Midwest MTB Report

by Jay Richards
October 26, 2023

With cold weather on the move and the recent rain closing some trails in the Midwest, the end of the mountain bike season is in sight. What another great year! This week's final report includes a recap from our featured rider, Jenna Rinehart, who wrapped up the Life Time Grand Prix series down Bentonville competing in the Big Sugar Classic, as well as a recap from Twin Cities rider Joel Lafrance who competed in the fifty miler. Awards from the Minnesota Cycling Association, a preview of the last big mountain bike race in the Midwest, the Iceman Cometh, and an upcoming ribbon cutting for Phase 2 of the Trek Trails complete this week's report. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the reports this year!

Life Time Big Sugar Classic

The Lifetime Grand Prix made its final stop in the cycling nirvana community of Bentonville, AR for the Big Sugar Classic where Jenna Rinehart would have her best placing in the series, standing on the podium for the Life Time riders. I checked in with Rinehart for one final time to get the rundown on the race and thoughts looking ahead to next year:

Congrats on the excellent placing and overall finish in the LTGP series! I bet you have to feel super accomplished on the race and season?

Thanks Jay! It was such a good feeling to finish on a high note with my best result in the series. I felt really good out there and had so much fun racing the course. It definitely leaves me with good motivation going into the off season. This season has blown away my expectations in both my performance and enjoyment for the opportunity to race at this level again.

At the start of the Big Sugar (Credit: Wil Matthews)

How did the race unfold?

As soon as we hit the gravel I made sure to stick near the front and was riding the more technical descents really well. Katarzyna Niewiadoma and Sofia Villafane got a little gap on us. Then I found myself with Sara Zoey Sturm chasing and a gap on the rest of the field. All of a sudden Sarah and I found ourselves at the front when Sofia and Kasia took a wrong turn. Eventually they caught back up to us along with 4 others and what would be the lead chase group of the day. We rode together past the first aid station. Kasia got a gap on a climb and pulled away. I was cruising along in the group when all of a sudden a large rock got wedged between my frame and rear wheel. I had to pull over and it was so stuck in there it took me a while to get out. This left me chasing but still optimistic. I worked super hard and was able to make it back on to the group again but I noticed my chain was skipping a bit. I was trying to recover when all of sudden my chain fell off. I had to pull over and struggle to get the chain back on as it was jammed in my chain guide. Thankfully I got it working again but was feeling demoralized and thinking I would never catch the group again. I got a lucky break when they overshot a corner heading into the last feed zone at mile 73 and all of a sudden I was back in the game!

For the last 30 miles 5 of us rode together until the last two climbs near the finish. I had burnt a few too many matches and didn’t have anything left to give in those last miles. I’m so proud I never gave up and finished with my best Life Time Grand Prix result of the season with 6th overall and 3rd in the LTGP!

Rinehart racing with the World Champ (Credit: Wil Matthews)

What was it like racing with the World Gravel Champion Niewiadom?

It was super cool to have Kasia in our race. She is such an accomplished rider and having someone like that come over and race the US gravel scene in the World Champs jersey really helps elevate and bring attention to US racing. She was so strong on the climbs and eventually pulled away but I was proud to be able to ride with her for about half the race. It was pretty cool to have a photo of her on my wheel haha!

Was the surface or conditions more challenging in this event compared to other events considering the discipline?

Yes, the gravel around Bentonville is really rough with chunky rocks. It's notorious for shredding tires and causing crashes. It feels a bit like cornering on marbles at times. Equipment choice and skill is key. I think my mountain bike background really helped me with this. I felt pretty good on the downhills and cornering and seemed to sometimes be able to get gaps on others in these spots.

Elbows out during the Big Sugar Classic 60km MTB Race

The weekend before you raced a 100km MTB race? Did you feel this was helpful for racing in the Big Sugar? What were the main takeaways from this race?

