Gravel racing continues to boom, and Life Time – owner of Dirty Kanza and Leadville – just added another event to the 2020 calendar with Big Sugar — NWA Gravel. Bentonville, Arkansas has established itself as the newest mountain bike mecca, but Life Time believes the endless miles of gravel in Northwest Arkansas (that’s the NWA in NWA gravel) will make it a hotbed of drop-bar riding, too.
A lot of factors come together to make Big Sugar a promising addition to the gravel race scene. For starters, the Ozarks provide a stunning backdrop, with rolling green fields, scattered farmhouses, and fall foliage to die for. And Bentonville is used to playing host to cyclists; the town itself has embraced the sport with open arms for years now, so gravel seems like a natural extension to the bustling mountain bike scene.
But Big Sugar also has an ace up its sleeve: Gabbie Adams, the course designer and event director (along with Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Nat Ross). Adams is a student of the sport: She finished the inaugural DKXL route at Dirty Kanza this year — on a singlespeed. While the Big Sugar course may seem short at just 107 miles, Adams has created a relentless course with few places to rest and no places to let down your guard. If you finish the Big Sugar, you will have tested your limits to do so.
Life Time Inc. hosted me and a few other journalists for a test ride of the course this weekend.
From just outside the central square in Bentonville — flanked by the original Walton Five and Dime on one side and an historic courthouse straight out of your favorite Americana film on the other — Big Sugar Gravel quickly winds through paved streets and hits gravel within minutes. And that gravel is something spectacular: quick, Belgian-esque steeps that crest to reveal an inevitable gorgeous October view of foliage and foggy fields, and fast, chunky descents on roads that held up nicely even in the fierce downpours we pedaled through on our course recon.
Those downpours added to the mystique of the Arkansan roads too, creating a foggy foliage fest straight out of a postcard. The Big Sugar Gravel race will take place on October 24, 2020, to coincide with Outerbike. That means you’ll get the same foliage, peaceful winding roads, and possibly even the rain. You’ll encounter horses, pigs, and even some overly enthusiastic dogs along the way. Stop at the aid station at Whistling Springs Brewing Company and warm yourself by the fire or snuggle up next to the puppy-like pig who makes his bed on the couch near the wood stove.
Big Sugar seems poised to become a test of mettle for the pros should it rain during the 107-mile race to the line — which bobs up and down to amass to over 9,000 feet of climbing — but even if you’re not into suffering through epic downpours and muddy conditions that made road races like Paris-Roubaix legendary, the 50-mile Little Sugar option (4,000 feet of climbing) gives you just a taste of tough, with a heaping helping of fine Arkansas scenery and epic riding.
My sampling of the course started and ended in relentless downpours and chilly temperatures. Within minutes of the start, I was soaked from head to toe and shivering, wondering if I could finish the ride at all. But once we hit the first steep gravel climb and my body temperature climbed with it, the ride itself only became more romantic and beautiful among the rain drops.
The climbs themselves are thigh-burners and out-of-the-saddle heart-rate spikers. They most often lead to rollercoaster descents on the other side, and you’ll get plenty of speed screaming down into the valleys that may or may not be filled with running water and questionable-depth potholes. You’ll be on your guard the entire time. You’ll venture into Missouri for a while, sampling even more quiet roads and lush forest. It was striking to me how peaceful the experience was, even beneath soaked clothes and chattering teeth.
And on the other end of it, inimitable Bentonville awaits. Be sure to check out the Pressroom for a hearty breakfast, or Onyx Coffee right next door for a quick cup of morning gold. We stayed in an AirBnB dubbed the House of Song, which is essentially the archetype for the town itself: quaint, beautiful, throwback Americana, the small-town feel combining subtly with bike culture just about everywhere you turn. You could forget all about Walmart’s overwhelming presence in the area; Bentonville is its own charming, rooted place. The House of Song was an immediate reminder that the bicycle has the ability to supercharge and revitalize communities. The history in Bentonville is thick and wonderful; the bicycling community simply augments it and brings more people into town to witness it.
Registration for Big Sugar opens November 15th, 2019, and entries will be limited to 750 riders for the inaugural running. Expect this one to sell out quickly, so be prepared to claim your spot.
Once you’re registered, head to the local bike shop and get yourself some nice, thick socks. Buy two pairs, in fact. Ensconce yourself in as much wool as possible, in fact. You’re going to get wet, even if it doesn’t rain. You’ll encounter river crossings, some of which are rideable and some you’ll need to ford on foot. October’s tricky weather means you’ll need to invest in some wet weather garb.
And while the roads handle epic downpours well — throughout my entire ride, I only encountered one sloppy, peanut-buttery section of road, though you’ll need to watch out for standing water in potholes — you’ll still want to make sure your gear is focused on handling rugged terrain. Think wide, 40mm tires with a decent amount of tread. My Pivot Vault Team Force proved the perfect tool for the job, with its 40mm Maxxis Rambler tires and IsoFlex seatpost to take the edge off. (Keep an eye out for my full review coming soon.)
Gravel racing is now coming into its own, and the inaugural running of Big Sugar is your opportunity to experience what is certainly poised to become one of the key gravel races on the calendar. Ted King, Payson Mcelveen, Amity Rockwell, Sarah Max, and Alison Tetrick were all on hand for the recon ride, and you’ll likely see them toeing the line next October to compete for the first podium.