There were many uncertainties coming into Big Sugar Gravel, the last race of the Life Time Grand Prix and for most pro riders, the final event of the year.
How was everyone’s fitness holding up? Would the wind be as awful as forecasted? What would happen in the Grand Prix standings?
Read also: Paige Onweller is a dark horse no more
One of the most pleasant surprises, and perhaps one that wasn’t on anyone’s mind at the start, was that many elite women would end up racing together for most of the day. Gravel’s hallmark mass start is beloved for many reasons, but it precludes a women’s race in the traditional sense.
After Saturday’s fast, technical, and tactical race, many women said the highlight of their day was racing with one another.
Photographer Linda Guerrette was on course to catch the action, while Wil Matthews got the finish line grabs.
Whitney Allison and Hannah Otto doing the work in a mixed group of men and women.
These two racers represent perfectly the meeting of different worlds in gravel — Allison was a domestic road pro and Otto has roots in World Cup XCO racing.
US national cross-country MTB champ Savilia Blunk opted for European World Cups over domestic racing this year, but whenever she’s home and can jump into a race she does — and she does well.
Despite saying that she’s not equipped for longer than 1.5 hours efforts, we know it’s simply not true. Blunk was 10th on the day at Big Sugar; a month earlier, she won Chequamegon by nearly four minutes.
At one point Ruth Winder had a gap of nearly four minutes of the rest of the women. She was riding with a friend, feeling good, while also knowing she was “very much on my limit.”
“When I race I go as hard as I can, and I think I just learned a lot about myself today,” the recently retired WorldTour pro said at the finish.
Winder would find herself both bonking and lost around mile 50. “It was like lights out,” she said. “I went way too hard.”
Meanwhile, Paige Onweller was gaining on Winder and when she cracked, the up-and-coming gravel star from Michigan passed her and never looked back.
Saturday was a breakthrough ride for Onweller, an emergency room Physician’s Assistant from Grand Rapids.
“I always knew I was capable, but it never came together,” she said after the win. “It feels really good, I worked hard for this.”
Sofia Gomez Villafañe, Emily Newsom, Rose Grant, and Flavia Oliveira Parks.
Gomez Villafañe, who stepped back from World Cup XC racing to participate in the Grand Prix and focus on endurance this year, has been one of the most vocal proponents of a dedicated women’s race at certain gravel events.
She said that Big Sugar was the closest thing to that yet.
“I ended up riding in the biggest women’s peloton that we’ve seen at a US domestic gravel race and that was sick,” she said.
Newsom would finish second on the day after motoring away from a mixed group of men and women, and then ultimately outclimbing third-place finisher Alexis Skarda late in the race.
Gomez Villafañe, Oliveira Parks, Skarda, Newsom, and Onweller sharing the workload.
Sarah Sturm and Haley Smith chase, deep in that place where they wonder why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Smith, absolutely cracked at the finish.
Smith’s 13th place on the day was enough to safeguard her first place in the Life Time Grand Prix. Gomez Villafañe, whose Big Sugar result nudged her into second in the series, had nothing but good words to say about her competitor.
“I have so much respect for the women that I’m racing with,” Gomez Villafañe said. “Haley — she didn’t have to do any work today, all she had to do was mark people, and she did the majority of the work in our group. It’s really freaking awesome to see, even after she’s had a horrible last few years, to come out and slowly build up through the year and finish so strong. It’s freaking inspiring.”
Sturm let all of her emotions — happy, sad, frustrated, disappointed, elated — out at the finish line. Ultimately, she said, she was just so proud of how she raced this season.
From jumping into the deep end with the MTB race at Sea Otter to Gila and Joe Martin on the road to ultra endurance at Unbound to riding in the breakaway at the Tour de France Femmes, Newsom did it all this year. Her smile and positive attitude were ever-present.
Onweller is onto the off-season now, but her day at Big Sugar has ignited a spark that will no doubt burn brightly into next year.