I was a little worried about being able to recover in 6 days between the MTB and Gravel events. The mountain bike race was 60 miles of pretty much all single track.and quite a bit of climbing. It's also pretty technical so admittedly I was a little nervous about crashing and getting hurt before the Grand Prix final. But I was excited for the opportunity to race a bunch of single track and against a stacked field with world cup racers and former olympians and to see how I could do. The race went pretty well for me and I had a lot of fun riding with Katerina Nash and Crystal Anthony for the first 45 miles. I faded and made some little mistakes at the end and just missed the last podium spot but overall I was happy with it and glad I gave it a go. I was pretty tired for the next couple days but by the end of the week I was feeling good and ready to race again. I think the VO2 efforts in the mountain bike race were a good tune up for the short punchy VO2 efforts that the Big Sugar gravel course required.

Capping off a great season on the podium (Credit: Wil Matthews)

Now the off season! I can imagine it is hard to believe it is over, but ready for a break?

I don't think it's really hit me yet that the season is over. I've gotten into such a routine this season that it feels a little strange and sad that it's over. The weather seems to be taking a turn this week though so I think I will be very happy to not have to go out in the crappy weather haha. I think my body is definitely ready for a bit of a break and I'm excited to have a little more time to do other activities and just relax a bit more.

Will you plan to compete in the series again next year? If so, I am sure having this experience will be huge going into next year. Will your approach or training be any different or will you stick to a similar plan?

Yes, I signed up this week to do the Grand Prix again for next season. Originally going into this year I thought maybe I would just come back for one season and then be done. But I really ended up enjoying it and had so much fun racing with these fast women. I figured I might as well keep going while I can and I'm still motivated. I think having done all these races now will be super helpful for next year. It took a lot of research and planning to learn the courses and figure out equipment choices. I've learned so much at each race and I'm excited to take what I learned and give it another shot. LifeTime also announced that the pro women will have a separate start for each race next year so I'm really excited for that.

There are definitely a few things I want to work on in my training for next year. I seemed to fade and lose spots at the end of quite a few of these races so I think I need to work on increasing my depth a bit more. These long distances were new for me this year so I'm hoping to work on doing more big days leading into the season. I also need to keep working on my nutrition both on and off the bike and see if I can improve it. The season is super long and it will be important to be careful of burnout. For December and the first part of January hopefully I can mix up the training with some skiing and running depending on conditions and then increase the volume of riding mid to late January and then do a big block in February again.

Anything you wish to add from the event or season?

Be sure to check out the LifeTime Grand Prix YouTube page for some really cool footage of the Big Sugar race and also recaps of the other races this season. They have really stepped up the game of coverage at these races and are working hard to increase the fan base for US off road racing. Also stay tuned for season 2 of The Call of a LifeTime Series coming out in January that recaps all 7 races from this season.

Life Time Grand Prix Website

LaFrance at the Little Sugar

Another Minnesota rider, Joel LaFrance of the Twin Cities area, was one of many riders in Bentonville over MEA break. You could say LaFrance is the King of the Birkie Trail, putting in top performances in all three major events, with a 25th place in the Birkie, 13th place in the Fat Tire Birkie, and 2nd place in the Chequamegon 40 as his top finishes:

Congrats on the podium finish at the Little Big Sugar! How did the race unfold including the start to finish?

