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3 Things we learned in Bentonville about bike-specific regional development

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Intro

At the end of March, the Sustainable Trails Conference of the PTBA (Professional Trail Builder Association) took place in Bentonville, AR, USA. After a break of several years, trail builders from all over the world could meet again and exchange their experiences. Kevin Suhr and Sylvain Häderli from Bikeplan were also there.

The Walton Family Foundation, sponsor of a great development of mountain bike trails and community around Bentonville in Northern Arkansas had invited the DIRTT crew to visit the PTMBA sustainable trails conference and tell the story about the DIRTT project, which aims to develop resources for trail builder training. The exchange with Gary Veron, the Walton Family Foundation responsible for the mountain bike development and mastermind behind the “Oz Trails” was very inspiring. But it was also a great to pleasure to finally meet the trail building world again in person after two-year dry spell and to exchange ideas, experiences and developments again!

 

There is a lot to talk about, but three things stand out when it comes to mountain bike specific regional development.

Experience over studies

Many studies show the value of mountain biking in economy, health and society. However, decision makers in municipalities often resist to invest that amount of money and time, that would start these positive feedback loops we often see in successful mountain bike regions: More trails bring more people bring more economic value, strengthen the community, bring more trails, reduce health costs and so on. Why is that? I believe the development of a mountain bike community is similar to a chemical reaction and you need a particular amount of activation energy to get the ball rolling. However, this activation energy can be substantially big and the results are not guaranteed.

 

Bentonville is a vibrant city of mountain biking and recently, the city itself started to invest into the sport and community. However, what did Bentonville do differently compared to many other cities worldwide. There was a story before the Walton Family Foundation, when Gary Vernon voluntarily started to develop trails and talked to the decision makers in town. However, the very big activation was eventually whenKalene Griffith from Visit Bentonville (the local tourism association) and Tom Walton from the Foundation saw the potential of mountain biking and decided to support Gary’s incredible work. This lead to growth in mountain biking and soon the city’s decision maker’s experienced the positive impact of it themselves – and started to invest time, money and knowledge to make it even better.

 

The result are bike racks in front of each restaurant, people staying longer

Keep the ball rolling

Earlier I wrote, bike specific regional development needs activation energy similarly to chemical reaction. However, this Is not enough. It can be and it can develop an intrinsic life. But normally, this process is more like an endergonic reaction which means to keep the ball rolling, more and more energy needs to be invested.

 

Gary Vernon is that energy in Bentonville and without his great effort over years talking to people, convincing people, developing the community, developing trails or improving the management of trail maintenance, the region would not be where it is. And even though the riders, the businesses and the city see the benefit of it all, work like Gary’s work needs to be done continuously and every mountain bike region each region would do well to find a way to fund such a mountain bike coordinator.

Do good marketing – and involve the community

Riding Bentonville is not like riding anywhere else. There are the OZ trails, the brand uniting all trail networks within a 100km radius around Bentonville. The OZ trails are like the region’s identity and it’s not only about the trail networks. Their branding, which represents Arkansas’ sunrise, can be seen everywhere: On the local bike racks, the shuttle bus and even the local bank has issued a credit card in OZ trail’s colors. Selling OZ trails merchandize support local trail maintenance. This and other measures lead to a community that is engaged in mountain biking which will make all the work on trails and trail related businesses more sustainable.

 

When we visited Bentonville as mountain bikers, we felt welcome and home, regardless of the dirt on our riding clothes – even the people who don’t ride bikes welcome the riders. You get to start talking to the people in town, you get tips and hints on where to ride or drink beers and due to marketing and community, riding bikes is just part of the city’s DNA now and thus helps to develop more and more.

Extra: Europe is not doing too bad actually…

Developing mountain bike regions in the US is different compared to many countries in Europe, yet it is inspiring. Speaking from a Swiss perspective, developing trail infrastructure so fast like it happens in Bentonville, is unimaginable. Here, many regulations, laws and a lot of different interests from many people living in a small perimeter, makes the planning of trails more challenging. Thus, Europe has developed means to improve the situation and speed up the trail development process.

 

One is the DIRTT project, where representatives of seven European countries joined forces to develop resources for trail builder education culminating into a 30 ECTS vocational school education premiering in Norway in 2022. This is the world’s first official education in trail building and will improve the quality of trails in Europe eventually leading to more, better, and faster built trails! To say this in the words of an American trail builder after the DIRTT crew presented the work at the conference: “You are ahead of us”.

 

This lets us look forward with motivation and start working on subsequent projects in European trail building.

 

A big thank you to the whole DIRTT crew who has been working on an international project during a pandemic, overcoming so many challenges during this time and making something possible, I sometimes didn’t think it still is.

 

Thank you, Gary Vernon, and the Walton Family Foundation for inviting us over to Bentonville and letting us share our work with the American trail builder community!

 

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