Preview: BWR Arizona, ‘The Hell of the North Desert’

A deep field of pros will race a rowdy and raucous 122 miles at the inaugural event.

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It used to be that the red clay roads of Oklahoma were pro gravel’s season-opening proving grounds, but this year the towering saguaro and spindly cholla cacti of Arizona have a one-week lead.

On March 5, Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona debuts in Cave Creek, and race director Michael Marckx has concocted his usual blend of a desirable destination, a rough and rowdy racecourse, as well as a vibrant local cycling community into what will forever be known as “The Hell of the North Desert.”

Whether it’s the allure of that special blend or a wholly obsessed group of gravel cyclists, Marckx says that “this inaugural event has attracted the deepest pro field for a BWR to date.”

The riders

The men’s field at BWR Arizona is deep and wide, with nearly two dozen of the discipline’s top riders coming to Arizona after volume-building winter training seasons around the country

Arizona snowbirds Keegan Swenson and Russell Finsterwald have definitely been putting in the miles in Tucson — expect fireworks from the duo that went 1-3 in last year’s Life Time Grand Prix.

BWR courses have been known to include singletrack or singletrack-ish sectors that challenge those whose bike handling skills aren’t up to speed. This shouldn’t be a problem — in fact, the opposite — for Durango MTB legends Howard Grotts and Christopher Blevins.

WorldTour pros turned gravel dads Alex Howes, Pete Stetina, and Kiel Reijnen will also be in attendance in Arizona, with Stetina hoping to repeat a BWR Quadrupel Crown title this year.

Likely to join the most familiar names in breakaways and bunches, keep an eye on riders like Lance Haidet, Taylor Lideen, Ethan Overson, Alex Hoehn, Ryan Standish, Jake Magee, Tobin Ortenblad, and Griffin and Cullen Easter.

The pro women’s field in Arizona, while smaller, will also put on a show (be sure to follow the women’s race @belgianwaffleride on Instagram).

Two-time BWR Utah champion Whitney Allison will open her season at BWR; the Colorado rider’s intimate knowledge of BWR course lunacy could send her back to the podium in Arizona.

Sofia Gomez Villafañe is another of many riders who have been putting in huge training miles in Arizona this winter; she’s also got the MTB skills to make moves on the singletrack. Watch out for Alexis Skarda there and on the long sustained climbs, too.

Other notable riders to watch out for include Isabel King and Emily Newsom, followed closely by Danielle Larson, Starla Teddergreen, Hannah Shell, Lindsay Goldman, Jiri Senkyrik, and U23 XC mountain bikers Ariana Milelli and Sydney Nielson.

The course

So, first off — it snowed in Arizona on Wednesday. However, with temperatures gradually rising for the rest of the week and a race day high of 65 degrees, riders should encounter hero dirt, if not completely dry dirt, by Sunday.

Springtime desert wildflowers will be an extra bonus.

At 122 miles, the BWR Arizona Waffle course is slightly shorter than other BWR courses, but that’s not really saying anything. