You’d be hard-pressed to find two folks in Arkansas more passionate about cycling than Ernie Lechuga and his wife, Scotti Wilborne-Lechuga. And according to them, you’d also be hard-pressed to find a better place to cycle.
“I think Arkansas is a great bicycling state,” says Ernie, a former pro racer who now splits his time between working at Little Rock’s Chainwheel and coaching budding cyclists. “Here, you can do as much flat as you want if you go out east. If you go west, you can get out into some rollers. If you head to Mount Magazine, you can have a Tour de France kind of climb. It gives you the chance to be whatever kind of rider you want to be.”
Ernie has been cycling since the ripe age of 9, when his father, an elite competitive racer, plopped him on one of his own bikes and entered him in a junior race in their home state of California. Five years later, he won Junior Nationals. By 18, he’d earned a spot on the U.S. National Team. After a successful professional career, Ernie landed in Little Rock after taking a job with Spanish bike company Orbea, which once headquartered its U.S. operation in North Little Rock.
Scotti came into cycling in a less traditional manner. She spent her early years as a runner, racing cross country and track. But injuries plagued her, and she had to red-shirt her entire freshman year at Baylor. “I spent five years out of sport,” she says, “and realized how much I missed competition, missed pushing myself.” She decided to take up biking, which led her to Ernie.
“A few months into cycling, I asked Ernie to coach me,” she says. The rest, as they say, is history—the two fell in love, got married and then started Leborne Coaching in 2010.
“We work with a whole spectrum of cyclists,” says Scotti of the 30 riders they’re currently coaching. “We’ve got everyone from a high school junior to a retired business owner in his 50s, at all levels of entry.”
And though they’ve both raced at the elite level—Scotti is currently a Category 1 athlete, the highest level of amateur racing—Ernie and Scotti aren’t just out to turn cyclists into competitive racers.
“We love to teach the culture of cycling, the fundamentals of cycling,” says Ernie. “If you’re comfortable on your bike, you can really get out and enjoy it. Once you have that comfort, you can pretty much go everywhere on your bike.”
In the seven years that Ernie has lived and biked in Arkansas, he’s seen a huge surge in popularity of his sport. “The bridges—what they did for the bicycling community here is huge, really,” says Lechuga, referring to the addition of car-free passages like the Big Dam and Two Rivers Bridges.
“People feel safe now. I mean, you can now ride 30 miles without seeing a car. You can’t beat that. So many big cities wish they had what we have, where it’s flat and paved and safe to go out and just start.”
We asked Ernie and Scotti to choose a few of their favorite rides in The Natural State, from easy, beginner-friendly flat trails to intense mountain paths for those up for a challenge. Though they obliged, they admitted it was no easy task. Not that there aren’t enough good rides in Arkansas, mind you.
Quite the contrary.
“There are a lot of roads out there that I haven’t even checked out,” says Ernie. “But that’s the key: You just need to get out there and explore. Don’t be afraid to make your own route, to cut your own path.”
Whether you’re just getting into the sport or have been cycling for years, here are five rides—all chosen by Ernie and Scotti—to get you in the saddle this season.
BEST FOR BEGINNERS: Arkansas River Loop Trail
Distance: 17 miles
Total Climb: 112 feet
“If you’re trying to get comfortable on your bike, then the River Trail is for you,” says Ernie. “No cars, great views, scenic bridges.” When you feel ready to step it up, head off the Loop and into Burns Park. “There are some nice little rollers back there that will push you a little,” Ernie says.
DESTINATION RIDE: Hot Springs Stay-over
Distance: 55 miles each way
Total Climb: 1,500 feet
“This one’s great for a girls’ weekend,” says Scotti. Starting it out in Little Rock, take back roads through Ferndale before meeting up with scenic Highway 5, which you follow all the way to Spa City. “Find an inn, have a big breakfast and then head back. All you need is a backpack!” Scotti says.
CHANGE OF PACE: Harper’s Loop
Distance: 40 miles
Total Climb: 240 feet
If you’ve mastered the River Loop Trail, it’s time to head east for something a bit different. “The Harper’s Loop path is marked by signs off the North Little Rock side of the River Trail,” says Scotti. “It seems easy since it’s flat as a pancake, but there’s a pretty strong headwind.” For a quick after-work jaunt, Ernie and Scotti prefer to cut a 15-mile loop around the airport. “You get out on those country roads, and there’s nothing out there. Well, maybe a couple of dogs, but that’s about it!” Ernie says.
UP FOR A CHALLENGE: Mount Magazine
Distance: 60 miles
Total Climb: 3,200 feet
When asked for a challenging option, Ernie and Scotti had the same response: Mount Magazine. “It’s a 9-mile ride from the bottom to the top, and it’s all up,” says Scotti. “It’s a very challenging ride, but it’s still doable. It takes almost an hour to climb, and 30 minutes to descend.” Their favorite route starts in Havana, winds up the mountain, ends in Paris, and then doubles back again.
GO NORTH: Joe Martin Lollipop Loop
Distance: 45 miles
Total Climb: 1,430 feet
Cycling Northwest Arkansas is not for those adverse to hills. “It’s either up or down—it’s very rarely flat,” says Ernie. The scenery, though, is worth the huffing and puffing. Scotti’s favorite Northwest Arkansas ride is a “lollipop” loop—a straight stretch that ends in a loop and doubles back to the beginning—that factors into the Joe Martin Stage Race each year. Starting near the university, you head out on Highway 265 before looping through Highways 156 and 170.