BENTONVILLE -- The Coler Mountain Bike Preserve has rewritten the manual for mountain bike trail construction in Northwest Arkansas.
I can remember the early days when trail construction amounted to wrapping survey tape around a tree to flag a route, with the knot in the tape indicating which side of the tree to ride. The builder merely lopped back any undergrowth that slapped cyclists in the face.
But a lot has changed over the years. As cyclists have upped their skills and bicycle equipment has improved, trail construction in Northwest Arkansas has advanced along with them.
Free Ride Park, constructed in 2007 during Phase I of Slaughter Pen Mountain Bike Park in Bentonville, taught cyclists there was more to mountain biking than crashing through the woods while fighting to stay upright. With the technical features included with Slaughter Pen's Phases II and III, along with the trail at Blowing Springs and the Back 40, cyclists continued working to hone their biking skills, and some had pretty much come to believe they had mastered the sport of mountain biking.
And now, applying the accumulated knowledge from all those years of trail construction, with an added mix of fresh ideas and designs from the architecture world, the unique professionally crafted trails at Coler are pushing cyclists' limits to new levels.
When the Walton Family Foundation began buying land 20 years ago in the Pumpkin Valley area on the outskirts of Bentonville, it wasn't with the intent of developing a mountain bike trail system. But then the International Mountain Bicycling Association announced that Bentonville would host IMBA's World Summit in November 2016. In January 2016, the foundation donated the land, just shy of 300 acres, to the nonprofit NWA Trailblazers to build a high-quality bike preserve.
Named after the family that once farmed the land, Coler Mountain Bike Preserve was born.
The Trailblazers, with Erin Rushing as
executive director, have built an impressive portfolio of multiuse trails. Formed in 2000, the organization developed the first paved trail in the region, around Lake Bella Vista. Members oversaw the construction of soft-surface trails at Slaughter Pen and other areas. To date they have built almost 100 miles of trails in the region.
With the goal of having at least part of the Coler trail network ready for the mountain biking community to enjoy during the summit, then only 11 months away, Rushing set to work assembling a team of players.
First item on his agenda was to hire the Bentonville-based trail design and construction company Progressive Trail Design. As anyone in the region who has swapped skinny tires for a set of knobbies is aware, Nathan "Woody" Woodruff and his crew are experts at building skill-level-specific trails. Woodruff's employees have worked alongside Trailblazers from the beginning of Phase I of the Slaughter Pen system.
The project team also included Fayetteville's Modus Architecture Studio, for which Chris Baribeau is principal architect.
This core team worked together, as Baribeau explained it, "to design a network of trails that would incorporate the existing structures, such as the old barn from the Coler homestead, the Ozark hillside, the forest and the existing rock formations into the bike preserve."
Baribeau explained how he and Woodruff started their planning by walking the trail. Woodruff would stop at a location to describe what type of feature was needed, such as a flyover rampway to safely accommodate intersecting trails, or a particular design of bridge over a ravine, constructed so a biker wouldn't have to slow down and lose momentum when maneuvering the turn.
Modus would then work up a design, and the entire team would meet again to fine-tune it before beginning construction.
Rushing said they had 7½ miles of soft surface trail completed for the IMBA World Summit, on which they led private tours for attendees. Energized by the positive responses, the team resumed work on the trails.
The trails on the east side of the preserve are designed with the skill sets of intermediate and advanced mountain bikers in mind, although most of the features include ride-around options for those not ready to catch big air.
The east side also includes the most talked about feature in the preserve, "The Hub."
Located on the crest of a hill situated in the center of the east-side trail network, with multiple paths branching out from it like spokes on a wheel, The Hub is where your downhill adventure begins. Below it, riders can mingle, rest and fire one another up for the next run. With its elevated position, towering some 13 feet above the ground on steel supports, its wooden ramps are designed to help cyclists obtain maximum speed within the first few feet into their ride.
