Bentonville, Arkansas

Power Couple Sofia Gomez Villafane and Keegan Swenson Win 2023 Life Time Grand Prix

Mountain Biking

, by Greg Heil

The women's and men's winners of the Life Time Grand Prix share the podium. All photos courtesy of Life Time.

Following the conclusion of the Big Sugar Gravel race in Bentonville, Arkansas, this past weekend, the power couple of Sofia Gomez Villafane and Keegan Swenson both officially have won the 2023 Life Time Grand Prix race series, each walking away with $25,000 in prize money. Granted, both Sofia and Keegan had locked up the overall series win after the first 5 rounds, thereby being able to skip round 6 and simply having to start round 7 in Bentonville to qualify for the overall wins.

This early success proved critical in clinching the overall for Sofia. Early in the final race, Sofia and UCI gravel world champion Kasia Niewiadoma broke away from the pack for the early lead. "However, the duo took a wrong turn, ceding the lead to a pack of women including 2022 Big Sugar Gravel champ Paige Onweller, Jenna Rinehart, and Sarah Sturm," according to Life Time. 

Sofia working to make up time.

Keegan proved to be the most dominant male racer of the series, going undefeated in the first four rounds. In the fifth round, Keegan was barely beat out for first place at the Chequamegon MTB Festival, taking second in a sprint finish. 

The competition at Big Sugar Gravel proved stiff, with more than 1,900 racers in total representing 36 states and 11 countries. Keegan managed a fourth-place finish, trailing Torbjørn Andre Røed, Brendan Johnston, and Alexey Vermeulen. Alexey notably took the second place overall Grand Prix finish, with 165 points to Keegan's 174.

DID YOU READ? Keegan Swenson Shatters Leadville Trail 100 and SBT GRVL Course Records on Back-to-Back Weekends

Keegan in the pack.

What is the Life Time Grand Prix?

The Life Time Grand Prix consists of 7 different endurance races: 

  1. Sea Otter Classic: Fuego XL 100k

  2. UNBOUND Gravel: 200 Mile Gravel

  3. Crusher in the Tushar: 69 Mile Gravel

  4. Leadville Trail 100 MTB

  5. Chequamegon MTB Festival: 40 Mile MTB

  6. The Rad Dirt Fest: 110 Mile Gravel

  7. Big Sugar Gravel: 100 Mile Gravel

While Life Time puts on additional races over the course of the year, only these 7 races count toward the overall Grand Prix. Racers can choose to drop one of the races from the calendar and still finish the overall Grand Prix.

As you can see from the event list, the series includes both endurance gravel and endurance mountain bike races across a variety of course lengths. This cross-discipline aspect is an intriguing combination that plays to both the rising popularity of gravel racing and the perennial popularity of marathon mountain biking.

For 2024, 30 men and 30 women will be selected from a pool of applicants to compete for the prize purse. The total purse has grown from $250,000 in 2023 to $300,000 in 2024, and it will continue to be split equally between the two genders. 

While many more racers can compete in each event, in order to be in the running for the overall prize purse, racers had to apply by October 25th, 2023. Notably, "any 2023 Life Time Grand Prix athlete who finishes in the top 15 overall, and reapplies, will be invited back," according to Life Time.

Keegan working for his fourth-place finish at Big Sugar.

Equitable Pay and Equitable Coverage to Grow Cycling Fandom in the United States

The Life Time Grand Prix currently offers one of the biggest prize purses in recent memory for mountain bike racers in the USA, with $250,000 in total prize money on the line in 2023. As mentioned above, this amount is increasing to $300,000 in 2024.

Also worth noting, the Little Sugar MTB Race Presented by Mazda boasted a $65,000 prize purse in 2023, which is currently "the biggest prize purse for a single day cycling in event in the United States, according to Betsy Welch on Velo. Little Sugar is also put on by Life Time, but it is not included in the Grand Prix,

From the beginning, the Life Time Grand Prix has split the prize purse equally between men and women, and the same applies to other races they put on, such as the Little Sugar MTB. They're also fully committed to equitably coverage of both the men's and women's races, which comes as a welcome change from the recent news that's been shocking the worlds of mountain biking and gravel racing.

Sofia in the pack.

First, the women's Red Bull Formation event was postponed for 2023 and might even be canceled indefinitely. Formation was created as a training ground for women freeriders and an accompaniment to Red Bull Rampage—the most viewed mountain biking event in the world. Following the announcement of the postponement for 2023, female freeriders hoped that a women's category would be added to the marquee Rampage event, but that did not materialize.

In the world of gravel racing, the UCI made a last-minute announcement that they would not be televising the women's Gravel Worlds race. The men's race was only partially broadcast for 90 minutes. The UCI issued a statement sharing their "regret" about the decision, and committed to mandatory live TV coverage for both genders in 2024.

In light of these unfortunate back-to-back events, Life Time's commitment to women's racing, both through equitable pay and equitable media coverage, is a breath of fresh air. With dominant competitors like Sofia as well as Alexis Skarda and Haley Smith (taking second and third overall), it's been an exciting season to follow.

Documenting mountain bike and gravel races is no small feat, and Life Time has taken this project on themselves. For the Big Sugar Gravel, Life Time released a 43-minute race recap video that was professionally filmed and edited the day after the event took place. I can only imagine the intense all-nighter that crew pulled to turn that film around. But if you want to share the magic with an international audience, this is the type of work that's required.

This, in fact, is Time's entire goal: to grow cycling fandom in the USA. While United States mountain biking had a heyday in the 90s, in recent decades, it's been tough for US-based mountain bikers to watch as most of the premier cycling events take place overseas. Sometimes there's a single token World Cup race held in the States: in 2024, a cross country World Cup will take place in Lake Placid, New York, and the cross country marathon World Champs will take place in Snowshoe, West Virginia. However, there won't be any downhill or enduro World Cup stops in the USA next year.

One or two token World Cup stops is a far cry from an entire race series. But with a $250,000 prize purse for the Grand Prix, Life Time has been able to entice not only the best endurance racers from the United States to participate, but it's also attracted Grand Prix competitors from Australia, South Africa, Switzerland, Canada, and the UK as well. 

With racers flying from around the world to compete, Life Time is cementing the Grand Prix as the nation's premier cycling series, and it's exciting to watch it unfold!

Catch the recap from the Big Sugar Gravel 100, here:

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