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Gravel

Scenarios and what-ifs headed into the final race of the Life Time Grand Prix

Swenson has the men's series in the bag, but outside of that it's anyone's game, especially in the super tight women's race

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The conclusion of the Life Time Grand Prix is fast approaching with this weekend’s Big Sugar Gravel race in Arkansas.

The six-race series, which began in April with the Fuego 80k mountain bike race at Sea Otter, has delivered the fireworks it promised, from Keegan Swenson’s near sweep of the series to the tight competition in the women’s race.

Nevertheless, during Saturday’s 100-mile gravel race anything can happen to upset the current status.

Before we get into particular scenarios and what-ifs, let’s revisit the rules and structure of the series.

Life Time Grand Prix rules and scoring

The 2022 Grand Prix series included six off-road races, three gravel and three XC MTB. The Fuego 80k at Sea Otter opened the season in April, followed by the 200-mile gravel race at Unbound in June. Gravel’s the Crusher in the Tushar followed in July, the Leadville 100 MTB race was in August, and most recently Chequamegon served up 40 miles of muddy XC in September.

In order to be eligible for the $250,000 prize purse, Grand Prix participants had to start at five of the six events. For the final scoring, a missed race or the lowest-scoring will be automatically dropped by the series organizer.

The Grand Prix used a points-based system to score the series. Riders were awarded 30 points for the highest finish at a race, and subsequent finishers were awarded points in descending order, down to one point for the athlete who was 30th among GP athletes.

GP athletes Sarah Sturm and Hannah Otto off the front at the Leadville Trail 100 (Photo: Joshua Strong)

When the series was launched, 60 athletes were selected, with an equal split between men and women. Four men and six women are no longer part of the series.

At the conclusion of the series, riders’ five best finishes from the six possible events will be tallied. In the event of a tie, Big Sugar Gravel will serve as a tiebreaker, with whoever places higher breaking the tie. As such, the event is mandatory for all athletes.

Finally, all prize purse eligible athletes must attend the awards ceremony at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Bike Rack Brewing in Bentonville.

The prize money breakdown is as follows:

1 – $25,000
2 – $20,000
3 – $16,000
4 – $13,000
5 – $11,000
6 – $10,000
7 – $9,000
8 – $8,000
9 -$7,000
10 – $6,000

Scenarios and what-ifs: men

To get it out of the way: Keegan Swenson has won the men’s Grand Prix. The only way he can lose is if he doesn’t start Big Sugar (because it’s mandatory), but barring any emergencies he’s planning on being there — and racing well.

Swenson has had an incredible season, inside and out of the Grand Prix. He won Sea Otter, narrowly missed victory with second at Unbound, won Crusher and Leadville, and placed fourth at Chequamegon, his lowest scoring-race. For every race but Chequamegon, he was awarded the maximum 30 Grand Prix points, and his fourth place finish in Wisconsin earned him 28. Even if he finishes 50th at Big Sugar, the 148 points he’ll be awarded for his five best races makes for a points differential that no other rider can touch.

For example, even if Alexey Vermeulen, who is currently in second, wins Big Sugar, he’ll only have 139 points.

However, just below Swenson, there is a fierce battle for the rest of the men’s top ten, especially in second through sixth places. Those positions are separated by 10 points, with just three between Vermeulen and Cole Paton in second and third; two between Pete Stetina and Russell Finsterwald in fourth and fifth, and two between Finsterwald and Payson McElveen in sixth.

GP athletes Rob Britton and Russel Finsterwald in the mud at Unbound (Photo: William Tracy)

Some of those riders have a lot to gain at Big Sugar, due to either one poor result (Stetina, Sea Otter, broke wrist during race) or a non-start (McElveen, Sea Otter, non-start due to injuries sustained at The Mid South). If Stetina wins Big Sugar, he’ll launch from fourth to second.

And, after an unfixable flat that resulted in him partying at the brewery at checkpoint 2 last year, Stetina has unfinished business in northwest Arkansas. For nearly all of the other Grand Prix men, this will be their first appearance at the race.

