November 11, 2019 § 1 Comment
There is no injunction more deeply carved for a bicyclist than this one: thou shalt not ride on the freeway.
But there I was, 115-ish miles in, 80-ish to go, launching down the on-ramp for Interstate 5 at Oceanside, destination Los Angeles. The Marine Corps doesn’t easily let you ride through Camp Pendleton anymore, so if you don’t have a special pass to ride through the base, CalTrans allows you to make the seven miles from Oceanside to Las Pulgas on the freeway.
It is fun, getting passed by 18-wheelers doing 75. However, I had a huge tailwind, most of the freeway was gently downhill, the shoulder was mostly clean, and there was tons of space between me and the traffic.
When I pulled off the freeway to continue along the bike path, heart still pounding, it was as if I’d been dropped off into a cocoon of silence. The path was empty, the day was well on its way to ending, and I still had a big chunk of riding to get home, notching what would be just under a 200-mile day.
The biggest part of the day, though, was the Peter Sagan Gran Roadie-Oh, a 90-mile fondo starring none other than … Peter Sagan.
As Dandy said while we were waiting to roll out, “Gonna be a lot of jock sniffing today.”
To which I said, “Thank dog I’ve got a big nose.”
I could tell you about this epic grand fondue which creator MMX has gone to great pains to NOT call a grand fondue. I could tell you about the start, which was exactly like a ProTour road race in its intensity + Cat 4s.
I could tell you about the bicycle falling off incident in Cousar Canyon, where the leaders all looked like they’d been victims at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre but only had road rash and a broken collarbone.
I could tell you about the VIP Event I wasn’t at or about the amazing night hosted by Bill Walton which I also wasn’t at or bowling with Sags, which I also wasn’t at.
I could tell you about the food, which was amazing, the venue, which was amazing-er, the studly moto antics of Ryan Dahl and Phil Tinstman, or the celeb photo shoot by Brian Hodes.
I could tell you about the perfect weather, the exciting vibe, the immaculate course, or even about Fortress Sags, where PS was holed up in a giant mobile luxury apartment bus in between autograph signings and selfies with fans.
Or I could tell you about getting shelled early, chasing all day, and finally catching the Sags group at a rest stop where they’d been filing their nails and translating War and Peace into Slovak.
I could tell you about riding with Sags and chatting with him for a good 20 minutes, about how his English is better than my Slovak, about his secret tips for how to become a champion masters racer, about his hometown of Zilina (where I almost went once), and about how he pulled over to the side of the road and took a whizz, not to mention getting dropped on the last climb up San Elijo.
And of course I could tell you about riding PCH home on Sunday night and the charms of bumper-to-bumper traffic from Dana Point to Huntington Beach.
But I won’t.
What I’m going to tell you about is excellence, the excellence that was on display at this event, and how it all came from mind to execution by Michael Marckx. It seems like only yesterday, when in fact it was 2012, that Michael left LA for San Diego. He got there unknown and not especially respected–such was (is?) the clannishness of the San Diego roadie scene.
A mere eight years later, he has indelibly branded “MMX” on road cycling in San Diego, in California, and I’d venture to say, in the U.S. What it took to partner up with Sagan on a few months’ notice, pull together the permits, and devise events to make it a three-day show are all impressive. Yet none of those things is as impressive as the vision, because vision is the yin to execution’s yang.
As with every other driven, high-performing mind, working in tandem with Michael isn’t easy, and I’m being nice. This makes it all the more extraordinary, because the team of people who made the event happen couldn’t have been more diverse in temperament, from happy volunteers, to grim number-crunchers, to exhausted t-shirt sales people, to Shelby Reynolds, who personally registered 59,285 people and did every single one with a smile while answering questions like, “Will there be a place to pee?” and “Can I have an xtra small t-shirt with an XXL collar?”
I could go on but should probably focus my admiration instead on the real proof of Michael’s genius: Sags was damned happy with the event. Like any other superstar, he’s been promised the moon often enough to rightly expect stinky cheese when the deliverables roll in. Can anyone say Tinkoff?
But this event really set a standard. Like every course MMX will ever design, this one, a pure-roadie only course, even had one tiny section of sand. You can put the boy in the bathtub, but you can’t get the grit out of his jockstrap. And the course was something that only Michael could’ve designed, calling upon what is unquestionably the most detailed, intricate knowledge of North County roads that any cyclist has ever had. Michael knows the roads turn by turn, how they affect the flow of a ride, where they provide vistas, where they plunge into tree-lined country lanes, where they are conducive to sprints, how much climb is too much, and how to leave you beat to shit at the end even if you just tried to “chill.”
You could tell how happy people were at every stage of the event. Unlike many grand fondues, populated by dour and vaguely dissatisfied old fellows grumbling over the entry fee and contents of the swag bag, the post-ride luncheon was like one big happy party. People got their money’s worth, and more importantly, they got their ride’s worth.
Whether they got their Sags groupie photo by hanging out at the bus, snapping it at one of the parties, or whether they did it the ultimate way, sucking the wheel of the greatest rider of his generation, you couldn’t help feeling like YOU’D gotten a tiny slice of getting to hang with a bona-fide superstar.
And it happened because Michael made it happen.
I asked Sags if he was coming back next year, and he said he would like to, which I suppose is Sags-speak for “it depends.” After this event he was flying to Cartagena for his second big fondo, in Colombia. “After I retire from racing I will have more time for these,” he said. Of course I am already circling the month of November for next year. Knowing Michael, the 2020 event will exceed 2019 by orders of magnitude.
And as for Sags having more time in the future? Maybe. When you’re personable, popular, and able to piss on the side of the road into the lens of 30 cameras, you might find out that in retirement you’re even more popular than you were in your prime, Peter.
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May 6, 2019 § 26 Comments
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the nice man asked.
“What a strange question,” I thought, lying peacefully on the pavement, swimming in and out of semi-consciousness. “Oh, yeah, man, thanks. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” his wife asked. They bent over me as my eyes came into focus. My helmet was off and all I could feel was the beautiful sensation of not having to move. No pedaling. No jarring. No falling. Just me and the luscious, sweet, soft cement.
I considered their offer. On the one hand, I really did want a ride. On the other hand, I desperately wanted a ride. What do do? “Are you guys driving back to Lost Abbey?”
“Yes,” said the woman. “But we’re not going directly there. We’re following our son, who is also doing the BWR.”
“Also?” I wondered. “Does she mean that I’m doing the BWR, too? Oh, yeah, me. BWR. I’m a participant, too.” My brain couldn’t hold one single thought for more than a couple of seconds.
Mr. 4.75 Milan-San Remo
Two nights before I was having a beautiful evening on the showroom floor of Canyon Bicycles in Carlsbad. It is an amazing place, stuffed full as it is with beautiful bikes all shrieking “BUY ME NOW!” The showroom is state of the art, by which I mean they have an espresso machine, but on Friday evening we were eating a delicious catered meal, not drinking coffee, and listening to BWR Godfather Michael Marckx describe the intricacies of the course.
Before it had gotten underway Michael had come up and introduced a friend. “This is Erik,” he said.
“Hi, Erik,” I said.
“Erik’s son just won a stage in the Tour of Yorkshire yesterday,” he said.
I looked at Erik again. “Congratulations,” I said. “That’s awesome.”
“Thank you,” he answered.
After a few more seconds I put the face to all of the photos I’d seen over the years; it was none other than Eric Zabel, the four-time winner of MSR, or rather the 4.75-time winner as I like to call him, counting the time he threw his hands up in the air and got nipped at the line by Oscar Freire.
Erik works for Canyon and had come to San Diego to do his second Belgian Wafer Ride, as well as take the pulse of riders in the Tour of California in preparation for Tour selection in July. In addition to Erik, Pro Tour rider Peter Stetina was also there, along with riders like Ted King, Phil Gaimon, Brian McCulloch, and a host of other pros who were racing the BWR for its significant prize purse. By the time the evening had finished there were so many good vibes and so much happiness floating around that it seemed as if I’d already successfully finished my fifth waffle ride.
