May 1, 2014 § 25 Comments
The first time we shared a beer, or rather ten beers, neither of us could drink. I, because I had been on the wagon for the better part of three years. She, because she was five.
It was at a big party put on by her dad. There was the obligatory keg and more than a hundred guests. She had been fascinated by the tapping of the keg and the spew of foam. Her dad had noticed her curiosity. “Romy,” he said when she got too close to the tap, “don’t pour the beer.”
I watched the whole thing from a safe distance and said nothing, but sooner rather than later dad got pulled away by the festivities, leaving me, the teetotaler, to fill up all those red plastic cups. And fill them I did, with Romy watching shyly, but not too shyly, from the edge of the hedge. Pretty soon the drunks, I mean the guests, had as much beer as their cups could handle, and with the arrival of the taco truck they migrated down the hill to cut the bitter beer with an infusion of salt and salsa.
I looked at her and she looked at me. It was just the two of us. “Want some beer?” I said. She nicked her head and came over to the tap.
“How do I do it?” she asked.
I showed her, and we filled up a cup all the way to the top. “Okay,” I said. “Now fill up mine.” She did.
We stood there looking at each other, grinning, and nervously glancing down the hill to see if dad had noticed our shenanigans. He was holding court, though, and it was pretty far away. “Now what?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I said. “I don’t drink beer.”
“Me neither. But it’s fun squirting out from the thingy,” she said.
“Let’s dump it over here,” I suggested, and we committed the ultimate beer sin: we poured out our cups under the hedge.
“Let’s do it again!” she said.
She filled our cups with more beer, and we laughed, looking down the hill, giggling but a shade worried that we’d get discovered. After filling and tossing several more cups, a drunk came up and requested a refill. I obliged.
Much later I went down the hill to pay my respects to the godfather and say goodnight. “Thanks for the party,” I said.
“You have fun?” he asked, eyes twinkling.
“Romy seemed to enjoy herself.”
“Ah, yeah,” I said.
He grinned a knowing grin.
As the years go by
Later that year he moved to North County San Diego. Over the years I’d go down from time to time to ride bikes and drink his beer, having fallen long and hard from that impossibly unstable wagon. Romy would invariably pop in when we were drinking and would want to talk about books. She read everything, remembered everything, talked about everything. I’d call her precocious except she wasn’t “pre.” She was fully informed and alert, and ended up giving me books to read, probably to improve what she’d identified as a seriously deficient intellect.
What I always noticed, though, wasn’t simply the brilliance and the fully formed mind. I noticed her and her dad. Something very profound and warm existed between them, as strong and evident as that day when we’d poured beer on the sly, which hadn’t been on the sly after all. He was all-seeing. She was all-loving. The father and daughter were in harmony with the world and had been from the date of issue.
On Sunday I finished the Belgian Waffle Ride, riding through a puffed-up arch, the scanner notching my time at almost nine hours, and there was nothing on my mind except the thought that I could get off my bike and have a beer. Across the way I saw Romy and her dad. She’d been waiting anxiously at the finish line for him to come through, which he had done, almost two hours before me.
When he got there, the moment was captured in pixels by Kristy Morrow, one of the finest photographers around. It was more than a tired old guy crossing the finish line. It was something far more special than that. I’d tell you what it was, but since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll spare you the extra two thousand in verbiage and let you figure it out for yourself.
Did you know that you can subscribe to “Cycling in the South Bay”? Your donation will go directly to pouring more beer out under the hedge! Plus, everything here is true except for the parts I’ve made up, which is all of it. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. I’ll be glad you did.
April 29, 2014 § 58 Comments
If you rode the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride and your name wasn’t Neil Shirley or Brent Prenzlow, you cracked, entered a very bad place, and either quit or soldiered on to the finish. For some people the destruction happened far from home in the middle of the course on a dogforsaken section of dirt on a miserable and lonely mountaintop. For others it happened the night before at the pre-ride celebration somewhere between beer #5 and tequila shot #3.
For me, it happened during the neutral rollout.
How can something be the “most unique?”
The ride bills itself as the most unique cycling even in America. It’s not the hardest or the longest or the one with the most dirt or the most climbing. Is it unique? Yes. The BWR brings together all the elements of a tough one-day event and lets you make it into a ride or a race, as your legs are capable.
