Preview: Belgian Waffle Ride California

A new course with '85km of Cali-cobbles' and a deep pro field will race under sunny SoCal skies on Sunday.

On Easter Monday, those signed up for the Belgian Waffle Ride California received the very secular BWR California Bijbel — BWR’s iconic race manual — which details the event weekend, as well as the many twists, turns, and bergs of the course.

With only a week separating it and the spring classics of Europe after which it was modeled, BWR California kicks off this Friday. The weekend expo and Sunday’s races are held at North City, a mixed-use commercial and residential zone in northern San Diego County.


Early into the race in 2022 (Photo: Belgian Waffle Ride)

2023 marks the 12th edition of the event, which was the first race in what is now a portfolio of seven Belgian Waffle Ride events. BWR Arizona was the first of the season; Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Keegan Swenson won the March race, although neither will be in California racing this weekend, electing instead to stay home and prep for Sea Otter and the Whiskey Off-Road mountain bike races.

BWR California is one of two mandatory races for those hoping to participate in the BWR Quadrupel Crown series (BWR Kansas is the other). Results from any two other BWR races can be used toward the overall crown. Last year, Pete Stetina and Flavia Oliveira Parks were the champions of the series.

The course

This 12th edition of the BWR rolls, clatters, sinks and slides over 207-km, with more than 85-km of Cali-cobbles spread over 25 numbered sectors; each with varying degrees of difficulty. The Unroad mayhem begins just 15-km in and Calicobble punctuates the route thereafter all the way to the finish, with the aforementioned Zwartenberg in the middle of the race and the infamous Muur van Dubbelberg confronting riders at the 200-km mark.

Cali-cobbles and Unroad mayhem — this is BWR. And, although wild winter weather has forced significant changes to the routes, race organizer Michael Marckx says that “the course has been altered for the better this year.”

Riders will find one significant change just past the start line (where, FYI, all riders start together with their distance-mates in the kumbaya spirit of gravel).

In the past, the first Unroad sector (gravel, dirt, mud, singletrack, sand, etc), Lemontwistenberg, would always be a bottleneck for all but the very fastest riders. This led to a very fast and often dangerous situation along Del Dios Highway. Now, riders won’t hit this sector until nearly 40km in, not the 20km of the past. There is another Unroad sector proceeding it, so rather than a bottleneck, the Lemonstwistenberg should just see some good old fashioned chasing.

Another challenging — and often decisive — sector at the end of the race, the Wildeman Wildernis is not included this year; the US Forest Service would not permit it because of all the rain damage.

As it currently stands, the Unroad sectors comprise about 42 percent of the total miles of the Waffle and Wafer courses. As always, there are “three levels of hell” to choose from — the Waffle at 128.5 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing, the Wafer at 78.3 miles and 6,500 feet of climbing, and the Wanna at 43 miles and 4,500 feet of climbing.

matt beers
Matt Beers leads the leaders on the road in 2022 (Photo: Courtesy Matt Beers)

Peppered throughout the Waffle’s 25 Unroad sectors (which include, as mentioned, all manner of, well, Unroad) are some new sections of fast-rolling pavement. It’s impossible to say where the race will be won this year, which is very exciting. Tire selection, as always, is a roll of the dice, with Marckx recommending anything from 30-47mm.

The race ends with a series of exciting — or dismaying, depending on your attitude — features. The Muur van Dubbelberg, which Marckx calls the worst climb of the entire course 😂, is the final and steepest climb of them all, attaining a grade of 23 percent at one point near the top, which comes very late in the race.

This year, rather than a “anti-climactic” descent off the Dubbelberg, Marckx has added  “a fun, tricky, twisty dirty trick, forcing riders to once again test their gravel grinding skills in a masochistic maze of trails that offer a view of the finish line but provide no direct line toward it.

“At roughly three- kilometers in switchback length, this is the zig-zaggiest and perhaps sickest of all the sectors. Dubbelberg Twistenweg requires skills, sacrifice, singular focus and a sense of humor to navigate, as once again the opportunity to walk the bike becomes a necessity if any of those things are missing from a rider’s repertoire. It may be twisted, but it’s demented, too.”

The race ends shortly thereafter, so I think I’ll leave it at that.

The Riders

Last year, Alexey Vermeulen and the late Moriah Wilson won BWR California, both in memorable fashion. Vermeulen attacked on the Dubbelberg and dropped Alex Howes, cementing his biggest pro win.

Wilson, tragically in what was both her most impressive and her last bike race ever, went solo to win 25 minutes ahead of the second place female. She was 27th overall in a field of thousands.

In concert with her family, BWR has retired #12, Wilson’s winning number plate in California last year, for all BWR California races to come.

mo wilson
We miss you, Mo. (Photo: @dbetcher44)

The women’s race this year will be animated by some of BWR’s usual suspects — Whitney Allison, Sarah Max, Flavia Oliveira Parks, and Becca Fahringer, who have all won a BWR (or two) in years past, will all be on the start line on Sunday.

Other riders to watch include Big Sugar Gravel champion Paige Onweller, Strava queen Isabel King, Hannah Shell, and newer arrivals on the scene Chelsea Pummel and Cecily Decker.

Two other interesting riders to watch in the Waffle are Holly Henry and Maddy Ward. Until recently, the two were teammates on the InstaFund Pro Cycling team. Henry, who is still on the pro team, will race BWR after a week in the Redlands Classic. This year, Ward has hung up her road wheels for the off-road.

The men’s race will have veteran champions on the line — Vermeulen will be back, as will two-time winner Pete Stetina. Russell Finsterwald and John Borstelmann, both on the podium in 2021, will also line up on Sunday.

Griffin Easter and Alex Howes (third and fourth last year) are also two to watch.

Other serious contenders in California include Lance Haidet, Adam Roberge, ‘cross national champ Curtis White, and Aussie Freddy Ovett.

The formidable Dutch mafia, which includes Laurens ten Dam, Thomas Dekker, Niki Terpstra, Jasper Ockeloen and 2022 Unbound champ Ivar Slik will also be in attendance — will they be working together, too?

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