Bike Bentonville’s director sees new home as model for small towns across America.
By Sam Slaton Photography by Novo Studio
Like most kids in the 1980s, Aimee Ross started with a big wheeler before switching to a bike with training wheels. When the time came to ditch those, there was a hitch: “I was super short; my parents couldn’t ever find a bike that fit me.” Because she couldn’t stand up over the bike on her own, Ross’ “parents and brother would have to get [her] going by pushing [her] along the side of the porch” until she got enough momentum to keep cruising. Soon after, she took things into her own hands. “My brother had this black BMX bike. I’d sit inside thinking, ‘I want to go ride that bike.’ I was so short that I couldn’t get on it by myself, so I had to get resourceful. I’d pull the bike next to the porch and then get on from the porch. Whenever I wanted to stop, I would have to ride back to the porch and slowly crash into it.”
As Aimee got older, the bicycle faded out of her life. She remained enamored with the outdoors, but she seldom cycled, until late in college.
“I don’t know what happened, but I thought maybe I should get my old mountain bike and bring it to college. So I just started venturing around the campus, finding little dirt paths.”
After college, Aimee wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she headed west with a friend. They landed in San Diego, where she scored a job as a sales assistant with Ellsworth Cycles. It was during her stint at Ellsworth that Aimee got her first taste of real mountain biking in the red rock deserts of Moab, Utah. She was hooked, and she progressed at Ellsworth at breakneck speed, eventually rising to the rank of operations director. She also carved out time to spearhead socially conscious projects that aligned with her passions, such as Project Pink, an initiative geared toward getting women interested in cycling while raising money for breast and ovarian cancer research.
After a few years with Ellsworth and a short stint at mountain bike clothing line Zoic, Aimee found her way to Crankbrothers in Laguna Beach, Calif., where she handled production logistics for massive industry events. At one such gathering in 2011, Aimee met Nat Ross, who worked for Fi’zi:k, one of Crankbrother’s sister companies. To Aimee, who “never really followed racers,” Nat was “just another person who worked for this company.” To the rest of the mountain biking world, Nat is a legend: He holds four world championship titles in endurance racing, and he’s a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. “On the last day of the event, a bunch of kids came up to ask for Nat’s autograph. I remember asking this guy next to me, ‘Why are all these kids asking for the Fi’zi:k guy’s autograph? What am I, chopped liver?’ ”
The two started dating, and Nat asked Aimee to marry him the following year. Soon after, the pair moved from California to the little town of Basalt, Colo., just down the valley from Aspen. During their time in Colorado, Aimee and Nat started a NICA high school mountain biking team in Aspen and Aimee blazed a new path in her career doing government relations and advocacy work for the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
In this capacity, Aimee made her way to the Ozarks for the first time to help plan the IMBA World Summit in Bentonville in 2016. It would prove to be yet another turning point in Aimee’s life. During the planning process, Aimee worked closely with Kalene Griffith, director of Visit Bentonville, the city’s destination marketing organization.
“Kalene became very much a mentor for me,” Aimee said. “I’ve always been passionate about women in cycling, and I’d always wanted to host a women’s summit to just ride and talk about women and mountain biking. Kalene encouraged me to just do it. So we created the IMBA Women’s Uprising, which we hosted in Bentonville in March 2018. People told me we wouldn’t get women to come from around the country to Northwest Arkansas, but we got 150 people.”
In fact, one of those women came back and stayed: Last October, Aimee joined the Visit Bentonville team as director of Bike Bentonville, an arm of the parent organization committed to “branding, promoting, and selling Bentonville as a cycling destination.
“I wanted to come down here to get in the thick of it,” Aimee said. “I came from [Cheybogan, Mich.], a small town that’s dying. And I saw a lot of my history here in Bentonville. I thought, ‘What can I learn here that I can take back to Cheybogan?’ Because I truly believe that Bentonville is a model for other small communities around the U.S.”
That forward-thinking, outward focus is what makes Aimee’s take on what might otherwise be a traditional tourism marketing job so unique and refreshing. She thinks far beyond Bentonville’s city limits to consider her adopted home’s potential impact on the nation as a whole, especially its countless small towns. Aimee wants folks to come to Bentonville and leave inspired about what they can do to make their communities thrive.
“Bentonville has the opportunity to tell our story by hosting other communities and educating them on how to emulate some best practices from us to help develop other model communities across the U.S. We can create a healthy, vibrant America by collaborating far and wide with like-minded partners.”
Indeed, partnerships are at the heart of Aimee’s work in Bentonville. “Because cycling is growing so fast in the region” — more than 90,000 mountain bikers visited Northwest Arkansas between summer 2017 and summer 2018 — “we will need to continue to learn from one another and collaborate to make us a strong cycling hub. Our success comes from collaboration, listening and continued education. This effort needs to be evergreen. … As development happens, the need to create connectivity is going to need to be intentional.” And that theme of connectivity applies to more than just physical links between the area’s 400 miles (and counting) of mountain biking trails, paved trails and on-street bike infrastructure — it also applies to the relationships and opportunities that these amenities foster.
In the same way that bikes have stitched the pedal-themed patchwork of Aimee’s life together, so too, Aimee believes, bikes can connect and strengthen Bentonville as it transforms over the years.