Was it even necessary for me to show up?
My BWR prep had gone perfectly, at least in the category that matters most, the excuse prep category. I hadn’t trained for it. I’d been sick and in bed for the last ten days and had lost ten pounds. My mind was a mess due to ongoing personal drama. The last time I’d ridden off road was when I did the Wafer in 2018. In a fit of insanity I had replaced my knobby ‘cross tires with 28mm road slicks. I had decided to use road shoes and pedals instead of my ‘cross pedals. In other words, my excuse game was strong.
I had been placed in the first wave of riders, which included 310 Pro/Cat 1/Cat 2 racers plus me and Alain Mazer. We looked at each other as we bunched for the start. Alan is one of five riders who has completed (now) all eight Waffles. “How’s your prep this year?” I asked.
“Doubled my mileage from last year,” he smirked.
“How many is that?”
“I’m up to 340 total miles for 2019.” He slapped his belly and grinned.
“It’s going to start out hot,” I said.
“Yes, but as for me, no matches will be burned.”
I knew what he meant. He was going to set the throttle at “finish” and plod his way over 11 or 12 hours to the end. No heroics for him. He was old. He was slow. And he was smart.
Ready, set, sprint
My advice for anyone who plans to do the BWR in the future is this: You better be able to race an all-out, 100% effort for eleven miles before the real race starts, because it’s eleven miles to the first dirt section, and the riders literally race for it. I was gasping trying to hang onto the end, wondering why? Why was I not simply burning matches, but throwing the entire matchbook into the fire at the beginning of a death ride? Every watt used now would be a hundred watts at mile 120, when the ride became truly difficult.
No matter, I’ve been racing too long to sit up when the group hammers, and so I figured I’d cross the bridge of collapse when, not if, I came to it. I’d been here before.
We hit the first dirt section and it was chaos as ten riders bolted up the trail and 300 got off their bikes and waited their turn to enter the single track. One dude dropped his shorts and began taking a huge dump in the weeds.
“Nerves?” someone shouted at him.
“Not anymore!” he said.
Everyone shuddered at what his chamois situation was going to be like for the next 8-9 hours, and worse, anyone unlucky enough to have to sit his wheel.
I waited my turn and struggled up Lemontwistenberg, the line of riders clumping, then breaking apart, then clumping again. By the time I crested the top I was alone and I started to wonder when I’d get overtaken by Wave 2 and another 300+ mad dirt maniacs. Plus, I was exhausted already and my poor tire choice, combined with terrible dirt skills, had already come close to sending me off the edge of the trail and down the mountainside.
“Well,” I thought, “at least I’ve only got 123 miles to go.”
The watering hole
By the time I hit the Lake Hodges trail, the mixed mass of waves 2 and 3 overtook me, long lines of riders screaming “On your left!” as I timidly tried to find a line and give them space to blow by without hooking my bars.
At the bottom of the trail is a low water crossing and it looked like a watering hole on the Serengeti, with more than a hundred people clopping around in the mud, falling off in the water, or timidly trying to figure out how to cross without wetting their socks. I picked the far right mud line and shot through, for the first time all morning feeling confident and good.
And the last.
More dirt followed and hundreds more riders flew by until we dumped out onto Hidden Valley, a murderous 6-mile climb that is mercifully on asphalt. Now my road tires worked wonders and I began passing countless of the riders who had passed me earlier. After the climb I fell in with a guy named Colin Carrington who motored the entire way into Ramona, joining up with a group of about 25. I sat at the back and enjoyed the draft. “This isn’t going to be so bad,” I lied to myself. “It’s going to be over pretty soon,” I lied to myself. “The BWR isn’t as hard as I remembered,” I lied to myself.
We reached the aid station at the bottom of Black Canyon, a 6-mile brutal dirt climb that is thankfully on hard-packed, well-graded dirt. I blew through the aid station while the mortals and weaklings stopped. “Water and food,” I sneered, “what a joke.”
Fear and loathing in North County
In less than a mile I had slowed to a crawl. Someone had forgotten that the road was supposed to be hard packed; instead it was a deep sand pit–no problem for everyone with tubeless gravel tires, no problem for everyone with mad dirt skills, but a massive problem for me, who had neither.
My tires slid and twisted and there was no good line. I was knotted atop my bike like a fist, but that was nothing compared to the descent, which my knife-sharp, rock-hard tires turned into a free fall. And the riders bombed by me at twice or triple my speed, some with more speed than skill, as one dude fell in front of me, putting his neck immediately in front of my tire.
Fortunately I was going granny slow and steered around his terrified face before stopping. “You okay?” I asked.
He hopped up. “Yeah, man!” and zoomed off, seeking death around perhaps the next curve.
A bit farther another rider was seated on a rock with a broken arm, covered in blood as a CHP moto radioed for the ambulance. I was already stiff and frozen from being in a constant clench of fear. At the end of the dirt there was another aid station, but somehow I wasn’t contemptuous of the water and food anymore, and not simply because all the riders who had stopped earlier had passed me ages ago.
My food prep for the morning had been a cup of coffee and two eggs, all of which had been incinerated in the first 11-mile TT.
The better you feel, the closer the collapse
I got on the asphalt again and fell in with a group of about 20 riders. Suddenly my legs came around. It was magical and I throttled it, shelling rider after rider until there were only four left in our group, the other three unable to take a pull.
“This is odd,” I thought. “Why do I feel so good? How long can it last? How much farther is there to go? Maybe I should slow down?”
We turned off the highway and went through the back side of the dam until we hit more dirt. My companions left me, easily, and so did my legs. By the time I finished the dirt descent all of the riders I’d so gloriously shelled had blown by me forever, which is another truth of the BWR: If you can’t go well on all surface types, you will be miserable.
Out of water I stopped at a VeloFix van and got some drink mix. The VeloFix people saved a bunch of lives yesterday …
Laboring up the deep sandy pitch, barely staying upright, I was passed by Dandy Andy. We chatted. He’d stopped for over an hour to help the guy with the broken arm and still caught me. Confidence builder … then he easily rode away.
After what seemed like twelve hours I reached the end of the dirt climb, descended through more soft dirt terror, and hit another aid station. Nature called. I answered, and I hope to never be as happy and as at peace with the world as the fifteen minutes I sat locked in the little blue can, where everything was quiet, where I didn’t have to pedal, where I could just not move.
Only 35 to go!
That’s what Ken said as I staggered out of the next aid station at the end of the Mule Trail. “You got this!” he said.
I knew I didn’t have it. 35 miles meant another three hours because it was more huge dirt. The Lemontwistenberg sector that had started the madness now, along with the Serengeti Watering Hole, got ridden in reverse along with a horrible rock garden. If you survived that, you still had Questhaven and the monster of Double Peak. Survival wasn’t looking likely as I pedaled away.
On the rock garden section I continually unclipped, and my road shoes made it hard to get out, hard to get in. Every line I chose was the wrong one. My tires had quit pretending. I was now cursing out loud and going so slowly that at times I was barely faster than a walk.
Then I noticed that my bike was tilting to the right. No matter what I did, it tilted to the right. How as that even possible. And my glasses weren’t working properly anymore because everything was doubling up. I made a note to get new glasses, and at one point I got off and actually checked my bike to see if it was really leaning to the right.
I caught myself. “Bikes don’t ‘lean’ to one side or another, Seth.”
The reverse section of Lemontwistenberg has a steep wall punctuated with sharp, large rocks, and I fell, slowly and heavily, on my right hip. I lay there, eagerly awaiting the pain to hit from my shattered femur, because as much as I knew I would hate breaking my hip, it was far preferable to continuing even another foot forward on this miserable bike ride.
A guy came by. “You’re hurt,” he said.
I didn’t say anything, hoping the pain from the broken leg would kick in.
“Can you move?” he asked.
“Let me see,” I said.
He helped me get unclipped and to my horror I hadn’t broken anything. A scuff and a bruise and now I had to continue.
