By John Perry
It started like it often had in the past with a phone call from Zap. “What do you think about doing Big Sugar Gravel in Bentonville, Arkansas?” he asked. Without giving it a second thought, I answered with an emphatic, “Yes!” But then I quickly came to realize that there was some added responsibility that came with the invitation.
Apparently, following David and Troy’s end-of-summer trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to participate in the Steamboat Gravel Race aboard a couple of event-specific project bikes (RBA, November ’22), my trip to Bentonville would be no different. I finally had the opportunity to visit the much talked-about bike-friendly town of Bentonville, but I’d have to work for it!
Eventually, I learned that the bike that had been chosen for me was a new gravel entry from Colorado builder Alchemy Bikes. The bike was the just released Lycos Au, and the next step was to head to the Alchemy website to figure out the frame sizing that compared the Lycos Au to my personal Giant Revolt Advanced 0. This was a pretty simple process, as the Alchemy website is very detailed. Better still was learning that Alchemy wanted me to not just get a bike to ride but to have the firsthand experience of their Dare Golden Program (DGP). The DGP provides the opportunity for any new bike buyer to visit Alchemy, with a stay at the Origin Red Rocks Hotel, a factory tour and personal setup and test ride of your bike to ensure proper fit. Luckily, a few weeks before Big Sugar, I was planning to race in the RAD Dirt Gravel event in Trinidad, Colorado, so the drive to Alchemy’s factory in Golden was on my way.
ABOUT THE PROJECT BIKE
Alchemy is a small, award-winning frame shop that doesn’t just join pre-made tubes but actually rolls their own tubes in-house to make each frame. With three gravel-specific bikes already in Alchemy’s stable (two carbon, one titanium), the Lycos Au was added as the brand’s lightweight, performance option, and with the weight savings brought with it the use of a different carbon layup and higher modulus carbon than the standard Lycos.
“Just as I’ve discovered while competing at Unbound Gravel, wind is the great equalizer when it comes to cycling, and on this day, the wind arrived and killed my strategy.”
My bike started with a naked 800-gram Lycos Au in a size-large frame built with their Premium kit, consisting of a SRAM Red AXS XPLR drivetrain, a Tune saddle, Zipp stem and handlebar, e*Thirteen XCX 1x cranks, an e*Thirteen Helix R 12sp 9-42t cassette, and Alchemy’s own carbon wheels mounted with Maxxis Rambler 45mm tires. While the handmade Au frame sold for $4999, the cost of the complete bike spiraled to a whopping $11,499 price tag.
Before I headed out on my first ride, I mounted some Lun Grapid 700 wheels and WTB’s new 42mm Vulpine tires with Stan’s sealant. The Lun wheels were new to us and come from the decades-long carbon frame maker Winspace at a cost of $798 each. The 1431-gram, tubeless-ready carbon hoops use Pillar spokes (24 rear/20 front) and are 38mm deep with a 25mm internal width. Available in either 700c or 650b sizes, the in-house-built hubs use stainless steel bearings with center-mount brakes.
And lastly, I mounted my trusty Garmin Rally 200 pedals, Garmin 1030 and Varia rear light. Given that my personal bike runs a Shimano GRX 2x mechanical drivetrain, both the 1x drivetrain and electronic shifting were new for me. Before adding my pedals, the bike weighed a feather-like 15 pounds. Although I know Zap was disappointed that the bike didn’t enjoy any of the custom color options that Alchemy offers, I liked that the transparent Cerakote option gave the bike a subtlety that allowed a detailed look at the frame’s tube-to-tube construction.
Happily, right away, the bike felt comfortable and efficient on climbs, and in addition to being light weight, it descended well, it’s very stable at all speeds that I’ve encountered. It went where I pointed it with very little input. I even rode it on some single-track trails that I use as connectors to get to my regular gravel routes, and it was very good here also.
“The frame is stiff, and from the trails in Colorado to Arkansas, it handled whatever rough stuff I rode over. Honestly, I was surprised that a bike so light would still follow the terrain so well.”