Further down the line in positions 11-12, riders Alex Howes, Adam Roberge, and Howard Grotts also have a lot to gain.

Howes, who announced his retirement from the WorldTour this summer, should be well-suited to the punchy nature of the course and is fresh off a win at Telluride Gravel. A good finish at Big Sugar would see him dropping Leadville where he earned 10 points for a 21st place finish, and a podium would certainly place him in the top ten overall.

Roberge and Grotts are tied in 12th, and there is reason to believe that both could finish on the podium in Big Sugar. Roberge won the race last year, and if he does well on Saturday, he’ll drop the nine points he got at Leadville for 22nd place.

Grotts comes in as a wild card due to some unfortunate results (DNS Sea Otter, 10 points for 21st place at Unbound), but his second place at Leadville and seventh at Crusher help. Plus, it’s Howard Grotts. Never rule him out.

Scenarios and what-ifs: women

Meanwhile, on the women’s side of things, the overall series winner will be most certainly be decided at Big Sugar. Haley Smith is currently in the lead, but Sarah Sturm trails by four points behind in second, and Sofia Gomez Villafañe is just one point behind Sturm.

There is potential for an interesting race just between those three, who are only separated by five points.

Smith, whose lowest scoring race was Sea Otter (25 points for sixth place), might not see her total change if she has a bad result at Big Sugar and uses that as her drop race. On the other hand, if she does well at Big Sugar, she further solidifies her lead — Smith’s total tally includes four strong individual finishes.

Unbound Gravel 200: Sofia Gomez Villafañe storms to the win
Gomez Villafañe after a dominant win at Unbound (Photo: William Tracy)

Sturm has the opportunity for a much greater net increase than Smith. If she lands on the podium at Big Sugar, she can drop Sea Otter (21 points, 10th place).

It’s similar for Gomez Villafañe. She took an early series lead after finishing second at Sea Otter (29 points) and winning Unbound (30). Her other results are also super solid (she earned 25 and 24 points respectively at Crusher and Chequamegon), so she has the ability to catapult pretty far forward.

However, she does have a DNF in Leadville on her record, so to win the series Gomez Villafañe will need a podium at Big Sugar.

Rose Grant in fourth also has a very real opportunity to move into the top three after Big Sugar. Despite her lack of affection for long gravel races, Grant has done very well at them (10th and ninth at Unbound and Crusher respectively, earning 22 and 21 points), and in the series overall where her two second place finishes at Leadville and Chequamegon awarded her a solid 59 points.

Fifth through 10th in the women’s top ten are close, only separated by 11 points, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. Riders like Evelyn Dong, who is currently eighth and has a DNF from Leadville, could jump up significantly with a good result at Big Sugar.

Another one to watch for an improvement in series standings is Emily Newsom in seventh overall. She was second at Big Sugar last year and will be more familiar with the course than the other riders, only two of whom (Hannah Shell and Maude Farrell) have done the race before.

Do the math!

Here are the current standings headed into Big Sugar; keep in mind, they only include a rider’s best four out of five races. Results at Big Sugar will determine which five are ultimately considered for total scores.

If you’re into your coming up with your own scenarios and what-if’s, click on the links below for the series standings, and then use the green ‘+Show’ link for a drop-down of each riders individual race results. Then, what-if away!

Current standings, men

1 – Keegan Swenson 120
2 – Alexey Vermeulen 109
3 – Cole Paton 106
4 – Peter Stetina 103
5 – Russell Finsterwald 101
6 – Payson Mcelveen 99
7 – Robert Britton 92
7 – Lachlan Morton 92
9 – Andrew L’Esperance 91
10 – Lance Haidet 85

Current standings, women

1 – Haley Smith 113
2 – Sarah Sturm 109
3 – Sofia Gomez Villafañe 108
4 – Rose Grant 104
5 – Hannah Otto 96
6 – Alexis Skarda 94
7 – Emily Newsom 93
8 – Evelyn Dong 90
9 – Melisa Rollins 89
10 – Kristen Legan 85