While some of the guys were at Gila, Stephen, Roman, and Sam headed to So-Cal to compete in the Belgian Waffle Ride, one of the most competitive/crazy one day gravel races out there. A 134 mile course of road, dirt, single track, sand, and everything in-between (including Tequila handups???) it’s hard to do a race like this and not get cracked open like a nut.
Here’s Stephen’s take on the ride
Belgian waffles come in two types. Brussels (traditionally leavened with ale and/or egg whites, light and airy) and Liège, which is a denser style based on brioche bread dough. If the races reflect the regions of waffles, you have the punchy but fast climbs of the Ardennes classics (Liège) and the heavy, cobbled and dirt tracks a la Flandrian classics (Brussels).
There is only one Belgian Waffle ride, and it's the American Belgian waffle. You don't really know what makes it Belgian, it can be kind of gross (think motel continental breakfast waffles) but also damn delicious, and those that partake are going to be lured into eating too many, hating themselves, but loving it anyway.
Set in the San Diego County foothills, BWR was started in 2012 with a rumored 100 participants, and since has grown to over 1500. A 134 mile course, with 14 sectors of dirt & sand, from fire roads to singletrack, totaling 46 miles, 12k feet of climbing, it has an element of the kooky mixed with incredibly serious. I mean, it's waffle themed and it starts and ends in a brewery. You have WorldTour riders going flat out on bike paths still open to the public on Sunday strolls. Through it’s evolution, it’s become one of the most hotly contested single day races in the “gravel” scene. I was admittedly nervous as hell for it, but equally drawn to the vibe, media, hype and general partying associated with the race. Roman, Sam & I gathered in sunny Del Mar by the beach to enjoy the weekend and destroy ourselves on Cinco De Mayo.
After a mariachi band send off, our wave of maybe 400 people rolled off the start. Quickly, the 11 miles of neutral rollout turned into a hectic affair, with guys of all types trying to assert themselves. It's like they wanted TV time (gotta get on that highlight reel!). It was honestly the most terrifying part of the day, so I rolled to the front on the long downhill leading to the turnaround into the first dirt sector.
Race organization had told us there'd be a U turn marked with cones, easy enough. Psych! This was really the only time where not pre-riding the course bit us, and it bit us hard. Sam and I were at the very front as we approached what quickly looked like just a left hand turn, unmarked without any cones. Nevertheless, we rolled passed it with expectation to see at least a cone or two to circle around. We were found out when we turned around and saw a few hundred riders funneling into a narrow entrance to the singletrack…behind us. I cursed a few different things, and we rode into the mass of slow, clamoring riders, some already walking their bikes.
The next hour was a cross race, full gas. I passed riders, crashes, flat tires with laser focus to get up to where I wanted to be. It worked, I felt completely awesome, but it was only once we'd finally caught up to the front group that I to realize how many matches those efforts burned. I'd been a bit overzealous and raced a harder race than anyone around me yet had, only 25 miles in.
The group remained pretty cagey for a while, as there were a few teams there who animated things with attacks, each reeled in. Justin Oien of Arapahoe Hincapie eventually got up the road with one of the MeteorX-Giordana riders. They put in a few minutes on us, which Stetina was not happy about. He rolled off the front with an eager Marc Pro rider (looking at you, Blake!). This sent the group into high alert and on the rivet as we hit the first major climbs of the day, Black Canyon.
Hanging onto third wheel up the first of the two peaks on the dirt fire road was encouraging. I was sitting behind Eddie Anderson (Axeon Hagens Berman) and Ted King (WorldTour ex-pro, current gravel pro). Sure, my watts per kilo were eye watering and not sustainable, but being naive to the course I figured this was the bigger climb of the section (psyche number two!). We soon crested and dove into the canyon. Things got real as we were on road bikes charging through sand on the side of a cliff. Imagine a roller coaster at full downward tilt, but without any safety gear, with tracks coated with Crisco, and your roller coaster actually only has one track, and you have to balance on that track and not crash into any other roller coasters that may have the balls to pass you. There's also all this heavy sand on the track, so when it levels off just a bit, you have to pedal like hell.
Sam and I dropped a lot of fast guys on the descent, so for a brief second I was feeling pretty awesome. But, I the previous efforts took a lot out of me, and fatigue was setting in. I needed answers. "Sam, how much longer?" I could hear the empathy behind his words. "A lot, at least half of it left". I knew the outcome before they even got up to speed again. I was cracked. Bonked. Off the back. The group dropped me in what felt like the slowest, cruelest way possible. For every 500 meters, they only gapped me by about 10. Many a racer has been there before: seeing where you want to be and still denying any reason why you can't get there. I felt like screaming and suddenly I hated everything about what I was doing, why I was there, what I had done wrong or not well enough compared to those riding away from me. I felt inadequate and defeated, but it was some consolation to see Sam dancing on the pedals away from me, tucked into the middle of the group, with a lot of cards yet to play.
I'll admit my only reason to continue, as I climbed alone in those moments, was the realization I was even more screwed were I to stop. It was a pretty dark 20 minutes. I sure as hell didn't know where I was or how long I was going to wait around for a race vehicle or some sympathetic citizen to pick up a dejected man in spandex. Thankfully, I figured Roman wasn't too far behind, and once back on to the road it was only a few km's before I saw his group of 15 rolling towards me.