The frame is stiff, and from the trails in Colorado to Arkansas, it handled whatever rough stuff I rode over. Honestly, I was surprised that a bike so light would still follow the terrain so well, which is also due to the long 105cm wheelbase. Even when I was bouncing over rough gravel and rocky sections, the bike felt planted. I was impressed with how quickly the bike responded to inputs on paved surfaces even with 42mm tires. With my gravel race season now officially over, I’m looking forward to mounting some road wheels and tackling the Sunday-morning group ride.
Given that I always want to have as many gears as possible and how in the past I’ve spent considerable energy and money to convert bikes to a 2x drivetrain, I was unsure about what to expect with the SRAM 1x. No matter what type of terrain I was riding, the electronic shifting was a game-changer for me, because it takes so little effort to change gears. It did, however, take a little getting used to shifting on the left to go to an easier gear.
The 1x was so much different than I thought it was going to be. I have regular routes that I have lots of power data and Strava segments to compare a 2x to a 1x. I rode many of the routes to familiarize myself with the 1x, and low and behold, the 1x was just as good as the 2x and sometimes even better. This was achieved by pedaling with a lower cadence and slightly higher power. After putting in 300 pre-race miles, I was confident that my race wouldn’t be compromised by the 1x drivetrain.
Despite my longstanding belief in the efficiency of 2x drivetrains, a big take-away from Big Sugar was that 1x drivetrains might just be the right setup for gravel riding. I know everyone has their own preference, but I bet 1x can provide every gear for 90 percent of the rides that average riders do. The SRAM gears on the Alchemy had sufficiently low gearing (42/44) for the steep climbs and a tall gear (42/9) for flats and group rides. I also appreciate how the 1x drivetrain removes more things that can go wrong when you’re out on backcountry gravel roads. While I’m now a convert to 1x drivetrains and electric shifting, my one tip to one and all is that unless you want to learn what it’s like to ride a single-speed, remember to keep the battery charged!
WHAT ABOUT BIG SUGAR?
Located in the northwest corner of Arkansas, Bentonville is the home of the Walmart retail-store chain, but what really put the town on the map was its recent claim of being the mountain biking capital of the world. While legacy destinations like Moab, Utah, and Crested Butte, Colorado, might argue that claim, it’s hard to deny that the 150-plus miles of groomed trails fanning out in all directions from the center of town adds up to much less.
This Arkansas town has really embraced bike culture, as you can travel anywhere by bike, either on a bike path, bike lane or regular streets. The car drivers were the most civil drivers I’ve encountered in a very long time, and all the local businesses welcomed you with your bike when you walked through the door. Besides all the bike-related stuff, the town has a thriving art scene with a myriad of public art to accompany the world-class art museum of
The Big Sugar Gravel route was a 105-mile loop with 7200 feet of climbing that starts and ends in downtown Bentonville. The race was the last in the Life Time GP series, so in addition to hundreds of citizen riders, the town was loaded with some of the world’s best gravel racers, as well as a large bike-industry contingent making up a large bike expo.
On paper, the course is very deceiving. It doesn’t look that hard, but that’s a trick. I would say the gravel is medium chunky, loose and sharp. I’ve never seen so many flat tires in my life, not even at Unbound Gravel, where this kind of tire carnage is common. The climbs were never long, but they were steep and coming at you just when you thought that you would get a break. Being a fall event also brought the challenge of the course being covered with fallen leaves that hid a variety of obstacles that could quickly flatten your tires.
My race strategy was to go with the front group for as long as I could in the beginning and then settle into my comfortable power zone. This strategy went pretty well for the first 40 miles before I stopped at the first-aid station. After the checkpoint, my group split up and I had to change my strategy. I rode the next 64 miles with groups of riders and just surfed the terrain in my optimum power zone. Everything was good until the next checkpoint at 75 miles when things suddenly got hard. Just as I’ve discovered while competing at Unbound Gravel, wind is the great equalizer when it comes to cycling, and on this day, the wind arrived and killed my strategy.
At mile 77 the course turned straight into a 15- to 20-mph headwind that lasted for the next 15 miles. So much for a good finish time! Despite being in a group of 10 riders, we could average no more than 8 mph, but even that required pedaling way above the comfortable power zone that I wanted to be in. Finally, I made it to the finish line in 7:34, 15th in my age group and 247th overall. Of the many gravel races I’ve competed in over the years, this was one of the hardest I’ve ever done, but having a pedigree race bike under me made it more enjoyable.