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by Marshall Opel
November 1, 2019
Photography by Life Time
The calendar of big-budget gravel events in the U.S. continues to grow. The latest announcement: Big Sugar-NWA Gravel, a 107-mile (172 km) loop through the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas and Southern Missouri. We sent our Endless Gravel correspondent, Marshall Opel, to check out a test version of the event.
Last weekend, a group of elite racers and journalists were invited to Bentonville, Arkansas to test ride the Big Sugar course. The brand new gravel event is owned by Life Time, the same company that recently purchased Dirty Kanza and has owned the Leadville Trail 100 for years. It’s the behemoth of gravel racing, and, unsurprisingly, pulled out all the stops for this media event, a year out.
If Bentonville sounds familiar, that may be your inner mountain biker whispering. This is the home of Walmart, and home of the cycling-mad Walton brothers, heirs to that fortune. They’ve built Bentonville into a mountain biker’s mecca, with hundreds of miles of beautiful trails. The deep woods and rural feel make for great gravel options, too. And that’s what we came to explore.
Big Sugar – is it just smooth marketing, or is it the real thing?
The marquee event of Big Sugar’s inaugural weekend, October 24, 2020, will be the 107-mile Big Sugar gravel ride. It has 9,000 feet (2,700 m) of climbing and takes place almost entirely on dirt and gravel. The route uses a mix of packed gravel roads and smaller, rougher Class 4 doubletrack-type surfaces.
Alongside the Big Sugar is the Little Sugar, a 50-mile (80 km) ride through the same sort of terrain. (See below for equipment recommendations.)
The structure of both events uses the traditional start line/finish line model – no fancy Grinduro-like timed segments here. Just roll away early in the morning and finish hours later, going as fast you want or can in between.
The weather forecast called for heavy rain and cold temperatures so our hosts opted to drive us 30 miles (48 km) into the official course. Gravel riders are supposed to be hardcore and all about self-reliance, but it was very cold and very wet so none of us were complaining about the head start.
This is no Kanza, all prairie and flint, or Colorado, with massive climbs. The fast-rolling roads through the Ozarks wind in a way that beckons efficiency, the essence of sublime gravel riding. Maintaining momentum with a tasty mixture of challenging climbs, rolling flats, and screaming fast descents keeps you focused on finding the line.
We crossed a plethora of clear, running streams, all rideable except for a river crossing that was reported to be nearly 30 yards (27 m) wide. We skipped that one.
Our mid-ride stop was a cozy gluten-free brewery deep in a Missouri holler (a small nook in the mountains). We huddled by the fire and sipped hot coffee as the rain poured and our extremities warmed. I packed a full change of dry clothes that were delivered to our lunch spot – a luxury next year’s racers won’t have. Adorning dry bibs mid rain ride is nothing short of bliss, especially as the rain tapered off just before we set out for the final 30 miles home.
Tired, wet, and happy, we pedalled into the outskirts of Bentonville. My riding partners and I remarked on the sudden appearance of new homes and golf courses, a stark contrast to the backwoods we’d spent the day exploring.
Dirty Kanza founder and Life Time Chief Gravel Operator, Jim Cummins, gave us a brief history of gravel racing based on the growth of Dirty Kanza. It’s remarkable to think that within the span of a dozen years, a 30-ish person group ride could turn into a paradigm-shifting 3,000+ participant event. Jim suggested that gravel is only now transitioning from its introductory phase to a real growth phase. If Jim is correct, and I hope he is, the sport finds itself at a critical point to shape what that growth will look like and what direction it takes.
New events like Big Sugar have a particularly unique opportunity to create a vibe going forward that could set a standard for other mass participation rides. But each of these events has to find its own flavor. Big Sugar, though it’s owned by Life Time, doesn’t feel like it will be another Kanza. It will be big, yes, and hard, but the terrain is vastly different and so is the feel of this place.
Unlike the vast prairie of Kansas, where oncoming cars can be seen for miles, these roads are lined with thick forrest and twists through the hills. It’s a fantastic setting for riding. However, all out racing where a group of aggressive riders trying to make time might be tempted to take an inside line on a fast downhill section? It’s an unsustainable risk. We came upon several unexpected vehicles (who also weren’t expecting us) but we weren’t racing.
Like Kanza, and most big gravel races, Big Sugar will be on open roads. It doesn’t seem safe when people feel like they’re racing on roads that are otherwise open to traffic. My sincere hope is that reason and long-term thinking will win out over an all-out competition mindset that often leads to short-sighted decision making. Life Time should think hard about this risk and how to best avoid these scenarios.
My suggestion? Big Sugar is a big, fun, group ride. Not a race. But that will never work because we love racing. So, we have to continue to cross our fingers that people will make smart decisions when it comes to open roads. The gravel community has done a good job so far in demonstrating responsible riding style. However, if gravel is only now in its growth phase, new riders need to learn to adopt safe riding habits that sometimes mean compromising speed and performance.
Big Sugar is definitely a course for bigger tires and plenty of gears for climbing. The 107-mile course climbs 9,000 feet and the 50-mile loop has just over 4,000 feet (1,200m). I was on SRAM 1X with a 42-tooth front chainring and an 11-42 cassette — pretty standard for newish gravel bikes. While not the Flint Hills of Kansas, large, sharp rocks abound so finding a line is important for avoiding punctures – our group of gravel “pros” was flatting all day.
Here’s something I learned in my year of gravel races: 40mm is the new 35mm.
More rubber is better. The ride is smoother and you flat less. Next year, I’ll be surprised if I race anything smaller than 40mm in rides like Big Sugar, which are majority unpaved. There’s just no reason to run anything smaller; it’s not any faster, and you’re more likely to flat. Be sure to look for a tire with extra sidewall protection for those sneaky rocks.
Big Sugar NWA Gravel is good news for the American cycling scene. The team at Life Time is full of stoke for this event. They have an all-star team of locals in Bentonville who are already hard at work to make this a special day in 2020. I can hardly wait to ride it next year with a full field of gravel freaks like me.