Another mile on I passed a big wall of vegetation on the right. “I bet at least one idiot has ridden off into that today,” I mused. At that instant my front tire hit a patch of loose gravel and I shot off into the bushes, ass in the air, just as a group of twenty riders pedaled by. No one said a word. I lay face first in the shrubbery, breathing in the smell of the fresh green leaves and the thorns in my side. Heaven.
A long time later I finished the tailwind section on Del Dios Highway and made the left-hander that would take me to Elfin Forest and then Questhaven. That’s when I spied the nice lady whose husband gave me some water and who was now looking over me, asking if I wanted a ride.
I knew that even though it would be awesome to quit, I’d have to sit in their van while they followed their successful son, cheering him for his perseverance and for not being a quitter as I said in the back, quitting all over again at every stop.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
They drove off and I pondered what I had really meant by “fine.” “Dead,” I thought. “What I meant was ‘I’ll be dead.'”
I lay on the soft cement for another few minutes and remounted. Less than a quarter mile later I rode over a nail and got my first ever BWR flat, to go along with the slow leaks I had going in my right and left legs. I cursed some more and started changing the flat. Riders passed and no one made eye contact. It was so late in the ride, people were so drained, and the end was so near-yet-far that no one even pretended to care.
“Sucks to be you, you non-tubeless wanker,” they must have thought.
In mid-multi-syllabic curse a red car with a bike rack drove by. I flagged the guy down. I was done. “Can I get a lift?” I pleaded.
“Sure. Where to?”
“Lost Abbey Brewing.”
“Yeah, of course. We’re actually driving by there.”
The guy and his wife, Jason and Rebecca, listened appreciatively as I rehearsed my well-prepped list of excuses. “Well, you did good getting as far as you did,” he said.
I thought about that for a second. The ride was over. I hadn’t broken anything. No one gave two broken fucks about whether I finished or not.
Maybe he was right.
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April 23, 2019 Comments Off on BWR: To tubeless or not to tubeless?
Hi, Wanky Dude!
I am doing my first ever Belgian Waffle Ride in a couple of weeks and am super excited about it. I like waffles and I like riding and Belgians are okay as long as they bathe occasionally, so this seems like the perfect ride for me.
Question–what kind of tires should I run? Thinking about switching to tubeless but I’m not sure it’s expensive, new wheelset and everything and I’m pretty handy changing a flat, so with your extensive BWR experience what do you recommend? Tubeless really seem to be the way to go here.
Lots of first-time BWR-ers ask this question because it diverts from the real question, which is, “How much have you actually been training?” when we know the answer is “Hardly at all but I’ve been spending a lot of time on the chat forums and Amazon.”
Essentially for you it won’t matter what kind of tire you “run” because you are doomed to DNF and are in fact a pretty solid candidate to DNS. Tires don’t have anything to do with the Belgian Waffle Ride. They don’t matter at all.
Incredible as that may sound, let me give you a brief history of bicycle tires. They used to be made of leather before they were “improved” into iron. Yeah, you read that right. The first velocipedes had spoked wooden hoops covered with iron on the outside, and the roads, if they had any paving at all, were cobblestones. And the bikes weighed 70-80 pounds or more. And the cyclists rode them for a lot farther over lots harder ground than sunny San Diego in May.
Progress being progress, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, which allowed ingenious people who didn’t like having their bones shattered every time the pedals went ’round to put a thin solid layer of rubber around the steel wheel. Mind you, there was no air inside the rubber. It was just hard fucking rubber and miserable beyond words but quite a bit less miserable than steel. Migraines, yes, stress fractures, fewer.
During those days, when the penny-farthing was the only game in town and people rode hundreds, then thousands of miles on roads so horrible you can scarcely imagine, cyclists didn’t worry about their “tires.” What they worried about were “headers,” where you tumble off the front of the penny-farthing head-first and get a permanent brain injury or a spot of death.
Eventually John Dunlop came up with a bike tire in 1887 that was inflatable by using an inner tube. Everyone agreed then, and has agreed ever since, that a cushiony inner tube beats all hell out of iron tires and brain injuries.
My point is not that you are kind of a whiny, spoiled wuss for nattering about your tires, which you clearly are. My point is that the word “tire” is an abbreviation for the word “attire.” Yes, back in the day the “tire” attired the bare wheel. It was a kind of froofy dress-up thing, like guys with plucked eyebrows. Frivolous but hey you are in L.A. and so I guess it’s okay.
This is kind of the same thing with your question about what tire to attire your BWR wheels with. Since you are a froofy kind of person, I’d go with whatever is froofiest, which is probably tubeless, a thing that pairs well with chicken, Bearnaise sauce, and words like “brainless,” “gutless,” and my favorite for BWR first-timers, “hopeless.”
On the other hand, if you want to do the BWR in the spirit with which it was created, you should consider attiring your wheels with leather or iron. You will not get far but people will GTF out of your way when you come screaming down the Lake Hodges rock garden on leather tires. And when you hit Lemontwistenberg with those iron hoops you will not need to hop the curb because your tire will smash the cement into sand.
So to sum up, tubeless for froof, leather/iron for hard people.
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April 14, 2019 § 2 Comments
It is hard to keep going.
The road doesn’t always seem like it’s going to end.
And when it does, the finish may be … not good.
Some people keep pushing while others fall by the wayside. It’s not a matter of superiority. Often it is simply a matter of being unable to quit. Always, it is a kind of perverse doggedness, seen by some as an attribute, by others as a foul curse.
The slog started in 2012, in an industrial parking lot in Carlsbad, California. How it finished and all that stuff, who started, who quit, who purple-carded, that has all been catalogued somewhere and mostly forgotten.
But in 2019 the slog continues, still rolling out from an industrial parking lot, but now accompanied by well over a thousand riders and the extraordinary infrastructure and planning that it takes to launch the annual Belgian Waffle Ride. Most people rightly think that the ride is the slog. Those who have completed it know that “slog” understates it by orders of magnitude. Those who have won it stay mostly silent. The beating speaks for itself.
The bigger slog, though, is the focus, dedication, and sense of purpose that have driven the ride’s progenitor, Michael Marckx, to keep pounding on. Because the moment each year’s production ends, the next year’s begins.
The gran fondo world is a competitive one. Iconic rides such as Levi’s Gran Fondo once sold all 7,000 spots in a matter of hours. Today that same ride is not much larger than most others, and smaller than many.
The Belgian Waffle Ride, however, continues to attract, year in and year out, well over a thousand riders–and more than the numbers, the breadth and the depth of the event continue to grow. Tour de France riders, current professional road racers, international caliber ‘cross racers, and local talent of the highest order fill out the fast end of the BWR’s ranks every single year.
Why? Because the BWR’s course, which changes every year, can’t simply be cobbled together by looking at a map and “going out and doing it.” It’s a ride where an overarching plan backed with coordination by local, county, and state agencies is the backbone upon which the event is hung.
People who want to combine the speed of road riding with the rough-and-tumble battery of sand, rocks, and lots of dirt know that this is the only ride in America where you can get all of that plus well over 12,000 feet of climbing in a marked, supported, turnkey adventure. And it really is an adventure in the true sense of the word: You have no idea how it’s going to end.
This is all by design, because the one thing that Michael has hewed closely to in every single edition of the BWR is that it will be like no other day you spend on the bike, even if you do it every single year. The difficulty, the changing course, and the variations in your own preparation will leave you spent–hopefully intact, but you do sign a waiver.
Slogging your way through eight years of vision to consistently produce a better event is its own kind of mania, especially when you consider that the BWR is executed by a tiny handful of people supported by a vast staff of volunteers. Leaving aside the difficulties of obtaining permits, some of which in past years came through on the eve of the event, and forgetting the vagaries of weather which can be catastrophic, putting together something of this scope means dealing with an infinity of details, not to mention personalities.
Why the singular focus? I’ve never asked Michael, but I’ve ridden with him enough to know that the BWR reflects his approach to cycling. Don’t take the easy way. Don’t tap out when it’s grim. Do your part.
