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Big Sugar Gravel serves as the curtain call on the greater gravel season.
Sure, there are still a few events to come, but for most gravel pros and the industry, Big Sugar in the bike Disneyland that is Bentonville, Arkansas acts as the final hurrah for the long season that started back in January. One can taste it in the atmosphere, a sense of final energy release before the goodbyes turn from ‘see you soon’ to ‘see you next year.’
It also served as the season closer for gravel’s newest and most coveted series, the Life Time Grand Prix.
While winning Big Sugar outright is prestigious as hell, the series podium race behind Keegan [Swenson] was close, guaranteeing that riders would fight and scrap all the way to the line. I found myself surprised to be in that hunt given my series to date, but with the knowledge that a final top ten was still possible I found one last sip of motivation remaining in my offseason-eager body.
To complicate things, the race had a deeper than usual quality of talent.
All the gravel guys who weren’t part of the Grand Prix like Brennan Wertz, Griffin Easter, and Nicolas Roche were in attendance, as well as some WorldTour talent in the form of two Bora riders.
Given my WorldTour past I enjoyed chatting with them at the start. They were wide eyed: this setting — with its festival, expo, and mass start — was unlike anything they’d experienced in Europe, they said. Indeed, the nerves on the start line of the Tour de France are intense, but the shared expectation from 1000+ folks is something else. Not more, not less, just different.
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Later, mid-race in the middle of the rowdiest part, I looked over at one of them who’d made the selection. “This is wild!” he exclaimed. Five minutes later he would be sidelined with a mechanical, which was unfortunate, but is also an important part of anyone’s gravel experience.
The race started fast and aggressively. In fact, it would never let up. Our eagerness, mixed with a stiff crosswind and extremely loose road conditions, meant the selections happened fast, often, and viciously. It was an unsustainable pace, and we all knew it. I’d helped force the race early and as the terrain took its toll we found ourselves in a group of 20 coming into the first aid station.
This is also where I flatted. I’d suffered a tire slice at nearly the same point last year; this time, my Orange Seal had done it’s job, but I’d lost a lot of air. My rear wheel was squishing around but instead of stop to plug it, I elected to stay in the group to the aid station where Big Tall Wayne was waiting with a spare wheel; fresh and fully intact rubber was a safer bet for the remaining 60 miles of chunk. We pitted as fast as possible, but with the race on that still meant a chase and another bullet spent in what was perhaps the hardest start of the season.
John Borstelmann was the strongest rider of the day. He was relentlessly aggressive, and eventually enough was enough — we simply didn’t want to follow another one of his massive accelerations. He quickly built up two minutes, and I wondered if he might stick it. The stone gnomes would find him in the end though, and he’d suffer a puncture that would take minutes to repair. Thus the race was reset again.
Coming into aid 2 my lights began to flicker. I knew my ticket was about to be punched. To be honest, with life’s dramas this summer and the complicated birth of my twins, I’ve been relying on residual fitness and experience, a slow decline in form instead of an offseason’s sharp drop off. Simply put, I wasn’t good enough to hang when Russell [Finsterwald] and Keegan punched it out of aid 2.
I found myself with Cole Paton chasing into a block headwind. With the day’s result gone my mind turned towards some on-the-fly math, trying to figure out Cole and Russell’s worst placings — the ones they’d get to drop — as we were in that podium battle together. I knew I had to gap Cole at the finish and had to hope Russell wouldn’t have a stellar ride. I fought tooth and nail to the finish and managed to gap Cole.
Unfortunately for me, I needed one more rider to slot between us; meanwhile Russell had the ride of his year and won Big Sugar! While I dropped to fifth overall, I couldn’t have been happier for Russell who was very deserving of this ride.
With that, my 2022 season closes. Personally I’m lukewarm on my Grand Prix performances. While I support this series I was adamant when planning out my season to give my utmost attention to many other events as there are so many worth highlighting. Thus, I can’t really be surprised that some who focused more specifically on making the GP the crux of their season performed better in those moments. That decision mixed with life’s personal complications resulted in a lack of preparation on my end. I have no regrets and no complaints however, that’s life and while we as athletes pursue perfection, the reality is that’s rarely the case.
However, before I jet home to crying babies and daddy duty, there was one last thing to attend to: the Big Sugar post-race afterparty at the brewery is perhaps one of my favorite celebrations all season. I used to cringe at these events and their painful small talk. This ever-growing gravel family is different, though. This serves as a celebration for many who’ve invested themselves in this scene. It felt like a big house party, with friends left, right, center.