A few days before Worlds, a mysterious website popped up, suggesting the 2022 Cyclocross World Championships were heading to Fayetteville, Arkansas. The website was soon taken down, and folks in the cyclocross community were left to try and read the tea leaves.
Even those involved with the cycling scene in the region would admit that Northwest Arkansas is not the first, fifth or maybe even tenth area you would think of for American cyclocross. However, as we learned that Friday before Worlds, the 2022 Cyclocross World Championships are indeed coming to Fayetteville.
So how did it happen?
Northwest Arkansas has turned itself into one of the top mountain biking destinations in the U.S., but for Bike NWA and other organizations that promote cycling in the region, something was still missing.
“We’ve got this amazing mountain biking, we have this decades-long road culture, but cyclocross is kind of a gap for us,” said Bike NWA Board President Brendan Quirk. “We’re operating at a pretty visible level for our mountain biking, but how do we try to match that for cyclocross?”
One way of building interest in cyclocross would be to do what a number of other communities have done and put together first a C2 cyclocross race and then a C1. That would not be entirely different than what communities such as Midland and Peterborough, Ontario have done.
Instead of going that route, the folks from Arkansas decided to shoot the moon.
“That’s where this crazy idea came from. Let’s go for it. Let’s try to get Worlds. It’s only been in the U.S. once,” Quirk said.
Fayetteville went for it, and three years from now, the international cyclocross community will be gathering in Fayetteville in early February.
With the announcement generating a good amount of discussion good—and at times negative—we wanted to dig deeper into the story of how Cyclocross Worlds landed in Northwest Arkansas.
It turns out it is a story of a crazy idea, some good advisers, the right partnerships and then going to work.
A New Cycling Culture
The 2022 Cyclocross Worlds will not be taking place in a cycling vacuum.
Northwest Arkansas is largely defined as the region surrounding population centers such as Fayetteville, Springdale and Bentonville. Fayetteville itself has a population of about 80,000 residents—third largest in the state—as is the home of the University of Arkansas. Bentonville is, of course, the home of the Wal-Mart corporation.
The region makes up the southwest portion of the Ozark mountains, a setting that has no doubt played a role in how cycling has developed in the region.
While cyclocross is new to Northwest Arkansas, mountain biking is not—articles have described the region “the unlikely mountain bike mecca.” That reputation is mostly because while the region does not have the history of a Moab or Crested Butte, it has quickly and quietly built world-class mountain bike trails and culture.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, the Walton Family Foundation—of the Wal-Mart Waltons—started investing in building singletrack mountain biking trails in the Northwest Arkansas region. In 2019, there are now over 400 miles of singletrack to ride.
The Oz Trail system now boasts trails of different shapes and sizes spread across the region and an urban bike park in Rogers. With its relatively mild winter climate, the trails are rideable nearly year-round, which will no doubt be appealing to some folks making plans to attend the 2022 World Championships.
“We’ve made huge strides in the last decade in cycling,” Quirk said. “At this point, our reputation with mountain biking is that our story is pretty well known. I think we’ve become a bucket list destination for mountain biking.”
Long-time race director Brook Watts has made a few trips to the region—as we will learn—and he said he has been impressed by what he has seen in the region. “There is an energy for cycling of all types in Northwest Arkansas region that’s so fresh and exciting to see,” Watts said. “I’ve seen that same energy blossom into cycling mainstays in places like Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. Cycling has been part of my life for almost 50 years, so it’s very invigorating to see this high energy at a time when some parts of the U.S. struggle to keep cycling of any kind fresh.”
Hundreds of miles of singletrack did not come without an impressive investment. According to Quirk, the Walton Family Foundation has invested over $70 million in trail building in the last decade and a half.
“The Walton Family Foundation is an incredible organization that has a really clear strategic plan,” Quirk said. “One of the areas that is critically important is the development of what they refer to as ‘the home region,’ or Northwest Arkansas to put it more casually. In terms of the Foundation’s focus area of developing life in Northwest Arkansas, one of the major points has to do with green space preservation and creating opportunities for folks who live here and tourists to spend time outdoors.”
