Tom Walton looks like a mountain biker, long, lean, athletic. And he learned to ride in a place you'd associate with mountain biking: Flagstaff, Arizona, where Walton studied at Northern Arizona University. All sounds normal enough, except that Walton, 33, is the grandson of Sam Walton, who's better known as the guy who founded Walmart. What started as a quaint five-and-dime store in even quainter Bentonville, Arkansas, became the world's largest retailer, and made the Waltons America's wealthiest family, with a current net worth well north of $100 billion.
The reason I point this out is that the younger Walton brought the biking bug back home to Northwest Arkansas after college, and has since helped propel this region in the southern Ozark Mountains into one of the country's best fat tire riding destinations. From the main square in downtown Bentonville, it takes about seven minutes of pedaling on the paved Razorback Regional Greenway to reach the first of several sectors that make up the 40-mile Slaughter Pen Mountain Bike Trail System. Search MTBProject.com for Lake Atalanta, the Railyard, and the Back 40 for even more local dirt.
Tom Walton (left) was among about 800 attendees at the 2016 IMBA World Summit. Photo courtesy IMBA/Liz Chrisman
The terrain ranges from smooth and beginner friendly, to fast and high-berm flowy, to rough and rocky with the occasional optional jump lines. Detailed trailhead map kiosks and on-trail signage are as good as you'll see anywhere. No wonder IMBA choose Bentonville to host its recent biennial World Summit, which was highlighted by the ribbon cutting for the new Coler Trail system, a 7-plus mile network of directional purpose built singletrack that's also easily accessible by bike from downtown Bentonville.
Much of this development happened thanks to the Walton Family Foundation, of which Tom Walton is the Home Region Program Committee Chair. The philanthropic organization helped back construction of more than 260 miles of paved and singletrack trails in Northwest Arkansas. During the IMBA Summit, the Foundation announced it would be funding upkeep of these trails for another year via the support of a professional crew that will perform maintenance on Arkansas' designated IMBA Epic trails.
Now I get it. Not every cycling community can count on billionaires to help fund trail development and maintenance. But there are some lessons to be learned here.
"Our goal has been to litter the towns in this area with accessible trail," Walton told Mtbr. "We've worked with the cities and the planners and the businesses to build as much trail as possible as close as possible to the downtowns. The idea is to have trails that you can easily access before work, after work, or even in the middle of the work day. In Bentonville it's about quarter mile from the downtown square to singletrack and that's pretty special for the people who live here."
Indeed, Walton believes that trails should be part of a larger quality of life improvement where residents don't have to choose between ripping singletrack and the trappings of living in an urban core. "People shouldn't have to sacrifice access to nature just to have the amenities of a city," said Walton, who also runs a hospitality company and was named Arkansas' 2016 Tourism Person of the Year. "That's the beauty of what we've created here locally. You don't have to choose. We have both."
Walton has also gotten behind another major mountain bike movement, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which has launched an Arkansas League. More importantly, according to the Walton Family Foundation, 27,000 students are participating in bicycle programs in local schools - and asking for bikes, not PlayStations in their letters to Santa.
The Railyard bike park in nearby Rogers is a great compliment to the adjacent Lake Atalanta trail system. Photo courtesy IMBA/Liz Chrisman
But why cycling and not tennis - or polo? This guy is the heir to billions after all. He has his own helicopter to get around in.
"For me riding a bike is about the most fun you can have," said Walton, whose personal bike is a Specialized 6Fattie. "It's something that allows you to stay mobile throughout your life. I don't think of mountain biking as exercise. It's about going out and having fun. My dad (Jim Walton) is 70 and it's something he and I continue to do together. It's also a way to build community. What I saw in Arizona during college helped me see Northwest Arkansas through a different lens. Cities need to include safe streets and make it possible for kids to get around without their parents driving them all the time. I call it tactical urbanism."
The Ledges Trail is part of the new Back 40 system in Blowing Springs, and poses some serious technical challenge. Don't fall left...
That's the lesson here. Whether you live next door to the Rocky Mountains or no mountains at all, finding ways to build trails, and paths, and safe bike lanes that will help get more people on bikes is really good way to improve quality of life for everyone in the community. And no this isn't a new idea. But when it comes from a guy who could literally do whatever he wants for fun, and he chooses mountain biking, it hits home just a little bit more.
PS: The riding in Northwest Arkansas really is that good. To learn more, check out oztrailsnwa.com and watch this video. It's exactly what Tom Walton is talking about.