Redemption: the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.
Last year, I wrote a Journal for Above Category on the Belgian Waffle Ride, where the overall theme was resurrection with a side of personal failure, which is where the redemption part comes in this year. Although the 2015 BWR was one of the most satisfying finishes I’ve ever had, the fact remained that I’d bonked hard and crawled the last 35 miles back to the finish, well over an hour behind the winner, Cameron Wurf. Sure, there was the good excuse of breaking most of my ribs and a hip five months beforehand, but that crash was my fault; a stupid rider error that at the end of the day saw me unable to blame anyone but myself (unless you ask Lennard Zinn, who surmises that all high-side crashes can be saved with the use of hydraulic disc brakes on road bikes, but that’s another story altogether).
I decided to heed the advice of my friend Chad and approach storied coach Craig Upton, a former European Pro, whose clientele includes some of the fastest riders currently in the World Tour.
My redemption from The Crash led me on a path I’d never followed before: Structured training. I’d loosely trained with power meters and a coach in years past, and before that ridden on youthful strength nurtured through responsibility-free adolescence. However, after The Crash I’d found myself with a deficit not only in fitness, but also in time. I decided to heed the advice of my friend Chad and approach storied coach Craig Upton, a former European Pro, whose clientele includes some of the fastest riders currently in the World Tour. I’d only started working with Craig for about a month before last years “ride”, and wasn’t really sure I’d continue on with the program much past that. The plan at the beginning was simple; I had X amount of time to get ready for two events: The BWR and the Boggs 8-Hour MTB race. After an hour on Craig’s trainer and a few lactate samples later, we had a plan in place. Onward.
All things considered, the initial time with Craig was a huge success. While I was far from putting out huge amounts of watts, I was instead able to hold steady power for long amounts of time, the ideal kind of fitness for the events I had planned. After finishing the BWR and placing 2nd overall at Boggs I decided to keep with the program and see what I could accomplish on a personal level.
By a long shot, I’m not the most extroverted competitor out there. Instead, I prefer the internal struggle, which cycling inherently lends itself to. Sitting on a bike and staring at the screen of an SRM may not be the preferred experience on a bicycle for a lot of people, but I love it - to an extent. Getting home after finishing a day of intervals feels damned good, especially when the beginning of the ride was filled with doubt over whether or not I’d actually be able to accomplish the workout that day. The motivation from my training schedule kept me going through that summer and into the winter, as I watched my body adapt to the new load of training that was being introduced. Throughout training, the overall goal remained: To have fitness over a long race or ride, a “sportif”, and not feel absolutely shattered at the end of it. If you’d ridden with me in the past year, you’d know that a hard effort up a long climb would see me handily dropped. 20-minute power has never been my goal, and I loathe American racing that’s mostly comprised of 50-minute long criteriums – the events most training plans concentrate on. I grew up watching European road racing that took me through breathtaking mountain passes with impossibly built roads, and endless green countryside lined with limestone homes that stood the test of weather, wars, and time. The reality of racing around in a circular business park curtailed the once-romanticized view of cycling I’d held, but events like the Waffle Ride reawakened it within me.
The Ride About two weeks before any big event I become a self-doubting and self-deprecating individual. I constantly review the last months worth of riding, the days I missed, the sicknesses that kept me on the sofa, the days I slacked off, or the nagging injury that might hinder me in some way. Really, I don’t think most people are much different, which is why deprecating conjecture at the beginning of races is so prevalent. The reality was, I’d been training well, stayed healthy, and aside from some sciatic pain that’s followed me since the injury, I was as ready as I’d ever be.
A week before the event my new Mosaic RT-1 Disc arrived at Above Category. I’d ordered the bike a few months before, after deciding that if I wanted to talk shit about how unnecessary disc brakes were on road bikes, I needed to first own one myself to pass judgment. While my attitude hasn’t changed, the BWR is a place where riding a gravel bike equipped with discs proffers an advantage. Let’s be honest - the BWR is more a mountain bike race with a road century thrown in. After one ride on the new Mosaic, it was time to head to beautiful North County, San Diego, where I was lucky enough to live in during my early twenties.
I met my buddy Berto the day before the event to pre-ride a couple of the dirt sections — the Lake Hodges section which was probably the longest of them all, along with a new area just outside Rancho Santa Fe that was mostly new to the event, though we did ride on some of the same trails from the year before. After a quick jaunt over Hodges we met up with the rest of the of the Herbalife-24 team to pre-ride some of the trickier dirt sectors, since the course changes every year. The new sectors ended up being critical, as they were true singletrack with little to no passing options and steep, loose climbs that were clearly designed for real mountain bikes. I knew the race would largely be decided here, and whoever was up front would be able to pull a large gap on the chaos that would inevitably occur behind. After a nice pre-ride with the guys from the team, it was off to find carbs, my wife at the airport, and hopefully, some sleep.
