Words by Frank Maguire. Photos by Scott Schoen.
￼￼Since you’re reading Dirt Rag, it’s a safe bet that you think bikes are a pretty great human achievement—right up there with sliced bread, space travel and Saturday morning cartoons. As with all great inventions, bikes should be measured by their ability to change and improve people’s daily lives. I think we can all agree that more people riding them would make the world a better place—more smiles per miles, as the saying goes.
One way to get more Americans cycling is to start them young. You, yourself, probably began riding early: a parent running behind you, a steadying hand on your back until it was no longer needed. And if you’re honest with yourself, that love of riding is what you looked for when you returned to two wheels as an adult and developed what is now a lifelong passion. Is it possible to engage kids at an early age, instill that commitment and joy in a way that will let them skip over the “too cool to ride” phase and continue pedaling into adulthood and beyond? A rethinking of how kids are introduced to bikes as well as singletrack is leading a new model of future biking citizens in many places across the country.
But to actually get kids on bikes goes against two other trends in America: increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the fear of what happens when your child is out of your sight. Bikes, particularly mountain bikes, mean both motion and independence. Exploring trails and the world beyond where the sidewalk ends is a lifelong lesson in self-sufficiency and confidence. Nationally, the Safe Routes to School program has opened the door to more bikes as transportation in many communities. Physical education classes in some places feature fleets of bikes, and now communities across the country are starting to add singletrack to the mix.
By introducing kids to the versatility of bikes in a somewhat structured format, these school systems are broadening their role in developing well-rounded children while bucking the culture of fear. No community has done as much to make lifelong riders out of kids as Bentonville, Arkansas.
Bentonville may not be the first place that jumps to mind when you think “outdoor lifestyle.” The corporate home and birthplace of Walmart, Bentonville was a small rural community until the 1990s, when Walmart began requiring its vendors to open offices in town. This business decision led to a rather quick population boom, with the number of inhabitants growing from less than 12,000 in 1990 to more than 40,000 today. Such growth could have quickly swallowed up the town, but a solid dose of civic pride and philanthropy led to keeping the small-town charm while prepping future generations for a life on two wheels.
With a quaint town square and some significant public open- space areas nearby, Bentonville was able to follow the lead of other communities and develop a healthy bicycle master plan ￼￼￼to connect the town’s neighborhoods. The Slaughter Pens trail network, connected to the Razorback Greenway and just a few quick minutes from the town square, quickly developed a national reputation for quality trails, including a freeride area, dirt jumps and a pump track. All of these things could exist, though, in their own vacuum, serving a small segment of the population that was already exploring on two wheels. In 2011, however, the community at large began to change that.
At first, the bikes-in-schools program started pretty modestly, with just 23 bikes and needed accessories purchased for the P.E. program at Lincoln Jr. High School. The success of that program sparked the community to pursue a much larger grant from the Walton Foundation and funding from other sources to create
a true school-system-wide program. Called “Trail Time,” the initiative set a goal to launch the bike program in all 17 schools in the Bentonville School District. Five hundred Trek bikes were purchased for multiple schools, and a bike shop was also created in the high school as both part of a necessary maintenance
plan and as a vocational-training course. Then a curriculum was created. As Alan Ley, the head of Bike Bentonville, said, “The trails [have] become an outdoor classroom.”
Such grand-vision projects usually take time for their impact to be felt, but according to Scott Schoen, the manager at Phat Tire Bike Shop in Bentonville, the effect was immediate. “Within six weeks you started seeing kids on trails,” he said. “Fifth- and sixth-graders—not just high school kids.” That impact wasn’t just felt on the trails themselves, but also in the bike shop. “We had kids bringing their parents in, saying, ‘I want the one like what we have at school,’ meaning Treks,” Schoen continued. This is a big deal, since the bike advocates (including Schoen) made the case to spend extra money to get quality bikes over a big-box brand. The advocates knew how crucial it was to make sure the kids’ first experience on trails had the highest chance for enjoyment rather than frustration. This might have meant fewer bikes initially, but it made the likelihood of long-term success possible.
I had a chance last fall to check out the trails myself while visiting the region. Over the course of several days I got to cruise multiple times back and forth along the northern section of the Razorback Greenway that connects the various nodes of singletrack (including the Slaughter Pen Trails). From my hotel, it was a quick two-block pedal to the first stretch of dirt, the All- American Trail near Crystal Bridges Museum. That first taste of trail led pretty intuitively to the next and then the next one after that, drawing me into what was nearly a 20-mile ride. The layout maximizes the terrain and features, with rolling contour trails punctuated by sharp-edged rock gardens. One particularly cool stretch near Lake Bella Vista has the trail skirting along the edge of a rock outcropping that typifies the area and adds a visual mind game of risk versus reward.
My visit coincided with the Slaughter Pen Jam, the community- wide celebration of trails held every year in September. This year it was an official program of the Bentonville Parks and Recreation Department, meaning that whatever it may have lost in its street cred was made up for in scale and scope. From a trials and
BMX demonstration that was successfully integrated into the monthly First Friday on the Square event, to movie night in a town park, the Jam has become a continuation of the town’s efforts to embrace cycling in all its facets. That extends to the cross- country races, where the junior categories are some of the larger groups, and the legions of groms making their rounds to vendor booths looking for stickers and swag show the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for gaming conventions.
At one point in my exploration of Bentonville, I took a side detour to Lincoln Jr. High School to check out what it meant to have the schools connected to singletrack. The small, probably less-than-10-acre piece of green space around the school had
been transformed into a trail playground. A short loop, complete with berms and boardwalks, created an inviting diversion to the standard entrance to the school. As if on cue, two kids who couldn’t have been more than eight rode up out of the trails. Deep in their own world, they barely acknowledged me as they continued their conversation and turned onto the next section of trail.
If this is what the future holds for communities that put forth the effort to embrace bikes, I am all for it. By elevating bikes at an early age to something beyond “toy” status and into something that expands horizons, communities have a chance to create a self-sufficiency that seems to be vanishing in America. Because if they can do it in Bentonville, Arkansas, then you can take the dirt to school just about anywhere.
Singletrack Sidewalks: Colorado’s take on the program
Although Bentonville might be the largest and most complete singletrack program in the country, there are smaller-scale efforts that you can look to as examples. In Eagle, Colorado, a much more low-key use of public dirt is being proposed, but will still be a fun diversion for kids (old and young) commuting. Mike McCormick of Breck Epic fame was inspired to take advantage of the stretches of dirt that line the paved path leading to his kid’s school, after watching how much fun the kids were having taking the social trails off to the side. For McCormick, it sparked the realization that his kids can’t be the only ones who could benefit from such play.
In 2012, McCormick started talking up the idea with other riders and soon started working with the local club, Hardscrabble Trails Coalition, and Momentum Trail Concepts, a local trail- building company, to approach the Eagle town council and propose “Singletrack Sidewalks.” The citizen-led effort gained traction quickly because it tapped into a feeling of “let kids be kids” while not asking the town government for any hard-to- find funding. Last November, the council approved the plan unanimously, and now the community is looking at moving dirt this spring. Over the course of the next five years, the goal is to connect seven different neighborhoods in town with the two school buildings as well as the various trailheads, opening up a much larger world for all.