The Big Trip: Rate my bets and my competition for the Life Time Grand Prix


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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s regular article about gravel and travel. In 2021, he won 15 gravel races – more than any other rider.

The biggest news in gravel this month was the roster announcement for the first Life Time Grand Prix. I was lucky enough to be selected from 30 men and 30 women to compete for the biggest prize purse American Cycling has seen in years. I dreamed of my chance to get selected, but I still put serious effort into this program, like all my peers. I’ve been cycling long enough to know that any selection is never official, so I was delighted when the organizers called me with the good news.

The Grand Prix consists of three gravel races (Unbound Gravel, Crusher in the Tushar, Big Sugar Gravel) and three mountain bike races (Sea Otter Classic, Leadville Trail 100 MTB, Chequamegon MTB). Each race will have thousands of entries individually, but the Grand Prix is ​​the ultimate series for a handpicked selection of 60 riders.

Online complaints about the exclusion came as expected, and Life Time clarified their reasoning. It was about striking a balance: How can they elevate American professional racing without losing what made these events successful in the first place? These 60 reserved spots, among several thousand at races like Leadville, will not lack what makes them so special. It’s likely that most of those 60 riders would have signed up anyway, either by lottery or by using the sponsor’s expo-allocated slots.

The hard work and dedication it takes to become a pro cyclist has long been underpaid and this is an honest attempt to change that. Until the last gravel boom, riders had to travel to Europe to have any hope of earning a living wage. Not only will that purse define a career, but it can be the catalyst for many to gain attention and lead to greater things to come.

The Crusher at Tushar is a great gravel race to climb in Utah. (Photo: Linda Guerrette)

It was hard to see some elite riders not being singled out; I have several friends in that group. While it’s easy for me to sit and analyze from the comfort of the selection pool, I think having a dedicated and slightly curated cast of characters would make it easier for fans to follow throughout the season like F1.

It will be interesting to see if any unseeded riders organically make their Grand Prix by entering all six races and how Life Time will react if this rider places well. Perhaps the athlete who competes this season can advance to the Grand Prix next year.

While these six races form the basis of my season, I still plan to attend and prioritize iconic independent races such as the BWR Quadruple Crown and The Mid South and the SBT GRVL. And I will always make time for local events. Mass races are often the most fun and are the real backbone of gravel.

The strength of gravel is in the mass participation format and all these Grand Prix events are prestigious in their own right. It may very well be that the riders who won the Unbound, for example, are not part of the streak. Every race will get the attention it deserves, and the stories of both the fast and the casual will be as inspiring as ever. Even if the series is added, this will be an interesting subplot to follow throughout the season.

Tactics

Wherever we finish in the overall field the points will be opposite to our Grand Prix places. The best-placed Grand Prix racer in each event will receive 30 points, the second-best 29 points, and so on. Up to 30th place by 1 point. If Colin Strickland won the Unbound and I finished fifth, but the riders from second to fourth didn’t compete in the GP series, I’d be just one point behind him going into the Crusher at Tushar. It will also push racers to the line despite setbacks.

Keeping announcers more engaged and expectations high; riders lose their worst scores. Whether it’s a scratch, a no-show or just a plain old bad day, only five of our six races will count and all are weighted equally. I plan to attend six. For hunter riders in general, you can’t afford to miss one and then fail the next race with no recovery.

The balance of selected events will see a comprehensive victory. Events range from two to 11 hours with all terrain types. Sea Otter is a proper MTB marathon race with lots of single track. Unbound favors power riders and people who can grind all day. The breaker at Tushar is mid-range and the only mountain top on gravel. Leadville has long climbs and elevation, but on flat bars. Chequamegon is a fast 40 miles at sea level and Big Sugar is a classic century grist mill. The final podium next October will feature men and women who can climb and navigate singletrack with mass endurance, some explosive pop and plenty of luck.

The Leadville 100 is followed less than 24 hours later by SBT GRVL. (Photo: Wil Matthews)

Assess threats

As soon as the announcement was made, I began pouring over the list and taking my chances. The list was deeper than I had imagined. The rider I fear the most is Keegan Swenson. He and I go toe-to-toe on the big climbs, but his MTB skills are far superior.

The EF duo of Alex Howes and Lachy Morton are also very dangerous as they both have WorldTour engines but drop their mountain bikes quicker than most. If Howard Grotts decides to focus all his time on racing again, he could be the best of us all.

We’ll all have to play to our strengths and cover our weaknesses all season long: Ted King, Colin Strickland and Ashton Lambie will suffer on the mountains but make up for it on the flats. Laurens ten Dam and Adam Roberge may struggle on MTB but excel with drop bars. Be sure to check out everyone on this list!

The field of women is very open. A different woman has won almost every race this season. I don’t think there is a clear favorite. It will be interesting to see how “retired” Ruth Winder actually is. Sarah Sturm would be a legitimate candidate because she can succeed in any discipline. Rose Grant usually dominates wherever she appears. Moriah Wilson was a likely 2021 athlete and is just beginning to discover her talents. The former Clif Bar duo of Katerina Nash and Sofia Gomez Villafane have speed and technical ability but, like Keegan, are novices in a race where experience counts when it comes to Unbound.

One thing is for sure; there will be some surprises, some fun personalities revealed to a larger audience, and some amazing races. I am personally very passionate about it and it has given me the opportunities I need to work on MTB downhill. I’ll be meeting 59 other people at Sea Otter in April!

Adam Roberge is one of many riders I will be watching before he wins Big Sugar. (Photo: Andy Chasteen)



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