Once the Big Dam Bridge over Murray Lock and Dam was opened in 2006, connecting the Little Rock and North Little Rock riverfronts, the cycling community in Central Arkansas knew it had a unique opportunity on its hands.
Bruce Dunn, race director for the Big Dam Bridge 100 Cycling Tour, said as soon as then-Gov. Mike Huckabee cut the ribbon, “the cyclists took off.” They haven’t looked back since.
“They had such a great time that they decided there was a demand for this ride in the future,” Dunn said. “One hundred local riders all chipped in and became our founding group, who got free rides for life. Of those 100, 36 are still riding with us in 2022. This helped seed money to start.”
The founders formed the Big Dam Bridge Foundation, and with the help of Fred Phillips’ DLT Events in Arkadelphia, began growing the event by leaps and bounds. With a temporary hiccup for COVID in 2020, the ride has grown from a 5K and bike ride on the Arkansas River Trail that first year, into a massive event, both family-friendly and competitive.
Before the pandemic hit, it attracted as many as 3,500 riders from all over Arkansas, the nation, even the globe. The BDB 100 has grown into one of the largest events of its kind in the country and is popular with out-of-state cycling clubs supported by local, regional and national sponsors.
This year’s event, which took place in September, included more than 2,900 riders.
“We hit 2,911 this year,” said Jana Cohen, who handles communications for the event. “That’s 500 more than last year but still not up to pre-pandemic levels just yet.”
Race officials expect to get there. Cohen said the race grew by about 10% to 15% a year from 2006 to 2019, allowing officials to slowly make changes to the route, finish line, expo and related events. The BDB 100 includes a 15-mile, family-friendly ride as well as 26-mile, 50-mile, 75-mile and 105-mile rides for more experienced cyclists. All courses cross the Big Dam Bridge and the Broadway Bridge downtown and finish in Riverfront Park.
The 26-miler incudes the BDB-Broadway loop and extends to Two Rivers Park in west Little Rock. The 50-mile route stretches out west, to the Roland-Pinnacle Mountain area; the 75-miler loops around Lake Maumelle; and the 105-mile ride reaches as far as Wye Mountain and traverses much of the Ouachita Mountain wilderness in western Pulaski and Perry counties.
Stacy Tierny of Little Rock is the past president and current treasurer for the Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, a local riding advocacy group. She’s participated in each BDB 100 since 2013 and has taken on each of the ride’s four courses.
Tierny knows how important events like the BDB 100 can be for a community.
“The ride is so well-organized, and it’s amazing to see so many people in our city,” she said. “These people come from all over the country. Three thousand people rode this year, and I would be confident in saying the majority traveled from outside of Little Rock and spent money in our stores, our restaurants and our hotels.”
Dunn said Central Arkansas has embraced the event. Though the region may sit in the shadow of Northwest Arkansas’ cycling reputation, built mostly off world-class mountain biking, it remains a cycling destination in its own right.
“This is one of the largest cycling events in the country, and Central Arkansas is proud to be part of it,” he said. “The cycling community definitely supports the event, as over one-third of our riders are from Arkansas. Each year, we have dozens of local sponsors who are enthusiastic cyclists or just people who understand the impact a successful cycling event has on a community.”
Dunn said the Arkansas River Trail is a great setting for the event and “serves as a wonderful example of different municipalities working together to have a seamless experience while viewing the gorgeous scenery of the mountains, rivers and city views along the trail.”
The cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock, as well as Pulaski County, maintain sections of the trail. Dunn believes the shared commitment of local municipalities and corporate sponsors has helped the sport continue to grow in the region. Arvest Bank was the 2022 presenting sponsor, and the event’s sponsorship roster is filled with other big-name Arkansas companies.
“Fortunately, some of our early riders were also people with businesses and business connections in the Little Rock area,” he said. “That has been very helpful from a sponsorship standpoint. We continue to be good caretakers of those relationships by making sure our sponsors see our ride as a good value, and that their organization supports health and fitness in our community.”
The BDB rides outgrew their original starting point and now begin on the north side of the river, where more room affords the ability to use corrals for the starts. The “Finale Fest” finish line was moved from Argenta, or downtown North Little Rock, for the same reason.
The courses themselves were chosen for their natural beauty, accessibility and safety for riders where traffic is concerned, Dunn noted.
“Crossing the Big Dam Bridge is the most important part of the course, and it fans out from there.”
The nonprofit Big Dam Bridge Foundation uses race proceeds to promote cycling, walking and running on the Big Dam Bridge and throughout the Arkansas River Trail. But it provides other benefits as well.
“The foundation is a steward of the money we raise each year, bringing programming and brick-and-mortar projects to our area,” Dunn said. “We built permanent restrooms on the Little Rock side of the bridge, and recently, a new plaza opened on the North Little Rock side. This wouldn’t be possible without the money we raise from the Big Dam Bridge 100.”
The BDB 100 checks several boxes. It provides local riders with a unique and potentially challenging outdoor recreation opportunity; it attracts thousands of visitors to the state, who, as Tierny noted, spend money at hotels and restaurants; and it showcases the beauty of The Natural State.
“I think it’s also important for our city leadership to see how many people are willing to spend money in our community when they are given the opportunity to enjoy an event or our trails,” Tierny said.