Groad Trip: Racing Belgian Waffle Ride three weeks after breaking my wrist

Why I decided to race, how I prepared for the 137-mile gravel race, and how it went.

Photo: Thomas Walker Hague

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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s column on graveling and traveling. In 2021, he won 15 gravel races — more than any other rider.

Last Thursday night, just a little more than 24 hours before the Belgian Waffle Ride started, I decided to race. It wasn’t hubris or a PR stunt to leave it that late; that was the soonest I could make the decision.

I wanted so dearly to line up and participate in one of my favorite events of the year and one that’s given me so much. To race with a still very broken, unhealed wrist was a gamble, and some told me how reckless it would be, but it was a lite gamble.

I don’t suggest anyone just “tough it out,” because behind the scenes I had heaps of information to help guide my decision.

Related: Becoming a mountain biker, and then breaking my wrist at the Life Time Grand Prix

I’d had an x-ray on Monday. I knew it wouldn’t be fully healed, but I wanted to confirm that my outdoor road cycling since the injury hadn’t dislodged it further. Tuesday I visited the hand therapist and together we made a shorter, “racier” cast allowing me to handle the bike better but also adding more padding for bump absorption.

I got a new splint for the race.

Every day had been a new test. I’d slowly transitioned from road rides with front suspension, to road rides with a normal road bike, and then to road riding on rough roads. Every day it was a bit sore during but never overbearing, and the pain was nonexistent post-ride. Indeed I was pushing more each day and still recovering, seeing that constant upward trend gave me hope. But off road and in an unpredictable race scenario was another situation entirely.

With my doctor Eric Heiden, we agreed that I’d travel to San Diego to pre ride the dirt sectors to get as best an answer as I could. So on Thursday I rode a majority of the course, and to my surprise I was mostly pain free. I wasn’t going as hard as in the race but it was then, 48 hours before the start, that I knew I couldn’t watch from the sidelines. I simply felt too normal not to race. I knew things would get uncomfortable at times, but I couldn’t sit out just because I’d have to ease off a bit here or there. I could safely ride the entire route.

Secretly, I harbored the desire and the optimism for the three-peat win, but logically I knew it would be a tall ask. At least this way I could still contend for the season-long BWR Quadruple Crown, which is the cumulative time of all four Belgian Waffle Rides in 2022. I could keep my balls in the air around the rest of the season.

Extra padding under the tape? Yes, please!

The race

The new start featured a hard climb in the opening miles was a major upgrade in many eyes, mine included. Yes, it was painful to climb right out the gate but the biggest complaint over the last years was the peloton-wide bottleneck of four lanes turning into singletrack and the danger it provoked.

Matt Beers, the South African phenom, used his MTB hard-starting skills, and made the climb one of the hardest Vo2 efforts I’ve done all year. But the tactic worked and there were maybe only 30 riders together at the front hitting the early dirt sections. The probability of crashing had drastically reduced and my wrist thanked him even though my lungs cursed him.

I began to take a few body shots at my competition in following sectors such as Raptor Ridge and Sandy Bandy along with Brennan Wertz, who was also keen to make it hard. My tire selection was perfect and in the flowy and sandy downhills I was at my uninjured levels as I could anticipate bumps and still brace when needed.

I drove the pace on some dirt sectors early on. (Photo: BWR Photo Pool)

By the halfway mark, only 20 of us remained. The first real crux was upon us and my Achilles’ Heel was prominent. Black Canyon is the worst I’d seen it. There was horrible washboard going uphill, then funneling us into the new truck trail, which is best done on a full-suspension mountain bike. It’s in these unrelentingly jarring circumstances I was very aware of how unfused my wrist really was.

Alexey Vermeulen finally showed his hand and set a punishing pace up the hill. I quickly lost 10 seconds, having to ride one handed on washboards due to the pain. I descended the truck trail as hard as I could but the jarring nature became so great there was a very conscious moment I realized if I didn’t back off more this wrist might completely re-break and greatly set back my season. The selection of seven guys continued to disappear downhill.

Upon exiting I was maybe 40 seconds back, and we were greeted with a block headwind. In a 7-on-1 situation I knew my fate was sealed. I began to time trial solo in blind hope that something would flip the race around again. I eventually collected a cramping Sandy Floren who, in the spirit of friendship, gave me some amazing pulls before relinquishing all of himself to the cramps.

Up ahead, Alexey would begin to use the course to his strengths and dominantly ride away from the others. I’ve known Alexey for years and he’s always been knocking on the door of a big result like this. So to see him put it together, in such a graceful and intelligent display, is amazing. He is a very worthy champion!

I stayed steady and ended up catching a few more and rode back into fifth by the line, salvaging a podium position. To make the podium with my circumstances is a victory in its own; I feel I rode to the best of my ability and was able to make a result, enjoy the day, and not set myself back in terms of healing. All is still to play for in the BWR Quadruple Crown and hopefully I’ll be splint-free well before Unbound Gravel in early June.

In an effort to ease rider congestion, the full distance Waffle event was held Saturday, and the shorter Wafer and Wanna routes were held Sunday. This gave me a great excuse to stick around one more day to cheer and heckle the other riders. It was fun to return the love I’ve felt from spectators while suffering up the steepest slopes of Double Peak. We talked some smack to those not going hard enough, rallied around those going too hard, and gave some pushes to those who went too hard earlier. I left BWR with my happiness meter full and my motivation for the coming events fully ignited. Up next: Gravel Locos in Hico, Texas.

Let’s go, gravel racers!

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