Witch Bike: Bentonville Getaway

Every year or so, me and some of the hoodlums that I wasted my best years racing bikes with do a mountain bike bender somewhere that’s supposed to be cool. Past adventures have included Park City, Asheville, and the Kingdom Trails, and all have been a blast in different ways. Of course this year, as always, we were all jonesing to tell “The Man” to go pound salt for a few days while we do our annual riding vacation, but 2020 has provided some extra considerations that made our normal planning a bit more complicated. No one was very comfortable with flying, and we agreed early on that we’d probably be best served staying at a hotel with routine sanitizing rather than our typical vacation rental house that generally deteriorates into a festering pile of microbial proliferation and beer farts after a few days of riding. Embracing our new found religion of Covid-inspired cleanliness and risk avoidance, the most workable choice for our 2020 trip became Bentonville, Arkansas.

Why Bentonville?

It’s hardly a secret that Bentonville has become a hotbed for mountain biking. The local community, prominently driven by investment from the Walton family, has an obvious intention to make Northwestern Arkansas an attractive destination to live and work. This civic-minded effort has included outlays for cycling-related infrastructure that has well surpassed the $100 million mark. The group of us were coming from various places east of the Mississippi, including Maryland, Pittsburgh and Nashville, and everyone would have at least a ten-hour drive to deal with. This negative was at least partially mitigated by the knowledge that we’d be able to ride our own bikes when checking out what 9-figures of cycling investment could produce.

For our first day, we decided to hit the Back 40 trail system just east of Route 71. Although we could have taken the Razorback Greenway and ridden the 10 or so miles north from our hotel in Rogers, we decided to load up the bikes and drive to one of the trail heads at Lake Ann. What we found were notably satisfactory accommodations, complete with freshly serviced toilet facilities, a bike repair station, posted trail maps, and potable water. All of which, as we soon discovered, was the baseline for trailheads in the area.

There was nothing ‘gee whiz’ about the Back 40 system. That said, all of the trails were well maintained, rolling singletrack punctuated with scenic rock overhangs, bermed descents and well-designed decking connecting trail sections subject to washouts. The most interesting trail of the system is called The Ledges, a three mile section running along various cliff faces which weren’t particularly dangerous, but still warranting a “difficult” rating to discourage those with vertigo from getting into a tight spot. Our members were all riding 120 to 140mm travel dual-suspension cross-country/trail bikes which were appropriate for the terrain. Somewhat sadly, my choice of tires was definitely underachieving in the gravelly corners which hadn’t seen much recent rain. The lack of traction wasn’t enough to spoil things, though, although it did result in the need for a few trail-site tire plugs resulting from running lower-than-recommended pressures in a search for a bit more grip. For our introduction to Bentonville, we happily spent four hours pedaling around the network before retiring back to the parking lot for beers and wisecracks with some friendly locals eager to rib us for how much Lycra we were wearing.

… Never too much Lycra

Day Two:

Our plan was to simply ride out of our hotel in Rogers, link up with the Razorback Greenway, and hit as many of the local trails and bike parks as we could stand. On this day, I came to appreciate just how thoroughly cycling has been ingrained into the local community. Within a few hundred yards of the hotel parking lot, we were on the greenway, and at 10:00 am on a Friday in October there were already dozens of people out. After a quick couple of laps at the Mama Bear pump track, we proceeded north to check out each phase of the Slaughter Pen trail network, at the furthest point running into the southernmost trails that we had ridden as part of the Back 40 system the previous day.