Still, I’ve wondered how something can be more unique than something else. If it’s unique, it’s the only one, right? Aren’t my fingerprints the most unique fingerprints in America?
Set in North County San Diego attended by over 500 riders (three hundred or so of whom managed to finish), and built around a grueling course that includes 12k feet of climbing, 30 miles of dirt, and an endlessly challenging series of undulating roads, the BWR is unquestionably unique. It’s something more than that, though. It’s a lens through which we can personally and vicariously experience amazing intensity of positive emotion.
It’s the happiest ride in America.
And now would someone please define the word “neutral”?
The first 23 miles of the ride, which was broken up into three waves, was designated neutral. When I hear the word “neutral start” I think about a warm-up at conversational pace, so I was surprised to feel the full-leg burn that comes from a 500-watt effort simply to get over the beginning rollers. People were panting, forcing the pedals, and half-sprinting within the first mile.
I’d been placed in the first wave, which contained most of the contenders for overall victory. I wasn’t one of them, having struggled in mid-pack in both my previous BWR cataclysms. I knew that if you weren’t planning to hang with the contenders, the worst thing you could do in the opening miles was to try and hang with them.
The effort of the leaders was so hard in the neutral section that I sat up somewhere around Mile 10 and watched them roll away. In addition to finally coming up with a plan and sticking with it, something else had happened at the beginning of this third edition of the BWR.
The food makes the ride
No matter what anyone says, the food and beer concession that your ride offers is what makes or breaks the experience. This year the pre-ride waffles and post-ride brats were prepared by legendary race chef Gear Grinder, a/k/a Sam Ames and his crew from Bakersfield. I’ve never had better food, or anything close to it, at a cycling event, and that’s not just because they had a bottle of private-label Bowen whiskey distilled in Bakersfield that I sampled the day before. Adding to the ambiance of the event was a fantastic selection of wine donated by Dean Patterson, vinted not far from the site of the ride itself.
This kind of pre-ride power food set the tone for the entire day, because the vendors like Sam and the volunteers who thronged the 134-mile course are what turned a tough day in the saddle into unforgettable fun. We had flashers throughout the course in various costumes as well as what first seemed like a mirage but was in fact, at Mile 115, a group of Hooters girls in bikinis at the top of the Canyon de Oro climb who filled our bottles, handed up cokes, and cheered as if I were a hero rather than a broken down, flailing, salt-and-snot-encrusted old gizzard trying not to tip over.
Watching a morning filled with self-immolation
I was overtaken by the second wave of riders in the middle of the first dirt section, and it was there that countless eager and fierce riders charged by me, intent on getting to the beer line in the shortest time possible. By Mile 45 I was already seeing many of them again with haggard faces, drooping shoulders, and completely fried legs that tried to lift them out of the endless climb up the back side of Bandy Canyon and Hidden Valley.
One guy passed me early on, waved cheerily as if to say “You’re slow!” and then reappeared on the long grind up to Ramona. “How much farther?” he asked, covered in sweat and desperation.
“You’re almost to the top, buddy, keep it up.”
“Thanks!” he said.
“And then after another 90 miles and the actual climbs, you’ll be done!”
The key feature is the dirt
Although none of it is exactly technical by MTB standards, the dirt sections on the BWR are what really break up the field. They come throughout the ride, with the hardest sections baring their fangs in the final 40 miles, and the jarring, pounding, grinding effect of rocks, holes, water crossings, and treacherously deep sand add and add and add to the building exhaustion of the day.
The deep sand pits along the “Sandy Bandyweg” sector was filled with glum riders walking through sand that went up to their ankles, others who stood desperately trying to bang the sand out of their cleats, and riders who simply didn’t know that to get through the deep sand you had to pedal and pedal fast. Whether it was the rock garden at Lake Hodges that had to be taken twice, and where a fall would result in broken bones, deep puncture wounds, and cactus quills, or whether it was the agonizing climb up Fortuna at Mile 113, which then segued to the insane drop down Canyon de Oro, the dirt defined this year’s BWR almost as much as the food.
