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 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.