Torbjørn Andre Røed (Above + Beyond Cancer) beat Brendan Johnston (Giant Off Road) in a photo finish to win the pro men’s division at the 2023 Life Time Big Sugar Gravel presented by Mazda. It was a showdown of seven riders in the final dash to the line, with the clock hitting 4:53:38 for the front duo.
Alexey Vermeulen (Jukebox-Shimano-Q+M) then edged put Keegan Swenson (Santa Cruz Bicycles) to grab third place. Cole Paton (Giant Bicycles) finished fifth and John Borstelmann (Ventum) sixth. Tasman Nankervis (Merida-BMC Shimano) was the final rider from the group of seven to cross the line.
Winner of Belgian Waffle Ride Kansas, Røed saved his final acceleration for the last 100 metres in the middle of the paved straightaway in downtown Bentonville and kept the 2022 Australian gravel champion from making a pass. The US rider was part of a chase group of six who caught solo leader Borstelmann with under 20 miles to go.
“It feels pretty awesome. I've wanted this for a while and feel like I’ve had the legs to do it and it’s awesome to put it together," Røed said at the finish. “I went for it up the climb [two miles to go] and it went down to five guys and I just waited for a sprint.”
Big Sugar Gravel was the seventh and final event in the Life Time Grand Prix series, which included an invitation-only field of 70 athletes, 35 women and 35 men, competing for a $250,000 prize purse. Only the top 10 in each category will share the big payday, and Swenson had earned his second consecutive title earlier in the year with four race victories. With a third place at Big Sugar, Vermeulen wrapped up second place in the series, with Paton third. Johnston – who claimed top Life Time Grand Prix points at the event as race winner Røed is not a series participant – shifted up to seventh place overall.
Notable riders outside the top 10 of the race were defending Big Sugar Gravel champion Russell Finsterwald (Specialized Off-road), finishing 15th at the event but still holding fourth in the series, and Peter Stetina (Canyon CLLCTV), who was in sixth place in the Grand Prix but finishing the race in 25th spot.
How it unfolded
The third annual Big Sugar Gravel featured 104 miles of chunky, white gravel through Arkansas and southern Missouri in the Ozark Mountains of the US for 7,000 feet of elevation gain.
Under sunny skies, cool temperatures greeted the men’s pro field at the start line in Bentonville for the 104.4-mile contest, which headed to the west, and then north, into Southern Missouri, with a loop back to downtown Bentonville.
The only significant change to the course from last year took place in the last 24 hours on the final mile of the course. Due to construction, a local nonprofit group, The Trailblazers, built a gravel connector on the Rockinghorse Trail to provide a path to the final stretch back on pavement.
The front of the pro men’s field was strung out in a long train formation in the opening 20 miles. As the thundering parade approached the 36-mile mark, USA’s Borstelmann and Norwegian Jonas Orset (Nordic Trailblazer) set the pace at the front with a 30-second advantage to the rest of the field.
A group of 23 riders gave chase behind as the leaders passed through the Pineville aid station. Among the large pack behind Borstelmann and Orset included some of the top 10 riders in the Life Time Grand Prix – Swenson, Alexey Vermeulen (Jukebox-Shimano-Q+M), Paton, Finsterwald, Lachlan Morton (EF Education-EasyPost), Johnston, Kenny Looser (SPAR-Rose Bikes), as well as US race contenders Alex Howes and Payson McElveen and Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam.
At the half-way point and headed to the biggest climb on the route at Flag Spring Conservation area in Missouri, Borstelmann rode at the front of the race with Johnston. Only a few seconds back a group of eight others pounded the pedals in the chase with the duo in sight. They were Grotts, Orset, Howes, Røed, Nankervis, Carlos Quintero, Truman Glasgow and Ian Lopez de San Roman (Mazda Lauf Factory Racing).
A few contenders from the original bunch of 23 dangled behind by just a few seconds as the leaders moved across the lower slopes of the 7-mile Flag Spring climb, Ten Dam, Calton, Looser and Vermeulen began to lose more than a minute. Stetina had worked his way from 61st to 46th position, but was still 12 minutes back, riding with Lance Haidet and Kiel Reijnen.
Borstelmann powered away to a solo lead by the time he passed the second and final aid station, which came at Whistling Spring Brewery with 31 miles to race. Driving the charge of the seven chasers, 1:18 back, was Swenson, joined by Morton, Johnston, Paton, Nankervis, Røed and Grotts. Howes was only 30 seconds behind that pack, riding with Lopez de San Roman, Glasgow, McElveen, Finsterwald, Anderson, while Vermeulen was in a solo chase another 10 seconds back.
Across a gravel descent headed to a water oasis point with 19 miles to go, Borstelmann was caught and it was a restart at the front for Røed, Borstelmann, Swenson, Paton, Grotts, Nankervis and Johnston. Røed then outkicked Johnston for the victory.
|Pos.||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Torbjørn Andre Røed (Above + Beyond Cancer)||4:53:38|
|2||Brendan Johnston (Giant Off Road)|
|3||Alexey Vermeulen (Jukebox-Shimano-Q+M)||+01|
|4||Keegan Swenson (Santa Cruz Bicycles)|
|5||Cole Paton (Giant Bicycles)||+05|
|6||John Borstelmann (Ventum)|
|7||Tasman Nankervis (Merida-BMC Shimano)||+11|
|8||Howard Grotts (Specialized)||+23|
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