Big wins for Melisa Rollins and Brendan Johnston at Belgian Waffle Ride Utah

The new pro and the Aussie battle veteran BWR racers to take the top step after a characteristically challenging BWR race.

Photo: Unroad UNLTD

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Melisa Rollins and Brendan Johnston won Belgian Waffle Ride Utah on Saturday, celebrating what were uniquely meaningful victories.

It was Rollins’ first win at a major gravel race after turning pro last year. For Johnston, a five-time Australian XCO champ and last year’s gravel national champion, the win is his first on American soil.

Tiffany Cromwell was second to Rollins, with Flavia Oliveira Parks, Sarah Jarvis, and Chelsea Bolton rounding out the podium. Johnston finished ahead of Carter Anderson, Cody Cupp, Joe Goettl, and Andrew Dillman.

Full BWR Utah results here.

BWR Utah women’s podium (Photo: Unroad UNLTD)

For Rollins, who races across disciplines on Team Twenty24, BWR Utah marked her first off-road race in nearly a year. After finishing her first pro season racing in the Life Time Grand Prix last year, Rollins decided to commit to a season on the road with Twenty24 to work on leg speed and race tactics. However, after being in a high speed crash while racing the Tour of Belgium in early July, she decided to shift her focus back to gravel after a period of recovery.

“For me, there was a lot of anticipation for this event,” Rollins said. “I knew I had gained a lot of fitness and a lot of race savviness since the last time I raced gravel, but the legs you have on race day don’t always reflect that. I of course wanted to perform well here, but my first goal was to be present at the front of the race in the opening hours, something I’ve always struggled with.”

Read also: Rollins takes fifth at 2022 Unbound Gravel

The BWR Utah Waffle is 131 miles long with 6,847 feet of climbing, but distance and vert alone aren’t enough to characterize a BWR course. The Utah race is technically challenging with various singletrack sections mixed into rocky jeep roads and double tracks. There are three each QOM/KOM of the mountain, dirt, and sprint sectors.

Rollins was able to get a good position at the front of the race and focused on the wheels of experienced BWR riders Tiffany Cromwell and Flavia Oliveira Parks. The three were together with the lead men until the first QOM/KOM climb around mile 22. Then, it was just she and Cromwell and one other man trading pulls until their small trio slowly began to swell as they picked off riders dropped from the lead group. At mile 40, the chasers has regained contact with the lead men.

Cromwell and Rollins (Photo: Unroad UNLTD)

Rollins and Cromwell again found themselves together at the first singletrack sector when they were dropped from the lead men’s group.

“I was quickly realizing how evenly matched the two of us were on this day,” Rollins said. “Tiff and I traded pulls for the next 15 miles, our duo adding and losing members periodically, but unspokenly, the two of us knew this race was between us.”

After summiting the penultimate climb at mile 85 together, Cromwell washed out on a loose corner and crashed. Rollins checked in with her before carrying on, although she was soon plagued with trouble of her own.

“As I descended it sunk in that I was leading the race,” she said. “But just as this feeling of excitement began, it started to shift into worry as I started to cramp severely. Everywhere. I don’t often cramp so I wasn’t sure what to do. I started smacking my legs. I coasted, I soft pedaled. In between smacks I would look back to check. Where’s Tiffany? Still not there. I finally made it to a flatter section and forced a little more power and a miracle happened. The cramps vanished as quickly as they appeared.”

Rollins would spend the final 40 miles solo, wondering whether Cromwell was just behind. On the final major climb of the day, a 2.5 mile sandy dirt road averaging nine percent but with pitches upwards of 20 percent, she was forced off the bike to walk due to a bent derailleur hanger leaving her with fewer gears.

“I panicked, thinking this would be where Tiffany would catch me and I would lose the race, but she never did,” Rollins said. “I cruxed the climb and made my way to the final single track sector solo, and after completing that started making my way to the finish. With a few miles to go the lead moto told me I had seven minutes and I cried. I had done it!”

Aussie pro Brendan Johnston is spending the entire season in the United States, primarily focusing on the Life Time Grand Prix. He’s got his family in tow for the adventure, and they’ve been based in Colorado Springs. However, the family of three has been taking advantage of the opportunity to travel around the country for and in between bike races.

Although he had a stellar result at BWR California in April (fourth), followed by eighth at Sea Otter, Johnston said that he’s been somewhat frustrated since.

“I worked harder than ever this year and found my self at dead ends.”

On Saturday, he finally found his way, leading the race from the gun with a group of five other riders. Both luck and a plan that came to fruition helped seal his fate.

Johnston feeling the desert heat (Photo: Unroad UNLTD)

“I was feeling really good out there and had a plan to ride all the headwind sections with the group of 5 or 6 before turning back towards the north and picking up the tailwind and hitting the biggest climb of the day,” he said.

At the second KOM, he made a move to test his companions, dropping one rider and creating the group of five that would ultimately form the podium. On the final KOM up the Kanarraberg climb, Johnston dropped everyone in the group, quickly establishing a five minute lead by the top two miles later.

“I attacked the group at the base wanting to make as big an impact as possible for the remaining rough singletrack sector before the finish,” he said. “I was able to really enjoy the single track and the run into the finish.

“It was a special day in Utah for me and one I won’t forget meeting my family at the finish line for my first victory on US soil.”

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