Putting a happy spin on things
The SPY slogan is “Be Happy,” but it’s not the kind of happiness you achieve by sitting on the couch. Much of the happiness was quirky and ironic, like the beautiful girls in bikinis (did I mention the beautiful girls in bikinis?) atop a nasty climb towards the end of the race, or the “HTFU” signs strategically posted on all the climbs at just the point where your legs were burning and your mind was rebelling, or the tacit admission that even though we all wanted to stand out and be special, even the best among us is simply an ordinary person seeking refuge, or enlightenment, or introspection, or excitement by pedaling a bike.
These things all came together at the end of the ride when SPY CEO Michael Marckx presented awards, and when riders basked in the sunshine drinking fresh, strong, delicious, and cheap craft beer from Stone and Lost Abbey. Smiles and laughter bubbled as much as, or more than, the foam in the cups.
Despite the grins and backslapping, the BWR is an actual bike race for some. The men and women seeking a winner’s jersey, athletes tackling and conquering the route with a prosthetic arm or leg, people trying to do something they’ve never done before, or the wild-eyed riders oblivious to the fun and seeking a slightly higher spot on the leaderboard … all of these people looked for something, and many of them found it.
For me, it was a chance to end up in the beer garden without dying a thousand deaths the final fifty miles. And I did.
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April 26, 2014 § 22 Comments
The bigness of the SPY 2014 Belgian Waffle Ride has almost gotten out of hand, such that it’s having a hard time fitting inside the vast vacuum of even my own head. Most of us are going over the details, endlessly. Will my iPhone battery last? Will my food supplies last? Will my tires last?
And of course, “Will I last?”
But that’s not all. Some have taken to the airwaves to bash the event, a sign that you not only can’t please everyone, but if you do it right, you’ll displease exactly the right people. Others have sneered and point out that THEIR ride is longer, harder, dirtier, more grueling, etc.
And of course there are the daily BWR emails from the organizers that whip you into a frenzy just as soon as you’ve settled down. Don’t forget to set up a Strava account! Don’t forget your Garmin! Don’t change waves! Don’t speed on the dirt descents! Don’t be a wanker!
For some, the pressure gets to be too much, and that’s when the doctor’s notes, the lingering boo-boos, the kiddy soccer matches, the honey-do’s, and the stark reality of “I haven’t been training hard enough” begin to knock riders out of contention before the ride even starts. Yet it does beg the question, “Why in the world are you doing this?”
I wish you’d known Matt McSuccess in his heyday. He was blonde, handsome, quick on the bike, and more filled with smack talk than a heroin wholesaler. But like so many, he walked away from cycling to raise a family, build a career, and live a normal life. We had stayed in touch sporadically over the last thirty years, usually thanks to his willingness to reach out.
As I was riding down San Vicente this morning, the phone rang. I pulled over and answered it. It was Matt. “Hey, man! How are you?” I asked.
“Great!” Then he got straight to the point. “I’m training and racing again. What’s up with you?”
I told him, and we made plans to get together in June, when I’ll be in Houston for a week. He’s going to drive down from Austin and we’ll spend a day enjoying the hell out of some riding and perhaps some beer as well.
His phone call put me in the best of moods. It brought back so many memories, memories of funny things, like the morning he rear-ended a Honda in his giant Suburban in front of the whole gang. He was late for the ride and driving there instead of riding. The Honda driver wasn’t hurt, and we laughed ourselves silly at his mistake.
Sad memories, too, like the passing of Matt’s best friend — and a friend to all of us –Richard Turner. Richard was a great bike racer and talented triathlete whose heart stopped while doing a swim workout.
And of course happy memories, like his marriage to Cheryl in the big Catholic church there on Guadalupe in Austin, right across from campus. These things that we experienced in our youth, all connected somehow to cycling, became memories which, in turn, became part of the fabric of my life. Hearing Matt’s voice brought it all back.
Kids do the darndest things
As I finished my ride, pedaling through Hermosa Beach, I saw Michelle. “Seth!” she yelled. She was standing with a group of about eight kids, none of whom were older than about eleven or twelve.
“Hi, Michelle. What’s up?”
“Do you have a wrench for this?” She pointed to the front fork of one of the bikes. It was a fixie with no brakes, and the wheel was secured with a bolt rather than a quick release.
“You’ll need a crescent wrench,” I said. “I don’t have one.” The kids didn’t know what to do, and they looked lost. One of them had a big backpack that must have weighed thirty pounds. “What’s all the stuff in the pack?” I asked.
