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This story was originally published in October 2019.
There must be something in the water.
Today, I’m writing about another project that took root in Bentonville. Nobody, not even the women who started the project, imagined how fast it would grow from good idea, to thriving success.
“We had this meeting after the first of the year, and we were like, ‘let’s do it, we need to do this,’ and our first ride, we had 75 women show up,” Ashley Patterson told me.
That meeting eventually became the Women of Oz (WOZ), a mountain bike club for the women of Northwest Arkansas.
Prior to the meeting this past January, Patterson, WOZ board member, thought she was “this rare woman” who liked to mountain bike in the rolling Ozark hills. Turns out, she wasn’t alone; furthermore, this was Bentonville we’re talking about, where any idea to increase the bikeability of the area is met with an almost aggressive embrace.
Since the group’s first flagship ride in March, close to 600 women have participated in WOZ. Allyson de la Houssaye, Women of Oz Chairwoman, credits the club’s explosive popularity with a variety of factors, some of which are unique to Bentonville and others that hum a more familiar tune.
“In Bentonville, you can see the trails from town,” de la Houssaye said. “So people get curious – ‘what is this mountain biking all about?’ And yes, there’s a lot of intimidation with the sport. When you see women who are doing it, you’re seeing pros, and you think ‘oh, this doesn’t apply to me.’ When you see someone like yourself doing it, you think ‘oh, that could be me.’”
De la Houssaye and the WOZ board’s offering to the bike-curious and bike-intimidated women of Northwest Arkansas was a mountain bike club that structured its priorities a bit differently.
“We’ve built a community of women that we fit biking into rather than make a community of biking and fit women into it,” she explained. “Part of why this is working is because there’s a fellowship of women that build each other up. It’s the culture – women are treating other women nicely and it works itself down through the group.”
It’s impressive to see the culture in action. During early October’s Epic Rides Oz Trails Off-Road race weekend, pastel-striped WOZ jerseys and hats seemed to outnumber any other bike branded apparel. In fact, I was milling about the expo when I met Patterson, the WOZ board member, who stopped to talk with me even though she still hadn’t gone home and changed after riding the 50 mile mud-soaked backcountry race.
Even the event paid homage to the Women of Oz; each Epic Rides event is dedicated to a person or a group of people who’ve made an invaluable contribution to the sport of mountain biking, and the WOZ accepted their donation with a gracefully rowdy toast on the Epic Rides event stage.
The effusive energy of the WOZ hasn’t gone unnoticed by the more seasoned riders in the community, either. Professional mountain bike and cyclocross racer Crystal Anthony moved to Bentonville in May and has been overwhelmed by the opportunities to be involved in the burgeoning movement.
“Everyone’s been incredibly welcoming,” Anthony said. “I’ve met more people living here in five months than I did living for two years in California.”
Part of Anthony’s incentive in moving to Northwest Arkansas was to live in a place conducive to her needs as a professional cyclist. She also sought a community where her skills could benefit others.
For years, Anthony hustled from her job teaching middle school to weekend races, but now, she said, she’s at a point where “I want to be in a situation that’s more harmonious, that flows a bit better, where I’m not frantically rushing to make it to work on time.”
One way Anthony has brought her expertise to the table in Bentonville is by bringing the Women of Oz to hers — literally. A few months before the Oz Trails Off-Road, Anthony offered discounted three-month training plans to any woman in the club who wanted to participate in the race.
“I wrote TrainingPeaks plans for the 15, 30, and 50 mile options,” Anthony said. “I synced all the plans so that they all did comparable intervals on Wednesdays and the same skills focused rides on Sundays so that the women could easily meet up to ride together if they wanted to. I know many of them did their hard efforts together which is awesome.”
Then, she had them over for dinner.
“Together with (WOZ Head of Marketing) Betsy Soos, I organized and led a night to discuss fueling and eating well. I cooked dinner for them and had a Q & A to help answer questions related to nutrition. They loved this. There were several who didn’t know it’s ok to eat while training, or who didn’t really know what kinds of foods are helpful or detrimental before and after hard efforts, and I know a lot of them were really excited to learn these tips.”
De la Houssaye sees having Anthony in WOZ’s backyard as a huge asset for the group.
“Undoubtedly it’s really cool having her here,” she said. “She’s done berm clinics for us. Imagine having only ridden for a year and then doing a bern clinic with a pro! The ways that she gives back is really cool.”
Giving back is woven into the DNA of WOZ. The cornerstone of the organization’s programming is the monthly flagship ride — a no-drop ride on the first Saturday of every month. Thus far, said de la Houssaye, “we’ve had seven rides, and over 570 participants have come.”
This shakes out to 75-100 women per ride. To deal with the large turn-out, the WOZ leadership team decided on a ski-run system of ranking; on the rides, women divide themselves into green, green plus, blue plus, black, and double black groups. This makes the riding more manageable for the guides (each ride has a leader, middle, and sweep), and it helps give the women an idea of what trails they can ride if they’re somewhere with a similar trail difficulty ranking system.
“It really does take a village to put these rides together,” de la Houssaye said.
The village of WOZ runs under robust leadership and tireless volunteerism. In August, the interim board of five became a group of nine elected board members. Forty additional women serve as committee heads and ride leaders. Many of them were at the initial meeting in January where the concept of uniting women riders under one banner was unveiled. Furthermore, said de la Houssaye, many of them had already been laying the groundwork for a local, women-focused mountain bike movement.
“The initial meeting in January had about 40 women in attendance,” she said, “The Friends of Arkansas Singletrack (FAST) president, Aimee Ross from Bike Bentonville, Kelsey from Little Bella’s, women from NICA – basically all the women leaders in cycling. Now, we have a lot of overlap with these groups, and we cheer each other on. Most of these women participate as ride leaders for WOZ and are the founding Women of the Group.”
The spirit of inclusiveness that the existing groups in the Bentonville bike scene brought to the inaugural WOZ meeting in January might surprise people who’ve tried to get something off the ground in a place where something similar might already exist, but Bentonville has an unwritten rule about exclusivity. This is largely due to the generosity of the Walton Family Foundation and their unwavering support of cycling in general and women’s cycling, in particular.
The Women of Oz are having so much fun right now that it’s hard to think too far into the future. To complement the soaring success of the flagship rides, the group’s leadership is encouraging women to use the Group Meet app to find each other and ride during the week. Events on WOZ’s social calendar are multiplying. De la Houssaye wants to make sure the excitement and enthusiasm of WOZ’s first year expand meaningfully into its second.
“We hope to keep breaking down barriers,” she said. “Equipment. Intimidation. Education. Those are huge issues we can flip on their head and make this a more approachable sport.”
However, despite their commitment to keep the focus on women riders in the Ozarks for the time being, the leaders of the Women of Oz realize that they’ve tapped into something special.
“If we’ve had seven rides and over 570 participants have come, it shows you how much opportunity there was in this community,” said de la Houssaye. “Makes me wonder what the need is in other communities.”
This being Bentonville, empire-building is not some far-fetched goal. The WOZ are already thinking about how to make inclusive mountain biking for women a movement. How to “help other women in other communities roll out something similar.” They’re taking notes on their own process in the hopes that they will be able to share tips and tricks with other interested communities. Nevertheless, the secret to success might simply be in the soil.
“As soon as your tire touches the dirt, you’re a Woman of Oz,” de la Houssaye said.