On any given weekend, you’re likely to find Charles Williams astride his mountain bike, speeding down the singletrack trails of Slaughter Pen in Bentonville, Arkansas, navigating switchback turns at Coler Mountain Bike Preserve or grinding up steep climbs on the Back 40 in neighboring Bella Vista.
But you’ll also see Charles out of the saddle, with a leaf rake or weed trimmer in hand, expending sweat equity to maintain one of the finest mountain bike trail networks in the country.
“It’s simple: I don’t like to ride a trail that’s in crummy shape. I like clean trails,” says Charles, a member of Friends of Arkansas Singletrack (FAST), which promotes off-road cycling in Northwest Arkansas.
With more than 200 miles of natural-surface trails – most of them built over the past decade – the region has become a mountain biking mecca, acclaimed internationally for its off-road terrain.
While local municipalities are responsible for major maintenance, a small army of volunteers also toils to keep the trails in prime riding condition – for themselves and mountain bikers visiting from around the country. In the lush and rugged Ozark forests, it requires constant vigilance.
FAST volunteers have played a key role in the success of mountain biking in the region with activities that include hosting group rides, supporting local races and acting as trail ambassadors for out-of-town visitors looking for advice on where to ride.
But their diligence with maintenance has been particularly important in ensuring the quality of trails in the region matches the quantity.
We asked Charles and other FAST members to rank the tasks most essential to ensuring trail quality.
1. Weed Eating. “It’s Arkansas. Things grow. Quickly,” says Lindsay Custer, president of FAST. To battle weed encroachment, maintenance volunteers trek onto trails with gas and battery-powered weed eaters to knock down vegetation encroaching on the trail. They aim to create a foliage-free corridor at least 3 feet wide on either side of the trail, and up to 6 feet wide in sunny areas that promote high growth. The corridor provides critical visibility for riders, especially around corners.
2. Lopping. Volunteers use machetes or loppers to tackle tree branches and weed stalks too large for weed trimmers. “It’s not pleasant getting hit with ‘slappers’ while on the trail,” says Charles. Riders who strike wayward branches risk a bad crash or injury to their eyes.
3. Raking Rocks. Because the Ozark terrain is very rocky, riders who encounter loose stones risk “skating” off a trail because they can’t properly steer or brake. Loose rocks collect on the inside of berms and on the “back cut” of trails. Volunteer rake or sweep these stones – usually those smaller than the size of a fist. Rocks that are features of the trail are left untouched. “There’s a difference between sweeping off the loose rocks and pulling out rocks that are embedded into the ground,” says Lindsay.
4. Cutting Fallen Trees. Because chainsaws are prohibited, volunteers use handsaws to cut small trees that have fallen and blocked trails – posing a threat particularly to out-of-town visitors who don’t ride regularly in the region. “Volunteers are encouraged to report any trees that have fallen that are impeding the trail, or any that are hanging above the trail that could fall on riders,” says Charles.
5. Repairing Ruts. In a perfect world, the best way to avoid ruts is for riders to avoid soft, low-lying areas after rainfalls. “In reality, most don’t,” Charles says. When ruts get bad enough, they can force riders off the trails. Ruts can be temporarily repaired with hoes or garden rakes, depending on their depth and severity. Permanent fixes involving rock armoring, bridge building or re-routing trails to avoid soft spots – tasks handled by local municipalities and professional trail builders.
For avid mountain bikers, the hard work put in by volunteers makes a huge difference in the quality of a ride. Charles recently rode at Coler, in Bentonville, where a volunteer crew had groomed a perpetually rocky trail. “It was infinitely more pleasant to ride,” he says.
“We’re so fortunate here in Northwest Arkansas to have such great trail systems in our backyard. I think local riders have a responsibility to maintain them.”