10 Tips To Surviving The 139-mile SPY Belgian Waffle Ride

The first section of dirt from the 2014 BWR through the lens of  Lucas Keenan. Photo: keenan-photo.com

By Neil Shirley

The SPY Belgian Waffle Ride is everything that most cycling events are not. Its course is over-the-top hard and chocked full of dirt sections best suited for a mountain bike. It’s way too many miles, 139 to be exact [updated: the final route is actually 143 miles]. Climbing? Yeah, there’s a bit of climbing too. 11,000 feet of vertical in last year’s event, which is said to be “easier” than the 2015 route. And it’s because of all those things that BWR has grown from an invite-only club event, to its current form as one of the most anticipated non-sanctioned events on the calendar in just a few years time.

BWR is San Diego’s version of the Tour of Flanders, Paris Roubaix, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege all rolled into one. The start isn’t too far from the easy-riding Pacific Coast Highway, yet the route heads due east into much more rugged terrain than what the scenic beaches have to offer. For 2015 the BWR will be held on April 26th, just on the heels of the European Classics; and, for the first time, a shorter version called the “Wafer” has been added that will feature half the distance of the big Waffle’s 139 miles.

With last year’s event filling up within days, Spy increased the rider limit to 700 for the full BWR, and added 500 additional spots for the Wafer route. After just one day of the registration being open, nearly all the BWR spots have been filled. Apparently, Spy is doing something right and attracting people looking for a new and unique experience in an event. So we talked with Michael Marckx, the man who concocted it all to find out what the deal is.

Q&A With Spy CEO & Belgian Waffle Ride Founder Michael Marckx

Michael Marckx doesn’t just map out the grueling route, he races it too. Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

RBA: As Spy CEO and President, how do you find time to dream up the most brutal way to spend a Sunday on a bike?

MMX: Well, shoot, fortunately, cycling is important to how we tell our unique branded story at Spy, and it’s important to the distribution of our products. I love to ride my bike, though I don’t get to as much as I would like, but when I do I have both my CEO and cycling hats on. My job is to showcase just how much cooler Spy is than the usual eyewear brand and to entice people to try our products. Once they do that, we know they are hooked. The great thing for me is that the brands we compete against don’t do anything for the cycling community and they certainly don’t have any executives that compete at a high level. Our brand gives people the opportunity to train for and partake in the most unique events possible, and I think this gives them an affinity for Spy. We give back and the result is that we are the company that is growing.

Women turned out in large numbers for the 2014 BWR. Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

RBA: What was your motivation for starting the BWR in 2012?

MMX: My friend and teammate, David Jaeger, has been doing this event in Ventura, California called the French Toast Ride (FTR), and he’s been doing it for decades. It’s this beautiful, invite-only 118-mile event that can be quite a hammerfest. The beauty of David’s event is that it is a family affair, in which his parents, wife, offspring and extended family provide the riders a wonderful experience with french toast in the beginning, suffering in the middle, and a feast at the end. It’s an inspiration… So, I asked David if I could do my own version of the FTR and bring it to San Diego where I could blend in my own Belgian heritage with my love of longer, harder, and dirtier races. He said, “Of course, thanks for asking. Can I ride it?” And thus, the Spy Belgian Waffle Ride began. Each year since, I’ve made the route more challenging with an ever increasing percentage of dirt and climbing, but complemented by more and better waffles and Lost Abbey ale.

What begins with a huge group of riders gets pared down hour by hour. Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

RBA: Have you been surprised with the event’s growth?

MMX: The first year I did the event was merely a case study for how future events could go—it was a test for my vision. I always had the desire of building this event into a national, iconic event. So, each year I’ve tweaked the route and the dynamic, attracted better riders, and elevated the event into a “bucket list” type of experience, the likes of which people cannot get anywhere else. So, no, I am not surprised but really delighted. Yesterday [February 4th] was the first day registration was open and more people signed up than we had in the entire race last year. That was a bit of a surprise, as I thought it would take a couple of days to sell out.

A number of riders from the Challenged Athletes Foundation ride BWR. BWR also donates a portion of the proceeds to CAF. Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

RBA: What is it about the BWR that gets people so excited for what could possibly be their biggest challenge ever on a bike?

MMX: I’d like to think its the uniqueness of the course and the happy that the Spy team infuses into every nook and cranny of the event. It’s long enough to be scary, though the 225 kilometers belies the actual difficulty of the race. It’s hard enough that you have to consider which bike and tires you will use for the varying terrain found throughout the course. It’s also got a signature Belgian quality, with the waffles, ale and the pageantry that make it a memorable experience.

Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

RBA: In your opinion, what’s the perfect bike setup for the race?

MMX: This year’s course is different than all the other years. That said, one can survive it on a road bike with extra gearing and 28mm tires, though flatting will be of concern. A cross bike with road gearing is probably optimal for most.

Stacks of waffles pre- and post-race are mandatory, well, at least they should be. Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

RBA: With the length and difficulty of the course increasing each year, is there a point when you’re going to have to say “enough is enough”?

MMX: I think we are nearing the stretch limit of difficulty. Any longer and the mid-pack riders will be out there too long… they’ll run out of daylight. Last year it took many people 14 hours, more than twice what the front of the race freakshows did. They finished in the dark. This year we will have time curfews set in place for safety. I will say there may be a little wiggle room for a bit more difficulty next year. I’ll probably say that again in a year. Haha.

So, if you’re lucky enough to have nabbed one of those entries, or plan to do BWR in the future, read on.

Neil’s Top 10 Belgian Waffle Ride Survival Tips

Big tires and disc brakes were par for the course last year, and the 2015 course should demand similar equipment choices.

Having done all three editions of the BWR, and having won the past two, I am well versed in what it takes to not only get through it, but get through it with bike and pride still mostly in tact. Since registration opened I’ve been getting peppered with numerous messages from would-be Wafflers looking for advice ranging from training to equipment setup. So here you go, my top 10 tips to finish with dignity.

1- Train. Train out of fear. You’re going to need every bit of fitness just to get through the heinously challenging 139-mile full BWR route; and to actually be fit enough to enjoy yourself while out there is an entirely different level. You’re going to be out there from sunrise until close to sunset, some even longer than that. Go ride.

2- Tires. Wider is better. Whatever the biggest tire that will fit on your road bike is, use it. Tires are not the place to save weight, so go with something that has good sidewall durability. I used 28c Continental Gran Prix 4-Seasons last year and will use those or something similar once again. Hutchinson and Specialized also make good tubeless options in those widths. Most riders will be limited to a 25c width due to frame/fork clearance, but either way, make sure it’s durable, not a lightweight race tire. I typically run about 90 psi at BWR, which seems to be about right given the amount of time spent on pavement.

There are a lot of things to keep track of out on course. Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

3- Ride some dirt. You don’t need to race through the dirt sections, but you do need to get through them. If you don’t ever ride your road bike on dirt then start adding sections into your normal rides. Understanding how much you can, or can’t, push your road setup in the dirt will become priceless come race day.

4- Pace yourself. You’re going to be out there for a really long time. Banging bars to get into the first dirt section in a good position might not be the best use of limited energy stores. By the end of 139 miles, chances are you won’t be wishing you had gone deeper during the first 20.

5- Test your setup. Don’t wait until April 26th to find out that your cool new 28c tires rub the frame when you pedal hard.

The top-3 from the 2014 BWR were Neil Shirley (center), Phil Tinstman (right), and Ryan Trebon (left). Photo: Todd Glaser Photography

6- Eat and drink. Basic right? There’s never a shortage of bonking and cramping bodies dragging across the finish line every year, so basic as it is, it’s still easy to forget. Start off with with a carbohydrate/electrolyte drink and stick with it at each feed zone rather than opting for just plain water. Since most of the carbohydrate/electrolyte mixes have around 100 calories per bottle, and assuming you’re going through one bottle per hour (which might be on the light side depending on weather conditions) you’re going to need to supplement with approximately 150-200 calories from food each hour, every hour you’re out there.

7- Don’t look up. When you come to the Double Peak climb and think you’re so close to the finish, don’t look up. The pitch of the climb and the actual elevation difference between you and the summit can be enough to break your will. So for your own good, don’t look up.

8- Bring the kitchen sink. Two tubes, a pump, chain tool, quick link, tire levers, tire boot, and multi-tool are essential. Crazy stuff happens out there. Be prepared to fix anything so as to not find yourself on the DNF list.

9- Chain lube. Lube up, because your chain is going to go through a lot of dirt, sand, water, and possibly mud before the finish. Don’t be stingy with the lube in order to keep your drivetrain clean, you can worry about the mess come Monday. A well lubed drivetrain is going to reduce friction and improve shifting.

10- Be respectful. On some of the dirt sections you might come across hikers, runners, kids on big wheels, and all sorts of other outdoorsmen that probably weren’t expecting hundreds of Lycra-clad stick figures ripping through the dirt. Give them room when you pass, and if you can spare the oxygen, even a hello. This goes a long ways in helping ensure there’s a 2016 BWR.

See you on the road.

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