And explosive racing we got, in both the men’s and women’s races. With second through sixth place in the men’s series standings completely up for grabs depending on the result of Saturday’s race, riders showed up more focused than ever.
In the end, Russell Finsterwald delivered the tactical masterclass needed to cinch the win, bringing himself onto the third step of the Grand Prix podium in the process.
Alexey Vermeulen, who rode to fourth on the day and second in the Grand Prix, may have been speaking for more people than just himself when he posted a reflection about the season on social media.
“Proud of a consistent year, thrilled to see US racing growing with structure and validation provided by the Grand Prix, in awe of my peers, and thankful to be able to race a bike for a living,” he said.
Race day dawned windy and warm. Gusts of nearly 40mph greeted riders on the southbound route back to Bentonville.
Many riders said that the neutral start was one of the fastest they’d experienced. Thus, racing was intense from the gun and never let up for 104 miles.
Despite the windy conditions, Russel Finsterwald’s winning time was 4:57, two minutes faster than Adam Roberge’s winning time in 2021.
Keegan Swenson, Finsterwald, Cole Paton, and Pete Stetina through the trees.
After the race, Swenson — who finished second — said that it was another good day out racing with Finsterwald. While not teammates, the two often race as a such.
“It was a good time out there,” he said. “We kinda played al little bit of team tactics. No drama for us.”
Swenson and Lachlan Morton’s body position says it all — parts of this course are technical and sketchy.
Morton would later have to drop out due to mechanical failure on his bike.
Michael Garrison of Hagens Berman Axeon started the day incredibly strong but suffered an unfixable puncture that cost him time and all of his C02 canisters and tubes.
Morton offered Garrison a wheel when the vehicle he was in passed by the 21-year-old; this was a good solution until that tire also began losing air.
Neverthless, Garrison hung in there, finishing in a respectable 6:20, despite his many misfortunes.
Finsterwald was on the gas all day, fueled by a desire to work his way into the top three of the Grand Prix.
It worked — his win at Big Sugar sent him from fifth to third in the overall series standings.
A strong group of nearly 20 led the race through the first aid station and slowly whittled down to 12 by the mid-way point.
Cole Paton and Pete Stetina would end up losing contact with the lead group out of the Whistling Springs Brewery checkpoint and formed a two-man chase. In the end, Stetina gapped Paton near the finish and the two finished eighth and 10th, respectively.
Gravel newcomer Nicolas Roche had a steller day at Big Sugar; the Irish rider finished fifth despite the fact that “every time there’s a descent I’m dropping the wheel and I have to sprint for 5km just to get back to the group.
“Technically I don’t think that I’m bad but I’m just behind these really top guys. I pay for that a lot, when I’m basically time trialing back to the leaders.”
Alexey Vermeulen laid everything out there on the day, only to miss the podium by less than a minute. Nevertheless, his result was good enough to retain second place overall in the Grand Prix.
Laurens ten Dam was pretty stoked on his 2022 gravel season.
The 41-year-old ex-WorldTour pro finished 13th overall in the Grand Prix, with fourth place at Unbound Gravel decidedly the result he was most proud of. He was 12th at Big Sugar.
After some frustrating results in the Grand Prix races, Finsterwald fought until the end and finished the season with the win he’d be working for.