With the Walton Family Foundation leading the way in funding, one of the leaders in promoting cycling in the region is Bike NWA. If you look at Bike NWA’s website, it highlights making cycling accessible for everyone, which is the main focus of the organization. However, Bike NWA will also be heading up the organization of the 2022 World Championships.
“[Our] purpose is, I would put it, to normalize cycling,” Quirk said about the organization. “To make cycling more a part of the lives of everybody, to normalize cycling as a form of transportation and recreation in Northwest Arkansas.”
The commitment across organizations and the region has transformed the region and how it sees itself.
“We’ve developed an amazing home-grown mountain bike culture, but we’ve also become a destination,” Quirk said. “It’s become a really important part of our identity as a region. It reminds me a bit of a ski town. You go to a ski town and meet people, and even if they don’t ski, they self-identify as a ski town. The same phenomenon is happening here in Bentonville where people identify our community as a cycling community.”
So Why Cyclocross?
Northwest Arkansas is already home to a number of national-level bike races. The Joe Martin Stage Race has taken place every spring for the last four decades, the final Epic Rides Off-Road series race of 2018 took place in October in Bentonville and the Rapha Prestige Ozark Plateau mixed-terrain race took place last May.
The one bike thing missing from the region? Cyclocross.
As Quirk mentioned in the intro, Bike NWA and others in the region have identified the discipline as an area they want to grow in the region.
As a mountain biking mecca, Northwest Arkansas could certainly continue to build on that success and still be one of the top cycling regions in the country. But with Bike NWA working on both access to cycling infrastructure and building recreational opportunities, the organization takes a broad look at growing cycling.
“It would be fine if all we saw was growth in mountain biking because more people on bikes is what it’s all about,” Quirk said. “We are successfully seeing a lot of growth in Northwest Arkansas, but I want to see diversification in that.”
When I spoke with Quirk, he had just returned from the 2019 Cyclocross World Championships in Bogense, Denmark. That event was set in a small seaside resort half an hour from Odense and two hours from Copenhagen. After the last rider finished at Worlds, the spirit of cyclocross likely departed the small town as well.
Quirk said he is hoping that Cyclocross Worlds in Fayetteville takes a different path, both before and after the event.
“Can we use this as a stimulus to rapidly develop cyclocross culture here? That’s kind of what the project is now,” Quirk said. “How do we translate this energy behind mountain biking and the road culture into growing the cyclocross community?”
Based on what has happened since Bike NWA kicked off the process of putting in a bid for Worlds, one could argue the group’s chosen approach for growing cyclocross is already working.
In 2015 and 2016, Northwest Arkansas hosted two cyclocross races each year. In 2017 that number grew to three. It is against that backdrop that the plan to make cyclocross in a staple in Northwest Arkansas is set.
During the 2018 season, the region got its first series, with six NWA CX series races taking place from the end of September through December.
“We wanted to have a series,” Quirk said. “It’s so much easier when you have a series. You can get people to show up to mid-week practice, and it gives people to try to get fit. We hosted a six-race series over an eight-week time period. The thing that was really interesting and exciting for us is that there were six different promoters.”
This past season also laid the groundwork for what will become the 2022 World Championships when Fayetteville hosted the Oz Cross American Cyclocross Calendar (ACXC) race in November. More on that in a bit.
Quirk emphasized that growing the local cyclocross scene will be an essential part of whether or not Fayetteville Worlds are a success. With the strong mountain biking culture, he said getting locals on cyclocross bikes is the first focus, followed by getting cyclocrossers from cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Kansas City and Dallas to travel to the now UCI C2 race and the regional series races.
With a relatively disperse population, right now, Quirk and his team are focusing on a more intangible metric. “What success is is if we see that kind of collective regional energy around Fayetteville similar to what you have surrounding the Midwest World Cups or the New England series,” he said.
How It Happened
Thus far, we have answered the why of Fayetteville Cyclocross Worlds. Now it is time to go into the weeds and explore the how.
The process started a little under a year ago. “When we first thought, hey let’s see if we can bring a UCI-caliber, international-caliber event to northwest Arkansas, some of the basic work was finding out how far in advance World Championship venues had been slated,” Quirk said. “This was back in April of 2018 when we first started to have a conversation over beers about if we could pull it off.”
