A New World-class, European Style XC Race Course Lands at Centennial Park in Arkansas

“The goal was to build a U.C.I. XCO World Cup style cross-country course here in America,” according to Ty Cady.
All photos by Bob Robinson.

Hold on tight to your handlebar grips for the following exciting bit of cycling news: Northwest Arkansas (NWA) is positioning itself to become a destination on both the international mountain bike and cyclocross racing circuits.

Say what?

This announcement may catch readers off guard. However, for those involved in other forms of bicycle racing, it should come as no surprise that NWA would add mountain biking and cyclocross to their international racing credentials.

In 2018 the small NWA community of Springdale hosted the Red Bull Pump Track World Championship Finals on The Jones Center’s new super rad course, featuring the highest, steepest banked turns in the world.

Velosolutions, which has constructed world-class cycling courses in thirty-two countries, was brought in to design and construct what would become North America’s longest pump track. With duplicate mirror image courses, racers pair off in head-to-head, real-time competitions. With the loser going home and the winner advancing to the next round, this made for exciting adrenaline-pumping competitions for the hordes of spectators and racers positioned around the course.

Racers in over twenty countries competed throughout the year in qualifying events, then traveled to The Jones Center to determine the title of World Champion. The track continues to be a destination on the world pump track scene by hosting other international competitions, including being a qualifying event for the 2021 Red Bull UCI Pump Track World Championship. Also attracting attention on the world cycling scene is the Joe Martin Stage Race, held on the scenic rural backroads in NWA.

For a seventh year, the race has been included in the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) schedule, attracting racers from across the globe. The race is used to select riders for the UCI world championship title and positions on Olympic cycling teams.

And now, NWA is once again cranking the sport of cycling up a notch. With the completion of the Centennial Park at Millsap Mountain (CPMM) trails in Fayetteville, they are making their entry onto the mountain bike and cyclocross world racing stage.

Just as the NWA coalition recruited the top-grade talent of Velosolutions to design and construct the pump-track for the championships held in Springdale, they brought the skill and experience necessary to build state-of-the-art mountain bike and cyclocross facilities as well.

Aaron Rogers, President of the renowned Rock Solid Trail Contracting, relates how he first became involved in the project in 2018. He, Gary Vernon, Sr. Program Officer at Walton Family Foundation, and Erin Rushing, Executive Director of NWA Trailblazers, were hiking across Millsap Mountain as they considered purchasing the piece of real estate to construct a new mountain bike trail.

Given the two-hundred-plus miles of mountain bike trails already located in the Northwest Arkansas area, their goal was to construct a facility that would contribute to the infrastructure already present in the area, while at the same time, creating something unique.

They continued to explore the property, brainstorming how they could best utilize the area’s distinctive geographic features. With the large clearing atop the mountain, along with the steep terrain surrounding it, they decided building a park and a racing venue would make for the best use of the property. The group became increasingly impressed with the idea and concluded it would make a prime World Cup racing facility. The land was purchased with funds from the City of Fayetteville and the Walton Family Foundation (WFF). The NWA Trailblazers, a non-profit partner in the project, completed a master plan and construction began.

World-class cross country

Ty Cady, US Cup Event Director, was recruited to consult Rogers and his crew at Rock Solid on constructing a world-class cross-country mountain bike circuit on Millsap Mountain.

“The goal was to build a U.C.I. XCO world cup style cross-country course here in America,” Cady explained.

He told of the shortages of purpose-built cross-country venues existing in the states which are similar to those U.S. racers encounter competing in Europe on the World Cup circuit. This puts our riders at a disadvantage, especially for upcoming junior athletes who may not have had opportunities to compete in Europe. World Cup racing in Europe is much more technical than what racers traditionally experience here in the states. As a rule, European courses generally feature massive rock gardens, punchier technical climbs, and faster flowing singletrack.

European courses are also rather short in distance, in comparison to those in the United States, usually around four-to-six kilometers. The shorter courses are designed to accommodate spectators and television coverage, where ten-to-twelve-minute lap times prove to be more exciting than the thirty-minute laps commonly found in the states.

Cady said the Centennial Park XCO course design was inspired by some of the most popular features found at current World Cup circuits, like Nové Město, Albstadt, and Mount St. Anne.

However, they didn’t want to merely duplicate these courses. They wanted to include a sampling of the unique flair that NWA is known for within the mountain biking community. So, they threw in big flowing berms, gap jumps, and “A” line rock drops. This resulted in an ultra-sweet hybrid course, both cross-country-friendly and gravity-oriented. Cady is very pleased with the final results and believes elite world-class cyclists will find the 3.2-mile course a challenging and fun-packed ride.

He will not have to wait long to experience feedback on the course when Centennial Park hosts the U.S. Pro MTB Cup competitions, with back-to-back weekends of racing on April 9-11 and 16-18, 2021.

The two races offer critical UCI points for athletes vying for an Olympic spot at the summer games in Tokyo. Just as important, it is the first race of spring for many of these athletes before they head to Europe in May to compete at the World Cups. This will be a great opportunity for racers to test their fitness level and gain racing experience on a similar course to those they will face across the pond.

