I was texting my dad and brother pictures and inspirational Sam Walton quotes from the Walmart museum in Bentonville, Arkansas when my brother busted me.
“Look at Bets, drinking the Kool-Aid,” he lol’ed.
Guilty. It was hard not to feel touched by the company’s homespun success story, smartly curated in the space next to Sam’s original five and dime on the Bentonville town square. I had come to Bentonville to participate in the Oz Trails Off-Road, the final round of the 2019 Epic Rides series.
Everyone I had met — online or in person — that had anything to do with the town’s growing mountain biking scene had been killing me with their kindness. Was it really the Walmart Kool-Aid? Or just Northwest Arkansas charm? Or simply new mountain bike destination stoke? I wasn’t sure, but I was definitely going to keep filling my cup.
Both the Epic Rides race series and Bentonville’s Oz Trails have been on my mountain-bike radar for a while, and having them co-exist in one weekend was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Even though I swore that my race season ended with the Leadville Trail 100 in early August, I packed up my trusty Lead-shred, the Canyon Lux CF SLX 9.0 Pro Race, and hoped that the trails in northwest Arkansas would be forgiving enough that I could jump into Epic’s Oz Trails Off-Road 50-mile backcountry race without too much — read, any — serious preparation.
A week before my trip to Bentonville, a friend sent me a picture of muddy rainwater sluicing down the first singletrack section of the course. By the time I arrived, somewhere between 10-15 inches had soaked the area. In most places, this would be a problem. But there are fairies that live in the woods around the Oz Trails, and by the time race day rolled around, it was cold, and wet, but the worst of the water had been vacuumed off the trails, the rocks and roots had been blown dry with giant hair dryer, and the birds were singing a merry tune.
I’m only kidding, but in Bentonville, this scenario isn’t that unrealistic. The development of the Oz Trails system, which includes upwards of 100 miles of singletrack throughout northwest Arkansas, has been generously endowed by the Walton Family Foundation. That means that the trail builders there have the means to perform heroic feats.
It’s impossible not to think about these trail fairies while you’re riding in Oz. Even though I was “racing,” I couldn’t help but marvel at the trails. I knew they were new, but they felt ancient. Sinews of singletrack crept along one side of a holler and then turned sharply to wind along the other side of the gap. The constant punchy pedaling lacking long, steep climbs are not my strong suit. Still, I was so hypnotized by the forest canopy and the shaley trail that the miles passed easily.
The Canyon Lux CF SLX, my Leadville-shredding machine, transitioned well into an Oz-slayer, and I had nary a mechanical problem. I was happy to have the dual suspension on the technical trails, and the bike’s feathery weight helped me get up those steep climbs. I survived the mud and roots and finished with that familiar feeling of stoke after completing a bike race, even if my fitness was far from its peak.
If I was drinking the Bentonville Kool-Aid all weekend, I was chasing it with shots of Epic Rides juice. Those guys know how to throw a bike race party. It’s a blast for the amateurs, as the amateur backcountry race is perfectly scheduled between the pro events, so you don’t have to miss a thing. Plus, you can drink beer after racing on Saturday night.
The event is incredibly professional for the pros riders, with its big prize purse, and a Friday night fat-tire crit. And, for anyone else that happens to be around that weekend, it’s fun-filled and inclusive. For example, the expo features kid-friendly events like a bunny-hop contest, and everyone is invited to the Saturday night rock n’ roll show. Rumor has it that Epic Rides is working on a Midwest location to throw another bike party, so stay tuned in 2020.
Unlike after other weekends of over-indulgence, I left Bentonville and the Oz Trails Off-Road feeling great. If that’s what drinking too much Kool-Aid, and shredding those perfect trails, does to me, I’ll be back for more.
What I rode:
- Canyon Lux CF SLX 9.0 Pro Race
- 22 pounds