The BWR is as far from the easy way as you can get. Tapping out is of course up to you. And when the ride fractures into grupettos early on, some will do their part and some will sit in for as long as they can. Yet the DNA of the ride is one of a slog, some fast, some less so, and some riders wrapping it up long after the sun has set.
After years of watching the BWR issue forth and then issue forth again, I can also say that it reflects Michael’s obsession with quality. It’s not enough to have a good ride where things mostly go right. The ideal is almost like one of Plato’s forms, an idealization of “ride” in which reality partakes of the ideal to obtain its identity.
Each year is a new attempt to reach perfection, to deliver something better, harder, more challenging, yet still more satisfying than the thing that went before. The willingness to slog is more common than we recognize and the annual BWR roster proves it. But the willingness to slog coupled with the drive to slog in perfection … that is a rare, rare thing, and it’s the ethos of this ride.
July 29, 2018 § 8 Comments
I finished my 2-week intensive German course at the Vienna branch of the Goethe Institut on Friday. It’s hard to compare courses because I’ve never taken one before. On the whole it was really good and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to dive into German for a couple of weeks while enjoying an amazing European city.
The program has 4.5 hours a day of classroom instruction, which is a lot, by which I mean completely draining and exhausting. But the lessons are only part of the program. The other half of it, or more, are the daily events and tours arranged on your behalf. This is where you really get to put into practice all of the things you’ve been doing wrong in the classroom.
If you were to do the entire program from tip to tail, it would be a 12-hour day most days, because the events continue into the evening. As with most things in my life, I wasn’t really able to take full advantage of all that was on offer because, bike riding. It is really hard impossible to do a 7-hour beatdown, then class, then attend a Stammtisch. Oh, well.
For many of the other students you could probably replace “bike riding” with “massive consumption of alcohol.”
Goethe Institut v. Belgian Waffle Ride
The easiest way for a cyclist to understand anything is to compare it to cycling. In this case, the 50-hour course of advanced German approximated the BWR. So if you’re considering something like the Goethe Institut, here is a handy-dandy list that will let you compare, contrast, and do something else.
- Distance: Comparable. 50 hours of intensive German coursework with lots of grammar and 19th Century reading selections is like doing the dirt sections on the BWR … for 140 miles, backwards.
- Pain: Legs empty. Head throbbing. Throat dry from extreme dehydration. That’s how it feels to listen to a presentation in German on “Hydroelectric Power in the Swiss Alps.”
- Cost: BWR, about $150 for 8-12 hours. Goethe Institute, about $950 for approximately 120 hours.
- Sense of accomplishment: BWR gives you a t-shirt that says “Participant.” Goethe Institut gives you a certificate that says “Participant.” Neither organization is about to call you awesome just because you gave them money.
- Gewgaws: BWR gives you a bag filled with gewgaws of varying utility. Goethe Institut gives you a textbook with CD, neither of which you will ever use again.
- Course: BWR is a well thought out, impeccably planned route that includes a lot of pain for everyone and ultimate collapse. Goethe Institut follows a careful plan of helping you realize that mastery of German is within your grasp if you can only live to be 200.
- Food: BWR food is nourishing. Goethe Institut offers you coffee from a vending machine that is better than Starbucks, which isn’t saying much.
- Scenery: BWR scenery is fantastic even though you don’t see any of it. Goethe Institut scenery is world class and you get to see all of it plus panhandling plus as much secondhand smoke as your heart desires.
- Music: BWR offers pop music on the PA. Goethe Institut offers Vienna, e.g. Mozart.
- Comrades: BWR fellow riders are all self-flagellating nutjobs. Intensive German students are, too.
- Sag: BWR has frequent sag stops with pro hydration. Vienna has cappuccino every 100 steps.
- Comrades: BWR riders are mostly Usonian, male, white, middle-aged, and delusional. Goethe Institut students come from all over the world and are of all ages. Also delusional.
- Recovery: BWR, about a month of drooling and aching. Goethe Institut, no recovery required.
- Shame quotient: At the BWR you are only moderately ashamed of sucking because you’re alone most of the time and you can cut the course. At the Goethe Institut you are surrounded by people as you endlessly make a fool of yourself, like telling to the waiter “Pay my bill, please!” instead of asking him for the “Bill, please.”
- Pride quotient: BWR is “I suck but at least I did it.” Goethe Institut is “I may be a dumb American but at least I’m dumb in the local language.”
- Overall awesomeness: You’ll never forget either.
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April 17, 2018 § 10 Comments
The Belgian Waffle Ride has changed. When it began in 2012, you had to do it because you were invited, and only 150 or so select idiots got the nod. In those days of yore, the BWR was all about punishment, on the bike and off. Select enforcers were given “purple cards” that they handed out to cheaters, course-cutters, even paceline shirkers who refused to take a pull. The cards were emblazoned with the face of The Cannibal, under which was the slogan “Eddy Don’t Want No Freddies.”
At the end of the ride, three riders below all others were singled out and publicly humiliated for having accrued too many purple cards or for having committed supremely egregious purple infractions. The losers got a purple jersey and a matching pair of purple SPY sunglasses customized for the event.
The following year people were allowed sign up, and there was a fierce vetting of supplicants as riders were sent off depending on their racing category. Racers who lied about their categories (all vigorously cross-checked on USAC) got demoted to the last wave, from whence there was no hope of much advancement. More purple cards were handed out and purple behavior was scorned.
By 2014 the Belgian Waffle Ride had become a legend, kind of like the Tower of London, where the good and the bad, the lucky and the accursed, the innocent and the guilty, were sentenced to ride. It seemed as if everyone in North County San Diego and the South Bay/West Side of Los Angeles was there. As a cult ride, the BWR would reach its apogee in this year. It was brutal beyond belief, each year harder and longer than the one before, and fierce disapprobation rained down from above onto the hapless heads of those who were too weak, too cowardly, and too purple to be worthy of the moniker “Waffler.”
Time waits for no ride
By 2015, the year I completed my fourth and final Waffle, I was flat fucking done. The route had become so grueling that no person, regardless how crazy, could seriously consider re-upping for a fifth consecutive ride in 2016. In fact, by the time this year’s edition came bellying up onto the beach, maw open and fangs bared, less than five riders lined up with perfect Waffle records: Giants like Dan Cobley, Andy McClure, Logan Fiedler, and Neil Shirley are to my knowledge the only riders to have finished all seven Waffles without cutting the course. Even the ride’s creator and high priest, Michael Marckx, ended his streak at five Waffles.
But though the ride peaked as a cult event, and only the Cobleys, McClures, and Fiedlers earned the title of hardest of the hard, the BWR morphed into a kinder, gentler, unspeakable horror fest of some of the best riding you will ever do anywhere. And that’s about the time I decided to have another go but this time to take a smaller bite, to have a shot this time at the Wafer.
For some reason I thought that 8,000 feet and 70 miles of riding, 40 of which were off-road, would be a relaxing day on the bike. For some reason I thought that if I gave up all delusions and simply pedaled to finish, it would be fun. For some reason I had forgotten who had dreamed this thing up.
No training needed
Since it was just the Wafer and not the Waffle, why train? I was already fit and going well, and I also had a new Giant TCX with knobby tires and disc brakes. This should be a piece of cake, especially since some of the nightmare off-road sections such as the Oasis had been shelved. This would be the first Belgian I’d done where I actually knew all of the roads.
Not too expert with the through-bolt thing, I put on my front wheel and rode to the start. Sam Ames and his killer crew at Gear Grinder mobile Bike Grill had already been working 24 hours straight to prepare for the operation of feeding 1,000 hungry riders in time to get them out of the starting gate at 7:30. The day before I’d visited the Expo Center and marveled at the Canyon Bikes showroom, unlike any bike showplace I’ve ever seen and stocked to the ceiling with mouth-watering, full carbon bikes, every one of which was made of 100% carbon.
