The third annual Life Time Big Sugar Gravel presented by Mazda takes place this Saturday on the ‘gloriously chunky’ white gravel of rugged roads across northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri. The 104-mile ‘big’ course heads deep into the Ozark Mountains for 7,000 feet of elevation gain, so the pro riders at the front may only slow down to confirm limited course markings rather than to admire the fall foliage lining the creeks and bluffs.
Once the white dust settles at the finish line in Bentonville, Arkansas, the curtain call will focus on 20 riders who will share in the $250,000 prize purse for the Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda series. 2023 marks the second season for Grand Prix, an invitation-only field of 70 athletes competing in a compilation of seven off-road races spread across the US, the finale at Big Sugar.
Current overall leaders Keegan Swenson (Santa Cruz Bicycles) and Sofia Gomez Villafañe (Specialized) are expected to win the pro titles, with each earning $25,000 in first-place payouts. Both locked up top points as the best Grand Prix finishers in the first four races – Sea Otter Classic’s Fuego XL MTB, Unbound Gravel 200, Crusher in the Tushar and Leadville 100 MTB. The duo also won gravel races at SBT GRVL. For Swenson, it will be his second consecutive Grand Prix overall win, while Villafañe was second overall in 2022.
The Grand Prix field is comprised of 35 women and 35 men, with the top 10 in each category sharing the big payday. Those 10 riders, men and women, are determined by points earned with starts at Big Sugar and four of the other six events, with scores from Big Sugar Gravel also serving as a tiebreaker if needed.
Last year, six women had a chance to win the overall title of the Life Time Grand Prix going into the Arkansas finale. Just five points separated the top three women – overall leader Haley Smith, Sarah Sturm and Villafañe. Smith secured the overall series title with a 13th-place finish at Big Sugar, while Villafañe moved to second overall ahead of Sturm. Paige Onweller scored the solo victory at Big Sugar Gravel and moved into the top 10 to earn a paycheck.
Swenson took a solid lead into the finale over Alexey Vermeulen and, with a second-place finish at Big Sugar, secured the inaugural title. Using his victory at Big Sugar, Russell Finsterwald moved to third overall in the standings, while Vermeulen retained second overall.
While Big Sugar could be a parade-like ride for Swenson and…