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.
Your subscription to the blog will help me buy better tires for the 2104 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride! Plus, it’s filled with useful information and is completely true in every particular 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.
March 28, 2013 § 17 Comments
After the forty-seventh person sidled up to me and asked, “So, why’d you kill the blog?” I decided that an explanation was in order. Speculation and gossip always trump reality, and I heard some good faux explanations. My top three faves:
1. You’ve been sued, right?
2. Someone powerful is very angry at you, huh?
3. You ran out of [expletive] to write, didn’t you?
I did in fact run out, but not out of [expletive] to write. I ran out of time.
I had always told myself and anyone who asked that this blog only took up “An hour a day, max, and often not even that.” That much was true as far as the writing was concerned. I type quickly, and compose as I type.
But the planning and thinking that preceded each post, and the mental exhaustion that set in after each topic went live meant that the true toll was much more than an hour. I’d need multiple martinis after each posting, which was a huge problem as I’ve been sober for over three years now, give or take a couple of beers.
My work flow was disastrous. As soon as an idea occurred to me, or a funny thing happened on the road, I had to write it down and couldn’t rest ’til the job was done. That was partly practical. I have great difficulty holding onto ideas, and if I don’t sit down and whack ‘em out they go away, never to be found again. Sure, there are notepads and voice recorders and all kinds of ways to memorialize ideas, but none of them worked well whistling down Latigo at 40 mph, and if I sat at the desk and began notating, the notes would turn into full-blown posts. Boom. Day shot.
I also had self-imposed deadlines. My two readers were eager for the latest burnt offering, and they would let me know it. Being the kind of guy who likes to please everyone and who can’t stand it when people are unhappy, and having a day job that is all about deadlines and time limits, I fell into the manic state of “gotta blog now,” and somehow maintained it for a very long time. Note: More than a week was a “very long time.”
As much of a relief as it has been not to blog, it’s been frustrating, too. Hundreds of great topics have slipped away never to be recaptured, things that could potentially change our lives forever, like the big group ride on PCH where countless riders were almost taken down by a gigantic, glistening, pink self-pleasuring device that had been abandoned on the side of the road.
What was the story of that device? How got it there? From whence did it come (so to speak)? Wherefore wert it cast aside?
Quality stuff, right?
Although the blog is now baaaaack, it’s not really ever coming back. I’ve limited myself to twenty minutes a day. It’s amazing how long it takes to finish something when you’ve only got twenty minutes to work on it. I’ve also instituted a new policy: Henceforth I will actually read what I’ve written before hitting “publish.” The simple act of reading something through in its completed state was a revelation, not unlike hearing your own voice on tape for the first time. “I sound like THAT?”
In this case, however, it was “I wrote THAT? What was I thinking?”
So that’s the best explanation I can give. What follows is what you’d expect: A preview of the 2013 Belgian Waffle Ride. What else?
Ignorance is bliss until April 7 rolls around
Despite the exhortations of the ride’s founder and the chirpalong “Uh-huh!” of those who have test ridden the 2013 version of the Belgian Waffle Ride’s newest course, only a handful of riders showed up two weekends ago to check out the entire route. This was a shame, because although it was a vicious and brutal day that left the handful of finishers completely shot, it was also the last opportunity before April 7 to experience the final course under fast conditions.
Here’s the take home for those who are somehow going to drag themselves to the start line (Patrick, Gerald, Ted…read carefully!):
1. A few short miles into the ride, and still in the “neutral” zone, the route takes a right off El Camino Real onto Kelly Drive. This immediately leads to a massive wall, which is short but so steep that the field will summarily be reduced from 100 or 150 to 50 riders or less. Maybe much less. There may be opportunities to regroup owing to traffic signals, but the wrong combination of stoplights will effectively separate you from the lead group forever when the pace lights up over this “neutral”-ly grueling hill.
2. Shortly after this monster there will be another wall that starts out as a moderate climb and quickly becomes a “grab for your biggest rear cog.” Panic will ensue, as those who have not pre-ridden the course realize that the ride hasn’t even begun and they’re riding at their limit. How many bullets left in the magazine with 120 miles to go?
3. At the 22-mile mark there is the first feed zone. Do you need food now? You’re doomed. This is where those who are still in the main pack of 50 or so riders will race by the feed zone and leap off the edge of the bike path. Yes, leap. All the funsies officially end here, and the first King of the Dirt segment begins. Sit back in the saddle as you plunge off the ledge or you will endo. There’s some more soft sand, a ditch, and then a long, firm, dirt/grass section where the ‘crossers will go ape. It’s inconceivable that more than twenty or thirty riders will survive this selection. The numbers will reduce further at the end of the trail, where you’ll have to dismount, throw your bike over your shoulder, and clatter up a sheer rock embankment in your roadie shoes to get atop the path again. If you haven’t crashed, flatted, been dropped, or given up, count yourself lucky, or a contender, or not very smart.
