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The Building of Little Sugar

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.

Michaelangelo

The building of Little Sugar brings the completed trails in Bella Vista’s adopted master trail plan to nearly 100 miles. Little Sugar trails have been engineered for every level of skill and preference from scenery-forward rambling Tweety Bird Loop suitable for the youngest trail warriors to the challenging black diamond of Danger Will Robinson, and the heart in your throat thrill of sessions on Staggerwing.

Who are the artists behind these outdoor masterpieces?

Five trail building companies, originating from various parts of the country have worked on Bella Vista’s Little Sugar trails: Gravity Logic, Rock Solid Contracting, Jagged Axe, Rogue Trails, and Progressive Trail Design–with the general oversight of NWA Trailblazers. Each has their own signature and an experienced rider can tell who built his/her ride by the way it looks and feels under the wheel. The geology where Bella Vista’s Little Sugar trail system is being carved out of the Ozark Mountains is not marble, but is most assuredly rock. “A rock is a rock,”Gravity Logic’s project manager for NWA, Nat Paton said matter of factly.  

The Bella Vista Ozarks were made to ride.

Features such as springs, white water streams, and caves are common in the limestone of the Springfield Plateau where Bella Vista is located in the Ozark Mountains. Dramatically shaped and colored bluffs, caves, and undulating elevations make for a fascinating and dramatic landscape, whether carved by trail crews or 500,000 years of mother nature and gravity. Waterfalls and cool, calm pools are abundantly threaded throughout and add a splash of serenity to your thrilling adventure. 

Bella Vista’s rocky footprint provides an advantage when it comes to trails. The natural surface, in combination with the trail-builders expertise, allows these trails to recover quickly from water and snow events. You can ride year around in Bella Vista.

Nowhere in the world are they doing it to this level.

Adam West, Trail Boss, Jagged Axe

Environmental savvy.

The greatest trail builders share a love of the outdoors, professional competence on a mountain bike, and an advanced understanding of physics, botany, and biology. All five of the contractors working on Bella Vista trails have an academic and experiential background in environmental science. 

A mastery of hydrology is key to rideability, predictability, and long lasting trails. The same characteristics that makes the Ozarks so stunningly beautiful and varied–soft stone, irrepressible springs, cascading falls, and a dramatic weather pattern–are tough on trails. Without engineered management of water, the forest will quickly reclaim the dirt path. Trail building demands attention to where water will flow and building must compensate to prevent erosion of the trail and surrounding hillsides and banks. The changes in elevation and flowing water throughout the region require engineering berms, stabilizing slopes with natural vegetation, and installation of culverts to let the water flow harmlessly and appropriately. 

An understanding of botany and biology–a healthy respect for native plants and animals–is also something the crews working in Bella Vista share. They reroute planned trails and replant native plants when necessary. They schedule to avoid a mating season. They create habitat as they build. The numerous (count them: 50+) bridges on these trails are made of native trees, felled to clear the trail, and recycled to create a beautiful path across a ravine or creek. 

Equal parts respect for the land, the neighbors, and the ride.

Each of the Little Sugar trail builders working in Bella Vista have unique styles and areas of special experience and competency. Yet, there are ways in which they are very much alike. They are artists. Property lines, aerial surveys, and topo maps are all tools for the drawing board stage of the plans. At that point, the trail is just a line on a piece of paper. Then shovels in hand, builders begin the painstaking and creative work to create each very different section of the trail. This process took two years to build Little Sugar. 

Crews from each outfit explored the hills and dales to figure out where the water flows in different weather and drew their lines in the dirt to make sure a trail user doesn’t miss anything the mountain has to offer. There are human-made features throughout: jumps, berms, and a plethora of bridges, created as naturally and as beautifully as possible. 

All the builders are keenly aware that the trails they are creating are there by the grace of the property owners and community of Bella Vista. They worked with respect next to property lines, a reverence for nature, and with the smallest, quietest, least intrusive equipment possible. On Little Sugar, some of the largest projects, such as the tunnels providing safe passage beneath a highway, did call for bigger and stronger machines and materials.

Safety and fun are of equal value. The mountain-bike specific trails are tested and signed to guide riders as well as those on foot according skill and ability. Little Sugar was planned to offer a complete range of types of mountain-bike trails. Progressive Trail Design recently completed a widening and resurfacing of Tweety Bird to improve the trail for riders with hand-powered mountain bikes and even all- terrain strollers. That trail was also ‘mellowed’ out to eliminate and replace the steeper grades. It is now rated ‘beginner’ and is a great introduction to mountain biking. 

Riding at a pro-level is prerequisite for the job. No matter how gnarly the features of the ride, it is the builders responsibility to create as safe a place as possible for the public.

Huntley Gravity Zone has six different trails–green and blue (beginner and intermediate, respectively) flow trail without jumps, blue and black (difficult)trails with jumps for improving skills.

Designing gravity trails means the exact right slope for speed, length for landing and the optimum angle of all the berms. It means being precise and specific. The builders ride as as they go to make sure the speed of the trail allows the rider to enter the jump without breaking or pedaling and to roll on to the next feature.

‘Catching air’ with a safe landing is the goal, not a tumble down a ravine and a trip to the bike shop with a bent frame. Excitement and challenge with a little bit of safety added in, too.

Sixty grueling days to build it. Sixty glorious seconds to ride it.

Staggerwing is a part of Little Sugar designed and built by Jagged Axe Trail Designs. Riders can session these gravity trails, circled by a single route back to the top to go again and again. Project manager Adam West quoted his company’s motto when talking about this section, “We don’t rate our trails in miles, we rate them in smiles.” Although, this section of Little Sugar might be better rated in outright grins. In spite of the challenging features of Jagged Axe’s trail design, Staggerwing fits seamlessly in with other Little Sugar trails and the Ozark forest environment.

This crew uses small scale equipment hauled up 700 feet in elevation daily to craft the flow and berms that make hair-raising turns as safe as they are fun.

They worked in a sort of partnership with the landscape itself to make the adrenaline-flooding trail features a seamless part of the forest. “We see what is here naturally and whatever it takes, we build the trail to embrace it” West said. 

“A boulder is left in place becomes a jump. There is a part of the trail that rides through a fissure in a rock next to the river on a 4 1/2” trail because that is what the mountain told us to do that day. It’s a “B” trail in case threading your wheel through a stone at 12 mph is more than you are up for, but it’s there.” 

NWA Trailblazers is the nonprofit responsible for development of mountain bike trails all over Northwest Arkansas, including the Little Sugar System. In addition to overseeing all of the trail building companies contracted to build Little Sugar, NWA Trailblazers navigated the complex relationships and land use management that was required to build a world class mountain biking experience over, under, and through an existing infrastructure of a city and private residential community while retaining the  ‘alone in the woods’ look of the trails. The Little Sugar system was designed as an overlay on the exiting City of Bella Vista and connects seamlessly with The Back 40. Care was taken to design a trail through the Oxark mountain forest with little sight of the town. Crossing freeways and larger streams safely, without interrupting the mountain biking experience, did require an infrastructure of eight tunnels and three large steel bridges . Those were designed by CEI Engineering and installed by Crossland Heavy Contractors. The safety signage and traffic control was designed by Alta Planning & Design and installed by Centerpoint Contractors.  All of the infrastructure was paid for by a Walton Family Foundation Grant awarded to the City of Bella Vista.  The mountain bike trails were funded by the Walton Family Foundation with a grant to the NWA Trailblazers.

Meet the builders.

Erin Rushing

Erin Rushing, Executive Director of NWA Trailblazers, grew up on a cattle farm in rural north central Arkansas. He credits his current passion for mountain bike trails to being exposed to nature his entire childhood in Arkansas, ‘The Natural State’. Rushing loved being outdoors–hiking, fishing, camping and hunting. But it wasn’t until he lived in Kansas City, MO, out of college, that he grew to really appreciated it. He became addicted to the open space and wonderful greenway trail system in Kansas City. When he moved back to Arkansas five years later, he searched for opportunities to develop and introduce greenway trails into a growing community that had none.

“Today, there are miles of trails in every community within Northwest Arkansas.  I am very blessed to have been a part of their development,” Rushing said of Northwest Arkansas becoming a key player in the mountain biking world.
 
Professionally, Rushing studied landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas and has been providing award-winning design and consulting work within the region for the past 20+ years, including parks, recreation projects, the Razorback Greenway Trails and many natural surface trails. His knowledge of land development and a strong back ground in site/civil related development projects is key to oversight in the area’s rapidly developing trail-centric environment, with emphasis in bicycle/pedestrian facilities.
Phil Penny

Rogue Trails, led by founder/owner Phil Penny, is another homegrown trail construction company skilled in the design and construction of soft surface trails in Arkansas and other states. 

Penny began racing mountain bikes in 1991, a time when most trails were built and maintained by volunteers. Later, during his eight years as president of Ozark Off-Roads Cyclists, Penny became more involved with trail construction. He discovered that much of what he’d learned from his bachelor’s degree in environmental science and engineering, coupled with his hydrology training on the job at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, also applied to bike trails. When on any Rogue-constructed trail, riders appreciate the company slogan: “Putting science into the art of trail building.”

Rogue is responsible for much of Tunnel Vision, Bamboozled, and Lago Vista East and West as well as the challenging, Technical Difficulty. Rogue’s portion of the new trail system consists of 20 miles of tight single track, rock technical features, jump lines, tall berms and several miles of Rogue’s signature intimate hand-built trails.

Penny’s training in conservation and creating sustainable natural features carried over to Rogue Trails. His team of 23 employees includes three environmental scientists and two members with degrees in parks and recreation. But even when a project’s guidelines does not require him to follow strict conservation rules to build sustainable trails, Rogue still does, because as he says, “it’s the right thing to do.”

