One of many water crossings on the course; photos by Life Time Inc.

Life Time Launches New Gravel Race: The Big Sugar-NWA Gravel

Life Time will stake its claim in gravel riding by building the next big off-road race in Bentonville, Arkansas. Endurance riders, meet the Big Sugar-NWA Gravel race.

Life Time’s push into gravel riding has been, well, bumpy. Some longtime gravel racing faithful vocally opposed the fitness giant’s takeover in recent years as lead sponsor of the burgeoning sport’s elite events: the Leadville 100 and Dirty Kanza. But Life Time has remained undaunted, and both events have seen jumps in participation.

“Gravel is just now entering the growth phase,” said Jim Cummins, Life Time’s Chief Gravel Officer. As it happens, Cummins is also the co-creator of the annual Dirty Kanza gravel race across Kansas. “There’s little debate that gravel cycling is the fastest-growing and most exciting segment of cycling.”

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Chunky gravel is common on course and keeps things interesting

And next year, for the first time, Life Time will launch a new gravel event of its own: the Big Sugar-NWA Gravel race. And what better place to do that than in arguably the fastest-growing cycling city in America, Bentonville, Arkansas?

I took a ride along the future race’s route to get a feel for what racers will face in 2020. Here’s what you can expect.

Big Sugar-NWA Gravel Race

The debut race will take place on October 24, 2020, in the rolling hills surrounding Bentonville. Coinciding with Outerbike, the Big Sugar weekend will host two signature distances: the marquee Big Sugar, a 107-mile course of challenging roads through the Ozarks with approximately 9,000 feet of elevation gain, and the Little Sugar, a 49.3-mile, similarly challenging course.

As I saw on the preview weekend, weather will almost certainly be a factor. Our group saw temps in the 40s and rain on Saturday, followed by upper 60s and sun on Sunday. So riders should prepare for anything.

The course should provide its fair share of challenges, with a few extended hill climbs and a variety of gravel conditions. But it’s not just for elite athletes. Riders of all abilities will find the course to be equally beautiful and demanding. Be sure to pack a spare tube and pump as well; we learned that Bentonville gravel can be hard on tires.

“Bentonville has become a hub for cycling, but it doesn’t yet have an iconic gravel race,” Kimo Seymour, president of Life Time Events and Media, told us. “We’re really excited to bring the same Leadville and Dirty Kanza feel here to Bentonville and produce a life-enriching event that welcomes every rider, from beginner to experienced.”

Big Sugar Gravel Race: The Route

Life Time brought a group of cyclist media professionals and athletes to preview the course. And despite the less-than-favorable weather conditions, the gravel held up exceptionally well. Riders can expect to see rolling hills and a variety of gravel surfaces from buff, fast-rolling stretches to chunky, out-of-the-saddle climbs. Plus, there’s plenty of fast, techy descents to keep things interesting.

About halfway through the route, we turned off the main road and followed the signs for Whistling Springs Brewery, a small, rustic brewery serving up unique pints in southwest Missouri. It was a welcome respite from the pouring rain, but rider beware: This spot can pull you in to sit awhile, enjoy flowing beverages, and pet pigs. Yes, there are pigs you can pet.

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Come for the race, stay for the pigs

Unlike other endurance races from Life Time, you don’t need to bring a support crew. There will be numerous aid stations, including the brewery, stocked with most anything you’ll need.

If you did want to bring a crew with, there are a few opportunities for them to see you on the course and provide some much-needed encouragement.

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Life Time Gravel Race: Economic Impact

Not only do races like the Big Sugar provide challenges for riders, but they also have a large economic impact on the host communities. Bentonville residents and local event directors for the Big Sugar, Nat Ross and Gabbi Adams, are working to build the cycling hub that is Bentonville. They expect the Big Sugar race will likely help boost the town, much like Leadville and Dirty Kanza have impacted their respective communities.

From what I saw, this race will challenge riders and provide entertainment for all the visitors who flock to Bentonville for the Big and Little Sugar. It will be interesting to see what kind of gravel community Life Time will grow when it builds a race from the ground up.

Registration opens on Nov 15, 2019, for the inaugural Big Sugar and Little Sugar races. Don’t delay — spots are limited to the first 800 registrants and are expected to sell out quickly. And Big Sugar participants will also be eligible for entry into the Dirty Kanza. Entries for the following year’s event will be distributed via random lottery to finishers who enter on site.

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