I’d also enjoyed a cup of incredible Blast Radius coffee, the first coffee brewed especially for athletes. Although no one who knows me has ever considered me an athlete, this stuff worked. With a proprietary blend of four bean types and a mild roast to maximize the caffeine, this stuff had me wired in minutes. Perhaps it was the caffeine from Blast Radius that propelled me to the head of the feed line at 5:00 AM pointy-sharp, where I scarfed waffles, syrup, bacon, eggs, and a slice of my own home-baked sourdough multi-grain bread.
Problem was, it was in the low fifties, the sun was nowhere up, and seated as I was in my bib shorts it got fuggin’ cold fuggin’ quick. I hustled over to the car, cranked up the heater, and fell asleep, only to be awoken by Dandy Andy, shivering outside and looking colder than a joke from a 50’s sitcom. “Get in, dude,” I said.
He struggled into the back seat and we covered him with greasy bike blankets. He didn’t care ’bout no grease. He was about to nail down his seventh consecutive Waffle.
With age comes slowness. And wisdom.
This seventh edition of the BWR had a very different flavor to it, I could smell it as I rolled up to the staging area, and it wasn’t from leaky port-o-potties. It was an air of camaraderie, of excitement, of trepidation, but of confidence that somehow it would all work out even though facts pointed to the likelihood that they in fact would not.
There was Bill Pinnell, the only guy to ever finish the Waffle on an Elliptgo, not once, but six straight times if he pulled it off today. In 2016 it took him seventeen hours, and this time he had a couple of other Elliptidiots to keep him company. There was Jim Miller, the voice of the BWR, a guy who had completed his share of Waffles and now was in active retirement, grateful to have an excuse not to mash his manhood into bleeding sores over the roughest roads in North County San Diego.
But there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new faces, a sea of strangers, and they all appeared to have been infected with the best of vibes. People were going to ride, some would cheat, some would cut the course, some would behave in the purplest of ways, but so what? None of it could make a dent in the giant steel bucket of hurt that we were all about to get dunked in.
Except for me. Because I had a plan.
The best laid plans
It’s hard to explain how amazing it is to see more than a thousand riders queued up, ready to go smash themselves senseless for anywhere from four to fourteen hours. Michael Marckx’s vision of a rolling madhouse really has come to pass, and through his efforts he has created an event that brings out the very best side of cycling, and more importantly, the very best side of people. You could feel it everywhere, and not a purple card in sight.
My plan was to start at the back. Dead last. Instead of staging towards the front and spending the day getting passed, I decided to start at the back and spend the day passing others. My mediocre result would be the same, but I wouldn’t have to go out hot, blow up early, and suffer like a dog the second half of the ride. I’d conquer the Waffle by doing the Wafer, and I’d conquer the Wafer by going easy.
In the beginning it looked like my plan was going to work. My steady, no-stress pace put me in front of a couple of hundred riders by the time we hit the first dirt section, a nasty, walled and rocky climb that immediately jerked people up short. Stuck in a long mule train of idiots, we toiled up the wall, and as it descended people began to pass me … like mad.
Tires and egos wildly overinflated, people bounced and flew past in the hurry of an insane asylum doing parachute jumps sans parachutes. If you had brought a small truck you could have started a bike shop with the shit that people unwillingly jettisoned: Water bottles, food, cages, tool bags, pumps, components … someone not only lost a pedal but didn’t even stop until much later when I saw the sadsack hobbling, one-pedaled, out in the grass looking for his Eggbeater.
People flatted everywhere, and that’s when I took secret pleasure in being slow and safe on the descent, but on running my 33mm knobbies at 55 and 50 psi front/back. No matter how fast you go, the other guy goes faster when you double flat. Michael had of course made arrangements for such nonsense, as the course was patrolled by electric repair bikes, by VeloFix mobile bike shop, and by SRAM technical support. It felt like being in the Tour minus the salbutamol.
The Rock Garden
After the first interminable dirt section we hit Del Dios Highway, and although I held to my game plan of “never pedal hard,” I still passed plenty of people … until Lake Hodges.
Michael had given some great pre-ride advice in a short presentation that few of the Wafer riders appeared to have attended. “Go slow to go fast,” he said. This is completely false, of course. The fast riders went so fucking fast it was almost beyond comprehension. They went fast to go fast.
But they also knew how to pick a line, how to corner in the dirt, and had pro-level bike handling skills. For the rest of us, “Go slow to go fast” really meant “You can’t go fast lying in a gurney.” The message was on point: Steady is your friend on the BWR.
But the “Ain’t Got Time For That” crowd didn’t get the memo, and all the people I passed on Del Dios came blitzing by me on Lake Hodges and Rock Garden at speeds only really good riders or really stupid people attempt, and all of the really good riders, all ten of them, had passed by more than an hour earlier.
Desiring to a) not flat b) not bonk c) not crash, I watched them pass. Many I saw minutes later, splayed out in the grass frenziedly trying to change a tire, adjust a derailleur, weld a bottom bracket or replace a diaper, but many were gone, apparently for good.
This was sobering and a bit disappointing. I fancied myself fit. I fancied them idiots. Yet they were plainly much faster and fitter. “Oh, well,” I thought. “The true beauty of cycling is, and has always been, its ego reduction function.”
Imagine my surprise when, 21 miles in, all of the people who had passed me and scores more were huddled around the first grub stop like addicts queued up at a free Oxycontin dispensary. With less than a third of the ride to go, and all of the horrible sections remaining, people looked frazzled beyond words.
I pedaled on, and the riders thinned out. My only near catastrophe was in the Boulder section, when I noticed a funny jiggling sound that had begun miles earlier, as it began to get louder. I glanced at my front fork and saw the end of the through-bolt pointing forward.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “It’s supposed to be pointing backward.” I braked and got off. When putting on the wheel I had failed to tighten the bolt enough and it had worked itself loose over the last fifty miles. It was connected to the fork by less than a half-turn; one more joggle and I would have had a really unforgettable tale to tell from the comfort and safety of the ICU. Jay LaPlante, holler when you need me to work on your bike.
At the halfway mark I had begun pedaling more vigorously, and by the ride’s end I was completely done in, as wrecked as I’d been after finishing any Waffle. The cruel fact of the Wafer is that it is cruel, and if you put your legs into it without the right training you will be beaten into a quivering pulp. As expected, I finished faster than some … slower than others. Many others.
Turn, turn, turn
Back at the start/finish life continued on. The crazy fast riders came in about an hour after I did, doing double the distance in about the same amount of time. Brian McCulloch edged out second place by a bike length, sprinting for the win after 137 miles and 11,000 feet of hell. Happy riders dismounted and realized that the Hell of the North County wasn’t for everybody, but it was for almost everybody who went all in. Michael looked relaxed and happy, as he should have been, having morphed along with his baby, soaking in the good energy and shrugging off the bad.
No purple cards were handed out that I’m aware of, and I could tell by the funny look on people’s faces that they were already plotting for 2019.
I know I am.
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Several of my clubmates from Big Orange also tackled the Wafer, and were kind enough to share their misimpressions.
Tom D.: This year, I decided to do the Wafer ride instead of the Waffle. After completing my first Waffle last year, I was absolutely destroyed. While I felt very accomplished and glad for that experience, I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat it. I also wanted to ride with Joann! I had missed out on the JWR last year due to a surgery and have been neglecting FDR lately, so this was a good chance to make up for all of that. Finally, the reddish off-road sections reminded me of Sedona, and I wanted to see how fun it would be to ride them without worrying about planting my face in the dirt. So, my plan was set. I was going to ride the hard tail MTB that I had bought from Frenchie and putter along with Joann. I would try to hang on during the pavement sections and enjoy myself on the dirt.
First of all, I underestimated the inefficiency of riding 2.3” mountain bike wheels on the road. My “puttering” consisted of pretty solid efforts to hang with the people on road bikes, especially during the flats and descents. I don’t know what the actual figure was, but I felt like I spent about 25% more effort than I would have on my road bike. Also, riding into the wind without being able to really tuck took a toll. Finally, I usually don’t ride my MTB, and when I do, I don’t sit on it for 7 hours. So after about three hours, I started to feel it on my sit bones, and sure enough, by the end of the ride, I got to go home with two lovely saddle sores as a souvenir.