The oldest kid swung off his pack and unzipped it. He was carrying a floor pump. “We figured we might need something if we got a flat,” he said.
“Where are you kids coming from?” I asked.
“Compton,” they said.
“That’s a long, long way.”
“Well,” said Michelle. “If you keep going to the pier and go up the hill there’s a bike shop next to the ice cream shop. It’s about a mile from here.”
The kid with the flat looked anxious. “How much are they gonna charge me to fix it?”
“I don’t know,” said Michelle. “Don’t you have any money?”
The kids looked at each other. “We got about three dollars if we put all our money together,” said the one with the flat.
Michelle dug into her jersey pocket and fished out ten dollars. “Here,” she said. “This should get your tire changed.”
The boys all grinned as if something amazing had just happened which, in a way, it had. What had happened is that they had started out on an adventure, and unpredictable things had happened, and by the time they got back home that night they would have stories to tell.
They would have memories, and my guess is that they would be memories of a lifetime, simply because they got up one morning and decided to go ride their bikes.
Since you asked …
Whether it’s Matt and the rear-ender, the nice lady who gave ten bucks to a bunch of kids, or the 136-mile odyssey through North County San Diego on the Belgian Waffle Ride, the thing that makes experience more than an existential pinpoint is the memory of it. Delete the emails if there are too many of them; forget about your gearing and tires; to hell with the fact that you’ll finish in the bottom third if you finish at all.
Do it for the moment, do it for the memory.
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April 25, 2014 § 20 Comments
There are three things that make a course: the route, the weather, and the riders.
The 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride offers up a route like no other. Much has been written about it, and each rider will discover the extraordinary difficulty of this 136-mile torture chamber at his leisure. The weather will likely be dry and cool with a moderate wind.
When it comes to riders, though, most of us will have only a fleeting glance of the strongest participants, as they will storm away in the first wave, never to be seen until the finish. If you are one of the people who is showing up to the BWR in order win a jersey, here’s a snapshot of a few of the people you’ll have to beat.
- Ryan Trebon. Pro cyclocross racer and sponsored SPY rider, former U.S. national champion.
- Neil Shirley. First place finisher in the Belgian Waffle Ride’s 2013 edition, and one of the best professional riders in America.
- Dan Cobley. Don’t let the Cat 3 fool you. He finished fourth last year behind Neil, Thurlow Rogers, and Karl Bordine.
- Brent Prenzlow. He’s an uncategorized “public” rider. He also made mincemeat of virtually the entire field in the inaugural 2012 BWR.
- Phil Tinstman. The best all-around masters racer in America. He time trials, sprints, climbs, and has exceptional off-road skills. Former sprint jersey winner in the 2012 edition. If Neil misses a pedal stroke, Phil’s my pick to win it all.
- Chris DeMarchi. This is Chris’s first BWR, and you can expect that he will ride it with a vengeance. Chris is also one of the best masters racers in America and is teammates with Phil. Look for a one-two combo from these two titans.
- John Abate. Lokalmotor from San Diego, John has the legs and the knowledge of the local roads to be there at the finish.
- Lars Finanger. Unhappily (for us) shipped off to Houston last year, Lars returns to his old stomping grounds where he can be expected to stomp people’s heads in if he’s on form.
- Michael Marckx. Will this be MMX’s year? He knows every inch of the course because he designed it. He’s riding with exceptional speed and strength. Could be awkward if the head honcho wins his own race!
- Ryan Dahl. Truly one of the beasts of North County and always a top finisher at the BWR, in 2013 Ryan earned the hardman jersey for toughest rider on the course.
- Brian Zink. The question mark here is fitness. If Brian is on form, he will storm the field, much as he did in 2012 when he won the hardman jersey, and last year when he finished sixth.
- David Jaeger. Winner of the inaugural BWR in 2012, DJ is currently on fire as evidenced by his podium finish in the state road race. If he carries it over to Sunday, he will be lethal.
- Logan Fiedler. If he hadn’t been felled by a broken elbow earlier this year, Logan would be higher on this list as he’s an excellent climber, skilled in the dirt, and has tremendous endurance.
- Robert Frank. Major Bob placed 16th last year with minimal training. This year he’s scorching, earning 2nd place last weekend at the state road race. Lean, fast, an excellent climber, and equally comfortable on dirt and asphalt, a podium is not out of the question.
