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Editor’s note: News director Spencer Powlison is racing all four of the Epic Rides Series mountain bike races this summer to cover the pro racing and experience the events from a participant’s standpoint. This coverage is sponsored by Fezzari Bicycles, Smith, and Mavic. Powlison will ride Fezzari’s new Signal Peak cross-country bike, wear Smith’s Forefront 2 helmet and Attack Max sunglasses, and ride Mavic’s Crossmax Pro Carbon wheelset.
The yellow brick road isn’t a road at all — it’s a strip of singletrack that twists through the emerald forests of Northwest Arkansas.
For the final round of the Epic Rides Series of mountain bike races, I traveled to Oz. Not the place with flying monkeys and wicked witches — I’m talking about the Ozark Mountains, where there are flying mountain bikers and wickedly slick roots and rocks.
Tucked up into Arkansas’s hilly northwest corner, the town of Bentonville played host to the inaugural Oz Trails Off-Road. Bentonville, as you may know, is the home to retailer Walmart. This may seem an unlikely destination for a 50-mile mountain bike race, but actually, that $500 billion corporation is the indirect reason why this town has become the Emerald City for knobby tires. The Walton Family — children and grandchildren of Walmart founder Sam Walton — have a Walton Family Foundation that has donated more than $70 million to cycling trails and infrastructure over the years.
The morning after I arrived in Bentonville, I connected with my friend Paxton Roberts, executive director at advocacy group Bike NWA. Having heard about the area’s myriad trails, I was eager to get out for a ride.
Ordinarily, on a race weekend like this, I’d try to preview part of the course to get familiar with some of the trails. The trouble is, with 100 miles of singletrack starting just a few blocks from the restaurants and coffee shops, it is easy to get distracted. Instead of pre-riding the Back 40 loop, I was hitting jumps in Coler Preserve, one of Bentonville’s newest trail nodes. Although I probably should have put the dropper seatpost back on my Fezzari Signal Peak, it handled the berms, doubles, and drops with ease.
Two hours later, we were back to town where the First Friday festivities were underway. Along with the usual pro-only fat tire crit at these races, the streets around the town square were alive with a farmers’ market.
I wrapped up the evening with dinner at a sushi restaurant called Blu (sushi in Arkansas seems almost as unlikely as singletrack, but it was good too!), and retreated from the sweltering heat to my hotel.
A big mountain bike race feels a lot different in October than it does in August, which was the last time I saddled up. With less daylight, I had to put on some blinky lights to ride down to the start early in the morning of the race. Being a bit out of practice after a couple months off, I also missed a few key preparation details. I forgot my GPS at home, so I’d have to rely on my wristwatch to monitor when to eat. I also went with a Colorado-friendly dry chain lube, which was instantly washed away when a 40-percent chance of rain turned into a 100-percent chance of a downpour.
Surprisingly, the trails in Northwest Arkansas are nearly impervious to wet weather, as they’re mostly loose flint rocks. Berm corners that would be loose and sketchy in dry conditions became grippy in this rainstorm. On the other hand, the smooth rock ledges and wooden bridges became slippery as ice. I rode cautiously on trails like the aptly named “Ledges Trail” and really opened it up on the berms and jumps. Maybe I got a little too greedy.
Not more than 15 miles into the 50-mile race, my bike started feeling weird. Sure enough, I’d flatted my rear tire. Not again. I had flashbacks to my disastrous ride at the Grand Junction Off-Road in May. Fortunately, I easily found the cut — perpetrated by one of those sharp little pieces of flint — plugged the hole, and hit the tire with some CO2.
It didn’t take me too long, but it wasn’t the world’s fastest flat fix. By that point, a number of riders had passed me. While the other three Epic Rides Series races have ample passing opportunities, this course was 80 percent singletrack, so it was a bit trickier to do the dance of passing a fellow racer. I had some ground to make up.
While the course was markedly different from other Epic Rides races, the vibe, fortunately, was the same. We were all in for a long day, so no one was too agro.
As we looped north to Bella Vista, a golf community that is rapidly transforming into a great place for mountain bike racers, rain squalls raked across the hills. I was glad to have a visor on my Smith Forefront II helmet as well as Smith’s Attack Max sunglasses that vented the humidity that rivaled a rainforest room at the zoo.
Between the climate and the terrain, the Oz Trails Off-Road felt like a mysterious alternate universe. As the trails twisted in and out of drainages, up and down short hills, I was just waiting for the Cowardly Lion to pop out of the trees.
Plus, those repeated efforts up and over short hills began to take a toll on my legs. I’d opted for Mavic’s Crossmax Pro Carbon wheels at this race for a bit of an advantage. The lighter weight helps for repeated accelerations like those. But it doesn’t revive my waning late-season form.
On the final few hills back into town, Wes Rasmussen, a guy I’d gotten to know at previous series events, cracked me. I rolled home to second place overall.
While it had poured on our race throughout the morning, the clouds lifted and the sun came out in the afternoon, just in time for the afternoon’s lineup of four local Arkansas musical acts followed by headliners Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
In keeping with the town’s love affair with all things bikes, Bike Rack Brewing had plenty of post-race refreshment on tap as soggy, splattered riders rolled home.
Amazingly, this town of about 50,000 people has plenty of other things to do beyond the trails. Onyx Coffee Lab was a daily stop for my caffeine dependency. Right next door, I couldn’t help but eat at Pressroom, named after the town’s old printing press building. Apart from the obvious media connection, I liked the food too.
Plus, there’s the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — another Walton family project. Free to the public, I had to check out this architectural marvel, nestled in between two towns on the north side of time. How often do you go to a mountain bike race and end up unwinding in an art museum?
As I rode back from the museum, I heard a noise in the dark forest up the hill from the bike path. It wasn’t one of the deer I’d seen earlier. It was a couple of groms, ripping through the forest on “All American,” the trail we’d finished on the day before.
If this is Oz, it sure is wicked — in the best possible way.