The suffering on the road gave way to bliss once I got onto the dirt. I told Joann that I’d wait for her at the pavement, and sped off. It was so fun to finally let loose through sand and gravel without worrying about crashing. I was enjoying myself immensely until I caught up to the traffic jam of riders falling off their bikes in the single track sections, sapping all momentum and negated all of the benefits of bringing an MTB. Unfortunately, most of the off-road portions were packed dirt, so the MTB didn’t really help all that much. Still, there were at least a couple of sections, particular the ones near the lake, where I got to really put the suspension and plush tires to use. And I sped through Sandy Bandy happy as a clam!
The best part about the ride was how we took our time. It was nice to be able to do the mental math and realize that we’d get back well before 4:00 PM, even if we averaged a meager 10 mph. (In contrast, last year, I was praying to finish before it got dark and hypothermia set in.) I got to chat with the people at the rest stops. I took my time eating and drinking, so I wasn’t bonked to hell with 40 miles to go. I didn’t cramp and got to enjoy the beautiful scenery without my whole body hurting everywhere. Instead of feeling cold and tired and lonely and wondering if I’d die out there, I chit-chatted with Joann, Jody, Alan and Alan #2 (who we adopted as our own and I used shamelessly as a wind block). Instead of collapsing into a chair and staring into nothing, I had a nice meal at the end of the ride and sat and talked with friends.
I once told a friend that the Waffle was so hard, you can’t worry about anyone but yourself if you want to finish. The line between finishing and not is thin, and if you give up some of that margin for someone else, you may need to sacrifice your ride. Not so with the Wafer, and it feels 100x better to give to someone else than to accomplish something for yourself. On the last dirt section, I saw a Subaru Santa Monica rider changing a flat. This guy was about to finish the Waffle in the time it took us to do the Wafer. I stopped and asked if he needed help, and he asked for a CO2 canister. I gave one to him, wished him luck and went on my way. He was very appreciative. I’d like to think I would have stopped even if I were dazed and confused and delirious as I was last year, but seeing how many people passed by him without a word, I’m not sure I would have even seen him in that state.
I’m all for destroying myself and squeezing every ounce of strength out of me from time to time, but this was a lot more enjoyable! Next year, I think I will do the Wafer again, but I’ll probably leave the MTB at home.
Brandon S.: Redemption is an understatement! I went into the BWR after a failure at the JWR. So I wanted to just smash this ride! Got to San Marcos on Saturday around 5 went to the expo and got my packet. I was with my girlfriend who is expecting our first child and her mother lives 20 minutes away so it worked out.
Went out to dinner with all the Orange participants in anticipation of the event. Lots of laughs, anxiety, and anticipation. Talking about shop, gears, and past experiences. Woke up and went to the Start finish ate my waffles and said some prayers🙏. It was a chilly morning and when the wafer wave went off I just hammered. I thought about keeping my heart rate at 150 till double peak (and forgot my heart rate monitor). I just wanted to finish competitively. I hooked up with some riders from Santa Barbara and just smashed the loop at a hearty pace. I was taking a big bite outta the wafer! Got to double peak and just told myself “pedal dammit!” Got to the top looked around and said “ I should have taken 2 scoops of energize”. But going to the finish line I had my arms up like I finished a stage at the Giro! Very pleased with my performance, I put in a lot of work this year to get stronger. The gym at 4am, nite rides, racing, group rides etc. The ride was great. Very well supported and marked well. Definitely gonna be here next year!!! Waffle??????
Jody N.: I had a goal, simply finish the BWR-Wafer. (I wanted the socks!) It started with a discount code and ended with a high speed descent (47 mph my personal record) to cross the finish line. It would not have possible without the support of so many along the way!!
Thank you to the BWR and FDR for offering the discount code. Thank you to Scott, for encouraging me to continue when fear became an obstacle (those BWR email teasers were killing me!) Thanks to Alan and the group that did the CX training ride and thanks to Seth, Abraham, Brandon and the Big Orange family for making me feel so welcome. BIG thanks to Alan, Tom, and Joann for agreeing to stick together!
The course was challenging-rocks, sand, water crossing and climbs, the SAG/rest-stop support was plentiful and the route clearly marked. But best of all: The camaraderie surpassed my expectations. Thanks to everyone for helping me to achieve this goal!
Joann Z.: I told people that I was going to take it slow and take a ton of pictures but what happened was quite the opposite. Well, sort of. I did take it slow but I didn’t take any pictures. I was too focused on not crashing! I was too focused on getting up and down those dirt sections. It was total concentration the whole time! Unlike everyone else who would speed up, slow down, pull over and take picture after picture. I would pass and hey would say, “keep going! Don’t stop!” I’m glad they took photos because I couldn’t. I don’t often feel like people are taking care of ME. It’s usually, I’m watching out for others. I felt really lucky because I had Tom and Alan who I knew were sacrificing their ride for me. Who I knew were there in part for me. When I passed them taking a picture of me, my heart was full of love for them. I felt so lucky, so lucky to have these men in my life.
At mile 62 with double peak in the distance we were about 8 miles and 1600 feet to finish. I told Alan to just go. Come back down and ride with me if he wanted or wait at the top. Yeah. Come back down. Hahahaaa! I almost fell over when he came around the corner. He went up to the top of double peak and came back down to get me. Now how could I not love that man!?!?
It was smooth sailing from then on. We all finished together. I don’t think any of us got off the bike more than twice and there were no crashes or even close calls. We sat around and shared photos, except I had none, talked story and then hit the road. I was tired at the end but not too tired. It took more strength to stay awake in the car and I was asleep before the sun went down. Will I do the BWR next year? I was thinking about the Waffle but then I saw my Strava suffer score. 695! More than double of my highest recorded score. So, probably wafer next year too.
Abraham M.: 2018 Belgium Wafer Ride completed!! Before joining Big O I would scout good Century rides for me to do and I came across the BWR. I would watch videos on YouTube and told myself and my family that I will be doing that ride in about 2-3 years. During that time I was only riding a little over a year and had not yet completed a full century. After joining Big O I noticed a post by Joann Zwagerman, it was a BWR redo. I was responded as soon as I seen it and thought that would be a perfect way to get my feet wet on some dirt and try out the BWR. So I never road dirt, I was nervous when riding my road bike on sand at the beach (all my first falls were on the bike path by the beach). F it lets do this. So I bought a Gravel bike and went to the BWR redo ride in June of 2017. What a disaster it was!! Although I completed the ride (in over 10 hours) I was completely beat up. I told myself I would be back the next year and be ready. Fast forward to 4/15/2018 – I hit the Wafer Ride hard. I started at a chill pace until I got to the first dirt section. Once I got there and saw I wasn’t getting dropped and was actually passing people I was pumped!! Game on, I completed the Wafer in 5Hrs and 17 min. I took minimal stops at sag stations for water and nutrition and kept grinding. I didn’t fall, I didn’t walk my bike and the only time I unclipped was because a rider in front of me stopped (twice). I am super excited and will prepare for the full Waffle next year. Thank you Joann Zwagerman, Brent Davis, Alan S and Brandon Sanchez for riding with me this past year in preparation for the BWR.
