Groad Trip: How BWR was (nearly lost and then) won

My view of exactly how this hard event played out, from the pre-race pressure until the post-race beers.

Photo: Jake Orness

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Winning the Belgian Waffle Ride in 2019 changed my life, or at least my career.

After racing it for the first time in 2019, I found the media coverage mind boggling. The respect and admiration from fans and riders alike was surprising. The production value around the race was better than most WorldTour races. And, most importantly, the fun-meter was maxed.

This race got my mental gears turning, thinking this could be a full-time gig, not “alternative” racing.

Here is what it was like to return to the next edition of the race after betting my career on gravel.

The lead-in: Under pressure

Title defense is hard. Returning as defending champ brings pressure, with a plethora of expectations, media obligations, requests, and social appearances. Having stood on the top step, there is no place to go but down. I wanted to confirm that my win wasn’t a fluke, and anything less would have felt like a loss.

Two of my main sponsors, Canyon and IRC Tire, are primary sponsors of the event, and I felt the pressure increase. They didn’t heap that on me, that was all my doing: I was in their backyard, 10 miles from their offices, and I felt obligated to perform for those who believed in me. This race is something they’ve both invested in to highlight their products. Lastly, I’d made so many new SoCal friends over the last two years who were cheering me on in person and virtually.

Taking place in July rather than May this year, I was expecting to encounter a lot more sand and blown-out conditions, but in pre-riding the course in the days before I was pleasantly surprised how fast and hard-packed the dirt sectors were. We woke up Sunday morning to thunder and rain, an oddity in SoCal summers, which packed down the dirt even more.

The start: 30 minutes of speed, nerves, and crashes

The start of BWR is the most intense in all of gravel: A high-speed 14 miles of pavement leads into a downhill, off-camber corner, narrowing from four lanes to one, into a rock garden. From there, it’s 10 miles of mountain-bike-friendly singletrack.

The first 30 minutes are roadie-style sprint-finish nerves, jostling, and crashes.

The race was on and the fight for survival was real. Upon exiting the first sections of dirt, pretty much all the favorites had made it, in a group of around 30, except for an unlucky Alex Howes and Tobin Ortenblad due to punctures. I was really suffering and realized once we were back on the quiet pavement, that a rock must have popped up and smacked my front brake rotor as it was rubbing quite badly. I had to stop for mechanical adjustment and then chase back on. It would not be the only time that day…

The middle: Things shake loose

As we settled into a slow burn on a long pavement section, mountain biker Sandy Floren broke away with a few others. It was still 100 miles to go and we knew it was likely a suicidal move, but Keegan Swenson and I both made mental notes to keep him in check, as we’ve both raced him and knew his capacities.

The long climb of Black Canyon with its washboards and 100-degree temps caused the next selection; about 15 of us emerged. Attacks ensued as group cohesion wilted along with morale in the baking heat. I wasn’t feeling good at all and seriously doubted I would even get a top 10. The others look much stronger.

Sandy Floren, behind me, is always a danger. He was off the front for 70 miles.

The race turned on again in the sandy and washboard descents of Sutherland Dam and Black Canyon. Almost everyone crashed at one point due to the invisible sand pits. Sometimes you were on hardpack and other times the earth just moved away under your wheel. I was caught in a silly uphill fall with Ted King and Payson McElveen, which ended in a poof of sand and me laughing.

Keegan and Russell Finsterwald dumped it much harder on a downhill sand bog. I narrowly avoided them but in the process hit some of the nastiest washboards I’ve seen at very high speed. I stayed up, but suddenly my shifting went out! My gears were jumping everywhere and had me confused as I didn’t crash; maybe I’d clipped Russell’s bike? Upon exiting the dirt I stopped to try to straighten my derailleur hanger, and the mechanic from the follow car hurried over. (Yes, at BWR there is a follow car for the front group like at a road race.) He realized that my derailleur hanger had actually come loose, which never happens. Washboards from hell indeed! I proceeded to chase yet again, this time on a downhill highway, the only part of the day where you could likely sit in the group and recover.

BWR is a different animal than Unbound Gravel or Crusher in the Tushar, and requires a different bike. Photo: Pete Stetina

The finale: Cramps, crashes, and the killer climb

I rejoined the group of favorites a few miles before the infamous Sandy Bandy section, which ends with a 15-percent climb. I was seeing red from having to chase and decided I wanted everyone else to suffer with me. I slammed a gel and went all in. The race began to splinter, and I realized the others were likely as pessimistic about their legs as I was about my own. Alexey Vermeulen came over the top of me on the climb and suddenly there were four of us.

Four became three became two as first Eddie Anderson slid out in a dirt corner and then Alexey punctured. Thus it was just John Borstelmann and myself, grinding into a headwind. We were still chasing Sandy and Co. but simultaneously running scared from the group of favorites nipping at our heels.

Then the cramps started.

I fell into a cycle of slamming water and electrolytes in between taking pulls and stretching just enough to not get dropped. Meanwhile Finsty was the lone rider to bridge up to us from behind through the devilish Kakaboulet sector. With my legs coming back around and Sandy still at two minutes, we all agreed that we were here to race for the win, and collaborated into a cohesive chase.

I was suffering at the end. Photo: Jake Orness

I was able to dispatch Finsty and John on the lower slopes of Questhavensburg. If pushing from the bottom, one can treat Questhaven and Double Peak (with its 20-percent gradients) as one uber-long climb. In order to catch Sandy and make sure I didn’t have to deal with the mountain bike skills of the remaining contenders on the final dirt section, I wanted a healthy lead by the top. I went all-in for the Nth time and treated the summit like the finish line.

Things worked out and I was able to enjoy the final miles into the expo, really post up and celebrate the finish line. In overcoming the pressure, expectations, and mid-race mishaps, I experienced a moment of euphoria. The sheer joy, satisfaction, and relief were overwhelming. I’ve never been so happy with a result in my career, honestly.

Immediately upon dismounting, the euphoria was quickly quashed as the cramps returned with a vengeance and brought me back to earth.

Everyone deals with some mishaps out there. The BWR is a sadistic event purpose-built to be the hardest one-day race in America. It usually delivers, and I want to congratulate every rider who attempted it.

Epilogue: Beers with Alex Howes

When Alex Howes won the USPRO national championships back in 2019, my then-teammate Kiel Reijnen and I endured a race to forget. But the three of us grew up together and remain extremely close to this day. Despite our personal anguish, we found Alex that evening and toasted to his good fortune well into the night. On Sunday night after BWR, Howesy returned that favor; his race was ensnared in bad luck, but he came and found me. We closed down our friend’s taproom that evening. Thanks, buddy; that’s what friends are for.

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