Masochist (n) [mas-uh-kist]: a person who is gratified by pain, degradation, etc., that is self-imposed or imposed by others.
I feel like that word gets thrown around quite a bit in cycling. If you think about it, it works; we’ve all at one point been riding to the point of existential questioning of our life choices, and how we arrived at this event of oxygen deprivation, willingly, no less.
The Belgian Waffle Ride, I suppose, is no different than a host of events in the world that include mileage counts and elevation gain that make ‘normal’ people look at you a little funny. “You’re riding for HOW long?”. It’s fun to share the first few times, but after the 4th or 5th time, you start to question yourself… hmm, am I making the right choices? The short answer is yes, and the long answer is still, yes. Somewhere in the middle the answer is ‘Masochist’.
The BWR was something I’d heard about on the periphery for a couple years as a ride hosted by SPY in North County San Diego, a place I’d lived for about 6 years previous to moving to Marin. Although the ride sounded cool, I never really considered doing it until November of last year.
Just before Thanksgiving I had a hard crash on my road bike, the first I’d had in about 10 years. The crash left me with most of my ribs broken and a fractured hip that made riding all but impossible for a couple months. If you’ve experienced this kind of forced time off the bike, it’s easy to relate to the unrelenting frustration of being sequestered to the sofa while your mates fill social media with tales of long rides spent over the free time during the holiday. Couple that with Strava / Rapha Festive 500 updates every few hours and you’ve got a formula to make any man or woman punch a hole through the wall, only stopping in fear of extending your sequestered status.
Long nights were spent in my garage riding the trainer for 10 minutes at a time until the pain was so excruciating that I’d keel over my bars and wonder if my hip would ever be the same.
During that time on the sofa a friend shared a video of the previous years BWR event with me. During the 15 minutes it took me to watch that video I decided that the BWR would be the perfect event to get my recovery motivation on track, and do some proper training to finish respectably. Long nights were spent in my garage riding the trainer for 10 minutes at a time until the pain was so excruciating that I’d keel over my bars and wonder if my hip would ever be the same. But, as anyone who rides a bike to any extent knows, pain, and working through the pain, is something that comes along with the sport. The pain eventually did subside, and was instead replaced with the familiar pain of burning lungs and my body trying to rid itself of lactic acid, a pain that I’d take any day to the former.
In the weeks leading up to the BWR ride, they taunt you with emails going in to detail of dirt sections, and, essentially, telling you how badly they’re going to suck. While they’re sending these taunts, they don’t actually release the full course until a few days before. Finally, after the month long emails from Spy regarding the event, we received the final course tally: 143.8 miles and 13,709ft of riding, with about a fifth of those miles off road. Damn. Maybe not the most climbing I’d done in a day, but the longest by a few, and given my setback just a few short months before, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.
Preparing for a ride like this is more than just riding. Many miles of dirt, singletrack, bad roads and plenty of climbing meant choosing your gear thoughtfully and carefully. Derek had done the Rouge Roubaix on a Mosaic RT-1 Disc a few weeks before, and I considered asking him to lend me his rig, but after watching the real Roubaix in France, and subsequently seeing (somewhat normal) road going machines churn up the cobbles, I figured riding my Pinarello Dogma F8 was a good chance to put it to a real test of durability. I didn’t set it up much differently than normal; my training wheels (ironically, HED Belgians) were replaced for the lighter, stiffer, and more aero Zipp 404 Firestrikes. My Veloflex 25's were replaced with Vittoria’s Open Pave tire, with a bit more meat and just enough tread to offer some confidence on the downhills. I’d considered inserting some of Fizik’s gel pads underneath my tape, but at the last minute I decided to run as is to get a better idea of how the bike would feel after that many miles.
The day before the ride I tested the bike for the first time with the setup. After riding some dirt sections I adjusted the psi appropriately, but otherwise the bike felt fantastic. I’ve always contended that the F8 is wildly stiffer compared to the 65.1 predecessor, but you’d be surprised at how much the right tires will affect the small bump compliance on even the stiffest frame / wheel setup. After a killer meal of Ragu pasta at Trulli’s in downtown Encinitas, all that was left was a good night sleep and an early wake up call to eat as much as possible before the event started.
I’ve never been a huge fan of attending road races. The general camaraderie prevalent in mountain bike events is usually replaced with grimaces, stares, and the occasional overheard shit-talker, all of which has had me heading back to Downieville year after year to partake in a proper cycling event that revolves around just having, well, fun. However, the BWR was a different vibe from the moment I rolled up to the parking lot. The usual nervous faces were replaced by somewhat sympathetic gestures for the fellow rider, all knowing that if we were going to conquer what was ahead of us, we might as well do it with a smile. Shit, even the guy at the Rapha trailer making espressos for a bunch of half-awake cyclists seemed pretty stoked and happy to be there. Maybe not quite Downieville, but by far the closet thing I’ve found to it that’s a ‘road’ event.
The BWR has steadily grown in attendance over the years; 180 in year 1, 365 in year 2, capped at 500 in year 3, and I believe with the addition of the Wafer ride this year, the final tally was well over the thousand mark. Due to the number of riders, we were sent in waves: P 1/2 up front, all women in the second, 3/4's in the third, and the wafer riders bringing up the rear.