Not that it’s an excuse, but I hate waking up early. Honestly, I think I’d enjoy racing a lot more if I was a morning person, but I prefer slow mornings working in front of my computer and save my riding for the afternoons. It didn’t help that the event was to roll at 7am, which meant a 5am wake up call to ingest as much food as I could before getting to the start line at the Lost Abbey Brewery. Really, I considered hitting snooze and using the excuse that my alarm didn’t go off, then heading promptly to Claire’s for some pancakes. It was actually the same pancakes that got me out of bed, since the thought of consuming them the day after riding 145 miles sounded so much better. How’s the saying go again? Ride to eat? Thanks, whoever coined that.
I made the short drive to the start in the Above Category sprinter van with Nate King (AC Brand Manager), still too tired to be nervous. This year I missed the waffles and Rapha espresso in the morning due to lack of time, but luckily I overheard that they were being served all day—motivation! The rollout at the BWR is fairly uneventful, 20 or so miles of “neutral” riding, complete with surging, riders in the oncoming traffic lane, and typical nervous movements, albeit a bit slower than an actual race. It’s like trying to jump the start and hoping nobody else notices, except everyone has the same idea. I’d remembered the start from last year well, and regardless of position for those 20 miles, the most important aspect is getting to the first dirt sector at the front.
Not unlike a cobbled classic, the mad dash to the first dirt is a bit of a circus. It was here that last year I was caught up in a crash that allowed the first group to go up the road and never be seen again, and I was determined that it wouldn’t happen again. But, it’s really not up to me to decide who crashes and when, and it just so happened that for the second year in a row I got stuck behind a crash in the first minute of dirt. The key difference between this year and last was the length of the initial dirt section. Last year it promptly turned back to road and stayed that way for another 30 or so miles, allowing anyone up front to really pull away, especially with a police escort to take them though red lights. This year, the initial dirt sector was much longer and despite falling back to maybe 50th wheel, I wasn’t tremendously far back from the leaders.
Coming from a mountain biking background I quite enjoyed the first part of the race, as bad lines and haphazard maneuvers allowed me to make some good passes on those less familiar with dirt. A few miles into the singletrack I’d found myself smiling, reminiscing of past races and realizing how much I enjoyed, and missed, racing my mountain bike.
By mile 30 reality set in as we hit pavement again, this time for a relatively short 7-mile jaunt to the next bit of singletrack. Luckily I was with Nate, about 5th or so group on the road. As a former domestic Pro, Nate is a good dude to have leading your group. He laid down a blistering fast tempo, pushing well north of 400 watts for those road miles, eventually bridging us back to the next group. Following him allowed me to recover from the last effort, and I made a surge before the next dirt to get to the front well ahead of the group. I blasted the approaching singletrack as quickly as I could, putting a good gap between myself and the group I was in, just hitting the remnants of those being spit out from the chase groups further up the road. After another short bout on the road, it was off to Lake Hodges, some 45 miles into the BWR.
The Lake Hodges section is where a good portion of the images of the BWR come from. The rock sections here might be equivalent to the babyheads section of Downieville - you might not win the race here, but you can certainly lose it. I had ridden this section the day before, scoping lines and looking for the fastest route with the least chance of pinch flatting. I’m not sure if it was the recon, the 28c Corsa’s (in case you didn’t know, THEY’RE GRAPHENE!), or just the handling of the Mosaic RT-1 I was riding, but I made it through the nearly 10 mile dirt section unscathed, both body and bike.
After Hodges, the route spits out at the bottom of Highland Valley, which over the next 10 miles and 1500 feet upward leads to Ramona. I’m far from a climber at 82kg, so the plan was to sit in, try and hang with whatever group I was in, and suffer though it until we hit the flats. Surprisingly, my legs felt great, cresting the Highland Valley climb with enough energy to hit the flats hard and catch the next group on the road, a small gathering of riders who’d either been shot out the back of the lead pack during the climb, or lost touch during the long dirt of Hodges. Regardless, it was a good group to be in, with plenty of strong riders. After a quick tour of Ramona it was off to Black Canyon, a winding, mellow gravel road, beautifully secluded, allowing me to take my mind off the pain just setting in.
While I’d ridden Black Canyon before, I’d only ridden it in its entirety to Palomar. However, the BWR route took a right after a few miles, up another dirt road that led to Lake Sutherland. Not unlike last year while riding Cougar Pass, this is what I’d hoped for: New, secluded, and gorgeous roads that I’d never ridden before. After admiring as much of the view as possible, it was time to make the descent back down to Sandy Bandy, up Bandy Canyon, and back down to the Lake Hodges dirt, riding ten long miles of pinch-flat inducing trails in reverse. During the dirt of Sandy Bandy I was surprised to drop a good number of the riders I’d been with. Choosing a bad line here can seriously sap the energy, as it can be more akin to riding a road bike on the beach. When I crested Bandy Canyon a lone Rapha rider remained with me, and seemed happy to follow my wheel back though Hodges, eclipsing the 100-mile mark in the process.
The trip back though Hodges was a blur. I thought less about my lines and let experience take over. I’d been listening to a lot of Chico Buarque the days before the event and let the sound of 70’s Brazilian Samba play in my head, creating rhythm with my movements that I’d like to think helped my forward progress.
