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Keegan Swenson (Santa Cruz Bicycles) and Haley Batten (Specialized Factory Racing) won the pro races of the inaugural Life Time Little Sugar MTB presented by Mazda, held in Bentonville, Arkansas on Sunday. The elite divisions competed on a marked, largely-singletrack course of 99.3 kilometres (61.7 miles) and 1,998 metres (6,558 feet) of elevation gain across north-west Arkansas.
The top five finishers for men and women earned equal shares from a $65,000 prize purse, made possible by Life Time and OZ Brands as the largest single-day prize payout in US mountain bike racing to date.
Utah’s Swenson called it an ‘epic battle’ as he held off South African Matt Beers in a sprint finish, both crossing the line in 4:25:16. Cole Paton finished third, 19 seconds back. It would be four and a half minutes later before Bradyn Lange crossed the line in fourth, and Sean Fincham in fifth.
Olympic mountain bike gold medalist Tom Pidcock suffered a flat tyre and rolled in for 25th place from the 32 elite men who finished. He came to Arkansas off a World Cup XCO victory in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Québec.
“So close to cracking the American code,” Beers posted to his Instagram feed. “As we know Keegan Swenson is a hard man to beat. My day was far from smooth like most people, this place eats tires. But you just gotta find that inner dog and not give up. Nevertheless, such a sick day ripping trails with all the lads.”
Batten rode solo the final two-thirds of the elite women’s title race to take the victory in 4:53:22. She was 11 minutes faster than second-placed Savilia Blunk. Sofia Gomez Villafañe finished third, a little more than 16 minutes off the winning pace. Katerina Nash was another eight minutes down in fourth, and Crystal Anthony finished fifth.
“It’s hard racing, it’s pretty relentless. I thought [going into the race] there’s not much climbing, it’s pretty rolling, but when you’re out there it’s relentless,” she said after the finish, calling it “a day well spent”. Both Batten and Blunk finished in the top 15 at the final World Cup XCO race of the season a week ago at Mont-Sainte-Anne.
Many of the competitors now switch flat bars for drop bars to compete in next weekend’s Big Sugar Gravel in Bentonville. That 100-mile off-road contest serves as the seventh and final round of the Life Time Grand Prix, the top 10 pro women and pro men sharing equally in a $250,000 prize purse.
Swenson does not need a top result at the seventh and final series contest to secure the overall title for a second year, as he mathematically wrapped up the championship by winning the first four races.
Beers is currently seventh overall in the Grand Prix, while Paton is third. Russell Finsterwald, who is close behind Paton in fourth in the Grand Prix, finished eighth at Little Sugar.
From the women’s field in Little Sugar, Villafañe is the top-ranked woman in the Grand Prix, and like Swenson, she also locked up her overall victory with four consecutive wins and a third place, so only needs to start Big Sugar. Anthony is sixth overall in the Grand Prix. Alexis Skarda, who is second overall in the Grand Prix, finished 9th in Little Sugar, and Jenna Rinehart, who is eighth in the Grand Prix, finished seventh Sunday.