It was super fun! This was my second year doing the Big Sugar 50 and it was just as gnarly as the last. There is a pretty sizable field and it starts with a controlled rollout leaving Bentonville's town square. Right after the police escort pulls off, the course immediately dumps into super chunk gravel with a quick descent into a series of corners. For the first 10-15 miles, there was a tight group of 10-15 riders, more than I typically like. I'm typically not a fan of riding in that big of a group, but was even more leery with the squirrelly nature of the gravel down there, so I was concentrated at or near the front keeping the pace up. There were a lot of dicey descents and a few corners that got overcooked, so having a premium choice of line was important. After forty minutes or so, it had whittled down to a pack of 6 or 7 as we settled into a groove. After the first few monster climbs I knew I was in a good position to dictate the pace for the day as I was stringing out the pack on the climbs----grabbing 5-20 second gaps without too much effort but then ceding those on the following descents. At the halfway point aid station in Missouri we were down to 5 guys, but no one was in a mood to consistently share pulls so I was pretty content to just run my own race. After another gear-maxing climb I turned around and had a big gap, with only 1 guy in position to chase. After hitting a pavement connector, he bridged up and we traded pulls on a series of long gravel rollers. The mini-chase group of 3 guys caught us a few miles later. I wasn't watching, but I could tell my HR average was very low comparatively so I knew I had a ceiling to continue to push and whittle. While the group was starting to finally rotate pulls, I was not in a mood for short ones. My goal was to use the final two paved hills in Bentonville to attack, so the final 10 miles I was trying to mirror the pulls of everyone else to conserve a bit, but that was not happening--the cycle just kept getting frustratingly shorter. We dropped one dude and I didn't think there was a valid chase pack, but I still wanted to keep the pace high.

Headed into town, Slaughter Pen hill is the last big monster, and I attacked at the base. I sensed a gap immediately and didn't look back, but 5-10 seconds later two of the guys caught my wheel and then upped the pace. It was a little demoralizing as I was convinced I had the upper hand, but I couldn't give it much more. I matched them up and over the climb and led the time trialing into the last couple miles. More road-biker gamesmanship as we approached a little single track section prior to the last hill up to the finish plateau. We had separation from the fourth chaser, but he was closing as the three of us were looking at each other. Hit the single track hard, and then as soon as we hit the last hill all three of us went. My lungs felt great, but my legs were toast (story of my racing life) and I was convinced it was game over. One of the euro guys was not letting up but the other cracked about 2/3 the way up, giving me a little hope. I kept the gas on, but had no upper end left to match the euro guy. It was a super fun race, the diesel engine was running well, and it was one of those days where you need to rest your eyes after because it was such heads up racing all day.

What were the key components of the race as far as the course?

The super chunk gravel and punchy climbs are what makes the big sugar courses interesting. People warned me last year on the type of gravel, but it's no joke. I ran 38s last year and it was harrowing to say the least and also flatted with 7mi to go. I borrowed a bike this year as my normal Twin Six frame tops out at 38s, and I really wanted to have something in the low 40s. I copycatted Chase's Renehearse 44s, and they were flawless, which was great because I realized in the starting pen that I had forgotten to throw my plugs into the seat bag. The terrain is very similar to the driftless region--punchy climbs sprinkled in, about 3,000' of climbing on the 50mi course.

Was there anything unusual that happened during the race?

Lots of over-cooked turns, a dozen plus dogs, some interesting Arkansas scenery, lots of (harmless) gunshots!

Have you done many gravel events in the past?

I've done a number over the past 5ish years; I really enjoy the vibe of gravel.

What led you to Bentonville area for the weekend? Did you get a chance to mountain bike outside of the race?

We went down there last year with some friends for MEA and had a blast, and we knew we wanted to come back. We headed down again with my brother's family to make a long weekend out of it. We all got in a ton of mountain biking. I was able to get close to a hundred miles of mountain biking in---it was fantastic.

What are your thoughts on Bentonville?

I was there 4 years ago in the spring..it was like a mountain bike nirvana? It's a fantastic bike community. A lot of people have their stereotypes on what Arkansas is (myself included), but it's a great lesson in not judging a book by it's cover. They've built a very bike centered community that also happens to be the home of the Walton family. The biking related infrastructure and investment that has gone into the area is staggering--- think Crosby/Ironton but exponential. From trails to arts to food to walkability, it's a pretty neat place. For mountain biking specifically, it's like if you linked up Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper, and Vail for downhill skiing. A huge amount of variety and something for all skill levels.

Out of all the various events you have competed in from skiing to running to cycling, what is your favorite discipline?

It's hard to pick a favorite, but ironically I'd probably have to say running. It's the one discipline that I think I take the most out of, despite it making up the least amount of racing for me. I love to run out the door and into the trails, to have no route, no agenda, and as a parent it's by far the biggest bang for your fitness buck. Racing wise it's hard to beat nordic; I love that there are so many factors to solve for and that 95% of the time something doesn't go right and that's part of the game. It's fitness, it's a chess match, it's ski and wax choice. But that can be incredibly frustrating too. Nothing beats the variety and freedom of biking though.

