By Stevie Emmons
Photos by Ashton Lambie and Chris Birch
Professional track cyclists Ashton Lambie and Chris Birch, Ph.D. were in Northwest Arkansas in March for a week of riding. We asked them to stop by OZ Trails for a short interview on what their favorite parts of the week were.
Q 1: Can you introduce yourselves and give our audience a little background on who you are?
Chris: I’m Chris Birch and I’ve been riding bikes seriously since 2012. I discovered cycling in graduate school at MIT. I started going to national championships with cyclocross and found my way onto the crit scene, and raced on the east coast for a couple years. When I graduated, I drove my car across the country to the track in Los Angeles because I really wanted to try to go to the Olympics in track cycling. I lived in LA for five years and got to race all over the world with the national track team. I won a few World Cup medals, got to race the Madison at the Pan-American games, and I made it to the Olympic long team, but was not selected to race in Tokyo. I had a really good year that year despite that because at the end of it, I got to start a new career in the space industry.
Ashton: I’m Ashton Lambie and I’ve ridden bikes since 2005. I did ultra-distance growing up and in college I raced a little bit of road. I started racing gravel around college when I lived in Lawrence, Kansas and worked at Sunflower Bike Shop. There’s a grass track down there in Lawrence where I got started racing track. I won my first national championship in 2017. Just like Chris, I was on the World Cup circuit and won a few medals. In 2021, I won a World Championship and set the world record when I became the first person to have a sub-4 minute time in the individual pursuit.
Q 2: Being professional track cyclists, what interested you in coming to ride mountain bike trails in Northwest Arkansas?
Ashton: I wanted to come to Bentonville because I was selected for the Lifetime Grand Prix series this year, which is a series of 6 races that are a mix of gravel and mountain biking. Everyone we talked to said this is the place to come for mountain biking, so I thought I should just dive right into the deep end and come here.
Chris: I’m trying to get my groove back, too, because I haven’t been on a mountain bike in at least five years. I’m actually still riding the same mountain bike I rode in graduate school (a 2012 S-Works Stump Jumper). My number one goal is to keep myself ready for my main career, and part of that is continuing to do things that challenge me. I love riding bikes and doing things outside my comfort zone. It’s a great way to help me grow and stay ready and mentally and physically. This trip is also part of getting ready for Leadville, which I got into this year. We’ve put in a good chunk of riding hours in the last 4-5 days.
Q 3: Ashton, being a world champion and world record holder on the track, have you historically been into mountain biking? If not, how was your experience riding the trails in Northwest Arkansas?
Ashton: I’ve done a lot of other riding disciplines, but not mountain biking. People ask why I ride gravel if I’m a track cyclist, but that’s what I grew up with and it’s just what I’ve always trained on and really like. I did the Rock Cobbler race, which made me think, “I need to kick this into gear.” It was a really hard race. Chris had time off work this week and we both had goals we wanted to accomplish, and this was a good place to work on those.
Chris: We looked at several locations for our trip – some closer to where I grew up in Arizona – and tried to make choices that mimicked what we might see at Leadville and Lifetime. We ended up in Bentonville because we felt there was a better density of trails that offered more options to work both on cross country and skills. I loved warming up on the little pump tracks because your eyes, arms, and core are awake going into a big ride. It was also very affordable getting here. We flew direct from Houston. We also rented bikes locally here, which was a great option.
Q 4: Christina, I understand you’re going through some special training for a space program. How important is it to maintain physical fitness for that program? Do you think mountain biking provides any additional support outside of your normal track racing and training?
Chris: It’s definitely an important aspect of my job in the space industry to stay physically fit because the training is very demanding. For me, that also means having a high level of mental readiness. The level of hand-eye coordination, the fast in-the-moment instinctive responses and the ability to make quick decisions that you get from mountain biking are so important. The confidence you gain in yourself and your ability to make those in-the-moment decisions is something I’ve found particularly helpful.
Q 5: What are your favorite trails you rode while visiting Northwest Arkansas?
Ashton: The Back 40 felt like a real adventure. There were times that we were on really manageable trails and also some times where I was like, “We’re really far out there.” It was really fun.
Chris: We did the Traverse Loop, which I liked a lot because it was technical. I liked the Back 40 for the remoteness, and I liked the descents of Tunnel Vision because they were longer and more sustained – but you have to work for them! We got up to see the new trails (Medieval, Dragon Scales, and Catapult) from the castle and really liked it. I liked the little drop off one of the bridges (Ashton: I love features like that.). It’s been really cool to see the trail maintenance that’s going on because it seems like they’re out working on a new section of trail every day, and they’ve actually completed what they started, so it’s just a constant improvement to what’s around or new development. It’s really impressive how well-maintained the trails are.
Q 6: Do you have any stand-out memorable experiences from your visit to Bentonville this week?
Chris: Circumnavigating the entire trail area. We did the Traverse, Back 40, and as much as the Slaughter Pen area as we could get. Where I grew up, mountain biking is rocks and roots and less the mountain part. Out here, there’s a new meaning to “sitting on the nose of the saddle!” This trip to Bentonville has been really fun for me because I get to go back to those cyclocross-esque roots. It’s so much fun – there’s no pressure, I can be outside all day, I can do cross-country trail if I want, or we can work on skills. It’s been really fun here.
Ashton: Tunnel Vision was overall very memorable. There were some tough moments, but we made it out and we thought it was great.
Q 7: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
Chris: I’ve been so impressed with how family-friendly Bentonville is. We’ve seen people hiking, walking with their family, people on every kind of bike. It’d be so great to have our family here for an active, long-weekend type of vacation.
Ashton: My biggest takeaway was how nice all the mountain bikers are here. The locals here are great, and everyone who comes in from out of town also helps create that vibe.
Thanks, Ashton and Chris, for your time, and we can’t wait to see you in Bentonville again for Big Sugar in October!