By Jon Hornbeck
The Belgian Waffle Ride is a ride that stands alone compared to other bicycle events that I’ve encountered. It’s a bit difficult to describe what it truly is as it’s more of a hybird style of all bicycle events. When you think of pinning numbers on and rolling police escorts to allow for traffic stops you think of UCI Pro Tour race, but its not. Forty miles of off-road dirt & gravel, but it isn’t a Gravel Grinder. A breakfast of waffles prior to the event and a Belgium style post ride meal, and of course more waffles, but its in San Diego. A mass participation marathon style start, but if your at the front it’s a full on race.
I could keep going on about the many different factors of the stand alone event but what comes to conclusion is that the Belgian Waffle Ride is doing something right from the shear experience it gives to riders. With some of the countries top professional cyclists on hand to your weekend warriors cruising the mixed surface streets on elliptical’s, everyone comes in to share the same experience of conquering a massive ride, followed by beer and waffles.
Last year was my first time experiencing the Belgian Waffle Ride and boy was I in a much different place. It was more of a last minute decision for me as I was prepping for the upcoming Tour of California so I viewed it as a good day to get some training miles in. I knew there was some dirt but didn’t think too much of it. I took my training bike to ride it as I just had the normal aluminum training wheel set up with tubes which would end up being big mistake. Last year I ran into problems from the get go as once I hit the dirt I made a few mistakes which resulted in my first flat. From there I was on the back foot as the front group was really going race pace. This was my first taste that this isn’t your standard “gran fondo” style event where riders may wait up for you to come back. That would be the story of my ride last year as a total of three flats would always put me in chase mode to bridge back up.
Going into this year I knew what lay ahead of me with the course and I mainly knew that I don’t have the fitness I had last year to continuously ride back to the front after mechanical’s; insert my new work life. I went with the ultimate insurance policy in riding my Santa Cruz Stigmata equipped with 38mm tubeless tires paired with Enve wheels, disc brakes and Sram 1x. My thought process was that I knew with this set up I had a really good chance to make it through all of the dirt sectors with ease and towards the front. I knew I would be giving time up on the road and climbing portions but not going into this event trying to set the world on fire I was completely fine with that. The serious days are over for me now as I look to these events to enjoy the true essence of what they have to offer.
The morning started off bright and early for a 7am start. The heat was one factor that was on the back of everyone’s mind so I made sure to down a couple extra bottles prior to the start. A thousand plus riders amassed the starting coral outside of the Lost Abbey Brewery to get in their proper starting wave. As I lined up front I was surprised with the increase in pro’s this year compared to the year prior. Last year I believe it was just myself and Josh Berry (Jelly Belly Pro Cycling) as the only pro roadies in the field. This year Josh came back after finishing California with his teammate Serghai Tvetcov, Canyon Pro Cycling had a couple riders, Cyclance Pro Cycling had Hunter Grove, Elevate – KHS was present, Jesse Anthony of Rally Cycling, recently retired Phil Gaimon and Ted King and quite a few top amateur teams and riders. There was definitely much more depth this year.
With the national anthem sung and the countdown finished we began our trek of 212 kilometers. A supposedly “neutral” roll out turned into your standard jockeying for front position as the pace sped up. A rolling neutral police escort gave most everyone a real first hand professional experience ripping through town with no worries about stopping at lights. By far one of the highlights of the BWR as I’ve only had that treatment in top UCI Pro races. Everyone really appreciated that. Once after tackling our first climb the group thinned out and we we’re on our way to our first dirt sector. The first dirt sector would be a fire road descent which offered a good twisty down hill, such a good time. Knowing it was approaching I came into it second position to be safe only to throw my chain coming out of the third corner. Having to dismount to put it back on I began to have flashbacks of last year of missing the front splits and from there on always having to rally to the front. I got going again to use my bigger tires to my advantage and began moving through the pack. I passed many riders who were running into their own mechanical’s on the side of the road and even saw the soon to be winner Jesse Anthony picking himself up off the ground as he had an untimely crash, even the best of the best have their issues during the Belgian Waffle Ride. We still had a large group at the bottom of the descent and rode through town as a group with our police escort ticking off the miles. A couple more smaller dirt sectors came as we had to dismount and run through one of them as the sand was even too deep for my larger tires to get through. Riders kept coming off as we would encounter more dirt and more climbs.
We started our larger climb at around 80 km into the route and this is where the pace really set in. With about three quarters of the way up the climb the lead group was around 10 riders and I started to feel the effect of no longer training. I knew we weren’t far from the top and I could possibly dig deep to stay in but knowing that I probably don’t have it in the tank I would rather not completely fall apart at the end of this ride. I decided to ease up and come off the leaders and ride my own pace. After cresting the top and having some time alone I was joined by the second group on the road. It was a great welcome as I dropped off the serious pro riders to the second group of which made up of many of my friends who were all here to have a good time and get some miles in. From there we all rode together swapping pulls and telling stories. Coming through the well organized rest stops we made sure to grab more then enough bottles and food as the temperature kept rising. Anytime we hit the dirt sectors that tilted downwards I immediately went to the front to open it up and have fun descending on my more suited gravel bike. Once hitting the road we would all regroup and continue to ride together.
With around 50 km to go the ride started to take its toll on us and our group started to break apart. Starting to feel the effects myself I didn’t have much interest in pushing the pace and suffering for the rest of the day. My good friend Brandon Baker and I hooked up and rode the last part together talking about the event, upcoming gravel rides and the current state of the Belgium Waffle Ride. We would pass riders on the side of the road though as they pushed beyond their limits and had to have a moment to themselves.
The last 50km though was the best time to take the ride at your own pace as most of the dirt/gravel sectors came through out this part and it really was enjoyable to ride the dirt roads of San Diego picking your lines through the rocky terrain. To really top off the difficulty of the Belgian Waffle Ride the last kicker goes up a climb called Double Peak which I believe is there to really ensure you of that extra beer you need at the end of the ride. Or for our case the beer we needed at the top of the ride!
Once conquering Double Peak though it is a nice descent back down to the Lost Abbey Brewery. From there we were treated with live announcing and many friendly gestures. Feeling completely exhausted it was only fitting to sit down on the curb and gather my thoughts of what was just endured. Once finding my feet again I was able to clean the dirt off my face and reminisce with everyone who had already finished and new friends that I made with during the ride. The beer and waffles helped as well.
Once it was all said and done I look back at the days events and wonder if this is what the future looks like for American cycling. It’s no secret that American road racing isn’t currently growing but cycling in general is rapidly growing. This event had all the bells and whistles of a top notch professional race but the company was shared with women, masters and your weekend warriors. I don’t have many memories of doing a race with that hard of a work out and then having the post ride no stress vibe, unless of course you win or somebody from your team won. Also to all the riders who came out for the sheer experience it was probably their first time of sharing the starting line with many top professionals while getting a rolling enclosure. Either way though the Belgian Waffle ride is doing it right. They don’t try to sugar coat anything. It’s hard and unforgiving and they make sure you know that before you take the starting line. But once completing it you feel a sense of accomplishment. Kudos to everyone who helped put this event together and more so to everyone who helped complete it!
Photos: JPOV/Jake Orness