Fayetteville gets its chance on the global cycling stage in January when it hosts the 2022 Walmart UCI Cyclocross World Championships, an event expected to draw about 300 cyclists from 25 nations and more than 10,000 spectators.
It’s only the second time in the event’s history that it’s been held outside Europe. The event will give Fayetteville and northwest Arkansas another link in a growing chain of cycling achievements that make it an international destination for the sport.
The World Championships are overseen by the Union Cycliste Internationale of Switzerland, the global governing body of cycling. In February 2021, the UCI designated Fayetteville a “Bike City” for its commitment to cycling; it is the only city in the United States to have received the designation.
In October, Fayetteville hosted another UCI event, the Cyclocross World Cup, one of a series of 16 races, at the 228-acre Centennial Park at Millsap Mountain. One of the prerequisites for being named a Bike City is the hosting of a major UCI event, such as the cyclocross competitions. The city bid for the World Championships a few years ago and was awarded the event in February 2019.
The event has a made-to-order venue in Centennial Park. In 2018, the city of Fayetteville teamed with the Walton Family Foundation to buy the 228-acre property for slightly more than $3 million.
Northwest Arkansas has a fast-rising reputation in the cycling world for its multitude of trails and community support for the outdoor sport. Cycling is also serious business. A 2018 report by the Walton Family Foundation estimated that cycling generated about $51 million in economic activity in northwest Arkansas the previous year.
The interest in cycling has led to the creation of miles and miles of trails, which in turn has fed the growth of the cycling industry. Fayetteville has hosted the Joe Martin Stage Race since 1978, a four-day road race event.
The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization of the heirs of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton, has enthusiastically promoted cycling. The Runway Group, founded by Sam Walton’s grandsons Tom and Steuart Walton, was one of the advocacy groups that worked with Fayetteville to land the cyclocross events.
“The word has gotten out locally, nationally, and even internationally about the incredible things happening here with cycling and the outdoors,” said J.T. Geren, a spokesman for the Runway Group. “This is yet another opportunity to expose the international cycling community to the world-class infrastructure that will elevate northwest Arkansas as a destination for outdoor recreation to an even broader audience.”
Down in the Muck
The World Cup series event drew more than 1,600 registered spectators, and the World Championships are expected to draw more than 10,000, said Molly Rawn, the CEO of Experience Fayetteville, the city’s tourism department.
The championships event is scheduled for Jan. 29-30 with six individual races: men’s and women’s Elite divisions, men’s and women’s under 23 divisions and men’s and women’s junior divisions.
The races are not typical cycling races. Those who have seen Joe Martin races, or the internationally famous Tour de France, will see something completely different at Centennial Park.
A cyclocross race is a short-track, mixed-surface event that involves obstacles, drops or rises in elevation and weather challenges. There are portions of each race in which the cyclist has to dismount and carry the bike to the next riding portion of the track.
The October event in Fayetteville had several inches of rain before races, which left surfaces muddy and wet.
“It was a great turnout, great race and in many ways a test event for our championship,” Rawn said. “It allowed us to work out some of our systems. We were just thrilled. It showed us that Centennial is certainly ready for that championship.
“The World Cup was fantastic. It was very rainy, which for cyclocross was exactly what we wanted. The cyclists want to race in the mud. It is more fun to watch. They want to be down in the muck.”
Centennial Park will be in the spotlight as the host venue, but it is more than just a cyclocross track. Rawn said the park was built with mountain bike trails and community access that ties in with the Razorback Greenway.
“Major international events like the UCI Cyclocross World Championships will enhance the profile of the region as a premier destination in the outdoor recreation landscape,” Geren said. “By elevating northwest Arkansas to this audience, we can engage new markets and drive more economic activity through tourism and relocation. Ultimately, this is a great place to live as well as visit. Outdoor recreation is a key part of that.”
Bruce Dunn has been with the Joe Martin Stage Race since Joe Martin started the race in 1978. When Martin died in 1988, the race was renamed after him, and Dunn became the race director more than two decades ago.
He said northwest Arkansas and Fayetteville have a proud history of cycling, and the Walton Family Foundation report supports that. Per capita, the region has more cyclists than bicycling-mad areas such as San Francisco.
Dunn said for many years he felt like he was plowing the field for cycling all by himself but he is happy to see more interest in the sport. He may run a road race, but Dunn also has a mountain bike and an off-road “gravel” bike.
“We have the perfect blend of good road surfaces, not densely populated areas with great terrain and pretty much a very friendly community to cyclists on the road,” Dunn said. “It wasn’t just one thing but those things in totality that built a great culture.
“The recognition lately has been on the soft trails, i.e., mountain bike trails, which are some of the best, and now with cyclocross coming here as a world-class event. When they come here to ride, certainly there are bigger mountains, certainly there are other beautiful areas of the world, but when you take it all in totality, even the pros will back that this is a great place to ride.”
That’s the thinking behind the Runway Group’s support of the industry and the Fayetteville events. A rising tide lifts all boats, and a cycling culture inflates all bike tires.
“Of course, northwest Arkansas has exceptional experiences across multiple cycling disciplines,” Geren said. “Centennial Park itself has not only an elite cyclocross course, but purpose-built mountain biking trails. Cycling enthusiasts will continue to see our region host more events across different disciplines because northwest Arkansas has the geography, infrastructure, and an unmatched passion for cycling.”