Mountain Biking: How to Get Started in the River Valley

by | Jun 29, 2022 | River Valley Adventure

Photo by Liz Chrisman

The mountain biking scene in Arkansas is one of the fastest-growing in the country.

Our state is home to the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World” (Bentonville), a growing list of “Monument Trail” systems within our Arkansas State Parks, and five IMBA EPIC trails. Our state has had its feet planted in mountain biking since the 90s with the popularity of those IMBA EPICs and in recent years with the growing integrated off-road trail systems of Northwest Arkansas.

Mountain biking seems to be on most outdoor enthusiasts’ lips. It’s a way to enjoy the woods at a faster pace than hiking, disengage from the virtual world, relieve stress, improve health, and spend time with friends and family.

If this hobby has piqued your interest and you’ve considered pointing your wheels towards dirt and rocks instead of tarmac, there are a few essential things that you should consider:

1. What type of bike should I ride? While most mountain bikers have specific preferences, it doesn’t matter if your bike is from a department store or a bike shop. The central aspect to consider is that the tires on your bike are rugged enough to handle the terrain you plan to ride on. As your frequency of riding increases, you should visit your local bike shop (Jackalope Cycling, for those in Russellville) and talk about what your goals are as a cyclist so they can help you find the right bike or tires that fit your needs and budget.

2. What clothes and shoes should I wear? Most people associate cyclists with lycra or spandex. While some mountain bikers wear skin-tight kits that allow them to shave off time from their rides, most mountain bikers wear casual clothing like breathable t-shirts and comfortable pants or shorts. One piece of clothing that is absolute: chamois, pronounced “shammy.” Riding singletrack is a bumpy experience, and having chamois (specialty padded shorts) can help ease this discomfort.

As for shoes, most people start mountain biking with flat pedals, so any flat-bottomed sneaker or shoe is the perfect fit for riding. Mountain bike-specific shoes fall into two categories: flats and clipless. Flats have a dense and grippy bottom to minimize slippage while riding and the freedom for the rider to dismount as needed. Clipless shoes allow the rider to “clip in” to the pedals and maximize the upstroke of their pedal. Clipless takes a bit of getting used to, but those that wear them won’t ride any other way.

3. How do I know how easy or difficult a trail is? Much like skiing, mountain biking follows a system that incorporates colors and shapes to rank the difficulty of trails:

Courtesy of International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)

4. Where should I ride? You have your bike, you’re dressed, and ready to try mountain biking for the first time. There are two types of trails in the River Valley: mountain bike-optimized and hand-built. I would recommend starting out on the “Three C’s” trail atop Mount Nebo. This 1.7-mile mountain bike-optimized trail is part of the Monument Trail system in the park and is considered a “light green” (somewhere between white and green). With optional progressive obstacles along the sides, your can test your abilities but know that all features are rollable and avoidable. It can be accessed from both Sunrise and Sunset Point – look for the Monument Trail kiosks that have been installed at most parking lots throughout the park to locate this trail. I recommend parking at Sunrise Point and riding east to west to start getting warmed up.

After you’ve experienced “Three C’s,” try out the easier section of the mountain bike trails at Old Post Park: Tall Pines and ZigZag. The trails at Old Post Park are 100% hand-built singletrack that has been created and maintained by local volunteers. The trail surface and corridor throughout this system are noticeably narrower than “Three C’s” on Mount Nebo, adding a bit of a visual challenge. Tall Pines is the .5-mile section that allows most riders in the system to warm up for the upper, more challenging sections of the park. ZigZag (~4 mile) is the upper section that can be accessed across the road from the exit of Tall Pines. This trail guides riders east through a series of long smooth sections and contains a few rocky areas with slight grunt uphills. Combining these areas makes for an excellent ride for any level of rider. Follow the signage that says “Mountain Biking Trailhead” and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of Tall Pines.

As you progress as a rider, if you’d like to check out other trails in the area I recommend using the app TrailForks or MTBProject. These apps have maps, trail difficulty ratings, photos/videos, and trail conditions.

5. Who can I ride with? If you’ve found mountain biking and would like to ride with others that are passionate about the sport, the river valley has many opportunities for group rides and community. Follow the River Valley Chapter of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists on Facebook – the group posts weekly rides (including beginner rides) and holds monthly meetings to discuss cycling-related advocacy.

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