4. Covered in your first fine film of dust, you’ll get a breather on the smooth asphalt of the bike path, but it won’t last for more than a couple of minutes. You’ll next encounter some fancy 180-turns, a curb-hop, and a launch onto a really nasty gravel section. It goes on for a couple of miles, and if you don’t thread the beaten section of the gravel you’ll be out amongst the large, loose, gravelly chunks, where crashing, flats, crashing, flats, crashing, flats, and losing control will send you off onto the embankment studded with massive, sharp paving stones, and from there into the river. Make sure you’ve got good tires and girded loins and a life preserver. You’ll need ‘em.
5. At the end of this section the pre-final selection has been made. It will be a small group. A little pavement, a swig from the bottle, a deep breath, and folks will be looking around to see who’s left. It will be a select group. There will be a few minutes of peace punctuated by a sprint, after which you’ll ascend the next piece of unpaved road. This is about a mile long and will be the third section in the KOD calculations. If there are any stragglers here who should have been kicked out the back earlier on, they will exit stage rear now. You’ll be thoroughly lathered.
6. At the bottom of the short descent you’ll enter what is a killingly hard part of the course. There’s a short climb followed by miles and miles of rollers. The worst ones come in a series of three, with the longest the last. It will punish you beyond belief, and will take a complete effort to stay with the group. You’ll then hit another long series of undulating ups and downs, none particularly hard, but each one will reduce your arsenal, almost unnoticeably, until you have to stand up and pedal. This is a great time to quit kidding yourself if you’re with the main bunch. Sit up and be ready to spend the rest of the day enjoying the ride and focusing on getting through it. Let the heroes go do their thing. You’re no hero; you don’t even have a thing.
7. If you’ve let your ephemeral fitness fake you into hanging with the group, you’ll eventually wind up on a long grade that goes one endless mile up Old Highway 395 to Rainbow. It will destroy you, because someone in the group will take the opportunity to attack or at least keep the pressure on. If you get over this, the only thing that awaits now is hell. Your reward for perseverance will be a huge serving of catastrophe.
8. There will be a long, undulating run-in through Rice Canyon Rd. that has a couple of short kickers but ends in a glorious, balls-out descent of almost 3.5 miles, railing through shaded, twisting turns that would be beautiful if you weren’t so terrified of clipping a wheel and going down, or cooking a turn and becoming a hood ornament to oncoming traffic. Gather yourself, don’t pedal any more than is necessary, and get ready for the end of the ride, which is much nearer than you think.
9. Couser Canyon climb isn’t very long; only about 2.8 miles with two or three really steep sections. If you’ve been play-acting on LA County climbs like Grandview or Ganado, in theory this one is a piece of cake. You’ll find, however, that this cake is laced with razor blades, which in turn are spiked with cyanide and served on a radioactive plate. All those punchy rollers you’ve been doing the past 60 miles? They come home to roost HERE. You will cross the peak utterly broken, wondering what the hell happened, and screaming at yourself that you can’t believe you wasted so much energy so early on. That’s right. The ride isn’t even halfway over, and all the hard stuff starts now. If you had given up at the very beginning and rolled at an easy pace until the top of this climb, you’d still have your work cut out for you. But you didn’t. You hammered and followed wheels and tried to fake out physics. Mother nature? She still doesn’t like it when you try to fool her.
10. A punishing series of rollers ensue. The Lilac-Wilkes-Sierra climbs take the softening up that’s been administered so far and turn it into a numbing, grinding, slogging struggle just to surmount each roller. Punctuated with terrifying, half-paved descents that require a perfect line to avoid flatting or crashing out, this next few miles will leave you drained and defeated. Which means, of course, that it will be relentless misery from here on out.
11. A quick turn takes you onto the next King of the Dirt section. It’s long, it takes the fastest and best riders three minutes minimum to complete, and it takes the flailers three times that long. Recent rains have left the dirt soft and sandy, which is shorthand for “prepare to do a lot of walking and/or tipping over.” The initial drop into the creekbed has been the site of frames splitting in half and of riders careening off into the barbed wire, where they’ve been shredded to ribbons. The road alternates between navigable and “Thank Dog I brought my 28,” as short pitches rise up almost vertically and are surfaced with loose sand interspersed with terrible potholes. The end is a steep paved climb.
12. By now you’ve been completely subdued, and the thought of finishing is the only thing on your mind. What’s left is so awful that all you need to know is this: Bandy Canyon, Lake Hodges Rock Garden, Questhaven, and Double Peak. This fearsome foursome packs the worst of the BWR into the final 30 miles, not even counting the awful climb from the rock garden back up to Del Dios: Vicious climbs, precarious dirt roads, and the numbing effect of 130 miles and close to 11,000 feet of climbing.
This year’s ride will be even harder because of the sheer number of participants. In addition to the well-known hammerheads, riders from Europe, Canada, and other far-flung hinterlands (even Texas) have registered for this epic beatdown, throwdown, and throw-up. So eat big the night before, and eat big the night before that, and eat big the night before the night before, and pack down as many eggs and waffles as you can on the morning of the big ride.
See you in the infirmary. Over and out.