Given the fact that over 500 riders have signed up for the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, there will certainly be surprises as well as strong riders who I’m simply unfamiliar with and have omitted out of ignorance. This list, however, should include at least a handful of the top finishers. Game on!
Did you know that you can subscribe to “Cycling in the South Bay”? Your donation will go directly to a masseuse fund that will help me feel better after the BWR! Plus, everything here is true except for the parts I’ve made up, which is all of it. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. I’ll be glad you did.
April 24, 2014 § 10 Comments
I saw that the Belgian Waffle Ride is full. I’m gonna bandit the ride anyway. How can they stop me? The roads are free, right?
There are some excellent ethical and practical reasons not to bandit the ride. First, the ride only exists because of the 500+ people who have paid. So for you to only take from others who have only given is unfair. Second, by failing to properly pay and register for the ride, you are complicating efforts to ensure that the event runs smoothly. Paid police escorts, insurance, and city/county permits depend on having an accurate head count of participants. Third, the ride has been open since February. You had plenty of time to register, and the organizers and other participants should not have to foot the bill for you because you “waffled” about doing the ride. Finally, numerous two-wheeled bouncers will be on the ride, prepared to throw you out on your ass if you try to crash it.
23’s? 25’s? 28’s? Compact, right? 28 in the rear? Or 30? 32 too extreme? ‘Cross bike? Road frame? MTB? Pre-race nutrition? Steak and eggs? Carbs? So many questions …
In a quandary,
I think Nike has a slogan about this.
I signed up for the Belgian Waffle Ride because it sounded like fun. But I’ve been really busy at work and Billy’s soccer games have chewed up my weekends plus date night with Lucille, honey-do’s etc. so I haven’t gotten in much riding hardly any at all in fact. I know that it’s only three days away but I’m thinking some hard hill intervals, try to squeeze in an 80-miler, and a compact crank, maybe a new wheelset so that I can at least finish. Thoughts?
Hard Pushin’ Poppa
There is a massively fortified coastline in Normandy with three German divisions, concertina strewn along the surf line, thousands of pill boxes, land mines, machine-gun emplacements, and heavy aerial bombardment. I’m going to storm it in my underwear with a rowboat and a pea-shooter. Thoughts?
I’m not interested in the Belgian Waffle Ride. You know why? Because you guys are a-holes. Acting like it’s such a big deal, purple jerseys, such a macho ride, only the tough guys finish, blah blah blah. What a joke. You goons will clog up the roads and make motorists hate us even more plus it’s a ripoff I’d never pay money for something I can crash for free. Can’t wait to sneak into the beer garden. HA HA HA!
The fact that the BWR does not appeal to people like you is not a coincidence.
I was gonna do the BWR and had trained like mad, crazy mad. Dude, if you could see my fitness you would be so awed. I was gonna roll with the leaders and drill & grill & totally kill. Been practicing on all the dirt around here, 450-mile weeks, some of my KOM’s are getting Neil Shirley-like fast, yeah, that fast. I was gonna put the hurt on. But I went to see my doctor yesterday and he said I can’t because of this condition I’ve had so I can’t do it. Was so looking forward to doing the thang!
No problem; hope your rash clears up. I’m sure you would have killed it.
I was all excited about the Belgian Waffle Ride until I found out I was put in the third wave, with all the slow wankers and the beginners. Balls!
Cattin’ Up Carl
The administrators provisionally placed you in the first wave as you indicated on your registration that you were a Cat 1 on the road. Before finalizing the waves, they went to USA Cycling to verify that registrants had honestly entered their real category. Under “Cattin’ Up Carl, license number 498029,” here is what they found: Pooodleville Crit, DNF [Cat 5], Snarkton RR, 67th out of 68 [Cat 5], Hocknspit TT, 10th out of 10 [Cat 5], Swampass Circuit Race, 109th out of 109 [Cat 5]. All other events (fifteen total) you were listed as either DNF or DNS. So this year you will not be placed in the first wave, along with the Continental and domestic pros, Cat 1’s, state and national champions. However, they look forward to watching you cat up in 2015.
