U.S. Travel

The Walmart Heirs Putting Arkansas on the Fat-Tire Map

How a couple of heirs to an American retail dynasty are putting Bentonville, Arkansas, on the fat-tire map

From left: Steuart and Tom Walton (Trevor Paulhus)
Walton

Tom Walton parks his bike and surveys the surrounding terrain. Where I see modest hills sheathed in uninspiring winter brown, he sees cycling gold. “The return on investment that we’ve had,” says Walton, kicking at the Arkansas dirt with his mountain-biking shoe, “proves that building urban singletrack is a great model for rural America.”

In case you’re wondering: yes, Tom is one of those Waltons, grandson of Sam, founder of Walmart. And the modestly contoured Arkansas hills he’s hyping—maximum elevation maybe 1,500 feet—neighbor Bentonville, headquarters of the $500 billion company. The 34-year-old and his brother, Steuart, 36, are both cycling nuts, and they’re trying to do for mountain biking what the family business did for retailing: change everything. Today they’re giving me a cycling tour of their progress toward that goal—specifically, a portion of the 163 miles of Arkansas trails in and around their hometown that they’ve commissioned through the Walton Family Foundation. All told, they’ve helped pour some $74 million into cycling infrastructure for the region.

It’s an ambitious plan, and you have to admire what they’ve created. Back on our bikes, I attempt to follow as the brothers effortlessly whip through local favorites like All-American and Rocking Horse. Every trail we ride is clearly marked, categorized (“gateway,” “flow,” “technical” ), and, like ski runs, graded for difficulty. The classifications describe the riding profile of every path. Some have jump lines, others have rock gardens, still others feature one perfectly smoothed berm after another. “We talk about Bentonville as a ski town for bikes,” Tom told me before our ride. 

“Steu, do we have time for Master Plan?” says Tom as we reach a fork in the trail.

“It’s Friday, T Dubs,” says Steuart. “Go.”

There’s little question about how the brothers got their passion for bikes and being outside. The Waltons are a cycling-centric family who put a premium on outdoor experiences. When Tom and Steuart were boys, their parents didn’t keep a TV in the house. Their uncle Rob, a former Walmart chairman, is a veteran roadie. Their dad, Jim, chairman of the board of family-owned Arvest Bank, loves the dirt. Steu and T Dubs go both ways, and they always figure out a way to mix riding and travel—even on a recent trip to Azerbaijan. True siblings, they try to crush one another on climbs. 

Like a lot of rural America, Bentonville (population 47,000) remains small enough to enjoy close proximity to undeveloped land that’s ripe for trail use. And because the network is being built from scratch, trails can be situated minutes from downtown hotels, restaurants, and bike shops. Many of them might be beginner-friendly, but each is a blast and easy to access. “The barriers to entry for our kind of riding are all lower,” Tom tells me as we cruise a jumpy stretch of trail called Ozone. It runs right alongside Northwest A Street in town, an intentional move aimed at inspiring passing drivers to imagine themselves on a mountain bike.

All this investment has earned Bentonville a surprising amount of attention from the mountain-biking industry. In 2016, the town hosted the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit. This year it plays host to Outerbike, a massive demo event normally staged in fat-tire meccas like Crested Butte, Colorado, and Moab, Utah. It’s also attracting tourists. According to a 2018 BBC Research and Consulting study, cycling generates $51 million annually for area businesses, including $27 million from out-of-state visitors. Both Tom and Steuart tell me repeatedly that their goal is to provide a model for other rural towns with similar access to green space. Their foundation shares its formula for measuring the economic impact of cycling investment with any interested community. Indeed, an “Arkansas effect” has already been felt within the fledgling trail-building industry. Nowadays trail designers and their bulldozing employees can’t keep up with demand, installing singletrack everywhere from Alabama to New Mexico.

Neither brother has a day-to-day role at Walmart. Tom, a graduate of Northern Arizona University, runs Ropeswing, a local hospitality company. Steuart has a law degree from Georgetown and owns an aircraft-manufacturing startup. But you can’t help but think they’re keeping the family business in mind as they funnel money into Bentonville’s cycling infrastructure. Walmart is rapidly shifting to e-commerce, which means courting the brightest minds in technology. Bentonville still has some distance to go to compete with attractive startup locales like Denver, Seattle, and the Bay Area, but the younger Waltons seem bent on changing that. Tom has opened several upscale restaurants downtown, including Pressroom and Preacher’s Son. In 2012, the brothers donated nearly $300,000 each to Keep Dollars in Benton County, a political organization that successfully campaigned to change their home county from dry to wet.

What’s certain is that Tom and Steuart’s goal of making the region a cycling destination doesn’t end with tourism. They want Bentonville to be a magnet for the cycling industry, too. In February, the Runway Group, an organization the brothers created to develop quality-of-life initiatives in the region, hired Brendan Quirk as its cycling program director. Quirk cofounded Competitive Cyclist, a successful e-commerce site that launched in Little Rock. According to the group’s press release, he’ll be responsible for “positioning Northwest Arkansas as a leading region nationwide for the incubation and recruitment of cycling-related brands.”

The industry has responded, although the siblings’ strategy remains a little hazy. Right now the only other cycling-related company associated with Bentonville is tiny road-bike maker Allied Cycle Works, which will relocate there from Little Rock in the fall and is partially owned by the Walton brothers’ firm RZC Investments. And last year, RZC spent a reported $225 million to purchase Rapha, the iconic London-based apparel company that has a cult following among affluent road cyclists—a curious match, given the brothers’ previous focus on mountain bikers. So far, Tom and Steuart aren’t planning to move Rapha’s U.S. headquarters from Portland, Oregon, to Bentonville.

In fact, the brothers were cagey when I asked about the thinking behind the purchase. “You know, we kept all the leaders in place, because we believe in what they’ve done so far,” Steuart told me ahead of our ride. “We’ll introduce them to northwest Arkansas and let them figure out what works best here.” He may as well have said, “Who knows?”

For now, Tom and Steuart Walton seem to prefer being viewed simply as benevolent ambassadors for their favorite sports—and to spend as much time as possible spreading the gospel about their ever expanding trail network. As we finish our ride on a mellow stretch of buffed-out Bentonville singletrack, we roll up on a group of school-aged kids on foot. 

“I’ve got one question for you,” Tom tells them. “Where are your mountain bikes?”

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