If there’s one aspect of the BWR I’m not a huge fan of, it’s the tendency to double back on parts of the course. I realize that when trying to contain 1000 riders on 145 miles of dirt and road, concessions must be made, but knowing what lies ahead can cut a rider down mentally. The next ten miles back towards the first dirt section of the day was a little tough - the efforts were starting to wear on me. Meanwhile, the gentleman from Rapha and myself were able to catch another small group on the road containing what was left of the destroyed front group. Being able to sit in, take in fluids, and fill my pie hole with as much food as I could was rejuvenating and helped me back through those fun, albeit difficult, singletrack sections for a second time, but every sharp undulation resonated into my arms and hands, making it increasingly difficult to maintain grip on the bars and choose good lines. The worse the line, the more energy my body puts out to compensate, the less energy I have, and the harder it gets. I remembered having the mental battle through this part of the course the year before, convincing my brain that the pain in hands was worth it. I turned the Samba back on and kept going.
I had no idea what position I was in the entire day until about mile 120, when I came across my friend Brent Prenzlow in a singletrack section. If you’re from SoCal, and especially if you race CX, Brent is a household name after racing professionally for almost 20 years. He unfortunately had to sit out this year’s event due to an illness, but I was glad to see him out there and hear his words of encouragement: “P-19, lots of guys right up the road”. A chill of excitement made its way though my weakening body, as I was suddenly filled with thoughts of making a top 20 finish, unthinkable until now. I figured I had about an hour to an hour and a half left, and promptly guzzled another Enduro Bite bar down my throat despite the nauseating sensation that crops up after ingesting energy food for more than five hours straight.
At this point I was back in a small group of five, comprised of the same guy from Rapha, Nate Freed, and a couple others who were clinging on for dear life. After another eight miles on road through the familiar streets of Rancho Santa Fe, we made our way onto one of the last dirt sectors that takes riders past the infamous BWR “Oasis”. I was hurting. I wanted to stop. I wanted to have a drink and regain something, anything, to help me make it up the final climb: Double Peak, looming in the distance. Still with Nate Freed, we both grabbed Cokes from an aid station and charged on, distanced by the group we’d been with.
I don’t know if it’s because I don’t ever drink soda, but Coke is amazing when absolutely shattered, especially when washed down with sticky energy gel. The thought of that combination of Type 2-inducing food is awful to think of now, but as we made our initial ascent up Double Peak my legs decided to come back to life. Nate and I steadily made it up the first dirt path at the base of the hill, back onto the road, and were able to catch the guys who’d tried to escape earlier. We were left with about a mile of climbing, a good portion of which is almost 20%.
If there’s anything left in the tank at this point (at mile 140), this is where it’s emptied, and empty it I did. As Paul Sherwin would say, I threw caution to the wind and pumped out as many watts as my body possibly could while battling the anguish my brain was trying to stop.
I never looked back. I realized I’d created a decent gap once I turned around to descend the hill, seeing the guys I had just been with still making their way up the climb. I knew there was a dirt downhill ahead and hit that as hard as I could, albeit with caution since a crash or a flat here would be mentally devastating. I made it though the dirt unscathed, and made another long descent to San Marcos at 80kph, just a few short miles from the finish. I still didn’t know how far the chasers were behind me, instead focusing on two riders not far up the road that I turned into my proverbial carrots. To my surprise I was still able to average over 300w after over 140 miles and nearly eight hours of riding. I sprinted up the last small hill to the Lost Abbey Brewery, just a few seconds behind the riders in front of me, and crossed the finish line alone without fanfare.
After completing something like the BWR, any problems you have in life are momentarily eclipsed by the accomplishment of what you just did. I think of riding like depositing money in a bank, with each passing mile becoming a small investment in the longevity and enjoyment of life, and that day so many people made sizable contributions to the bank of life. I sat on the curb next to my friend Dave and didn’t say much for a few minutes, waiting for my body to be OK with moving again. Nate came across the line a few minutes later and he joined us on the curb, also sitting in a mostly silent state, sated by the day’s effort.
My mind turned to food, and food there was, in the form of pulled pork and salad. Then an espresso. Then some waffles. Another Espresso followed by a Coke. Okay, one more waffle, please. I made my way to the results booth; 13th overall, just a couple minutes out of the top 10, though still 20 minutes behind the winner, Joshua Berry of Jelly Belly. To be honest, I was stoked. I still am.
The ’16 Belgian Waffle Ride was another life milestone, a small personal victory in the game of life and the pursuit of stoke. Although my finish this year is already making me anxious to beat my benchmark for next year, the motivation that comes along with it is something you can’t simply buy or create. Dave made a good point at the end of this years ride when he said, “Damn dude, if you lost some weight you’d be pretty fast”. Well, Dave, let’s try and see if we can’t turn this tuba into a trumpet before next years ride.
Oh, arguably the best part of BWR is finally getting Claire’s the next day, followed by La Taqueria Super Rica in Santa Barbara. Chorizo and cheese tacos have never tasted so good.
Many thanks to JPOV, Todd Gunther, and Nicke from Bicycle BNB for the images.