Michael W.: Hope everyone had a delightful BWR. Quick show of hands, Who’s ever ridden head-on into a breakaway group of world class cyclists? Well, as of yesterday, I have. Here’s how it happened: I go to pick up my Wafer bib # the morning of the ride, (I paid 20 bucks extra for this) and the guy says they didn’t print enough Wafer numbers. Then he said, no worries, just ride numberless. He gave me a timing chip. I said “What if they pull me out of the ride?” He said no worries ride whatever route you like all you need is the chip. So, at the last second, I opted to do the Waffle (I DNF’d a couple of years ago and it’s always bugged me). As you know, it was a perfect day. Then about mile 40 or so on that long fire road through the canyon, I’m hauling down hill around a blind corner right at the exact moment as the lead breakaway group was hauling ass back on their return leg. FUUUHK! There was no way to avoid them with crashing into a deep rain washed gully along the inside of the turn. I crashed pretty friggin’ hard and scratched my lovely bike pretty bad. The only thing I heard from the lead rider was “Sorry bro!” just before I wiped out. There was no lead car in front of the group to clear a path. I didn’t expect a rider to stop, but no chase car did either. Hopefully my frame’s not cracked. My ass is a little sore, but it could’ve been worse. Only one flat and one minor other crash after that. Even though I may have been the last rider in (it was completely dark) I finished. All that said, I still love this brutal, beautiful ride. I might have hit my head too.
Alan S.: BWR – it was a different perspective for a ride, one because of the amount dirt involved and second the tempo of the ride itself. Riding with JZ gave the opportunity to relish the features of the trails, enjoying the surroundings in a relaxed atmosphere instead of rushing through chasing the person in front of you. It was a visual and yet still physical experience. I had front row seats for JZ’s personal struggles which entertained me the entire ride, and as we approached Double Peak she had my sides hurting from laughing as she shared every negative sentiment she had for climbs, climbing and rides with climbing in it. Hilarious yes but still she mustered the strength and determination required to make it to the top. Excellent stuff indeed.
March 20, 2018 § 2 Comments
I know it’s too late. “The hay is in the barn,” as G$ likes to say. However, you’re still signed up for the BWR, so rather than exhort you to train more, which won’t help, I’ve solicited some advice about the technical aspects of actually riding it.
As a matter of accuracy, the wider the tire, the better for the dirt sections. You can go faster in the dirt with 32mm tires than with 28mm or 25mm, as the skinnier tires don’t float like the wider ones and tend to dig down into the dirt, especially on very loose sand. The problem is that when you get to the road on the wider tires, the rolling resistance becomes an issue… for nearly 100 miles.
In other words, pick your poison. Is it a road ride that you need to be able to ride dirt on? Or is it a dirt ride connected by brief segments of pavement?
After two recon rides thus far for 2018, with many different kinds of riders and bikes, a few patterns have emerged which follow a hallowed trend. The rides start out quickly and everyone seems overly eager to hit it hard, which inevitably comes back to haunt them 50, 60, 80 miles in, when those same enthusiasts are bonking, cramping, seeking a fifth diaper change, or otherwise looking for a shortcut home.
The trick is pacing. Isn’t it always? Yet other things come into play, too. The more comfortable you are in the dirt sections, the more energy you can save for the road. If you are fighting your bike in the sand for extended periods of time, you are burning matches you will need later, matches without which the cigar will never ever get lit.
Eating and drinking are such a key factor, yet people still forget to eat or drink. This is a common phenomenon in racing and affects pros as well a beginners. By the time you’re hungry, you’re being eaten.
Worse, riders lose water bottles in the dirt and then they need to somehow find liquid along the way or make it on their hands and knees to the next anti-death aid station. Having properly functioning cages is something half the people don’t have. Also, people don’t eat or drink in the dirt sections, because… they can’t. Once through the initial couple of dirt sections, riders are now at Mile 26 and haven’t consumer much of anything, and are faced immediately with a 5-mile climb which has some really steep pitches. You put off drinking and then the dehydration leads to dessication and DNF. Waiting too long to eat or drink will have devastating impacts later on, so do both at regular intervals.
Riders also need to be prepared for flats and be ready to fix them on their own despite the event having roving mechanics on the dirt sections and many on-course support vehicles. As many as half the riders will flat, and as many as half will be flummoxed by the physics of tire removal. Another half will not have enough tubes. The final 50% will run out of CO2 cartridges, and the last half will take this as an omen from Dog that they should sag their way back to the start/finish for fresh beer and treats.
Proper gearing is different for everyone, but the BWR is not the time to slap on the 11-23 and “man up.” Many riders fail to have as big a rear cog as they are going to need, and it often means one that you could bake a pizza on. The problem is that when fresh it’s easier to muscle a bigger gear up a steep climb, but once fatigued, injured, starving, dehydrated, bonked, cramping, and delirious, we need more gearing or a motor to negotiate the 20% plus inclines. At the very end, Double Peak hits 23% at its steepest, offering the thrill of victory as you spin up it, or, as in 2017, the ignominy of having to dismount and walk their bikes up a road climb.
One other issue people aren’t prepared for is the fatigue of riding the dirt and braking a lot. Their arms and hands get tired, which can lead to further overall fatigue, or worse, they crash. When you’re considering equipment, if disc brakes are an option, go with them. They will greatly reduce brake fatigue on your hands and allow a much more precise application of braking. This results in less energy wasted getting back up to speed as well.
Lastly, those who are prepared to go it alone mentally and physically are the ones who will have the most rewarding ride, even if that simply means surviving. Being prepared for the last half of the ride going into a headwind is as much mental as it is physical, because you do so much strenuous climbing and dirt riding on the way out and then start descending back to Bandy Canyon, but it’s all into a headwind. Once at Sandy Bandy and every section thereafter until Double Peak is more or less into a headwind. Riders should seek to work with other riders for much of this and not be tempted to leave others behind or get left behind, because riding in a group can save enough matches to get you from the Oasis up the long final ascent to Double Peak.
The Zwartenberg a/k/a Black Canyon
It’s back, and it’s darker and longer than ever for Wafflers. This year it has a unique challenge, the Canyon King of the Canyon Challenge, sponsored by Canyon Bikes. This consists of two sectors’ worth of suffering and it’s basically the entire length of Black Canyon on the way out, which goes up, down, and then a long up. On the way back, once riders get to the bottom of the Sutherland Damberg descent, there is another segment that goes back up and then down the opposite way riders did it earlier in the day on Black Canyon. If a rider doesn’t do well here with pacing, they may not have what it takes to hit the second sector with the same bravado they hit the Canyon on the way out.
Black Canyon comes just after the second feed zone and a lovely respite along a freshly paved road. It is here riders will be confronted with The Zwartenberg—a decidedly dirty 3-mile ascent over washboards, sand and gravel, only made worse by the 2-mile descent after, which requires going down slower than you went going up. To make matters even worse (read: BETTER), at the bottom begins the longest, most big, black and beautiful climb of the day, eleven kilometers of the purest dirt. This climb will take many more than an hour to ascend. Good thing it’s a remarkably pristine place to feel completely alone. Sadly, riders will barely notice anything more than the few feet in front of them.
At the top, riders still have another happy 73 miles to go and the headwind will only get stronger after they reach the summit of this dark and demented segment. This lonely course feature adds the lovely touch of more dirt to the BWR in an emphatic and definitive drop of the guillotine’s blade, helping to make this year’s route dirtier than any before it.
This sector was introduced in 2017, with permission of SDRPT Park Ranger Dave Hekel, and it is one of the most interesting sectors of them all. It barely has any inclines but it has all sorts of rocks and challenges such that every body has to get off and run at some point.
It’s varied terrain runs parallel to Lake Hodges and follows along the western border until it becomes Twistenlemonberg, not to be confused with Lemontwistenberg, which some riders completed on the way out.
Hodgendam starts out after a pleasant but short asphalt section that riders enjoy after the rocky mayhem of Hodgesmeergate. Once on the Hodgendam, it’s easy to see why this is the most unique sector of the event. There are little bridges, banked turns, whoops and jumps. There are a series of tricky little ravines that many will choose to walk through, while some will ride, or try to. Eventually, all must get off and navigate the rocks as though it were a cyclocross race. Many will have to dismount several times along here. It’s okay. Walking is fun!
Once through all of the rockstacles, riders will pass Hernandez Hideaway and get on what really is the only true gravel road of the event, a roughly, and we mean roughly, 3-kilometer sector of big, rocky gravel. You’ll need to find the right line through here and stay on it because the gravel along here is brutal. The beauty of this sector will be lost on you, but if you were to take it all in there is the pristine serenity of the lake to the left and a wonderful woodland-like hill on the right that shouts the existence of Del Dios Hwy. It’s serene but the sound of your wheels grinding through the gravel will dominate your senses, unless thirst is considered a sense, because it’ll be hot with a headwind here.
