"How do you get to your regular mountain-bike trails? Are you one of the privileged few who lives just pedal strokes from the trailhead? Or are your rides bookended by drives or long pavement slogs?
If you fall into the latter category, as I do living in New York City, or if you could simply use a change of scenery from those trails right outside your front door, you’ve no doubt contemplated taking a riding vacation. Everybody’s heard of places like Crested Butte, Moab, and Park City in the context of mountain-bike fantasylands, but increasingly, Bentonville, Arkansas, is emerging as a riding destination. Yes, Bentonville, a city heretofore known best as the birthplace and world headquarters of Walmart; and yes, Arkansas, a state Americans in the Snob Belt have recently come to associate with citizens under siege by 30 to 50 feral hogs.
This summer, Bike Bentonville, an organization that promotes a cycling-oriented culture and tourism in town, invited me to speak at the Arkansas Bike Summit in Bentonville. I’d read stories of how the Walton family (heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton) was turning the region into a mountain-bike paradise, so I eagerly accepted, but beyond that, I really didn’t know what to expect out of the town. What I got was not only a highly satisfying weekend bicycle escape but also a surprise infusion of art and culture I hadn’t realized I needed and quite possibly a preview of my next family vacation.
Because vendors flock from all over in order to supplicate themselves before one of the largest retailers on the face of the earth, Bentonville is easy to reach—you can fly nonstop into Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport from most major U.S. cities, and I had no trouble finding an inexpensive flight from LaGuardia. Moreover, the Phat Tire bike shop is located right in the middle of downtown Bentonville, and for anywhere from $38 to $120 for 24 hours, it rents a full range of bikes, from cruisers to hybrids to road bikes to hardtails to high-end dual-suspension bikes to e-mountain bikes. It even has bike trailers for $20. Sure, we’re all attached to our own bikes, but between the airline fees and the onerous process of packing and unpacking (not to mention the risk of damage), traveling with them is arguably not worth it. I was so secure in the knowledge that a pro-level shop had me covered, I simply threw a few things in a backpack and warmed up for my trip by riding to the airport.
The first thing you notice when you deplane at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport is the smell; the region is also the country’s largest poultry producer and the home of Tyson Foods, so the air immediately around the airport is a bit funky. The second thing you notice—at least if you ride a bike—is the life-size mountain-bike diorama in the airport promoting the Oz Trails network, which includes the trails in and around Bentonville and boasts 300 miles of singletrack.
These trails are a product of the Walton Family Foundation’s commitment to “investing in our home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta,” according to its PR boilerplate language. It’s a sizable investment, too; according to the foundation’s website, it has spent $74 million over ten years to build 163 miles of paved and unpaved bike trails. The investment is paying off for the region: the foundation says bicycling provided a $137 million boost to northwest Arkansas in 2017 alone, in part because “proximity to bicycle infrastructure” encourages people to relocate to the area. You can thank the Waltons’ love of bikes for this. (Brothers Tom and Steuart Walton, grandchildren of Sam Walton, are passionate cyclists.)
On the morning of my first full day in Bentonville, I headed to the conference and got my first glimpse of downtown. Moderately upscale-looking restaurants and shops surrounded Bentonville City Square, which was beginning to fill with food trucks, stalls, and vendors for the Saturday farmers’ market. On the southeast corner of the square was Walton’s, the five-and-dime store Sam Walton opened in 1950 that now serves as the home of the Walmart Museum. Preserved as a mid-century idyll complete with a soda fountain and a gift shop selling Red Ryder BB guns, its quaint folksiness belies the downtown-killing retail behemoth it ultimately spawned.
And yet downtown Bentonville itself is clearly thriving. After spending some time at the summit, I wandered around as storm clouds amassed overhead. Block Street Records sold actual records, made from vinyl. Ozark Mountain Bagel Co. combined two words I, as a New Yorker, never thought I’d see together on a single sign, those being Ozark and bagel. A gift shop sold T-shirts comparing Bentonville to Manhattan, and overall I got a sense that this was a place that was warm and southern and at the same time not ashamed to trade on a sense of cultural cachet.
Bikes are a major part of Bentonville’s sales pitch, and the Walton Family Foundation’s investment in cycling has clearly informed the cityscape. The Visit Bentonville tourist information center had Bike Bentonville decals in the window, the sidewalk chalkboard outside the Bentonville Tap Room tempted cyclists with craft beer, Phat Tire took up a full corner of prime downtown real estate, and bike-specific way-finding signs similar to the ones you see in Portland, Oregon, (save for the Walmart logo) pointed to nearby landmarks.
Cycling has played a major role in the vibrant feeling of the city center. “Folks around here will tell you that no one came downtown about ten years ago, and now you see people everyday,” says Aimee Ross, director of Bike Bentonville. “Not only people, but people riding bikes and all types of people: families, young students, large groups of women only, and all types of bikes.” People did indeed roll around town on bicycles, and dirty mountain bikes leaned against walls and windows of local eateries. It was all enough to make me forget where I was, though the Confederate monument in the middle of the town square quickly re-centered my GPS."