Groad Trip: Going out on a Big Sugar high

Believe the hype: Riding in Arkansas is rad.

Photo: Andy Chasteen

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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s regular column on graveling and traveling.

Folks keep talking about the new promised land for off-road riding. The Walton family of Walmart fame have caught the cycling bug and poured millions of dollars into their backyard open spaces. They’ve funded hundreds of miles of purpose-built MTB trails, and incentivized the industry to invest in Bentonville, Arkansas.

This was apparent as soon as I arrived in town — nearly every business has bike racks and cycling-themed decor. Trails meander through town and school kids can be seen choosing health and bike rides; it’s only a matter of time before the next cycling star is a Bentonville homegrown.

It’s a mini bike utopia and I couldn’t wait to sample the goods.

Related: Putting Arkansas on cycling’s map with Brendan Quirk, formerly of Competitive Cyclist, Rapha, Allied, and the Walton’s Runway Group, and now USA Cycling chairman of the board

My excuse to go there was the all new Big Sugar Gravel race put on by the fine folks at Life Time, who also host Unbound Gravel and Crusher in the Tushar. Over two years in the making, they’d developed a rolling course and placed it late in the year, effectively acting as the curtain call of the 2021 gravel season for many of us, except for those attending BWR Kansas this weekend.

The race got underway in the early dawn light, and Neilson Powless took charge early. I know Neilson from our time in the WorldTour. He came up through MTB racing as a junior, so his dirt skills are good, and he was fresh off a fifth place in the road world championships. I’d marked him as my main threat.

Neilson is also a friend. We’d spent the day before riding some of the route, and he picked my brain on how these gravel races play out. He races with honor normally on the road, so in all honesty this wouldn’t require much change in mentality for him.

The course profile looks like a saw blade with relentless rolling hills and ravines. The selections happened fast.

Ah, flat tires…. how I do not love thee. (Photo: Andy Chasteen)

It was absolutely gorgeous riding on rural tree-canopied lanes and along snaking rivers picturesquely carving through rock ledges. But the course was riddled with stones camouflaged in the falling autumn leaves. Recent rains had cut channels in the trails and created some loose conditions. Flat tires became the name of the game for most.

Neilson had trouble early with his tire, and his day primarily consisted of exhausting his legs to continually chase back after mishaps.

Ted King, another main contender, crashed in a rugged section and would eventually arrive at the hospital via car with a broken elbow.

I continued to ride nimbly and navigate downfall. At halfway it was just five of us, and I was feeling good. But alas my rear tire had also found a sharp stone. It wasn’t dire, but it was a small tear that became unmanageable. I was riding on half pressure, wasting energy and it was a matter of time before it was fully flat. I was in a dilemma; the leak was too slow for my sealant to coagulate and the hole was too small for the adhesive from the plugs to even find their way inside. I wasted five plugs to no avail, aired it up to rock-hard roadie status and began my chase. I was closing, but 30 minutes later it was too soft again and I had to put a tube in.

Upon arriving at Aid Station 2, I was in fifth but the leaders were long gone. It just so happened that a rural brewery was hosting the checkpoint. I looked around at some companions quickly filling bottles and grabbing some snacks and my eyes turned towards the brewery. It looked inviting, replete with farm equipment and animals paying homage to their lifestyle. I decided then and there, I wanted nothing more than a cold one. The podium was likely out of reach and while I truly enjoy racing, my idea of the Funnest Known Time in the moment was to prop my bike against a picnic table and pay the bartender a visit.

This brewery’s cold beer was calling my name at the second checkpoint. (Photo: Big Sugar Gravel)

Fully refreshed, I saw my Sportful compatriot Moriah Wilson exiting the checkpoint in the lead of the women’s race and followed suit. I was cautious not to help her, given the recent drama in gravel forums. So I took a back seat and rode behind or next to her and enjoyed her display of power. She would go on to solo in for a well deserved win. My tire troubles weren’t finished yet though, and prevented me from witnessing it first hand.

I couldn’t catch a break, my tube was now leaking slowly and I’d burned through my CO2’s. I borrowed a hand pump from a Little Sugar (short course) rider and aired up once again. I realized I still had to race. Not against others, but against time and my leaking tire. I put the throttle back on and made it to the final 10 miles of smoother conditions before I was riding on the rim. Those final miles royally sucked, but that’s all part of the journey. You win some and lose some; it’s stories vs glories out there. I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure and wouldn’t trade it!

In celebration of our race season ending and because we’d traveled all the way to Arkansas, my mechanic and friend Big Tall Wayne and I had delayed our return 24 hours and rented MTBs to sample Bentonville’s finest. We linked up with Molly Cameron to loop, swoop, and pedal the previous night’s revelries away.

Now I’m off the bike for a solid month, enjoying a hard earned break. Winter is coming, so wood needs splitting, the van needs some upgrading, and 2022 needs some planning.

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