A signature sector with an augmentation for 2018, this deceivingly diabolical diversion, takes Wafflers and Wafers alike on an unseemly 6-kilometer excursion, eschewing the heavenly smooth and open road along Bandy Canyon. It parallels the beckoning smooth highway on a devilish dirt trail that is mostly, you guessed it, sand. Some would even say quicksand, and its depths will create more separation than the Bandy Weg climb that follows.
This sector is punctuated by a brief stint back on the road, but before that riders get to enjoy a soft single track with plenty of turns to slow everyone down. The initial part is kinda fun, really, if you like that kind of thing. There’s a headwind with the chance to slide out or hit a root and divert into a fence or a tree. Once through the first portion, the road feels weird on your tires, but not for long as the second, more challenging part begins. This section winds its way through a single path that’s usually home to horses. Watch the land mines. It’s twisting and turning is only made worse by the unsuspecting deep sand pockets that can swallow riders whole if they take the wrong line. If you are a spectator, this is like hanging out at the final turn of the hometown crit, where all the crashes happen. Inevitably, riders will crash here, no matter how many times you warn them. When you do fall, make sure to wave your hand for one of the marshals to rescue you. Anyone caught trying to cut the course here will be left to the not-so-swift suffocation only quicksand can provide.
There is a third section on Sandy Bandy that ends with a difficult, rocky descent, before a turn up a nice kicker to the start of the Bandy Weg climb, but not until a forced dismount signals the next level of hell has been reached.
Aside from the above-mentioned challenges, the BWR is a piece of cake once you leave out the 100 or so more miles of brutal sand, dirt, rocks, wind, heat, and asphalt.
Get a good pair of bolt-ons. Bottle cages, I mean.
Remember to drink.
Remember to eat.
And for dog’s sake, leave the 23 at home.
BWR awaits! What can you do in exchange for all this life-saving information and these inside tips? Hint: Get yourself a subscription to Cycling in the South Bay! Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!
March 6, 2018 § 2 Comments
Don’t even think about signing up for the 2018 Belgian Waffle Ride.
Okay, you just thought about it, but it’s still not too late to shelve that thought, and here are the reasons why you really should, no fooling.
- It’s too hard. I’m no connoisseur of cycling difficulty, but the four times I completed this smashfest I was reduced to a crumbling mess of mental and physical goop. Life is better the easier it is and the less you accomplish.
- It’s too long. How long is it? 130 miles? 140? 2,000? I don’t know, but it’s so far that after about mile 50 your brains will be too scrambled to even look at your Garmin, assuming it’s still attached. Be satisfied with your Sunday coffee cruise!!
- No wanking allowed. Because at BWR you get dropped immediately, and even if you aren’t dropped you don’t have a big, fat pack to sit in with, you’re required to do most of the work yourself instead of sitting in at [Name of Your Favorite Sit-in Fest Here]. Sitting = Winning!
- You’re going to ride Roubaix as a member of QuickStep this year anyway. The BWR is essentially a Spring Classic, except there is more climbing in San Diego than in Belgium. Since Patrick already probably has your pro contract in the mail and you’ll be racing the real 2018 Paris-Roubaix (or maybe Flanders?) with Stybar and the guys, there’s no need to do the BWR.
- Combined dirt-pavement rides are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to find a fully supported ride that has more off-road sectors than Paris-Roubaix, interspersed with endless miles of asphalt. Just ask your neighborhood 4-corner crit promoter!
- San Diego in April is a dung-hole. One of the lousiest vacation destinations on earth, every year millions of people fly into San Diego so they can be reminded of how good they have it back in West Bumblefuck.
- You have enough fun in your life already. Who needs a three-day weekend riding, telling lies, eating great food, and hanging out in the epicenter of cycling? There’s plenty of office work you could be doing on the weekend, or chores around the house that simply cannot wait.
- No one likes a dirty bike. After BWR you will have to clean your bike from top to bottom, and if you’d wanted to spend time cleaning your machine you wouldn’t have gotten a ‘cross bike in the first place.
- Facebook. You really don’t need to go to BWR, or anywhere. Just copy and paste and bam! It’s just like you did it yourself, minus the bike cleaning and muscle cramps.
- Life is long. Why do now what you can put off another year, or better yet, ten? You’re getting younger every day!
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January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment
Like the cruel ex you keep crawling back to, the Belgian Waffle Ride rears its ugly head again this April, beckoning you with a crooked finger to come enjoy (enjoy?) a pleasant ride akin to a walk in the park, a park filled with burrs, thorns, stones, chasms, and venomous creatures of every kind. Two years have passed since I last mounted up and completed this beast of a ride, but here I am again, signed up and ready to submit.
Since misery really does love company, you should, too.
In case you’re wondering why, I reached out to people who have completed the BWR in years past, or to their next of kin, and compiled a pretty interesting list of fake quotes to encourage you to pay your money, take your chances, and sop up that feeling of being completely done in as you hang your head over a tall glass of cold Belgian ale, or cold water, or over the rim of the toilet.
They might have said it, but didn’t
John, 2012 finisher: “They say the BWR is the most unique ride in America. I don’t know what that means. Aren’t all rides unique? Bottom line is that this one will kick your ass if you finish and kick it if you don’t.”
Scott, 2012 quitter: “I honestly had no idea what I was in for. Michael invited me, so I did it. I’m sure the scenery was gorgeous but I didn’t really see any of it. It’s hard to see with crossed eyes and blood coming out from your sockets.”
Bill, 2013-2016 finisher: “I’ve done this ride four times and it gets better each time. The course is never the same but it keeps some of the sections from year to year. The more you do it, the better you get at it, but the course always wins out. It’s the high point of my year.”
Joe, 2015 finisher: “It was a walk in the park, but with mines. I broke an axle and had four flats. But I finished. And they didn’t even drink all the beer by the time I got back to the start-finish. Good times!”
Tom, 2014 quitter: “Dumbest ride ever. I hated it.”
Ron, 2014 finisher: “The biggest mistake you can make is to try and race the BWR. Unless you’re an elite roadie and have a realistic shot at a top-ten finish, the best medicine for this bad boy is to keep a steady pace, don’t hop in with any crazy fast groups, and do not stop except for water/hydration. You’ll finish in a reasonable time and won’t feel like you just crossed the Gobi on your knees.”
Anne, 2016 finisher: “The BWR likes to advertise itself as a combination dirt-and-road ride, but it’s really not. The BWR is endless short sections of dirt stitched together by pavement. The pavement lets you just catch your breath enough for the next dirt or sand or rocks or scorpions or whatever, which are relentless. Definitely not a sprint.”
Arthur, 2012, 2014, 2016 finisher: “Doing it every year is a bit much. I don’t know if anyone has ever done all six editions. But I love it!”
Marco, 2017 finisher: “Crazy stupid hard. See you in April!”
Suzanne, 2017 finisher: “I’d like to see more women out there, for sure. It’s not a super technical ride, some people do it on their road bikes. The Wafer is probably better for sane people.”
Charley, 2015-2017 finisher: “The last two years I’ve done the Wafer. It’s harder than any road race you’ll ever do, and you get back before midnight.”
Phillip, 2014, 2017 finisher: “Love the BWR. it’s not just the scenery or the challenging route or the elevation or the hybrid road/off-road terrain, it’s the organization and execution and all the batshit crazy people who are actually happy to be out there.
Wade, 2016, 2017 quitter: “I’ve never finished a BWR. I will this year. And if not, the next.”
Duncan, first timer 2018: “Can’t wait. I’ve heard so much about this ride, it’s legendary. Whether I finish it or not I’m fired up about it.”
Matt, 2017 finisher: “There are lots of bike rides in SoCal, but there’s only one BWR!”
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About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.