Big battle at Big Sugar Gravel includes Niewiadoma, Rockwell, Ten Dam

Pro women and pro men ready to start 2022 Big Sugar Gravel in Bentonville, Arkansas
Pro women and pro men ready to start 2022 Big Sugar Gravel in Bentonville, Arkansas (Image credit: Wil Matthews/ Life Time)

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 Villafañe, and they could race and win, expect a battle from other top Grand Prix contenders as they race for points at the finish line, which they can convert to cash. A few riders could use points from a top placing at Big Sugar to replace a low scoring from another race and move up significantly.

Also, look for top international riders to crash the party at Big Sugar as they mix it up for glory on US gravel. 

Contenders - elite women

Kasia Niewiadoma

Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) celebrates taking victory at the women's elite race at the 2023 Gravel World Championships in Italy on Saturday October 7

Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) celebrates taking victory at the women's elite race at the 2023 Gravel World Championships (Image credit: Les Morales @lesmophoto)

Newly-crowned elite women’s UCI Gravel World Champion Kasia Niewiadoma is expected to take the start line Big Sugar, according to organisers. The WorldTour road pro would debut the rainbow jersey at this US race, making it her final competition of the season. “Looking so forward to all this delicious range of granolas and nut butters and to all the bakeries with warm muffins and big cups of cappuccinos that open early enough to help me fight jet lag,” she said on Instagram. 

While the Arkansas race is 24 miles longer and has 1,600 more feet of elevation gain than Worlds, the numbers should not be a significant barrier for her to challenge at the front. After all, she also won the mountains classification at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift this year.

Alexis Skarda

The reigning US marathon mountain bike champion comes into Big Sugar Gravel with a solid hold on second overall in the Grand Prix standings. Her last gravel event was The Rad Dirt Fest, where she finished second to Lauren De Crescenzo across a 112-mile route at altitude. She took a silver medal at the inaugural US Gravel National Championships and qualified for the UCI Gravel World Championships but remained in the US to focus on domestic racing. Skarda was third at Big Sugar last year.

Amity Rockwell

On the start list is Amity Rockwell, and like Niewiadoma, she’s not sidetracked with the Grand Prix. The former Unbound Gravel champion earned another signature victory of her stellar career by winning this year’s multi-day Migration Gravel Race, which on her blog, she called “the single most powerful experience I’ve ever lived”. She also won The Traka 360 which along with the Kenyan stage race was part of the new Gravel Earth Series, where she finished second overall. The Arkansas race just may not be long enough for her to hold off a large group.

Crystal Anthony

A resident of Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Anthony would like nothing more than to celebrate at the finish in her new hometown. She is currently sixth overall in the Grand Prix, tied with Hannah Otto. While Otto did not compete at Rad Dirt Fest, Anthony hit the course hard for a third-place finish. She also won a bronze medal at the US gravel nationals in Nebraska.

Contenders - elite men

Russell Finsterwald

Russell Finsterwald was patient and did not launch an attack with one kilometre to go

Russell Finsterwald at 2022 Big Sugar Gravel (Image credit: Wil Matthews/ Life Time)

Last year’s men’s winner at Big Sugar is back for more. He has focused his season on the Grand Prix Series, having finished second overall last year and is currently in fourth place behind Alexey Vermeulen, in second, and Cole Paton, in third. Finsterwald was dominant early with a second-place finish at Sea Otter Classic’s Fuego XL, and then in the seven-man sprint at Unbound Gravel 200 only to finish sixth.

“It's funny, last year going into Big Sugar, the series looked pretty much the same, Alexey [Vermeulen] in second, Cole [Paton] third, I was in fourth. It was still possible to get second last year, and I didn't quite get enough points on Alexey but was able to leapfrog in front of Cole,” Finsterwald told Cyclingnews about his objective to win Big Sugar again to rank higher in the Grand Prix overall. “It's a little trickier this year because we get to drop two races instead of just one. I think we've got a good battle shaping up for still for second and third.”

Laurens ten Dam

The tall Dutch rider always excels on the gravel roads in the US, finishing second at Unbound Gravel 200 and fourth the last two years. He’s won Gravel Locos in the past and was 10th this year on his late-spring US tour. After competing at the European Gravel Nationals and UCI Gravel World Championships, 16th and 25th, respectively, he is expected to line up on Saturday and improve on last year’s 12th place at Big Sugar.

Alexey Vermeulen

The US road pro turned gravel specialist is two-for-two in his last pair of starts in the Life Time Grand Prix. He won Chequamegon MTB and then The Rad Dirt Fest, so brings a lot of confidence into the 104-mile Arkansas race, where he was fourth last year. Vermeulen has a slim lead over Cole Paton for second place in the Grand Prix this year but enough points to hold off another charge from Finsterwald. The Michigan native was the second-highest placed US rider at the recent Gravel World Championships, 33rd overall, and is recharged to race back on US soil.

Cole Paton

Vuelta a España winner Sepp Kuss is not the only standout cyclist from Durango, Colorado. On the off-road side, Cole Paton lives and trains in the Colorado Rockies and has had a great 2023 season, winning a national title at the US Marathon Mountain Bike championships. While he had a grinding day at The Dirt Rad Fest near his home and finished out of the top 10, his third-place finishes at Chequamegon MTB and Leadville 100 MTB have boosted him into third overall in the Grand Prix. He was third last weekend at Little Sugar MTB, so carries solid form into the familiar hills of the Ozarks.

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