The 2023 Life Time Grand Prix showcased seven of the top gravel and XC marathon races in the U.S. Seventy athletes, 35 men and 35 women, were selected to compete for the overall series and a $250,000 purse. Among the elite group of men in this year’s series were Australian Brendan Johnston and American Cole Paton, both representing Giant as part of the new “Ultra Privateers” squad.
The overall rankings were on the line at the final event, Big Sugar Gravel presented by Mazda. The rugged 104-mile route took riders through the Ozark Mountains in Northwest Arkansas and Missouri, challenging them with rough gravel, water crossings, and close to 7000 feet of climbing.
Johnston and Paton were racing on their Revolt Advanced Pro bikes with CADEX AR 35 WheelSystems. Both also wore the Giant Rev Pro helmet for Big Sugar and throughout the Life Time series. At the end of a season of tough battles on gravel and XC terrain, both of the Giant riders came into the final round in prime position among the contenders.
Johnston was riding a wave of momentum following stellar performances at two major recent U.S. gravel races. He won the Belgian Waffle Ride Utah in August, and then finished second at Belgian Waffle Ride Kansas earlier this month. With those two podiums to his name, the Australian was a marked man at the Life Time series final.
A punctured tire at mile 20 put Johnston in a tough position at Big Sugar, but he was able to claw back and put himself in contention for the finish. The tire damage forced him to stop again and make more repairs in the final hour, but once again he refused to quit.
Fighting his way back to the front, Johnston got into the final group of 10 that fought for the win. In the end, he finished a close second to Norwegian Torbjorn Andre Røed in a sprint. Because Røed is not competing in the Life Time Grand Prix series, Johnston earned first place among the series competitors.
“I’m thrilled with my day out in Bentonville for Big Sugar,” Johnston said. “My season has been trending upwards since the midpoint of the year and this was my peak. I’m proud of myself for being able to fight back from two flat tires. I was just barely beaten in the sprint, coming second in the race and first in the Grand Prix.”
The win moved Johnston up to a final series ranking of seventh overall. “Huge thanks to our whole team and the Giant collective for making the fight at the front possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, Paton was also fighting for a top overall placing in the series. The Washington native has had a terrific year, excelling in the XC races in particular. He came into the finals with three third-place finishes: at the Sea Otter Classic, Leadville 100 and Chequamegon MTB Festival.
Paton was again in the mix at Big Sugar, battling for the points. In the end, he finished fifth, just 4 seconds behind Røed’s winning time of 4:53:38.
“I had a great finish to the season with a fifth place at Big Sugar, securing my third place overall in the Life Time series,” Paton said.
Paton raced Big Sugar on this Revolt Advanced Pro, choosing to run the flip chip in the long position for a longer wheelbase and clearance for 2.2-inch wide mountain bike tires to handle the chunky gravel of Bentonville.
“Using the flip chip to make that adjustment with the larger tires was a big advantage on this course," Paton said. "My goal was to ride with confidence and apply pressure through all the technical sections and it worked, keeping me safely in the lead group all day. I jumped a little early in the finish line sprint and couldn’t quite hold them off, but I’m proud to have executed on the day and finish off what’s been a very consistent season.”