You've been a top finisher in the main Birkie Trail events so obviously it is a special place. Is this your favorite race or course for each discipline or is there somewhere else?

The Birkie trails are super special. It's almost always a "wow, I get to play here" vibe everytime I'm up there. The racing community it pulls together is pretty special as well, something that I appreciate more and more with each year being up there for Pre-Birkie, Birkie, Fat Bike Birkie, Cheq, etc. It's hard to pick a favorite course, but it's one of the most special ones for sure.

All smiles on the Birkie Trail

Do you have any other events planned before the ski season? Cyclocross?

No plans, which I'm super excited for! My favorite time of the year is when I get to head outdoors and do whatever sport I feel like doing that day without any agenda. Time is extremely scarce, so it's cathartic to have no agenda. At some point closer to Thanksgiving I'll start thinking about skiing, and gearing up for next season. I plan to race Leadville next summer, so 2024 will likely be my first 'biking-centric' race season, which is something I'm looking forward to. Always trying to find ways to keep it fun and fresh so that it doesn't become too serious--I've made that mistake before. I've found my best results come when the expectations are low and the fun factor is high.

What was your athletic background before getting into skiing and cycling?

I skied nordic and ran cross country in high school. I was very average in CC and hit the podium at state nordic back when they had separate classic, skate, and pursuit races. I made the mistake of not sticking with those sports in college; nordic racing lasted only 1 year at Saint John's in Collegeville before falling off the bandwagon. For the better part of 10+ years I rarely touched a set of skis or a bike. When our middle child Gus was born, I finally got a kick in the pants to start moving my body again. Started with some trail running, found my way back into ski marathons, got a road bike for summer over distance, then into gravel biking, and only recently into mountain biking once my oldest Noah joined the Wayzata mountain bike team.

Minnesota Cycling Association Awards

The Minnesota Cycling Association recently announced its awards for the season. One of the top awards is for head coaches which was won by Ben Olson of the Northwest Composite team this year. Speaking about Ben, the Association posted:

"Ben Olson is a founding member of the Northwest Composite team, aka the Wolves, and has been coaching since 2015. Ben is a dedicated coach for all his athletes and is committed to each of them as individuals. He encourages everyone, not just the high performers. Not only are the athletes inspired, the Wolves have a team culture including all coaches, athletes and families that is exemplary for the MCA."

Minnesota Cycling Association Website

Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh concludes the mountain bike season for many riders training and racing until November. The weather can always be a wild card this time of year, adding to the point-to-point challenge. From the races website:

“The Iceman Cometh Challenge is a point-to-point mountain bike race held traditionally on the 1st Saturday of November. Over 5,000 riders from across the country and around the globe converge on Traverse City for 30 miles of fast, fun racing capped off with the biggest party of the season! Supported by Bell’s Brewing, we’ve spent the last three decades supporting active, healthy, and fun mountain biking in northern Michigan.”

Iceman Cometh Challenge Website

Trek Trails Phase 2 Ribbon Cutting

Following last fall's completion of Phase 1 of the Trek Trails development at the Mt. Telemark Village, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation is set to unveil the completed Phase 2 of the trails which began earlier this summer. Weather permitting, they will be taking to the trails at noon on Saturday, October 28th to celebrate the occasion, with food, beverages, and music also being provided.

Keep the wheels moving!

About the author...

Jay Richards maintains a very active lifestyle. He somehow finds time between managing a full-time resort (Maplelag) and bringing up a family of four boys with his wife Jonell, to compete in both mountain bike and a few cross-country ski races. Jay rides for Maplelag Resort, manages the Maplelag mountain bike team and enters his 33rd year of racing and promoting mountain bike races.

Have an event or mountain bike related information to share from the Midwest? Feel free to contact Jay at