Unpaved roads provide bucolic safety for cyclists
Since the pandemic, road cycling has exploded in popularity, and America’s newfound love of bikes is on full display in Northwest Arkansas.
There are over 400 miles of paved trails on the Razorback Greenway, where you’d be hard-pressed to find any vehicle with an engine, creating an ideal environment for cyclists.
However, in metros like Fayetteville or Bentonville, drivers and cyclists have to share roadways, and as the number of people road-biking increases, so do accidents.
Brannon Pack is the director of cycling tourism for Experience Fayetteville, and we spoke earlier this summer during a local gravel bike race. Making sure people feel comfortable on bikes in Northwest Arkansas is literally how he makes his living. He said that while more people on bikes is almost always good, more bikes on city streets, next to cars, has proven deadly.
“And as you know, road conditions have become unsafe over the recent years,” Pack said. “I think you folks can research that pretty quick and see that cyclists are dying at a rate in this country that we’ve never seen before.”
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 961 cyclists died in car crashes in 2021. Of those deaths, more than 800 occurred in urban spaces. Pack said cyclists don’t feel safe biking through metropolitan areas anymore, and when the asphalt failed them, many sought comfort in country roads.
Cyclists are dying at a rate in this country that we’ve never seen before.Brannon Pack
With low traffic density and high visibility, backroads are a cyclist’s dream. Pack said cyclists of all ages and skill levels have enthusiastically embraced gravel cycling, partly due to the ease of entry into the sport.
Gravel riding is just like traditional road biking. The only difference is you’re pedaling on an unpaved surface. Pack said gravel removes the danger of road biking and foregoes the technicality of mountain biking, leaving riders with an easy-going experience. You don’t even need a special bike– once you’re biking down a backroad- you’re gravel biking.
Pack said Arkansas is poised to capitalize on the new gravel craze because, as nearly any Arkansan can tell you, the state isn’t lacking dirt roads.
The race Pack was running was a unique one called The Highlands Gravel Classic. The gravel bike race was one of two North American qualifying races for the Trek Union Cycliste International Gravel World series and took place across 66 miles of backroads in Washington and Madison Counties. The event drew competitors from 39 states and 8 different countries.
Pack said Northwest Arkansas was the natural choice for the race’s location.
“It’s highly visually rewarding," Pack said "We know that Ozarks are absolutely beautiful, and the Ozarks and the Boston’s extend deep into Madison County. So while the event itself does officially start outside of Fayetteville and in Washington County, it follows gravel roads as they lead into the forest that bleed into Madison County where there’s miles and miles and miles of just beautiful, scenic rural back roads. And that’s what the cyclists are looking for.”
According to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, 80% of county roads in Arkansas are unpaved. Pack said as the cycling world moves to gravel, people will travel to Washington and Madison counties just to experience the Ozar