Once the team decided bidding for Cyclocross Worlds was a thing they wanted to do, they started doing their homework. Since Rapha has a strong presence in the region with events such as the Rapha Prestige, Bike NWA already had connections with some of the biggest names in U.S. cyclocross—Meredith Miller, Jeremy Powers and Tim Johnson all provided their insight on whether or not the bid could be pulled off.
“It’s great because they’re almost like an informal group of advisers and great group of friends,” Quirk said. “I think it’s great for us to be able to bang ideas off of them to make sure we put something out there that’s exciting.”
The consensus among those informal advisers? Find Brook Watts.
“Brook brings so much to the table—he’s like the smartest cyclocross guy in America,” Quirk said. “Nobody who lives in America goes to more big-time races. The value of the insight and wisdom he brings is invaluable. The way he is able to translate his incredible knowledge in the most approachable, enthusiastic way is, for us, a complete gift. He is a main ingredient of why I think this race is going to be a success.”
When they met, Watts laid out a long-term plan for putting together a bid, making 2022 the first target year for hosting Worlds.
“I prepared a five-year strategic plan for ’cross development in Northwest Arkansas region and the culmination of that plan was the 2022 World Championships,” Watts said. “The World Championships has the ability to create a legacy for the region—we’ve seen that around the world in locations that have hosted a World Championships.”
First up was scheduling the Oz Cross ACXC race for Fall, 2018 to kickstart the road to putting together an international UCI race. Hosting an ACXC race was a prerequisite for hosting the UCI C2 race the organization is hosting at the beginning of October.
“The UCI is going to make you prove your mettle as an organization in order to earn that World Championship bid,” Quirk said. “We knew it was going to be a four-year path.”
The 2022 World Championships puts the race just three seasons from now. The upcoming season will be a UCI C2 race, leaving the 2020/21 season open to the organizers’ ambitions.
“We aim to host a World Cup, but as I understand it, the UCI schedules those races one year at a time,” Quirk said. “That is what our ambition is, and I think it would behoove everyone involved to host a World Cup, but the UCI is not in a position where they’ve defined what that calendar will look like. That’s sort of a TBD thing, but that’s our aim.”
One of the two big race weekends Quirk and his team attended this year was World Cup Waterloo in Wisconsin. Quirk described it as a highlight of the year for him and was quick to point out that they have no intentions of spoiling the current situation with Jingle Cross and Waterloo hosting World Cups in the U.S. “I don’t look at this as being a zero-sum game, where it’s horsetrading of us versus them,” he said.
With the future calendar uncertain, Bike NWA is focused on the clear tall task in front of it. “It’s going to be a big step up for us this year to put on a two-day C2 race, so we’re pretty preoccupied with getting ready to put on that race. It’s definitely going to be a huge step up in 2020.”
Organizers making bids for the World Championships do so on their own, without national federations playing favorites. What a federation like USA Cycling can do is provide what is essentially a letter of recommendation. For that, the Bike NWA team looked to Watts.
“Brook is on the USA Cycling Board of Directors, where he represents cyclocross,” Quirk said. “So sort of on a de facto basis, we felt like there was implicit support from USA Cycling.”
“When you apply, one of the things you do when you apply for a World Championships is you supply what are called Letters of Support. We got one from the mayor of Fayetteville, we got one from the Arkansas Department of Tourism, we got one from former USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall. It was meaningful that Derek provided that.”
The final piece of the successful bid was getting funding in place. Although payouts are lower than say, a World Cup, putting on a World Championships is not cheap—I’ve heard a cost of over $1 million quoted before.
Even with its decade-long history of working with the Walton Family Foundation, Bike NWA still spent a good amount of time putting together a proposal to obtain financial support. The event certainly fit the Foundation’s mission of developing outdoor recreation in Northwest Arkansas, but Bike NWA still had to show the value the event would bring.
