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Pro tips: How Emily Newsom and others plan to tackle Big Sugar Gravel

What the top women are saying about the strategy, gear, and fitness needed to win the 100-mile gravel race.

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For many racers, Saturday’s Big Sugar Gravel event will mark the end of the 2021 race season.

The Big Sugar joins Life Time’s roster of off-road events for the first time this year, although it was supposed to debut in 2020. Set in Bentonville, Arkansas, the event also joins a host of other bike-centric programming in the self-professed ‘mountain bike capital of the world.’ It’s no secret that the gravel riding in northwest Arkansas is also top-notch.

While the start list for the 100-mile Big Sugar race boasts some familiar and noteworthy names, lining up at a gravel race in late October calls upon a different store of energy, then a mid-July race. Additionally, the Big Sugar (as well as the 50-mile Lil Sugar route) course does not have the same characteristics as Steamboat Springs’ buffed ‘champagne gravel.’ Bike handling skills are required.

Here is what some of the race’s pro women had to say about their season highlights, gear choices, and how they hope to win the race.

Professional pianist, mother, and Tibco-SVB rider Emily Newsom is “fully in the off-season training mode.”

“I expect I’ll be strong but not as sharp as coming straight from racing,” Newsom said. 

With a victory late last spring at Gravel Locos, Newsom spent a chunk of the summer racing on the road in Europe. She won’t be the only one in Tibco-SVB kit in Bentonville this weekend; her teammates Emma Langley, Maddy Ward, and Lauren Stephens will also be racing (although Stephens is opting for the 50 — “I’m in full off-season mode so 100 miles sounded miserable,” the national champion said).

Newsom admits she’s coming to Bentonville “itching for the top step,” and she plans to use the mass start format to her advantage. 

“When it’s a mixed start, it is always the most strategically beneficial to stay as long as possible with the lead men,” she said. “Good positioning and bike handling will also be crucial given the challenging terrain. This course will favor a strong all-rounder with solid bike handling skills and a healthy dose of good fortune.”

Moriah Wilson is just one of a few riders who is racing Big Sugar as a doubleheader with last weekend’s Epic Rides Off-road MTB race. There, she narrowly missed the fifth step on the podium. However, at the Leadville Trail 100, she almost made it to the top with a huge, second-place finish.

Wilson is hoping that her MTB fitness on short, punchy climbs helps her on the day. The Californian also thinks that gear choice will be critical.

“I think there could be a bit of carnage out there in terms of flat tires, so good luck and the right setup could play a big role in how things unfold,” she said. “I’ll be racing my new Specialized Crux with SRAM XPLR, 11-44 with a 40-tooth chainring. I’ll likely run 42mm Pathfinders front and rear, but may put a burlier tire up front if it rains leading up to the race.”

Gravel privateer Hannah Shell is also prepping her bike for the weather. The Colorado rider has selected a 45mm Pirelli Cinturato tire for bite in the front and a 40c in the rear to allow for more potential mud clearance.

Shell is coming to Big Sugar after a podium finish at The ‘Rad, Life Time’s other new event which debuted in Trinidad, Colorado three weeks ago. Although it’s Shell’s first trip to Bentonville, it’s not her first Life Time rodeo.

“This event will be my fourth Life Time gravel race this year,” she said. “I squeezed onto the podium at The ‘Rad and I’m looking forward to a shot at the win here. If it’s anything like the other gravel races I’ve participated in I am sure it will go hard from the start, and technical course features will limit down the selection.”