Luckily I was able to start with Todd Morton, a long time friend and former employee of AC, not to mention about 6’1” and 135lbs of pure climbing crusher. As we rolled out from the start we enjoyed the police escort through the first 18 or so miles, free to pass through stop signs and red lights at will, with Todd and I sitting on the front for a good portion of those… happily, I might add.
At mile 18, and at the end of a 5-minute climb that jolts your legs awake, you take a sharp right onto the first dirt of the day. Not unlike a section of cobbles in any race, there was a mad dash to get to the front before that first section and with good reason; sitting maybe 10th wheel, there was the inevitable crash in front of me that split the field firmly in two. Part of me wanted to remember that we still had 120 miles to ride, and that catching back on wouldn’t be that hard considering what lie ahead, but at that same moment I remembered a quote from the initial video I watched on the event with the rider proclaiming how “seriously hard it was from the first dirt section on”. He was right.
After making my way through the first, relatively short singletrack, it was an all out battle to catch the first group that by this time had swelled to about 15–20 riders. To further the difficulty, the police escort only follows the first group, leaving the rest of the riders to (safely) navigate through stop signs and red lights. While being able to maintain sight to the front group through the next 15 miles, the plan was to stay close enough to catch back on when the group singled up for the next dirt section. On our way to the first real climbing of the day and shorty thereafter, the second major dirt section, we hit a feed, scurrying to grab a bottle and stuff some food into my jersey before our small group blasted back onto the road, still chasing.
Climbing Highland Valley, which is relatively short, was quite enjoyable, albeit hard. I’m not much of a morning rider, so it’s nice to experience the low lying farmland when it still has a morning dew just hovering above the crops and vineyards that cover the landscape. After a quick climb and a quicker descent, we were off to Sandy Bandy, the second dirt section.
In stories and images that’d I’d seen previously, Sandy Bandy looked, well, not fun at all. Deep sand coupled with skinny tires makes forward movement rather difficult. This year, it seems, we lucked out from the rain in the area just a few days before which made for a fast, fun little singletrack paralleling some awesome agricultural farms. Unfortunately, somewhere along the twists, turns, and bumps of the singletrack I lost one of my bottles. I had to choose between losing my group and fighting the wind alone while I stopped to find water, or keep going with the off chance someone would have some extra fluids for me.
The next mile though the San Pasqual valley and over San Pasqual grade were a blur. My legs felt good, my bike still felt amazing, and we’d started to catch some people again, forming a group that worked decently well together. At Mile 55ish we hit cougar pass, which is a two-mile climb on sand and gravel that has a mellow gradient. This was the kind of thing I was hoping for; new roads that I hadn’t yet ridden, and that slight sense of adventure to dull some of the pain in my legs. At the top I finally found some more water in a handoff, being without for a good 30+ minutes already.
From the top of Cougar it was full gas, mostly downhill, back to The Lost Abby Brewery where we started. This would be the end of the ride for the Wafer riders, and the beginning of our second lap. After pounding a Coke, some banana, and replenishing my liquids I headed out for the second and harder of the two laps.
I’d again lose a bottle through this section, which during my nutrient deprived state made me long for King cages and 24oz bottles.
The course ran a similar route for the first 15 miles, then double backed on itself so we could start mile 85 on some more singletrack. I’d say about 80% of mile 85–100 was dirt, making our way through the mountain bike trails of Lake Hodges and again, Highland valley. I’d again lose a bottle through this section, which during my nutrient deprived state made me long for King cages and 24oz bottles. Next year, I suppose.
Mile 100–113 I was with a good group still pushing a good pace, despite starting to feel the last 5+ hours of riding. At mile 113 we hit another dirt section, which was actually quite invigorating, though it did require a good amount of energy to make it through. Once we hit the road again I knew my body was giving up. Around mile 120, I just faded back and accepted that my body no longer wanted to ingest gels and Clif bars.
120 through 140 took me on some familiar roads that I traveled often while living in San Diego, which made it easier knowing what still lie ahead of me. What I wasn’t expecting, and had completely forgotten about was the ‘Oasis’ at mile 130, with bikini clad girls offering you the drink of your choice, whether it be water, sports drink, coke, or a martini. I was shelled enough to appreciate the novelty of it all, grab a coke, and quickly forget that it was there. A rather fitting name, oasis.
The miles that remained were what most considered the hardest. After making your way past the oasis on terrible dirt roads, you reluctantly take a right at the top of the climb and descend for a few minutes to the bottom of Elfin Forest. From the bottom, you climb up Questhaven, which is primarily dirt, and then continue up to double peak, which hits a gradient of over 25% at mile 136.
After double peak it was mostly downhill, though this year they did throw in an extra dirt section on the descent to keep you on your toes. I crossed the finish line with a smile 7:49 riding minutes later, finding Michelle (my wife) and Todd, already cleaned up and dressed after being done for over 20 minutes.
I was dehydrated and probably under nourished, but my body felt good, my bike was still running perfectly, and it didn’t feel like I’d been jarred around all day. Chad’s recommendation of setup was spot on, and I’d made it through that course without a single flat or mechanical. In all, an awesome day and a worthy reason to eat anything I desired for the remainder of it.
The Spy Belgian Waffle Ride is something I’d recommend to anyone. Even if you’re not up for the whole Waffle, the Wafer looked plenty fun by itself.
If you’re preparing for this type of ride and have any questions, drop us a line. Whether it be conditioning, bike setup, nutrition (to a point), or just general questions, we'd be happy to help to point you in the right direction.
Until next year…