Once tucked in with them, I downed some Gu hydration, chews and gels in a desperate plea for energy. Eventually I came back to life and began to contribute. It was still a group of hitters, notably with Eric Marcotte. He's a guy I've considered a legend for a long time. Former US PRO crit and road champion, he'd been a leader on the teams based out of Winston Salem when I lived there and began racing. I'd never actually met him, and I laughed to myself that my first actual ride with him was on this crazy thing. That's a big part of these events, it seems.
We rode smooth for the next 30 miles until we hit the base of the Black Canyon climb. I looked around and realized I'd dropped everybody on a chip-sealed narrow road descent so decided to keep the pace up a bit and settle into my own rhythm.
The not so great thing about this climb back up Black Canyon is that the Wafer (the shorter ride) and slower Waffle riders are still coming down. It's the sandy, loose, twisting track on the side of a cliff we'd come down a few hours earlier. Things were going safely enough until I saw a guy swing wide out of a corner, heading into my path definitely out of control with no recourse to stop. He shoulder checked me and sent me down hard onto my right, so fast that I didn't even put a hand out. I landed with a thud and a sharp pain on my side. I sensed immediately I'd broken a rib (5 days later as I write this, breathing still hurts).
Of course the only thing that mattered was to get back on my bike and catch Marcotte, who'd kept grinding up the hill. The next 30 minutes was a blur of charging through sand and advising oncoming riders to please stay the f#%@ to the right (please).
After some energetic solo time trialing (Gu, you're amazing) I caught back up to Eric. We worked well together and I was glad to have such a skillful wheel to follow the narrow singletrack. Things hurt less and less, and dare I say they got fun.
When it really hit me, probably 110 miles in, I almost started crying. Blame it on the endorphins. I was barreling down a sinuously narrow dirt track, following Marcotte's wheel. Five hours into racing, my body numbed to the jarring fatigue and mind drifted into a space of clarity & calm. I wasn't suffering, I was floating. Labored movements became reflexive, hands light on the bars as I danced and swayed between the rocks hazards studding the trail. That moment on the Black Canyon climb where my sense of self-worth and value was shattered seemed like a lifetime ago.
I laughed to myself with the thought that every single type of ride I'd ever done was, one way or another, shaping my performance on this one. Racing roads of every size, quality and grade. Bombing down city park paths like a kid oblivious to usual etiquette. Diving onto trails so closely resembling the ones I'd been lured onto along the American River Bike Trail in Sacramento, barely older than a toddler, riding my bike newly freed from training wheels. The same trails I'd continue to weave in and out from the bike path on my road bike. Or all those years mountain biking with my dad, sharing an unspoken desire to push each other for the sake of type 2 fun. Getting my shit kicked in in North Carolina cyclocross and mountain bike races, where the local legends showed me time and again what it meant to drive, not ride, your bike. My own drive to stay in the top 10, to ride this culmination of everything I'd learned and knew about riding a bike up to that day, was fresh. My race wasn't to the podium, it was to fulfilling my own affirmation that I belonged in this.
But seeing Sam on the side of the road killed my buzz. We came upon first Colin Strickland, looking like he'd sent it off the trail, and then Sam, working on getting a wheel from the caravan vehicle. I offered up sympathy but knew there was little else I could do as we passed. It was sad realize Sam's bad luck after such a crazy good ride (I learned later that Sam had evaded Colin's crash only to suffer the flat).
Marcotte and I continued on in our steady pursuit. I began to wonder if he was bluffing when he said he was fatiguing. Rule one of bike racing, especially with such good racers, is to be skeptical. He seemed no BS, and I was OK with keeping the pace steady gaining on the top 10.
We entered the last feed zone dubbed "The Oasis", resplendent with costumed fans slapping your butt with dyed powder and offering tequila shots to a background of house music. I just really wanted water, so I pulled a few shots of what was thankfully nonalcoholic drink mix and continued on.
The last big test of the day was Double Peak, as the name implies, two steep road pitches culminating in a few Ks of 12-20%. A front group rider who'd flatted surged up to us and rolled through, so I figured this was a time to kick up the pace as well. I pretended I was gassed and let him pull us for the majority of the climb (bluffing is easy to do when you have 40lbs on a guy). We made it up and over before a twisty singletrack descent back into town. This is where things got a little weird, as the stop lights were all open to traffic. So, after 120 miles of racing, he and sat at a light for a few minutes while an elderly traffic cop took his sweet time pressing the crosswalk.
In the last couple miles I felt the euphoria kick in once again. I'd done it. I didn't care too much how the final played out with this guy I was riding with. I knew I was top 10, I hadn't flatted or had a mechanical, and I'd overcome a stronger desire to quit than I may have ever felt on the bike. I rolled through in 8th, 20 minutes down on the winner, Pete Stetina, but just a handful from the podium. I sat down for a long while, too tired yet to celebrate with the obscene amount of beer and waffles available. Sam and Roman both finished in the top 25, super impressive given what they each had to deal with.
I'm realizing more and more that my ability to endure is a big strength of mine. There's something satisfying about managing yourself through all the crazy elements of a race like BWR, especially when it leads to success from perseverance. I hope to come back to this next year with new goals and also am inspired to add a gravel schedule to my race calendar.
Huge shout out to Matt Adams for supporting TMBEquator in thriving as it does and letting us experience amazing races all over the country, my teammates Sam and Roman for sharing this crazy thing with me (Sam would've been on the podium, I know it) and the people at Specialized for providing these fantastic new Roubaix's for us. This would have been a much different story if I'd been on anything else. The bike is amazing and deserves a story of its own.
Thanks lastly to all who read this, it's about as long as the race was, but who can keep a story like that short? Until next year, BWR. Just thinking about racing you again exhausts me, but I can't wait.