Regretfully but not really,
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April 18, 2014 § 28 Comments
The big day for the 3rd SPY Belgian Waffle Ride is almost upon us. I did a final recon ride on Tuesday with MMX, who is not used to waiting for slow people, but since he was stuck with me for the balance of the day he ended up having to do a lot of waiting. Usually by the time I crested a climb he would be answering work emails or putting the finishing touches on a complex annual report, but at one point in the ride he got so far ahead that when I passed him he was sound asleep underneath a shade tree. I’ve now done the entire course, and he’s slept through most of it, and I can confirm that it’s doable. Sort of. Here are some details that I hope you will find useful if you’re lining up simply to enjoy the day and be able to brag that you finished. If you’re racing it, or trying to win one of the jerseys, dog help you. I can’t.
- Despite its rugged profile and challenging route, this, the toughest edition yet of the BWR, is completely doable. But you have to avoid going out hard, and you have to avoid pushing it on the climbs, and then, once you hit the midway point, you have to really start saving energy. A good rule of thumb that you can use throughout the ride is to ask yourself, “Am I pushing myself?” If the answer is “Yes,” then throttle back, although by then it’s probably too late.
- If you keep a steady, never-uncomfortable pace, you can expect this to take 8.5 – 9.5 hours. The beer may be gone by the time you finish, and the award ceremony which is scheduled for 5:30 will certainly have concluded, but it will have been worth it because the alternative is a catastrophic collapse somewhere around Black Canyon and perhaps a search-and-rescue party as well. More about that below.
- You won’t have a good idea of how you’re feeling until you summit Black Canyon. It’s a 3-mile dirt climb followed by a 2- or 3-mile dirt descent followed by a 1- or 2-mile dirt climb up to Sutherland Dam followed by another two miles or so of climbing on an asphalt road. This road really is a mother. If you’re in the pack fill category along with me, don’t dare push it up this thing, because even though it’s long and hard, it only marks the halfway point in the ride.
- The worst has been saved for last. After Black Canyon there’s a long easy descent all the way to the Bandyweg sand section. Bandyweg is about five miles long and saps the hell out of you. It’s not technical, just soft enough and narrow enough to keep draining away your precious bodily fluids. Once off the Bandyweg trail you have to climb Bandy Canyon, which is not long or very steep, but at this point in the ride everything feels harder, steeper, tougher.
- The final run-in is where you will have to fire off everything you’ve been hoarding the entire day. You’ll do the Mule Trail in reverse, you’ll climb the Rock Garden in reverse, you’ll climb up out of Lake Hodges, you’ll climb dirt Questhaven, you’ll climb San Elijo, and you’ll really, really, really climb Double Peak with its 20% pitches up to the top of North County San Diego. Putting this much dirt and elevation in the final 30 miles will be the test of whether you husbanded your awesome sauce or squandered it early on, say, in the first 5 miles out along PCH.
- For my final practice run I again set out with three PB&J halves on dense wheat bread. Barbie food won’t get you through this ride. Bring something substantial — ham hocks, for example. Eat steadily and stay hydrated. Chances are it will be hot on the 27th and you don’t want to run out of water halfway up Black Canyon. Another Black Canyon note: TURN RIGHT AT THE BRIDGE. If you bear to the left you will be lost forever in the scorching, desolate hills on a dirt track that goes all the way to Zihuatanejo, or to Saskatchewan. Likewise for Bandyweg, watch for the left turn back up onto the main road or you will descend off into an endless network of dirt horse trails that are patrolled by hungry cougars. Not the lipstick-wearing kind, either.
- Lots of people have asked about tires, and my final setup will be on 28mm Continental touring tires at about 80psi. These performed beautifully. The were thick enough and had enough tread on the sides to grip the sand, and they had a smooth enough center so that it didn’t feel like I was riding on tank tread. There’s no question that a road bike can handle this route, and a sturdy 25mm tire will probably work fine. Where my ‘cross bike made the difference was comfort.
- Celebrate the night before, but don’t over celebrate … unless you want to have a really, really interesting day.
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April 7, 2014 § 20 Comments
It was fun knowing that I’d be doing a partial Belgian Waffle Ride recon with Pablo. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s commitment.”
Two days before the ride, I got the call that so often comes from people who, three weeks before a trip down to North County San Diego, are brimming with enthusiasm and commitment. “Uh, dude, I can’t make it,” he said.
“Yeah, sure.” I was used to it. The only thing I really cared about was the excuse, because I collect them.
