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Gravel

MTB meets gravel as Outerbike and Big Sugar collaborate in Bentonville

Life Time's new gravel race and the premier U.S. mountain bike demo event join forces in Arkansas this weekend.

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BENTONVILLE, Arkansas (VN) – What do Life Time’s newest gravel race and the country’s premier mountain bike consumer demo event have in common?

Bentonville.

Really, where else would gravel and mountain biking meet in a show of cycling solidarity?

This weekend, Big Sugar Gravel and Outerbike are sharing venue space in the northwest Arkansas biking mecca, in a move that Life Time’s brand marketing manager Kristi Mohn calls “industry forward thinking.”

“It was like, ‘let’s team up, we’ll do the gravel thing,  you do the mountain bike thing, and we’ll have a bigger expo and a bigger footprint and just a better experience for all of the athletes,'” Mohn told VeloNews. 

This is the first year for the collaboration between the two, although the plan had been to debut in 2020. Mohn said that the idea to team up was born after Outerbike staged its first Bentonville demo in 2018. Then, a team of athletes, media, and industry folks traveled to Bentonville in the fall of 2019 to preview the Big Sugar course during Outerbike weekend. The weather was abysmal, and Outerbike’s venue site turned into a muddy slip and slide. However, it was fertile soil for the collaboration idea, and after a year of COVID cancelations, the two events have set up shop in a new are with much better drainage in case it rains.

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Volunteers prepare racer packets for Big Sugar Gravel at the Outerbike demo.

Both event promoters canceled all of their 2020 events, which included Outerbike’s other demo events in Utah, Colorado, and Vermont, and Life Time’s Unbound Gravel and Crusher in the Tushar. While Life Time has put on its 2021 off-road events, Outerbike hasn’t been as lucky — COVID uncertainty and the extreme bike shortage are very poor bedfellows for a mountain bike demo event. Bentonville is only the second Outerbike to happen in 2021 after the Moab event three weeks ago.

Outerbike co-founder Ashley Korenblat said the notable absences of certain bike brands in the parking lot in Bentonville indeed reflect a combination of both COVID and bike shortage-related issues. For instance, Specialized was unable to travel to Arkansas due to two of its demo van drivers having COVID or having been exposed. Korenblat said that the Bentonville expo reflects about 20 percent of the normal volume of vendors.

Outerbike’s parent company, Western Spirit, which Korenblat co-owns with her husband Mark Sevenoff, is thriving however. Whereas supply issues have cut deeply into Outerbike’s operations, Western Spirit, which operates mountain bike tours throughout the West, has seen a 30 percent increase in numbers. People really want to ride.

Korenblat said that Outerbike attendees in Moab last month were understanding of the situation and even gave feedback that the smaller numbers (300 versus about 900) made the event feel more intimate.

“We’re really good at making sure people have a good time,” she said.

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Bikes and Walmart are a thing.

From Friday to Sunday, Outerbike participants can sample bikes and other wares from vendors on Bentonville’s expansive network of trails, including the pump track and jumps on-site. On Friday morning, Big Sugar Gravel participants will meet at the venue for an optional shake-out ride. Packet pick-up is at Outerbike in the afternoon, followed by happy hour at the brewery on the other side of the pump track, and Saturday’s race starts at the Momentary, an arts and events space, a few hundred meters away.

Outerbike has encouraged its attendees to cheer on the gravel heads at the start line on Saturday.

Mohn believes that the collaboration benefits both cyclists, who may be gravel- or MTB-curious and in Bentonville hoping to experience both, and also the vendors.

“How many expos can the bike industry support?” she said. “It was like, let’s not tap into the endemic sponsors and vendors, let’s try to figure out a way to come together and create something really cool where they’re getting a really big bang for their buck for the weekend.”

Before either event has officially begun, Korenblat is already thinking toward the future.

“Next year, we’re going to need a lot bigger parking lot,” she said.