Modus Architecture created the structure's design and constructed the wood decking; L&L Metal Fabrication produced the steel supports; and Progressive contributed to the overall design of The Hub and constructed the plaza area around the base.
Some may find the height of the structure intimidating, but with the wide and gently sweeping slope of the boardwalk, your ride to reach the peak is an easy one. However, once you've reached the top deck, the options down are not for the meek. You choose between a 40-degree, short sloping drop with a kick up, or a 40-degree straight drop.
The droplines off The Hub launch cyclists onto the more challenging trails, such as "Cease and Desist." Rated a black diamond trail (translation: Make sure your insurance is paid up before riding), this trail is definitely designed for advanced level riders. It includes big berms, tabletops and "Drop the Hammer."
Drop the Hammer is a 12-foot drop that shoots the rider over the heads of cyclists on their way up the approach trail and then drops him onto a steeply sloping hillside. Check out the YouTube videos of riders who have taken the plunge by searching for "Coler Cease and Desist."
I spoke to Brian Gary, who drove from Missouri to ride the Coler Trails, about Drop the Hammer. He said, "On my first run down the trail I backed away from the drop, opting for the bypass ride around route. But when I heard a 10-year-old girl from the area NICA [National Interscholastic Cycling Association] team cleared it, I decided to 'man up' and went for it."
Gary wasn't on crutches or wearing a plaster cast, and he was sporting a big smile, so his logic worked.
The Hub also sets riders up to choose from an assortment of other lines down the mountainside, with each offering its own excitement and challenge. "Fire Line" is basically a downhill pump track, with lots of big berms and smooth rollovers, perfect for satisfying your need for speed. "Rock Solid" is, as the name advertises, a continuous rock garden that will test skills and equipment at whatever speeds your skills can handle.
While you are perched atop The Hub, contemplating your ride down, remember the mountain biker's mantra, "To ride within yourself. Do not exceed your skill limits."
The east side also includes "Oscar's Loop," an intermediate 4-mile loop that circumnavigates the east-side trails and provides an easy ascent to The Hub.
BUT THERE'S MORE
According to Rushing, "This is just the tip of the iceberg."
In addition to the 8-plus miles of soft-surface trails on the east side of the preserve that are complete and open to the public, the team also has 4 miles near completion on the west side, plus plans for another 4 miles.
The west-side will offer more entry- and family-level trails. Plans currently call for 16 miles of such soft-surface trails.
A 12-foot-wide "world-class" greenway connector trail along the valley floor to link the eastern and western sections is envisioned. The completion date predicted for the greenway and additional trail construction is end of summer 2018.
The Coler Mountain Bike Preserve has generated a lot of attention, especially considering it isn't complete. YouTube has plenty of videos of cyclists flying off Drop the Hammer, perched high on The Hub or bouncing down from rock to rock, and sometimes off the trail of, Rock Solid.
On Sept. 17, Coler hosted the region's first true enduro race, the Coler Enduro. Enduros combine the distance of cross-country racing with the technical difficulty of downhill racing. Participation was limited to 120 riders and all spots filled in the first week of registration. There is talk of developing an enduro race series in the region.
The Trailblazers' goal also includes enhancements for making the preserve a multipurpose event center by including additional parking, camping, restrooms, showers and a music venue.
Yes indeed, these are great times to be a mountain bike rider in the Natural State.
Coler Mountain Bike Preserve is at 11859 Peach Orchard Road in Bentonville.
Riders gather on and near but not directly underneath The Hub on Sept. 17 during the Coler Enduro.
An unidentified cyclist flies through a classic rock berm turn Sept. 17 in the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve.
Becky Steele flies off The Hub into the “Cease and Desist” downhill run Sept. 17.
A focused Steve Friedman takes on the solid rocks of the Rock Solid trail Sept. 17 during the Coler Enduro.
Bob Robinson is the author of Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail, Bicycling Guide to Route 66 and Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail (spiritscreek.com).
ActiveStyle on 10/09/2017
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