‘Respect Rural Roads’ campaign coming to Benton County as gravel biking scene grows

BENTONVILLE -- Local cycling enthusiasts are about to plant signs along some gravel roads in Benton County to encourage respect and safety between riders and farmers.

The program will include 76 road signs and three hub signs on gravel cycling routes in the county, according to Runway Group. A hub is the place where cyclists park to start their ride.

Runway Group made a presentation to Benton County's Quorum Court last month about the signs. Runway Group is a holding company headquartered in Bentonville and backed by Steuart and Tom Walton. The signs should go up in the coming weeks, but some approvals are still needed, said Krista Cupp, vice president of corporate and community affairs for Runway Group.

Gravel cycling is the fastest growing form of cycling in the world, and Northwest Arkansas is becoming a destination for major gravel events and cycling tourism, according to the presentation. The presentation noted a need to increase awareness in cycling and rural communities to these growing trends to create a safer space for everyone.

The safety campaign would include billboards, radio advertisements and agriculture community newsletters, according to the presentation.

Safety initiatives include promoting responsible riding behaviors, such as respecting private property, staying on designated routes and yielding to other route users such as farm equipment, county work vehicles and local landowners and residents, according to the presentation.

The theme of the signs is "Respect Rural Roads." The signs cost around $15,000, Cupp said.

The campaign partnership network includes Farm Bureau, agriculture extension officers in Benton and Washington counties, the Benton County judge, the county Road Department, farmers groups, 4H students and bike programs, OZ Brands and local cycling events. Organizers are working to identify about 10 farmers who are cyclists and can speak on safety issues, according to the presentation.

Runway Group is working with officials to finalize locations for the signs, Cupp said. The Road Department will assist with sign placement, said Melody Kwok, county communications director.

Justice of the Peace Susan Anglin lives on Southwest Anglin Road west of Bentonville.

"One of our biggest concerns on the farm is the potential for an accident that could occur when tractors meet bikers on our roads or travel in the same direction," Anglin said. "Bringing recognition for the need for safety for farmers and bikers is spot on. Although we are now surrounded by paved roads, we are often the connection to the gravel roads, so it helps all farmers no matter where we live in the county."

Anglin said she was appreciative for the recognition farmers do exist in Benton County.

"With the growth of our area, many of our new residents and the biking community may not be aware that we have a thriving agriculture community," Anglin said. "The Respect Rural Roads signage reminds all of us of the importance of working together to protect and support our citizens while enjoying this beautiful place where we all live and work."

Justice of the Peace Kurt Moore said he was excited about the program, which will encourage cyclists to explore the county.

"An education campaign needs to be held to educate the public to be watching for slow moving rural traffic, much like they have for motorcyclists on the highways," Moore said.

The Quorum Court last month approved the third and final reading of an ordinance to change all unposted speed limits on unincorporated roads to 40 mph. Jay Frasier, county administrator of public service, previously said a 1989 ordinance set the speed limit at 55 mph on unpaved roads in the county.

Most of the county's highly trafficked roads have a posted speed limit and the new ordinance applies only to unposted roads, which are less traveled and located mostly in rural parts of the county, according to a news release from the county.

Signs for the 40 mph change will likely go up the week before it goes into effect June 27, Kwok said.

Kwok said the change in speed limit wasn't connected with the "Respect Rural Roads" program, but Moore said he was glad the court was able to adjust the speed limit, "so we can help avoid unfortunate incidents between cyclists and motorists, especially in the hilly eastern portions of the county."

Johnny Gunsaulis, staff chairman for the Benton County Cooperative Extension office, said he's excited for a program focused on rural-road safety. There is a wide variety of traffic on rural roads in the county -- passenger cars, tractors, trucks driven by professionals, hay equipment, county road equipment, horses and bicycles, he said.

"The Runway Group did a really nice job of meeting with farm folks, listening to them and trying to understand their concerns about the safety issues caused by bicycles on rural roads," Gunsaulis said. "Farm folks can sometimes consider bike traffic to be inconvenient while they're trying to get work done, but their main concern is for safety. Nobody wants to be part of an accident no matter whose fault it may have been.

"On the other hand, out of all the groups of people moving into Benton County, maybe the group that wants farmland to continue most are the cyclists. They want open areas to remain. I think the Respect Rural Roads campaign is a great step to encourage safety and help bicycle groups and farmers to learn to respect each other more."

OZ Brands in May announced the launch of OZ Gravel, a lifestyle brand dedicated to promoting the rapidly growing gravel cycling scene in Northwest Arkansas, according to a news release.

"Building off the amazing success of OZ Trails for mountain biking, OZ Gravel will provide a place for gravel riders to learn about new routes, build their skill sets and share their experiences," J.T. Geren, who leads the marketing efforts behind the brand, said in the release. "Northwest Arkansas, and Benton County in particular, has some of the most scenic, accessible gravel riding anywhere."

Many of the curated routes were mapped as part of the Arkansas Rural Recreational Roads project. The project is a public-private partnership that identifies and designates rural roads as recreational opportunities across the state. Tom Walton created the project, according to the release.

Other signs related to gravel cycling have the words "Rural Recreational Roads" on them.

"Gravel cycling is yet another way to connect our rural communities to the economic potential of outdoor recreation in our state," Walton said in the release. "Many of these cycling routes are accessible right from people's front porches, so it's more than a tourism initiative. Our hope is that our rural communities will participate and enjoy all the benefits that cycling brings."

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