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One of the biggest gravel races in the world that takes pride on defining itself as something other than a gravel race kicks off this weekend with the eleventh running of the original Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego County, California.
Some 3,000 riders have signed up across three distances. The marquee event on Saturday is 138 miles with 11,000ft of climbing, with 40 percent of the route off-pavement — or on what promoter Michael Marckx is calling ‘unroad.’
Two-time defending men’s champ Pete Stetina broke his wrist at Sea Otter and will decide Thursday as to whether he takes the start. Payson McElveen already made the call that he won’t race until Rule of Three, having broken his hand and collarbone at The Mid South. And, Katerina Nash and Hannah Otto (Finchamp), the top two women last year, are not on the BWR start list but rather on the pro roster for the Epic Rides Whiskey 50 in Prescott, Arizona.
But the competition for 2022 is deep, with the likes of Alex Howes, Freddy Ovett, Sandy Floren, Alexey Vermeulen, Adam Roberge, Brennan Wertz and many more on the men’s side, and Mo Wilson, Isabel King, Tiffany Cromwell, Raylyn Nuss, Ruth Winder, Flavia Oliveira, Amity Rockwell, Whitney Allison and many others on the women’s side.
After having separate men’s and women’s pro fields last year, the mass start returns to BWR for 2022, but Marckx added a stout climb in the opening miles to reduce the hectic nature of thousands of racers fighting for position into the first singletrack section.
“Every year the beginning of BWR got faster and faster, because at mile 21 the last two years we had a singletrack section that bottlenecked the field,” Marckx told VeloNews. “Last year the front group averaged 29.6mph for the first 21 miles! There were crashes. People were in over the heads too early, and they were often the ones causing the crashes.”
“So this year, pretty much out of the gate, we have a 1.5mi climb at 8 percent that will string people out. Then, we get them to a trail sector that climbs about 300 feet. That will string people out further.”
Marckx said that the having separate men’s and women’s fields versus having everyone start together like at most gravel races was never a clear decision.
“Some women love it; some don’t. We never knew which way to lean. We decided with this new course, this is an easier way to get everyone out of town, and to allow racers to settle into smaller groups on the climb.”
Three courses, two days of racing
Another change for 2022 is breaking the racing into two days. The full-distance Waffle goes on Saturday, then the 77-mile Wafer and the 45-mile Wanna go on Sunday.
“We definitely have more racers registered for the Waffle, but the funny thing is, every day as race day draws closer, I get tons of people wanting to transfer to the Wafer,” Marckx said.
Still, the Waffle is still larger than the two smaller events put together in terms of participants.
Last year more than 4,000 people registered for BWR California, leading Marckx to proclaim it the largest race in the world. This year, with about 3,000 registrants, he’s calling it the largest ‘unroad’ race in the world. “It may be the only unroad race in the world, but it’s certainly the biggest,” he said.
For years, Marckx called Belgian Waffle Ride a European classic-style race. And for context, Marckx launched BWR long before the gravel rush, instead riffing on everything Belgian, including stretches of dirt and trail in place of cobbled sectors, and naming said sections with faux Dutch names like Dubbelberg Twistenweg, Lemontwistenberg and Kakaboulet. And, yes, there are indeed waffles a plenty at BWR.
The 24 sectors and ‘Cali-cobbles’
This year, Marckx’s ‘unroad’ race has 24 dirt sectors with ‘Cali-cobbles’ and various obstacles.
“We don’t have quite the 30 sectors of Paris-Roubaix, but we do have a lot of new sectors,” Marckx said.
Two new ones of particular note are ‘Roofvogel Bergkam’ (or Raptor Ridge, to San Diego locals) and then a longer jeep road around mile 72.
The Roofvogel Bergkam sector features a stout dirt climb. “You come around the corner and you think, what is this, as you stare at this singletrack wall. It presents a challenge is both what gearing to use, as well as what tire profile to use for grip, because you can’t really stand,” Marckx said.
Another new sector is Wildemans Wildernis, which comes in the back half. While it’s a big climb and challenging, the thing of bigger importance is that it keeps the route off the highway that it previously used in that area.
For those doing the Wafer route on Sunday, they will race basically the first 25-30 percent and the last 35-50 percent of the Waffle route.
The Wafer has 6,000 feet of climbing and the Waffle has 11,000 feet. The longer route has two longer climbs of about five miles a piece, but the majority of the elevation gain comes in shorter kickers through the year.
“There is a lot of rolling stuff that just wears on people, and zaps people’s energy, and at end of the day you’ve gone up 11,000 feet,” Marckx said.
VeloNews will be covering BWR California this weekend.