is your thing, there are at least a dozen breweries. Or maybe you’re into art. If so, there is 21c Museum Hotels’ MoMA-esque lounge installations, creative graffiti sprinkled throughout town, and the world-renowned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. But if it’s dirt you crave, Bentonville, AR has that in spades. With more than 40 miles of bike trails within city limits, 20 of which are natural surface, and over 100 miles of purpose-built singletrack that spiders out into the surrounding hills and hollers, it’s no wonder Bentonville is a Silver Level IMBA ride center.
But you know what else Bentonville, AR, has going for it? Gravel roads. Hidden in the colorful hills of the Ozarks in Northwest Arkansas are hundreds of miles of unpaved and gravel farm roads that feature little to no motor traffic. See, I’m in Bentonville, AR, home turf of Bud and Sam Walton, the co-founders of one of the world’s largest retailers, Walmart, to compete in a first time gravel event put on by GPP Cycling. The GPP Growler Grinder is the brainchild of Nick Little, the Events Director for GPP cycling, who was born and raised here, so his familial roots run deep.
Speaking of roots, my first day in town I had the opportunity to sit down with Scott Schroen, Director of Oz Trails, to chat about the transformation this small town has been going through the past five years due primarily to the development of trails. As Scott sees it,“ My role is to take Oz Trails from a brand and build it into a culture. It’s the bike shops, breweries, restaurants, trails, the riders, it’s all of us together pushing to make Oz Trails a world-class mountain bike destination. Oz Trails is the path a mountain biker experiences while in Northwest Arkansas.” This path also includes gravel, which has gained in popularity as the paved roads around town see more traffic due to the influx of visitors and new residents.
Dawn was shrouded in pink and temperatures were in the low 60s as the 150 gravel grinders gathered at Pedaler’s Pub and Bike Rack Brewing for the 8:00 a.m. start. The wispy horse tailed clouds scattered across the horizon and slight breeze were a harbinger of the stout south wind that would smack riders in the face later in the day. A three mile neutral roll out, lead by Bentonville’s finest, meant that everyone had a moment to rub shoulders and chat before the real fireworks went off once the patrol car pulled off. After a few surges, and a twisty section of hard packed gravel, the elastic stretched and snapped, which meant that a small group of us found ourselves at the head of affairs. And after one particularly long, loose climb, there were just three of us.
Did I mention that the gravel in Northwest Arkansas is really good? Like some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride. Unlike Dirty Kanza gravel, which is sharp and menacing, Arkansas gravel was more rounded, marbly if you will. And it came in a wide range of grits, sizes and depths. But that’s not to say it didn’t cause plenty of flats. In fact, my two break mates, Jake Wells and Rob Bell, both flatted within minutes of each other. (My new WTB Nano 40c tanwall took a few hard hits during the day that I thought were the end of me, but the tire is tough. And fast.) While the three-legged Doberman that the promoter warned us about never reared her head, I was, over the course of 117 miles, chased by a handful of other dogs that included pit bulls, collies, labs, and mutts. (I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of secret dog messaging board that alerted all of them to the pedaling prey coming their way.)
The highlight of my day, however, wasn’t my eventual finish, as a few wrong turns saw me add 17 bonus miles, but rather the show of grit and determination displayed by the tandem riding, father and son duo of Ben and Luke, who experienced a series of flats and a catastrophic front tire failure. Did I mention this was their first time racing together? Oh, and Luke’s blind. Get yourself to Bentonville, AR, you won’t regret it. Your biggest problem will be deciding which bike to bring, oh, and maybe, the three-legged Doberman.