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While the WorldTour has hung up its hoops and mountain bikers are well into soul-riding season, gravel forges on — but not for much longer.
This weekend’s Big Sugar Gravel race in Bentonville, Arkansas is a season finale for many riders, especially professionals, some of whom have been racing since March. The event is only in its second year, but it emerged onto the scene with a bang in 2021. Adam Roberge and the late Moriah Wilson won the inaugural race.
This year, the pro field will see a depth far greater than the first edition; as the last race in the Life Time Grand Prix series, some 50 riders will be competing for a chunk of the $250,000 prize purse.
According to race director Ben Sachs, around 1000 people are registered for the 100-mile Big Sugar course, and 500 are signed up for the 50-mile Lil Sugar. Both courses extend north from downtown Bentonville, winding through rural northwestern Arkansas and southern Missouri.
No visit to Bentonville would be complete without a plethora of other bike-related activities — in addition to the hundreds of miles of singletrack in and around the area, Bentonville is also hosting the MTB demo event Outerbike all weekend, and Life Time is holding a large vendor expo on Friday.
On Friday there are four, yes four, group shakeout rides.
The Big Sugar course is 104 miles with around 7,000′ of elevation gain. The Lil Sugar course is 52 miles with approximately 3,500′ of elevation gain. Both feature a variety of gravel surfaces, from well-packed and fast-rolling to littered with chunky stones.
The elevation profile reads like an excitable EKG, with constant short, sharp climbs punctuating the entire course. According to Sachs, who lives in Kansas and also directs Unbound Gravel, both the Big and Lil Sugar courses are classic northwest Arkansas.
“It’s really beautiful, some of the hill are steeper and longer that what you find in Kansas,” he said. “There’s a lot of loose, off-camber downhill that can be sketchy and challenging but fun to ride. It’s really, really covered — you’re underneath trees most of the time.”
(My personal recollection of the route last year is one of near continuous dense tree canopy. If you’re sensitive to this, consider clear or transitional lenses!)
Last year, mechanicals due to course conditions plagued the pointy end of the race; Pete Stetina said he tried eight plugs and could not seal a puncture. There were also a few crashes, including Ted King, who severely injured his elbow.
Tight turns, sharp, punchy climbs, rowdy descents, and water crossings on shadowy roads will require riders’ full attention.
There are two official checkpoints on the Big Sugar course and one on the Lil — both are in Missouri. New this year is the option for riders to have support crews meet them at the second checkpoint at Whistling Springs Brewery. Support crews are allowed at both checkpoints, but this year the road has been widened for ease of entry into the brewery.
However, for those that don’t have crews, the race is fully supported with nutrition and hydration at both checkpoints. Sachs said that riders will also encounter pop-up “oases” offering at least water along the course.
As mentioned, Big Sugar is the final event in the six-race Life Time Grand Prix series. It’s mandatory for all Grand Prix athletes and will serve as a tiebreaker if necessary. Therefore, 50 of the country’s top gravel and off-road pros will be in attendance.
Keegan Swenson has already won the men’s series, with a near sweep of Grand Prix points at the five other races (his lowest place was fourth at Chequamegon), but he is not coming to Big Sugar to sit up and party in the back — Swenson is always a contender.
However, the battle for the rest of the nine prize-winning places promises to be fierce, which means that the Big Sugar podium will be well-earned. The riders who are currently sitting in second through sixth position in the Grand Prix — Alexey Vermeulen, Cole Paton, Pete Stetina, Russell Finsterwald, and Payson McElveen will all be keen for a good result at Big Sugar.
Defending champion Adam Roberge will also be on the hunt for a second win in northwest Arkansas, fueled in part by a win at last weekend’s BWR Kansas. Currently in 12th in the Grand Prix, a podium finish at Big Sugar would likely bump him into the top ten.
However, not all of the pros on the start line are Grand Prix athletes. Innokenty Zavyalov, Nathan Spratt, and Griffin Easter are other gravel pros to watch.
Also, the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl WorldTour team seems to be infiltrating the ranks of Big Sugar Gravel; Remi Cavagna, Kasper Asgreen, Ilan Van Wilder, and Mattia Cattaneo are all on the startlist, as is Bora-Hansgrohe’s Cian Uijtdebroeks.
The women’s race will also likely be animated by Grand Prix athletes. Series leaders Haley Smith, Sarah Sturm, and Sofia Gomez Villafañe all have the bike handling skills to dominate the technical nature of the race — and, they’re only separated on the leaderboard by five points, so each will be firing on all cylinders.
Other mountain bike specialists Rose Grant, Evelyn Dong, Hannah Otto, and marathon national champ Alexis Skarda are also riders to watch — they might find Big Sugar to be more enjoyable than the 200-mile Unbound or the 10,000 feet of climbing at Crusher in the Tushar.
The wheel I’d want to follow is that of Bentonville local Crystal Anthony — she’s ridden these roads more than anyone on the start list. Sarah Hill, Anthony’s Liv Cycling teammate, will also be in Arkansas racing, all the way from South Africa.
Emily Newsom was second in last year’s edition; perhaps ahead of her time, the EF Education-Tibco-SVB pro carried a hydration pack and all of her nutrition and did not stop at any aid stations. Newsom is currently seventh in the Grand Prix.
Non-Grand Prix contenders include Whitney Allison, Flavia Oliveira Parks, and US national XC MTB champ Savilia Blunk.