World Cyclocross

For those unfamiliar with the sport of cyclocross, it is often described as a combination of road cycling, mountain biking, and steeplechase. Watching cyclists dismount their bikes, then carry them over obstacles, makes one question the origin of the sport. The more credible history I have heard was it began when cyclists would race from one town to another, off-road. These cross-country adventures often required dismounting to hop fences and pedal over impossible terrain. I don’t believe it’s a stretch of the imagination to believe this was an inspiration for cyclocross courses.

To counsel Rock Solid in the construction of the cyclocross circuit, the NWA coalition recruited the skills and experience of Brook Watts. Watts was the race director for CrossVegas, which hosted the first UCI World Cup held in the U.S. in 2015.

Watts made sure the Centennial Park course followed UCI World Cup guidelines, such as lengths of 2.5-3.5 K long (this one is 3.28 K), minimum width of three meters wide (this one is four meters), and the start/finish line should be six meters wide.

He also provided valuable input on designing the impressive boulder constructions atop Millsap Mountain, which is the start/finish area for both cyclocross and cross-country races.

Viewing the manmade earthen mountains, with stacks of massive Ozark boulders erected atop one another, visitors will relate to the name they have given it, Stonehenge. The rock formations will also provide spectators excellent vantage points to watch the heated competitions as racers battle head-to-head over Stonehenge and the various stone flyovers that have been strategically located across the mountain. On another nearby hill, cyclocross racers are forced to heft their bicycles onto their shoulders to scale the infamous 38 steps up Monster Mountain.

This feature is guaranteed to separate the lesser-fit racers from the elite world-class competitors. The cyclocross course will see its first international competition on October 13, 2021, for the third annual FayetteCross. The race will be one of sixteen locations worldwide to host a qualifying race for the 2021-2022 UCI Cyclocross World Championship. That Championship will also be held at Centennial Park on January 29-30, 2022.

Hosting these world-class competitions will provide great exposure for the NWA region, with both events being broadcasted to over 25 nations and 50 million-plus viewers.

And now we ride

Hosting world-class events will be a great boost to Fayetteville’s economy and the surrounding area, as the events will attract racers and spectators from around the world. However, as for myself and other cyclists residing in the area, the best part of building these quality trails is that when they are not accommodating races, we get to ride them.

Yes, these trails, which will motivate cyclists to travel great distances to ride on, are right in our backyard. Yahoo! While Rock Solid was in the area to construct the cyclocross and cross-country courses, they also built eleven more adjoining miles of totally “AWESOME” singletrack.

Local mountain bikers have already been reaping these trails’ rewards for many months, with each trail opening to the public as it was completed. The race circuits were the final piece of the network of trails to be constructed. And I’ll be the first to admit, the racecourses make for totally exciting riding; however, the non-course trails rank right up there next to them.

With the additional 11 miles of non-racecourse trails, Centennial Park offers something for every level of rider. Entire families can plan a trip to Millsap Mountain on their next mountain biking vacation. While mom and dad are defying the rules of gravity on the black diamond features of Hail Mary, Chunky, Red Rum, and World Cup, the lesser-experienced family members will thoroughly enjoy honing their skills on green Chasing Gold, Learner’s Permit, and the assortment of blue trails sprinkled in. And at the end of the day of mountain biking adventures, the entire family can cruise together across Stonehenge and the flyovers. They can then pedal into downtown Fayetteville to celebrate a fun-filled day with dinner at one of the many quaint restaurants.

The black diamond trails are sure to challenge even the most skilled mountain bikers, with lofty rock drops, gaping gap jumps, and gnarly rock gardens. Red Rum, as in murder spelled backward from the movie The Shining, truly lives up to its namesake. The steep, rocky approach to the large flat boulder, acting as the launch site for the gap jump, is enough to encourage most riders to opt for the less daring route nearby.

For those who complete the long leap of faith and land on the sharp-angled backside of the house-sized boulder, I can only imagine the rush of adrenaline they experience. I say “only imagine” because that is the only way I will experience this feature: in my imagination.

Rock Solid, as they have done with so many of the miles of trails they have already constructed across Arkansas, did a fantastic job incorporating the amazing natural features of the area into these trails, along with a few “unnatural” features. One such feature is an old abandoned pickup truck that had been dumped on the mountain back when Millsap Mountain was considered “in the country.” Trail builders skillfully incorporated this relic into both a rollover and gap jump, offering routes for all skill levels.

Speaking of something for all skill levels: the “forgiving” gap jumps included on many of these features are a welcome addition for those ratcheting their nerve to attempt their first jump. By forgiving, I am referring to the bowed, metal mesh grid integrated into the landing. Rather than nosedive into a mound of rock or dirt, then completing an endo when coming up short on your landing, with the metal grid extending the landing area, the cyclist pulls off a soft landing. Then, adjusting their jump on the following attempts, they successfully clear the gap. For those wanting to hone their gap jump skills, these features alone will make the journey to the area worthwhile.

Planning your Centennial Park adventure

Fayetteville, Arkansas, has been awarded Bike City Designation by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body of cycling.

Even if Centennial Park is not enough to entice cyclists to visit, which I would find difficult to understand, there are plenty of additional attractions to make the area a future vacation destination. A great place to help plan your adventure would be Experience Fayetteville website. If this site does not answer all of your questions, it will direct you to a source that will.

The Centennial Park Millsap Mountain Bike Trails prove once again, this is a great time to be a cyclist in The Natural State.


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