Follow the trail
Lessons from Little Rock’s emergence as the Cycling Hub of the South
By Jeff Roedel
Imagine riding a bike up Mount Everest. Then down its rocky peaks. Then back up again. That’s roughly the elevation champion rider Rebecca Rusch traversed through Little Rock and across Arkansas, from the Ouachitas to the Ozarks, while setting a speed record of biking 1,200 miles in 8 days, 3 hours and 33 minutes back in May.
The route had been mapped out by a Russellville science teacher named Chuck Campbell, and community partners working with Red Bull were excited to show off the trail by letting Rusch ride it first, and potentially break a world record.
“The weather didn’t cooperate (she endured six days of rain during the ride), but everyone else did,” Rusch says. “There were people with signs in these small towns along the trail, firefighters who turned on their truck lights for me, people walking out and bringing me food—it was amazing.”
Rusch’s experience speaks to the power of a collective love for biking in Arkansas. But Rusch also is a freak of nature, and at age 50, a stunningly accomplished athlete still in her prime.
Reporting that the top endurance racer praises Little Rock’s bike trails is like saying “LeBron James enjoys a basketball court.” He’s so phenomenal, pretty much any backboard and rim guarantee a good time.
And yet at a fundamental level, Rusch’s experience, as hard on her body as a spin around the block for others is a joy, isn’t all that different from the one any amateur can have on a bike path. Hands grip the bars, thighs flex, feet holster into pedals, blood pumps through legs, air slides by kissing the face, and two wheels roll on to the horizon.
“I was blown away by the beauty of the area, and just how the Arkansas High Country Trail had been funded and mapped out and created by all those involved,” Rusch says of the trail sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation and the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. “That level of collaboration was really impressive.”
The seven-time world champion’s latest record is perhaps the most astounding recognition that Arkansas cycling has received of late, but thanks to the development of one presidential library, the obsession of a pair of billionaire grandsons of a legacy retailer and a collective will to fight for a community that supports more modes of transportation than the automobile, Little Rock and the regions of Northwest and Central Arkansas have quietly birthed a bike boom unlike anywhere else in the South.
That boom is anchored by the Arkansas River Trail (known as ART), a 15.3-mile loop on both sides of the Arkansas River that crosses at the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and the Big Dam Bridge—yes, that’s the name of the longest bridge in the U.S. built specifically for bikes and pedestrians.
CLOSING THE LOOP
Mason Ellis was a late bloomer to biking. At least, compared to most diehards. Ellis became an avid rider only by necessity while studying architecture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Little Rock native hated parking a mile from classes and needed an easy way to criss-cross campus and commute to and from his apartment.
While he was away at school in the mid-’00s, Little Rock’s cycling revolution accelerated with the launch of the nonprofit Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas. Well over 100 riders and engaged community leaders turned up at the very first meeting of what would soon grow into a large umbrella organization for a highly mobilized network of bike-related groups in the region.
A few years later, Ellis returned home to Little Rock, his beloved bike in tow, and he decided to look into the group.
“There were all these advocates involved who had steered the development of Riverfront Drive in Little Rock from a planned highway into a mixed-use, bike-friendly avenue with green spaces and footpaths,” Ellis recalls. “It was a fight at city hall for sure, but there was a collection of local businessmen, developers, parks folks and bike enthusiasts who showed up to blast the city council and to stop suburban sprawl. As an architect and a bike commuter, that was something I wanted to be a part of, too.”
BACA was undergoing its first major leadership changeover at the time, and not long after hellos were exchanged, Ellis was told that his enthusiasm and organizational skills made him the perfect candidate for president of the group. He accepted the challenge, even as that has meant confronting an iconic department store.
“We are currently engaging with the Dillard’s corporate head-quarters to close the loop around Little Rock with a one-quarter of a mile stretch on their property,” says Ellis, now serving as secretary for BACA after his time as president. “Once we close the loop, the next step is to connect the Arkansas River Trail to the neighborhoods so people don’t have to drive their cars at all to start out on the loop.”
There are dozens of Mason Ellises in Little Rock, citizen volunteers concerned with their home’s health and wellness and doing something about it. But one avid cyclist who is paid to make the Arkansas capital more bike smart is Dr. John Landosky.
As BikePed Coordinator for the City of Little Rock Public Works Department, Landosky has been for seven years some-thing of an advisor and enabler for all the advocate-led initiatives and events related to on-street riding. While recreational riding and cycling tourism have boomed, Landosky says commuter riding has increased of late thanks to smart connectivity downtown and new bike lanes.
