Two US riders making debuts at Big Sugar Gravel are Lauren De Crescenzo (Cinch Rise) and 2021 U23 time trial champion Michael Garrison (Hagens Berman Axeon). They made late calls to add the event to their schedules, both having competed at the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships and both having to find a way to reach Bentonville, Arkansas, tucked in the middle of the US in the Ozark mountains.
Gravel has become a bread-and-butter discipline for De Crescenzo in the past two years, making a splash at Unbound Gravel in 2021 and taking back-to-back ‘world titles’ at Gravel Worlds in Nebraska. Garrison, however, makes his debut in the pro field for a US gravel race on Saturday.
After pre-rides across parts of the course, both were eager to get down to business and noticed right away the differences between the off-road courses, De Crescenzo describing it as ‘flavours of gravel’.
“I was not thinking beyond the UCI Worlds in Italy. I am a late addition for Big Sugar,” De Crescenzo told Cyclingnews on the eve of her inaugural ride in the Ozarks.
The UCI Gravel World Championships, where she finished 20th, were supposed to have been the final race of the fall season, but she decided she felt good.
“It was unlike any race I have done here in the US, where there are big, wide roads. In Italy, it was a lot of narrow roads, singletrack and hundreds of turns. The terrain was very flat, really mixed. They had their own flavour of gravel,” said the Colorado rider with the Italian name who lives in Georgia, adding she wanted to return to the World Championships.
”Here [in Arkansas] the gravel is chunky and sharp. I love the relentless nature of this course, too. I like the rollers.”
BMC USA, the bike provider for Garrison's Continental team, brought him back to the US to create a film for its latest gravel bike introduction, Kaius. He rode the new model in Italy, finishing 76th out of 99 finishers in the 194km event. It was an epic journey that involved 20 hours on an airplane (it was redirected because of a passenger with a medical emergency), an overnight stop in Atlanta for a wedding, then back on a plane to Bentonville. He made it last Sunday, but his bike was stuck in customs so BMC built a new machine.
“We’ve been filming every day since last Sunday, some drone shots, car-arm shots, and lots of riding. The week has been incredible,” Garrison said about the extension to his season.
Garrison described the Gravel World Championships in Italy as “alternative, mixed-surface” racing and says the change of plans to come to Arkansas means “I would really consider this my first real gravel race.”
“For the most part, it was a lot of some singletrack, some loose white roads [in Italy]. But here you have these really jarring sections of rock,” as the 21-year-old said he discovered during a full week of preparations in and around Bentonville.
“My first ride here I slashed a tire. We stopped and we picked up these rocks and they're like razors. I mean it's like literally somebody just sharpened these rocks."
“This is more of a pure, attritional gravel race. The first 40 miles of the course are really pretty demanding in terms of your tires, your tire pressures, your ability to repair those tires. The rest of the course, the last two-thirds aren't as intimidating."
“At Worlds, we didn't even bring any spares or anything. I mean, we had a huge setup of people but I didn't have a saddlebag.”
Echoing De Crescenzo's description, Garrison said the World Championships were flat and fast. A lot of singletrack didn’t allow for passing, and he said that made it an “interesting dynamic."
“There was singletrack, there were bottlenecks, you knew guys were having mechanicals. And you had these sections of the course that were single file, for like 150 guys on a four-inch strip. You would never see that in gravel racing in the States,” he said, and added that if some gravel races do have tight paths, there is usually a lot of elevation change to bring riders back together.
De Crescenzo was impressed with the pro riders who made their treks to Arkansas for the race.
"Who's not here? Everyone is here. It's the last hurrah for the end of the season. I hope my legs are good."
For Garrison, he said he may get accustomed to more gravel, but will focus on the road in 2023 as he will continue with Hagens Berman Axeon for a fourth season.
"The road program will take the priority, but I do also have the flexibility to pursue another opportunity. More opportunities, maybe on the gravel, here or in Europe, like the Trakka. I want to continue to pursue as much as I can because that variation keeps me happy, keeps me fresh and keeps me excited.”
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