May 15, 2023 - Business

Walton Family's Oz Brands galvanizes Arkansas' gravel scene

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Equal parts grit and grace, gravel cycling may be the fastest-growing segment of two-wheeled sport.

What's happening: OZ Gravel, a lifestyle brand designed to promote the flourishing gravel cycling ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas, launches Monday.

Why it matters: As cyclists take to roads less traveled for both safety (fewer cars!) and exploration (wow, it's pretty!), U.S. sales of cyclo-cross and gravel bikes grew 109% between 2019 and 2021, according to research firm NPD Group.

  • If Bentonville is the self-proclaimed mountain biking capital of the world, the rural roads in Benton County have the potential to siphon some of the spike in gravel interest as tourism.
  • "The opportunity is there if we want to make it a destination," Tom Walton, co-founder of holding company Runway Group, told Axios via email. "Our visitors and competitive riders are saying this is the best gravel they’ve seen."

Details: In addition to branded merchandising to promote NWA's gravel scene, the new OZ website launching Monday will be a one-stop spot for curated routes for beginner, intermediate and advanced courses throughout NWA. Several rides cross into Missouri and Oklahoma.

Context: Oz Brands is a part of Runway Group and includes Oz Trails for mountain biking, Fly Oz and Oz Art NWA.

State of play: Many of the Oz Gravel routes were mapped as part of the Arkansas Rural Recreational Roads (Arkansas R3) project that launched last November.

  • Created by Walton, Arkansas R3 is a public-private initiative designed to identify rural roads as recreational opportunities.

Between the lines: The Arkansas R3 site uses Benton County as an example and offers a toolkit for policymakers and public officials.

  • Ideally, other counties in Arkansas would create their own unique brand like Oz Gravel to drive tourism using existing gravel roads, a Runway spokesperson told us.

By the numbers: The sport has the potential to be a major economic boon to rural communities.

  • Unbound, formerly the Dirty Kanza, has been held in Emporia, Kansas, since 2006. There were 34 registered riders the first year, but it's now considered one of the premier gravel events in the U.S., with about 3,000 participants.
  • In 2019, the event brought in $5.5 million and an estimated 12,000 visitors from all 50 states and 40 countries to the town of about 24,000, Lelan Dains, director of Visit Emporia, told Axios.

What they're saying: "We want people to get out and see the natural beauty of the state on these scenic rural roads that you don’t get to experience on a mountain bike or on paved roads," Walton told Axios.

  • "Gravel cycling is a way for people to connect with our rural communities and experience our heritage in rural Arkansas. We need to hold onto that. We want to grow the idea that not every road needs to be paved."

What we're watching: Oz Gravel will "support key gravel events," we're told, so expect more to be announced in the coming months.

  • Runway wouldn't say if other regions in the state have shown interest in Arkansas R3's toolkit, but a spokesperson did say they "expect R3 to expand."

Of note: While Oz Gravel has so far mostly focused on Benton County, Experience Fayetteville has curated several routes in Washington County.

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