One man is changing the landscape both literally and physically for biking in Madison County.
Madison County resident Eric Blocker knows first-hand two things: what physical exercise in the form of bicycling can do to benefit your health and what natural beauty Madison County has to offer. He’s working to combine those concepts for the betterment of county residents.
“Everyone wants what we have in Madison County,” Blocker said. “The views, the waterfalls, the slower-paced lifestyle, floating, fishing. We have that all. We have a state park with camping. Why not develop it with a trail system so that people can use it with walking, hiking and cycling?”
Some people would say Blocker is dreaming too big. Blocker sees his dreams as just the start of something bigger for Madison County.
Blocker, who was born in Michigan but raised in Springdale, has always had an interest in biking.
“In the 1970s, I got my first bike. My dad was a law enforcement officer. And, they were painting police cars and I was just there. While they were working on their police cars, there was an old bicycle in the corner. And, I kept bothering my dad about it. My dad brought that bicycle home to me.”
Blocker, following in his father’s footsteps, worked in law enforcement for 10 years before working at the city’s waste water plant. He’s worked for the City of Huntsville for almost 30 years.
It was during a period of time when he was not riding that stress started to get to him and he began suffering anxiety attacks. “The doctor said to get out and get some exercise,” he said. So he started riding again and started feeling better.
That was almost 10 years ago. He was riding when he was a law enforcement officer. “I was Huntsville’s bike patrol and no one knew it,” he said with a laugh.
His brother also encouraged him to ride. “My little brother, Dan Blocker, he works for Rogue Trails out of Rogers. He started cycling and was telling me about it,” he said.
Rogue Trails is a Rogers company that designs and builds a variety of single track mountain bike trails, bike parks, pump tracks and hiking trails.
Blocker’s brother told him about a new bike trial, Slaughter Pen Trail, in Bentonville and they rode that trial together. Blocker said the trail was one of the first developed in Northwest Arkansas. “He started riding, so I bought a new bike and we started riding together every chance we got.”
His brother also told him more about Slaughter Pen Trail. “It never dawned on me that someone had to work on them (trails) and maintain them. It dawned on me that trails don’t just happen.”
He also become involved with Ozark Off Roads Cyclists.
“I saw on Facebook that they were having a group ride. I went on a group ride with them and they were super cool and everyone was down to the earth. Everyone was just out there having fun.
“I knew that was something that I wanted to be a part of. They were out there doing good for their communities, creating their own space, their own area.”
In order to go on a bike trial, Blocker had “to drive to ride.” He wanted a trail for Huntsville.
“We’re the Crossroads of the Ozarks. We’re kind of in the middle of everything, but we don’t have anything,” he said.
He said that he tired of working on “everyone else’s trail and not having my own. I said we need something over here. What can we do?”
So in 2017, Blocker, who’s married to Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker, approached the city and asked it for $10,000 to build a skills course at Mitchusson Park. The city agreed. “I was kind of surprised. We got on it and installed it. The community came out and helped use build it.”
In May 2018, the bicycle skills park opened. That initial investment of $10,000 from the city paid for the pump track, which features many bumps, curves and varying widths of track. They also received a $20,000 grant from the Walton Foundation to help with the expenses.
Someone also donated six to eight trees to provide shade and make the trail pretty. Beaver Watershed also made a donation to the city for $50,000 to install permeable pavers to help with erosion problems on the trail. Ozark Off Roads Cyclists helped design and facilitate other funding from other sources for the course.
Blocker said the initial grant of $10,000 has turned into almost $100,000.
That idea led to another.
“I started talking to the kids about biking being in the school,” he said.
He also said he would watch his nephew ride in competitions and he’d go the event and cheer him on.
Blocker has two children who graduated from Huntsville High School: Leigh, a junior at the University of Arkansas and Lauren, who is a freshman at the university.
In September 2019, Blocker began coaching Huntsville’s first bike team, which competes in mountain bike events. The MADCO (Madison County Cyclists) team, a composite team of 6th through 12th graders, competed as part of the National Interscholastic Association (NICA).
The team often utilizes the skills course promoted by Blocker.
Blocker loves that the team consists of a diversity of students, football players to band members. “The atmosphere was amazing because of all of the kids were from diverse backgrounds. They were there to ride, compete and have fun,” he said.
His brother helped Blocker learn the details of what it takes to start a NICA team. “And I decided, yep, we’re going to do this. I went to businesses and sought out sponsorships,” he said.
The team started with five or six students, but finished with 11 team members. Two of the sixth-graders competing finished the finals competition in third and fourth place.
He’s looking forward to coaching another team this year and hoping that the team doubles in size. There will be a meeting in the spring to organize the team and practice will begin in July.
The team practices on a course built near the skills course at Mitchusson.
“Charles Coger allowed us to use his property to create and cut in the skills course,” Blocker said. By doing so, it allowed the course to be away from the disc golf course. It took a team of volunteers two days to put in the quarter-mile course. Blocker says the course rivals any other course in the area.
“It’s not perfect by any means, but it rivals anything others have done. We’re not finished yet. We still lack a bit but that gets the kids out on the course.”
In August of last year, Blocker was instrumental in introducing the Specialized Riding for Focus program into the physical education courses at the Huntsville Middle School.
The program integrates cycling into the physical education curriculum as means of helping students achieve academic, health and social success. Blocker worked with Bike Northwest Arkansas, which is based in Bentonville, to get 30 bikes, helmets and equipment donated for the program.
The Specialized Foundation has donated at least $30,000 to the program, which has not cost the school any investment.
And, beginning soon, more bikes are headed to the school district. The Huntsville Intermediate School will start an after-school biking program and Watson Elementary is starting a 10-bike strider program, which are bikes with no pedals that teach kids balance.
But Blocker’s dreams are even bigger. “I would like to see a multipurpose use trial, maybe 10 to 15 miles.” A runner or walker, as well as bicyclists, can use a multi-use trail.
“I think it’s extremely feasible. It’s going to take landowners and investors who are open to the idea.”