“It wasn’t easy,” Quirk said. “The Walton Family Foundation is a very thoughtful, very frugal, very outcome-oriented organization. It was not easy. It’s a very strategic organization. There’s a great track record between Bike NWA and the Foundation, so from that standpoint, there is a very trusting relationship, which is helpful.”
He concluded, “They took the idea through the wringer, but they are very supportive and we appreciate that.”
When the UCI announced that the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships were headed to Louisville, it was a BFD for U.S. cyclocross.
In a recent interview, Tim Johnson shared what that event meant for him as an athlete. “I remember when Louisville 2013 was announced what that meant for me as a racer,” he said. “It gave me this immediate carrot to chase at the end of my career. I just knew how special of a moment that is for an athlete to go through.”
That event was a memorable one for the U.S. cyclocross community at-large as well, with thousands of U.S. cyclocross fans braving the raging Ohio River and creating a raucous atmosphere for the one day of championship racing.
Given the 2022 race will be only the sixth time that Mountain Bike, Road or Cyclocross Worlds will have taken place in the U.S., the reaction to Fayetteville 2022 was surprisingly negative from some corners. I am not going to find specific examples and put individuals on the spot, but most of us likely saw some of the negative reactions.
What should be apparent from the timeline laid out in this story is that the Fayetteville organizers made a bid on their own. USA Cycling supported the bid, but it did not choose Fayetteville as the standard-bearer for the U.S. Other regions that commenters cited as “deserving” Worlds were certainly able to make bids of their own. Maybe some even did.
For Quirk, that more negative segment of feedback they received is NBD. (For the record, I used the word “haters” in my question, and he rolled with it.)
“It’s no problem,” Quirk said. “Most of the haters who are people who have never been here, and most of the haters are folks who don’t understand the level of commitment we have put into cycling in our region. It’s incredible the amount of trail we’ve built and the way we’ve tried to integrate cycling into the community.”
He did, however, want to make a pitch to those who have already decided not to make the trip three years from now. “Give us a shot. We’re going to impress you. It’s the folks who are very verbally saying, no way, no how. It’s those ones that kind of bum me out a bit. Hopefully they’ll change their minds between now and 2022. But whatever, we’re used to it in Arkansas. It certainly doesn’t get under our skin.”
That said, it is human nature to focus on negative feedback we receive and taking a step back, most of the reactions were positive to the news that Cyclocross Worlds are headed back to the U.S.
“We have been overwhelmed with positive energy, positive commentary,” Quick said. “Lots of people who are like, I can’t wait to come. I want to go down there with my mountain bike even before Worlds. It’s almost like they want to do a recon trip.” (I’m already planning mine)
He finished the topic by sharing an experience from Bogense Worlds.
“The other thing is when I was in Denmark, the number of people who are from Europe, some of them have never been to America or some of whom have only been to New York or Florida, for them to say, we’re going to be there. It’s such an exciting opportunity for them. The comment I got the most was ‘Do you have interesting beer there?’ We can’t wait to host them all.”
Watts was in Bogense for Worlds during the announcement and stayed immune from the chatter. The feedback he has gotten has been quite positive.
“I’m not sure what’s to be negative about,” he said. “This is the best thing to happen to cyclocross in the U.S. in years. I personally have received dozens of extremely positive and enthusiastic messages and not a day goes by that someone doesn’t express their excitement with me. Elite racers and recreational riders alike tell me that they keep hearing such good things about what’s going on in Northwest Arkansas—the buzz is that strong.”
A Cycling Celebration
What makes those events stand out is that they both emphasized the atmosphere around the race as much as the race experience itself. When it comes to Fayetteville Worlds, the team’s approach embraces that dual approach.
First up is the race itself.
“The race itself is very specific about what that experience needs to be,” Quirk said. “We’re going to have an amazing course. We’re going to have good food and beer on the course. The experience on race days, we understand it’s the freaking World Championships. You have to deliver in all respects without any flaws.”
The World Championships—and OZ Cross this October—are going to take place at Millsaps Mountain, which is a cycling-specific venue recently purchased by the City of Fayetteville. The 228-acre venue is located just on the other side of I-49 from the University of Arkansas and features, quite literally, a mountain.