The Slaughter Pen trails are built as a true multi-use network, and might be best thought of as an extensive suburban bike playground. Ribbons of paved surface and single track connect bike parks all over Bentonville using the Razorback Greenway as a backbone. Each has trails and features designed for a range of skill levels. Our mission was to hit as many as possible, and we spent all day riding what seemed like a nearly endless series of flow trails, rocky singletrack, bermed descents, jumps, drops, skinnies, and the occasional pump trail. When we got hungry, we hit up an excellent little Asian food truck near lake Bella Vista. When we got thirsty, we stopped at one of the myriad of local pavilions which had water, a bike maintenance station, and (often) a restroom and changing area. When the strap on my saddlebag broke, a 10 minute detour to the Phat Tire bike shop set me straight. What’s more, the trails and parks were filled with other riders, from families with kids on Striders to men and women rocking long-travel downhill rigs and hucking off drops that I had no business getting near. Watching all types of people thoroughly enjoying themselves on trails and features designed to be fun for such a wide range of skill levels was something that I had never seen before. The group of us spent the entire day riding bikes, having fun, interacting with the locals, and having a pleasant, exhausting and perfectly satisfactory day.

After our marathon day of sessioning Slaughter Pen, we figured that Saturday would be better spent pedaling on trails that might be a bit less crowded with weekend riders. With this in mind, we again loaded up the bikes and drove a few miles up Route 71 to the Tunnel Vision Trails, a 25 mile loop of singletrack located just west of the Back 40 system we sampled earlier in the week. The system is named for the several tunnels that have been built at obvious expense under the local roads to allow riders to cross without interfering with traffic.

We rode counterclockwise, and were again treated to an expertly designed and well-maintained, machine-built system winding through local woodlands and integrated with the residential infrastructure. I had swapped out my XR-2s for a set of Continental Mountain Kings, and was quite satisfied with the extra bite as we spent the day chasing up punchy little climbs and diving down twisty descents, complete with optional jumps on each. When we got back to the lot, we weren’t entirely ready to call it a day, so we opted for a 5-mile side trip to the ‘down under’ loop just south of the main system. The ride was capped off with another round of parking lot beverages and pleasant lawn chair conversations with like-minded folks finishing up their turn on the loop.

Amazingly, it was now more than clear to us that there were several major local systems that we simply weren’t going to be able to fit into our four-day trip. Deciding that we’d have to leave the trails at Eureka Springs and Springdale for another excursion, we opted to spend the day at the Coler Mountain Bike preserve, just west of Bentonville. The most prominent feature of the Coler preserve is a 20 foot steel platform called ‘The Hub’ that features 3 different entry ramps leading to 6 different descents. The options included rocky technical downhills reminiscent of the stuff found in the Applachians, a set of flowy clay jump trials so well designed that they coaxed a pansy cross-country rider like yours truly to catch air like a hero, and a couple of double-black-diamond options complete with 10+ foot drops and jumps sufficient to fix any adrenaline junkie. With the miles we had in our legs, a day spent enjoying repeat runs and low-pressure spins back up the climbing trail was a great way to close out the trip. As fate would have it, the only significant crash occurred on one of the last runs of the day, the result of a double that was just a bit too much to clear. Luckily the result looked much worse than it was, and there was no significant damage to the bike or rider, despite the gasps from the onlookers.

The Hub

Unfortunately, and largely due to Covid-related considerations, the trip did not include the same level of off-the-bike fun as would be typical. This is a shame, as I’d have loved to have had the opportunity to check out the local indoor restaurants, art scene, and other places where the locals hobnob. When we first discussed the trip, the general consensus seemed to be one of ‘settling’ for Bentonville instead of going to Whistler, Moab or some other ‘epic’ destination with huge mountains, vistas and cache. After spending the better part of a week and despite never registering an elevation drop of more than 300 feet on my Garmin, I can honestly say that I had more fun riding bikes in and around Bentonville than any trip I’ve yet been. Although the distance doesn’t make it easy, I’m already game for a return, with the intention to prioritize the systems that we didn’t get a chance to visit. What’s more, with two to three miles of new trails being built each week, I can’t wait to see how the stuff I’ve already ridden is augmented and improved in the interim.

And that 16 hours in the truck for two days of riding? Well, isn’t that what Spotify is for…?

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