“There is a typical pattern which is that at first no one is riding bikes, then there is a surge of recreational ridership, which ultimately translates into transportation ridership,” Landosky says. “Little Rock seems to have followed this.”
Landosky is extremely knowledgeable about cycling access and safety, which helps keep a multi-use and “complete streets” ethos in play for all DPW projects. The creation of a position such as the one he holds seems to be a key piece to the puzzle of how to power up grassroots bicycle advocacy.
That advocacy began in the 1990s, and when Bill Fitzgerald relocated to Little Rock from New Orleans to take a post with the local Convention and Visitors Bureau, he was immediately struck by the energy locals had for the bicycle.
“It’s not always been painless, but it was easy to see there was a biking boom up ahead, and those who pushed forward on projects seemed to just focus on that, the future,” Fitzgerald says. “Really, if the funding is there, there’s no downside to adding bike trails.”
Even with BACA’s “Close The Loop” campaign continuing to spar with Dillard’s, the Arkansas River Trail is now host to 17 annual organized rides. It’s become a community focal point and a draw for visitors.
Tourism spending is up more than $40 million since 2017, at the same time that the Little Rock CVB has poured more marketing dollars into promoting its biking amenities and events in the past 18 months.
As Landosky says, “the ART has probably done more to promote cycling in our community than anything else.”
About three hours from Little Rock, Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, have put roughly $74 million into cycling infrastructure in and around Bentonville, still headquarters for their $500 billion company. A recent study by the Walton Family Foundation found the economic impact of that investment to be roughly $137 million in 2017 alone.
Ellis says BACA and other local groups are not opposed to initiating conversations with the Waltons about extending their support for cycling to the Little Rock region. “We are a little envious of everything the Waltons are doing in Northwest Arkansas, but that’s just fuel for us to make a lot of positive change here in Little Rock, and we have,” Fitzgerald says.
Since the opening of the William J. Clinton Center on the south side of the Arkansas River in 2004, and the adjacent, two-wheel accessible River Market Development, Little Rock has had bikes on the brain as its downtown redevelops.
Two years later, the Big Dam Bridge opened. That $12.8 million project is 4,226 feet long, making it the longest bridge in North America devoted solely to pedestrian and bicycle traf-fic. “Things really exploded with the building of the Big Damn Bridge,” recalls Dan Lysk, a veteran lifelong cyclist who relocated from New York to Little Rock with IBM in the 1990s. “Some people said the project was a misuse of funds that should go to police or something, but the thing is if you give people diverse things to do, things that bring lots of different people together, then everyone wins—and crime can decrease.”
Lysk calls this bike benefit “seeing your community eye-to-eye,” and says he encountered a similar spirit of togetherness when cycling all over New Orleans this summer. This change can happen anywhere, he believes.
And Ellis agrees. It is remarkable the power a bicycle can have to enact change on a personal level and, as he’s seen through working with BACA, a community level, too. “Little Rock is still dealing with racial tensions and problems, but the Arkansas River Trail is the most diverse place in the city,” Ellis says. “People of all backgrounds and walks of life enjoy it and interact together on the trail.”
And Ellis should know. He admits he wasn’t always a biking fanatic, but seeing its positive effects, he’s evolved into a staunch apostle in the past decade, just like his hometown of Little Rock has done in the same span of time.
“On a bike you see things in your city like you’ve never seen them before,” Ellis says. “You actually think different.”
A FINAL BIT OF ADVICE
Rusch has always been a believer that biking can bridge social divides and combat obesity, while supporting mental health and a greater appreciation for nature. Her recent record-setting ride and community connections made across Arkansas have inspired her to develop something similar in her home state of Idaho, where a new cycling renaissance is gearing up. “Seeing is believing,” Rusch says. “Biking is great for our world.”
That vision is one thing, but getting there, as the Little Rock stakeholders agree, is another challenge all together. And yet, the fact that new development and community initiatives revolving around bikes are happening in conservative areas like Idaho and Arkansas is welcome news for the likes of Louisiana.
“Change is happening so stay in it, and keep bringing more players to the table, because no one can do this alone,” Rusch offers to those in the thick of the fight. “These changes are hard work. They take time and energy, education and collaboration. Leaving a lasting legacy is an endurance sport.”