In addition to providing facilities for events such as Cyclocross Worlds, the property will feature trails that help connect the Kessler Mountain ride center with downtown Fayetteville. [Watch a promo video for Fitzgerald Mountain, a similar Oz Trail venue]
Watts has already been involved with the collaborative design process for Millsaps Mountain. “Right now, I’m assisting in the design phase of the new park at Millsaps Mountain,” he said. “Working with the City of Fayetteville on this new park, I’m using my cyclocross experience, and it’s very fun to be part of such a motivated and savvy group of park planners. It is completely new and exciting bicycle park in Fayetteville that’s coming together.”
Millsaps Mountain is another part of the long-term vision Bike NWA has for NW Arkansas. “Our aim is to develop a world-class cycling facility both for cross-country mountain biking and cyclocross,” Quirk said. “Our goal, in the long run, is for Fayetteville to host some sort of national or international-caliber event at Millsaps Mountain every year.”
With Brook Watts and his years of experience running CrossVegas and now serving as the race director for World Cup Waterloo, Quirk feels the race side of things is well in place. “I think we’re going to put on a hell of a production. There’s the race operation that Brook Watts is incredibly capable of doing a great job with.”
In previous interviews, Watts alluded to how he is always “peeking behind the curtain,” when he attends events. All events. Of every kind. When Quirk talked about his experience, that is part of what Watts will be bringing to the table.
“I learn something from every event I attend, whether it’s a bike race or a high school musical,” Watts said. “That’s a common thread among event organizers: we’re always eager to explore new ideas. Each Elite course takes the best of what the local topography offers and delivers a uniquely challenging course. Millsaps Mountain is no different, and I am confident that will stand on its own as a highly memorable 2022 World Championship venue.”
The second part of the team’s plans for Fayetteville 2022 is putting on a memorable event for everyone in attendance. Quirk described that goal, “We want to deliver so much more than that in terms of a celebration of the sport of cycling.”
“The thing we’re excited about is how we can show off our region,” Quirk said. “How can we show off our gravel? How can we show off our mountain bike trails? How do we show off our arts and culture, restaurants, hospitality? We want to make it so folks come for five days instead of three to take advantage of everything that we put together for them to do.”
For that, Quirk went back to the Epic Rides Off-Road series that hosts a Friday-night dirt crit and creates a party-like atmosphere for the entire race weekend. With downtown Fayetteville and the University maybe 2km away, he foresees plenty of opportunities to keep the party going and not have it dissipate as it might at venues where most folks are staying miles away.
“Why wouldn’t we have a bigger celebration in honor of the fact Worlds is there?” he asked, rhetorically. “Let’s keep everyone together. Let’s start the fun at 7 a.m. with an amazing bike ride that finishes before the first race each day. Let’s finish things up with a little music festival or something like that to keep everyone together and keep the excitement going. It’s that kind of dynamic we’re hoping to deliver.”
We will get out first national-level look at what the Millsaps Mountain venue will look like this fall at Oz Cross. With Watts in charge, he said you can start to get an idea of what the World Championships will be like.
“Anybody who knows me knows I like to put on a show as much as a great race, and I know Oz Cross will be no different,” Watts said. “The park will not be fully completed by the time of Oz Cross in October, so we’ll utilize some of the course we used in 2018 and add some new elements to increase the level of difficulty.”
The Last Piece
Quirk, Watts and the race team still have another three years for everything to come together Fayetteville 2022. We will, of course, have our eyes on Oz Cross this fall and you better believe we are scheming to find a way to get our mountain bikes down to Fayetteville to check out Millsaps Mountain and the Oz trails.
As things come together, rest assured that there is one key part of hosting Worlds in the U.S. that Quirk is acutely aware he cannot mess up: the foam party.
The foam party after the 2013 Louisville Worlds is still the stuff of U.S. cyclocross legend, and if anything, Fayetteville 2022 will have an appropriate close to the Worlds party.
“Tim [Johnson] told me about the foam party,” Quirk said. “We were at the McKeller in Odense where we were all staying, and he went into great detail about the foam party we have to pull off.”
“That die has been cast, so we understand what the expectations are.”