 

Aaron Rogers

Aaron Rogers has over a decade of mountain bike trail construction experience. Prior to starting Rock Solid Trail Contracting, LLC., Aaron was President of the Copper Harbor Trails Club in Michigan and an employee of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), building trails, developing IMBA standards, and training others in these construction techniques. His years of work and dedication to mountain biking in the Midwest have influenced industry standards across the region. Rogers’ Rock Solid Trail Contracting enterprise was recruited from Copper Harbor, Mich., to assist with the numerous trail projects under construction in preparation for the IMBA World Summit held in Bella Vista and Bentonville in 2016.

 Rogers’ team brought with them a list of impressive credentials including bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and construction. 

Rogers brought a crew of 17 with him on that initial visit. They first worked on the original Coler Mountain Bike Preserve trail system in Bentonville. The slabfest of a trail with the company’s namesake, Rock Solid Trail, contains the group’s signature rocky features. That work, plus its work on the Back 40 trail system in Bella Vista, established Rock Solid as a builder of exciting and sustainable trails. Rock Solid crews built the Danger Will RobinsonDown Under, and Landline trails.

Rock Solid’s relationship with Arkansas trail construction proved to be a great fit for the company and Arkansas has become a second home for Rogers and his crew. Trail crews were more than happy to be working in the mild weather conditions found in Arkansas’s fall and winter as opposed to those in Michigan and Minnesota. 

Adam West

Jagged Axe Trail Designs was founded on the belief that to build quality mountain bike trails, you must know how to ride them. That is why every member of the Jagged Axe family has a passion for the sport of mountain biking along with the knowledge to build sustainably. 

The Jagged Axe Trail Designs crew, led in NWA by project manager and crew boss, Adam West, is now one of the top mountain bike trail building companies in the NWA area. They consider it a huge blessing getting to do what they love for a living.

They were responsible for the Little Sugar series of black diamond session trails called Staggerwing. The trails are relatively short gravity trails but do not lack speed and challenge. 

Much of the 100 miles of trail in Bella Vista was made with hand tools. Every effort was made to keep noise and environmental disturbance at a minimum, but like all of the five trail builders, Jagged Axe does use small scale equipment. It was a job to wrestle small tractors up to and into the section of forest where Staggerwing was built and to operate them on the steep slopes of the gravity-fed trails. Machines proved a big assist in crafting an exciting ride down the rocky hill. Adam, who started working in his father’s construction company, before he found his calling in trail building lives for the challenge. “I’ll drive anything but a nail, he said.

Nat Paton

Gravity Logic‘s Dave Kelley is the genius behind A-line, Dirt Merchant, and Whistlers legendary flow. He has been involved with the Whistler Mountain Bike Park since 1996 and was among the first to officially establish downhill mountain bike trails on Whistler Mountain. As the park grew, Kelley worked his way up from lead hand to co-manager of the bike park. In 2007, he started working with Gravity Logic, offering trail development advice to resorts throughout North America and Europe. 

Nat Paton is the supervisor for the NWA crew. Australian born, Paton came to the US “to be a ski bum,” he said. A bike rider from an early age, he was in the right place and the right time when northern ski resorts started adding mountain bike trail recreation to their programs. When asked the difference between building a gravity-powered downhill trail on a Pacific Coast mountain range and in Bella Vista, Nat said “not much different except Air Raid is 1,063 feet. The longest trail at Whistler Mountain Bike Park is seven miles. Rocks are rocks. We are used to a lot of different kinds.” 

Gravity Logic is responsible for world-class bike trails all over the globe. In Bella Vista you can experience this stellar level of engineering on the Shock and Awe, Tango Whisky, Air-Raid, Invasion, and Rendezvous trails.

Chris Crone

Progressive Trail Design has been a major part of Bella Vista’s rise to a player in the mountain biking world. They built about 50% of the 50 miles of The Back 40. On Little Sugar, PTD was brought in to reengineer the Tweety Bird Loop to make it accessible to hand cyclists. Chris Crone is one of the founders of PTD and the most qualified of the team when it comes to construction and problem solving. Equally at home on machines, while doing carpentry, or while landscaping, his attention to detail ensures that every project PTD completes is world class.

PTD is a homegrown company. The seed was planted when Crone and Nathan Woodruff “Woody”, were hired by Tom Walton to build a trail through his personal property. Friends since they were kids, Chris and Woodruff were known in the informal biking community as renegade, daring bike riders, not as trail builders. Walton just walked into a local bike shop and asked if anyone could do that. Buddies suggested he try Crone and Woodruff. They agreed to the work. After all it was a job, probably not much harder than the landscape work they were doing. That five miles of personal trail was the beginning of Slaughter Pen in Bentonville. Little did the friends know that it would turn into a career, grow into a well-respected professional company with 12 employees, and start NW Arkansas on a path to become the mountain bike mecca that it is.

One hundred miles and still building. Come stay and play in Bella Vista.

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