VeloNews: How Arkansas got the 2022 UCI Cyclocross World Championships

The UCI confirmed Friday that world cyclocross championships will head to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2022. For the next three years, cycling advocates and organizers in Northwest Arkansas will work to create a grassroots cyclocross scene to support the world’s biggest cyclocross event.

Although organizers are essentially starting from scratch, they have a big venue, government support, and perhaps most importantly, significant financial backing from the Walton Family Foundation.

“For us, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other,” said Brendan Quirk, who is on the board of directors for the BikeNWA non-profit. “We understand winning at the grassroots level is essential for winning at the international level, and we’re going to do it.”

Quirk saw the value of grassroots support firsthand when he attended the Trek CXC World Cup race in Waterloo, Wisconsin last September. He also spoke with U.S. cyclocross experts, such as former pro riders Meredith Miller and Tim Johnson, as well as four-time national cyclocross champion Jeremy Powers.

All of them emphasized the importance of a vibrant local ‘cross culture.

“They all said the same thing, and it was totally unexpected,” said Quirk. “If you want to pull off an international-caliber cyclocross race in Northwest Arkansas, the essential ingredient is to cultivate a really robust local ‘cross scene. If you don’t have that, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult, and if you do have it, it’ll be a springboard to success.”

For now, that springboard is quite small. The region’s first cyclocross race series in 2018 attracted about 150 unique participants over six races. Quirk doesn’t expect meteoric growth but says the region will host a UCI C2 race in 2019 and “hopefully something bigger” in 2020.

He expects races in Northwest Arkansas could draw riders from Oklahoma, Dallas/Fort Worth, and even Kansas City.

The area has successfully become a regional destination for mountain biking, thanks to its 100+ miles of singletrack built over the last 10 years. The Walton Family Foundation, a charitable organization supported by the children and grandchildren of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has donated more than $70 million to cycling trails and infrastructure.

Quirk works for the Runway Group, which helps the Foundation direct its charitable giving to various causes.

Now, the Foundation is taking aim at cyclocross. In February 2018, the Foundation provided a grant and loan to purchase a 228-acre property in west Fayetteville called Millsaps Mountain. Part of that will be used for singletrack connections between town and Kessler Mountain Regional Park. The $3.3 million property will also be used as the venue for cyclocross worlds as well as other ‘cross and mountain bike races.

“Our wish is, starting with 2022, we want to see World Cup cross-country races in Fayetteville, World Cup cyclocross in Fayetteville, national championships, and everything in between,” Quirk added. “We want this to be a fixture on the scene for cyclocross and cross-country mountain biking.”

He cited Boulder, Colorado’s Valmont Bike Park as an example of what they are trying to do in Fayetteville. Valmont, host venue for 2014 U.S. cyclocross nationals, is much smaller at 40 acres, costing approximately $5 million to build the entire facility, including a dog park and other non-cycling related amenities. The bike-specific infrastructure costs about $1.2 million.

BikeNWA has extensive experience building mountain bike singletrack, having employed several top-flight pro trailbuilding companies to expand its network. For the cyclocross venue, it is leaning on the expertise of Brook Watts.

“Brook [Watts] has experience with Cross Vegas, Waterloo, he’s been a really wise and helpful advisor in the process,” said Quirk. “From that standpoint, it’s not just a bunch of mountain bike people shoehorning in a cyclocross course.”

The 2013 UCI World Championships was the only other time the U.S. hosted the event. The Louisville, Kentucky event did not require a special, purpose-built venue like Millsaps Mountain. However, it found itself in financial peril just months before the event when sponsor Exergy went bankrupt. USA Cycling was forced to step in and provide a financial backstop for the event estimated to be in the mid-six-figure range.

Quirk said that the UCI and USA Cycling did not express concerns about financing, based on that event six years ago. He is confident that the Walton family will continue its support of this event and all things related to cycling in Northwest Arkansas.

“Steuart and Tom Walton were very, very excited to help support this initiative,” he said.

Recently, the Walton Family Foundation commissioned an independent study of cycling’s economic impact on the area. The study, done in partnership with non-profit organization PeopleForBikes said Northwest Arkansas’s network of trail and bike facilities provided $137 million in economic benefits in 2017.

It comes down to a classic case of “if you build it, they will come.” But this time, organizers have a due date when it comes to cultivating a ‘cross culture in the Ozark Mountains.

“I’m confident as a race and cycling cultural experience, we’re going to knock it out of the park,” says Quirk.

“What keeps me up at night is the grassroots growth of the sport here.”

Samuel Slaton