Walmart to sponsor Joe Martin Stage Race, major upgrades planned

Joe Martin Stage Race / Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

FAYETTEVILLE — The longest-running stage race in the United States will receive a major increase in sponsorship funding for 2022.

Fayetteville’s Joe Martin Stage Race will enter its 45th year with Walmart as its title sponsor, organizers announced on Wednesday.

Race director Bruce Dunn called the support a “game changer” for the event.

“With Walmart’s partnership we will be able to not only grow the race in terms of prominence, but to also upgrade key areas of the overall participant and spectator experience,” said Dunn.

The added support, he said, will help upgrade several components of the race, including increased prize purses, rider race tracking, daily video recaps and live streaming of the criterium races on the final day of the event.

Dunn, now in his 20th year as race director with All Sports Productions, said the extra sponsorship dollars will directly impact the women’s field in 2022. Dunn said internationally-sanctioned races typically do not include equal prize purses for men and women, but the support from Walmart will even out the prize amounts for both categories at this year’s event.

The race, which began in 1978 as the Fayetteville Spring Classic, was renamed in 1989 in honor of its long-time race director. It has since grown to become an annual stop on the UCI Americas Tour calendar.

The UCI, which is the world governing body of cycling, last year gave Fayetteville a “Bike City” designation. It’s the first time a city in the U.S. has received the award, which is given to international locations for their commitment to developing cycling at all levels, from high-level competition to the use of bikes for leisure and as a means of transportation.

The race is also in its 20th year as a stop on the USAC Pro Road Tour, the pro and elite amateur cycling tour of the United States.

Walmart was the title sponsor of the UCI Cyclocross-Cross World Championships that took place in Fayetteville in January. It was just the second time in history that the 73-year event was held in the United States.

Dan Bartlett, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Walmart, said helping to promote cycling events has become an important part of the company’s vision for community support.

“With Walmart having our own history in Northwest Arkansas, we’re constantly trying to find ways to shine a light on all the great ways in which people can experience this great part of the country,” said Bartlett. “Plus, many young children’s first experience with cycling comes with buying a bike at Walmart so for us to now be on the other side of the spectrum of helping support some of the greatest athletes our country has in a sport that is growing like it is, just seems like an opportunity we can’t pass up.”

Legion of Los Angeles speaks about the event

The sponsorship announcement was held virtually, and included remarks from several professional athletes, including Justin Williams, co-founder of Legion of Los Angeles, a UCI Continental cycling team based in the United States.

Williams was recently named “the world’s most important bike racer” by Bicycling magazine for his efforts to increase diversity in cycling and to revive criterium racing in America.

Justin Williams, co-founder of Legion of Los Angeles

Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, said he got into cycling because his dad was a bike racer, but he stuck with it because of the freedom he felt when riding a bike, the travel that was involved in racing, and the perspective that came with being around people from different backgrounds.

He said the team’s mission is centered around just that – giving more perspective to inner-city kids and getting as many people as possible thinking about bicycles.

“It’s really cool to see a company like Walmart getting involved,” Williams said. “It’s going to give that platform so much more stability and it’s going to allow us to continue to amplify our mission.”

Legion riders took the overall win in both pro-level categories at the 2021 Joe Martin Stage Race, with Tyler Williams winning the men’s race and Skylar Schneider winning the women’s race.

Schneider, who was also part of Wednesday’s announcement, said the Fayetteville event has represented several important milestones in her life.

The 23-year-old pro cyclist started racing at age four, and competed in her first UCI-level race at Joe Martin in 2016. She made the podium on one stage and finished 25th overall that year, but returned in 2021 to win two stages and the overall general classification.

“This race has had a big impact on my career,” said Schneider. “So it’s really inspiring to hear about the added emphasis (this sponsorship) is going to have on women in the sport this year.”

Legion rider Tyler Williams said winning Joe Martin last year was a major goal for him, and he’s looking forward to coming back. He’s also excited to see such high-level sponsorship of a U.S.-based race, he said.

“I’m really glad that it’s going to be around because right now, there’s not much stage racing in the U.S.,” Tyler Williams said. “So Walmart coming in shows the value in bike racing in general in America. We’re trying to do a lot with Legion and having companies like Walmart investing in cycling is something we need here.”

The 2022 event will be held in Fayetteville from May 19-22 and will feature a 4-day, 4-stage professional men’s and women’s race as well as a 2-day, 3-stage amateur stage race. About 800 cyclists representing all 50 states and 27 nations are expected to compete for titles in the professional and amateur divisions.