The weekend of October 2, the trails at Slaughter Pen in Bentonville will be packed with the top mountain bike riders in the state. Teams from around Arkansas, as well as Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas, will test their skills against one another at the Slaughter Pen Jam on 20-plus miles of winding singletrack.
But one team has a distinct advantage. For the Phat Tire race team, these trails are their home base. The Phat Tire riders know every root, every climb, every brake-screeching descent from the All-American to Medusa.
The riders got together in August for a quick refresher around the trail. They met at Compton Gardens, just across downtown Bentonville from the Phat Tire Bike Shop that sponsors the team. They're an impressive group in their red, white and black kits.
Mountain bike racing on a team is a unique concept. Itís a highly individual sport. Unlike road racing, teams don't draft and aren't able to help one another on the course. But they train together, share knowledge and help one another become better racers, combining points and finish placement to determine the winning team for the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series.
At Compton Gardens, the team gathered to admire teammate Lindsay Custer's new bike before setting out north on the Razorback Regional Greenway toward Slaughter Pen.
The All-American Trail is the first section of Slaughter Pen, just up the hill from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The section is mostly flat and beginner friendly, with rocks, logs and skinnies placed along the way to provide challenges for more advanced riders. The team shoots through the section, riding the skinnies, sliding tires around corners and hopping the rollers. A winding downhill dumps riders back out onto the paved Greenway for a little less than half a mile.
Nate Fields, the team's mechanic and a mainstay at the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series, practices his bunny hop where the south lawn of Crystal Bridges meets the Greenway. Scott Schroen, the general manager for Phat Tire, does a wheelie for about 50 yards on a narrow strip of concrete. The group talks and jokes as they wait to take off again.
They cross the creek over to Urban Trail and speed toward the mid-level crossing of the Bush Push. The Bush Push is so named, according to local lore, because President George W. Bush attempted to climb this monster hill. He didn't quite make it, so his secret service agents gave him a push to the top. It's a daunting climb, one that begs riders to spin out on loose rocks near the bottom and packs a nasty punch as the grade kicks up steeply a few feet from the top.
The team gathered at the bottom to make a run at it. Most of the riders made it, with a few giving it a couple of tries before continuing north on the Urban Trail.
They cross the Razorback Regional Greenway and head toward the Free Ride Park, the start and finish line of the Slaughter Pen Jam. A blur of red and white flashes through the trees as riders make their way down Armadilloís Last Stand, a fast and flowing lower section. A typical Tuesday night training ride for the team would involve laps around Tatamagouche and Medusa, two of the more challenging trails on Slaughter Pen and a key part of the race course.
Instead, they practice a particularly slick creek crossing near the bottom of the downhill trail. Several of the riders were initially reluctant to try the crossing. "I've got to go to work tomorrow," says Mike McCutcheon, a Category 1 rider.
But with a healthy dose of peer pressure, they all tried and successfully crossed the creek two times. After a round of congratulations and pats on the back, the team made their way back up the Razorback Regional Greenway to Compton Gardens.
Riders can join in the group ride every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. from the Phat Tire Bike Shop in Bentonville. It's a fast-paced ride that usually covers about 15 to 20 miles.