“I think I got the sniffles,” he said.
“Sniffles. I been having a little runny nose and my poopies aren’t as firm as usual. I think I’m coming down with a very uncomfy case of the sniffles.”
“Okay,” I said. “Wouldn’t want you to have to wipe snot on your shirt sleeve during the ride. Heal up, pal.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ve got a big box of Puffy Luvvy tissues right next to my bed. Hopefully I can beat this thing.”
“Don’t beat it too hard,” I advised, and hung up.
Riders susceptible to sniffles, soft stool, and diaper rash need not apply
I ended up riding down with Dan and Major Bob, two of the best riders I know. None of us had seen this year’s course, which was supposed to drastically differ from 2013 and 2012 in length, elevation, and difficulty. Especially difficulty. I got up at 4:00 AM and made the drive with foreboding. So many times I’ve wound up in the clutches of the sick fanatics in North County San Diego, and today would be no exception.
As we rolled out from RIDE Cyclery in Encinitas I took note of my fellow travelers, and the feeling of doom deepened. In addition to Cobley and Major Bob and MMX there were Tinstman, Stinger, Abate, Joshes A & G, Andy & Dandy, Tait, the Pilot, Canyon Bob, Boozy from the South Bay, and another dozen or so North County pit bulls. The only riders I was certain not to get dropped by were the secret triple agent from Germany, Jens Nerdenheimer, and Jeff Beeswax.
Thirty miles into the ride less than twenty riders remained. Nerdenheimer and Beeswax dropped me heavily as I struggled up Hidden Valley, preparing for a very long and very lonely and very cracked day in the saddle.
Three and done
What follows is a somewhat serious report on what awaits you in the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, and some very serious advice about how to prepare for it, and some deadly serious advice about what you can expect. I made it through the first three dirt sections before cracking completely somewhere around Mile 28. Here’s how you (and I) can avoid that nasty fate on April 27. More importantly, what follows isn’t for the strongmen and women who are actually trying to finish first or with the fastest riders. It’s for the weak, the unprepared, and those who are way in over their head without even knowing it.
- Bring real food. Keep a couple of Harmony Bars for quick energy boosts, but make your main food arsenal solid food that will stick to your ribs. You will need substantive food throughout the ride. I brought three PB&J sandwiches on wheat bread that was denser than an imploding star, and even though Cobley ate one of them, it was the other two that got me through what ended up as morale-and-leg-shattering 85 miles that covered only three of the numerous dirt sections. As I learned in 2013, it’s a very bad idea to fall for the “yummy waffles” trap prior to riding. Do not eat 24 waffles beforehand, no matter how tempting.
- Run 25mm tires that are the beefiest you can find. Trying to descend the Lake Hodges Rock Garden on regular tires will leave you punctured at best, crashed out at worst. It’s not like last year, where we only came up the Lake Hodges trail; this year we do it both ways and the descent is hairy and fast. I had 38 mm tires and floated over the rocks, but suffered like a dog on the pavement. Phil, Jeff, and Jens were running ‘cross tires and that seemed like the ideal compromise between skinny road tires and super wide ones. Some riders will even be swapping bikes during the ride as it transitions from the first phase of heavy dirt to asphalt.
- Go out easy. I was panting hard before we hit the first dirt section. Every bullet you shoot early on will equate to twenty missing bullets as the ride progresses. Resist the temptation to keep up if your group is going faster than you are, especially on the first dirt sections. A hard effort here will leave you with nothing. This is so important in the beginning because you’re hit with three dirt sections right off the bat, one of which is brutal, the second of which is fast and technical, and the third of which is long and flat. This third section ends and you go immediately up the backside of Bandy Canyon, a super steep, twisting climb about a mile or so in length. Your legs won’t have recovered from the dirt when you hit the climb, and at the top you’ll be gassed only to now be faced with the incredibly long, steep, and arduous 5-mile, endless climb up Hiddn Valley. In other words, even if you take it easy you’re going to be cracked very early on. If you go out hot you’ll be whatever is worse than cracked, with most of the climbing and most of the really hard dirt riding in front of you.
