The Delta Grind is fast approaching. This event is an obvious outgrowth of the Jonesboro to Clarksdale, MS gravel ride that I had the honor of participating in last Fall. Do yourself a favor and get signed up soon. We’ll be there riding the 50k and enjoying the Juke Joint Ball. (Insider hint: stop by Delta Dirt in Helena and meet the great folks behind this incredible distillery on the Mississippi River.)
The Arkansas Delta is rich in music and history. Once home to Sonny Boy Williamson, Levon Helm, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, and Charlie Rich – and this is just the beginning of the list of blues, country, gospel, and Americana forefathers and mothers. But the Delta is equally rich in superior trails and routes for gravel riding – and, so far, has been underutilized and untapped for this as an addition to its natural resources and uniquely authentic culture and history that makes it one of the most unique places on Earth.
Martin Smith, principal of Ecological Design Group and founder of studioDRIFT, a nonprofit created to be a catalyst and resource for connecting and activating communities in rural Arkansas, has long believed that the Delta is often overlooked and has a future as an outdoor recreation destination. “The Delta has everything. The history, the unique culture, and its significant contributions to North America and the world,” says Smith. “People come to our state for its great natural assets – our lakes, rivers, mountains, etc. They are also coming to the Delta on a daily basis to see the land, buildings, and culture that created this story that has affected people here and around the world for generations. The thing that hasn’t gotten enough attention is that the Delta has both – ideal topography for riding and some of the best food and authentic culture that we have to offer.”
Smith, a native of Birdeye, AR has a vision for rural Arkansas and it begins where the Delta and Crowley’s Ridge intersect and where his family has called home since the beginning of the 20th Century. “I’ve biked all over this country and several continents, but when I ride around the Ridge and down through the bottoms and on the levee, I’m constantly struck by the fact that this is some of the best, most scenic topography and trails that I’ve ever ridden, and few people have actually explored it,” says Smith. “Plus, I can pull into a local family-owned restaurant and get a cold beer, visit with friends and strangers who have lived on this land for generations, and maybe get the best barbecue sandwich in the world at Jones BBQ in Marianna, if I time it right.”
The purpose of Smith’s nonprofit, studioDRIFT, was born out of his vision of offering his professional services to underserved rural communities in Arkansas and to promote the re-animation of the Delta and rural Arkansas by inspiring renewed interest in the area by focusing on natural resources and making it easier to navigate and attract the public to an area that’s often overlooked. studioDRIFT is kicking off its work and inaugurating the effort with its first-ever bike event in Helena, AR on May 28, 2022. The Delta Grind will take gravel riders on a one-of-a-kind tour and experience in the Arkansas Delta. Starting on Cherry Street in downtown Helena, AR, there will be three ride options: a beginner, intermediate, and a 50-mile loop for more experienced cyclists.
The Rides – Something for Everyone
The 50-mile Loop leaves Downtown Helena along the levee, then along the low road of the St. Francis National Forest. It is approximately 25 miles to Marianna winding through city streets, around the city square downtown, and past the famous Jones BBQ. The city square will be a welcoming break in a beautiful downtown and local culture. The return will follow the high road through the St. Francis National Forest along with a mix of asphalt and gravel returning to downtown Helena where a festive atmosphere awaits.
The 50k route follows the same path, but will not reach Marianna. Instead, it will move from the low road to the high road just south of Bear Creek Lake where aid stations will await riders at the 25k point. The return will follow the high road through the national forest, past Storm Creek Lake, and back into downtown Helena.
The Beginner Gravel Route is 18 miles leaving from Downtown Helena and moving to the high road at approximately mile 9. The climb to the high road is a nice challenge where aid stations will provide a respite. The return is 9 miles back into downtown along paved roads winding through the St. Francis National Forest and passing Storm Creek Lake and Mississippi River State Park.
Register for all rides at https://raceroster.com/events/2022/58763/the-delta-grind. Also, make sure you sign up for the ride and The Juke Joint Ball, explained below.
The After Party
Following the ride, studioDRIFT will host a fundraiser event for the nonprofit’s work in Downtown Helena. The Juke Joint Ball will follow the Delta tradition of a Saturday night fish fry – fried fish, cold adult beverages, and dancing to a local band within a stone’s throw of the Mississippi River. Tickets for non-riders are $125. For participating cyclists, the evening’s event is only $100. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to https://raceroster.com/events/2022/58763/the-delta-grind
For group rates, contact studioDRIFT at email@example.com
The newly renovated Storm Creek State Park, which is conveniently located close to our start and finish line in Downtown Helena, AR, is now open and taking reservations. For more information on this and other accommodations, go to https://www.thedeltagrind.org/lodging.
Martin hopes to make the ride an annual event and is already planning a fall event in the Delta around bike and water trails. “Everyone we bring to ride and visit with us in the Delta is surprised what has been right under their noses and goes home changed by their experience here,” says Martin. “We wanted to give everyone this experience and expose them to what we think is the most unique place on Earth and hopefully they come back and bring more people with them next time.”