- Whatever gearing you have, it isn’t enough. The first dirt section is a 3-mile climb very early in the ride. It is steep, endless, and will utterly wreck you without the right gearing. The final little kick is so steep that you can’t even think about getting out of the saddle, so if you lack the gears you are in trouble. I had a 36 in the front and a 25 on the rear, and will likely go up to a 28 or a 30 on game day.
- Underinflate your tires rather than overinflate them. The long horse track that we rode last year was firm yesterday due to the rain, but on the day of the ride it will be very sandy and very deep in places. Worse, on the return route we’ll be in a sandpit that goes along for more than five miles. Even after rain it was so soft that it looked like the sandbox on a playground. I didn’t ride it, but could see that there were countless areas where riders are going to get stuck and fall over.
- Shoes — I went with ‘cross shoes and Eggbeater pedals, but everyone else ran road cleats. If you have any questions about how you’ll do in soft, sandy, hilly conditions, go with the MTB configuration rather than road, as your cleats and pedals and shorts will fill with sand if you have to dismount.
- Don’t stop except for water and to pee. The course is so long (136 miles) and so arduous that you’ve got to keep pedaling. There will be endless temptations to get off and rest or catch your breath or buy another box of Puffy Luvvies for your sniffles or even kill yourself, but except for that last one, don’t give in.
- Remember that this isn’t a race except for a handful of riders. For the rest of us mere mortals it’s a hard day on the bike that you hope to finish in enough condition to be able to lay prostrate in the parking lot at the finish, choking on your own vomit.
- Many people have told me that they’ll just “find out what it’s like on the day of the ride” or “no sense knowing too much beforehand.” I think this is a grave mistake. Even if you just do a couple of the dirt sections, you’ll be much better prepared, especially in terms of deciding what equipment to use. And with regard to equipment, make sure it’s all in top running order. Do a trial run to get the kinks out and to find out what parts need adjustment or replacement.
- This combination of road-and-dirt, with the distance and hilly topography, make it unique. If you finish it, you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. If you don’t finish it, you’ll be impressed with yourself after the fact for even having tried.
Getting a tow home
As I was wandering around lost somewhere the eastern hell of San Diego County, grimly realizing that I’d be out for the rest of the day, and even more grimly regretting not having brought my phone and iMap, a rider came whizzing by. It was MMX. He’d had enough and turned around early.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He grinned. “Three weeks of hard training and I’m tired. Hop on.”
The timing was perfect because I was at my most lost. He started mashing into the wind, then looked back. “This headwind we’ve been fighting all day?”
“We’ll be fighting it on the 27th, too.”
“We?” I said, tucked in on his wheel.
Back at Lake Hodges we stopped for water and ran across Jens and Jeff, who were as defeated and crushed as I was. They stared vacantly into the puddles of transmission oil at the service station. “Hey, guys,” said Jens to MMX. “We tried to help Seth but he was so tired and weak that he couldn’t come with us.”
I was finishing up a bottle of coke and my last PB&J sammich. The four of us got on the Lake Hodges dirt trail and stayed together until the water crossing, when I heard a lot of noise behind me and some pitiful cries for help. Then it got silent, and we never saw them again. “I tried to help them,” I said to MMX. “But they were so tired and weak they couldn’t come with me.”
On Del Dios Highway MMX put it in tractor beam mode, hammering the headwind downhill, then really hammering the uphill. I cursed my 38mm tires as he caught and dropped a small group with a dozen or so riders. Once he got tired he began going even faster.
It’s not simply that I didn’t take a pull, putting myself in the early running for a purple jersey … I couldn’t. In fact, it wasn’t until we were back at El Papagayo in Leucadia, surrounded by fish tacos and several foamy pints of Belching Beaver IPA that I was even able to speak.
An hour later Major Bob, Cobley, Craig, and Canyon Bob showed up, which was just in time for me to have a second order of lunch. I probably shouldn’t have had the garlic-and-black-bean soup since the ride home would be in a small enclosed space, but what can I say?
The minute I got home, my day that started at 4:00 AM continued with an evening engagement Chez Starvin’ Marvin, where he poured great quantities of his famous Belgian homemade brew into my glass and stuffed me with barbecue, taters, and banana cream pie. Sometime around midnight I flopped in bed.
Oh, and one other thing about the BWR I forgot to mention: The following day you’ll be looking for the monster truck with the giant studded tires. You know, the one that ran over every bone in your body out there on the course.
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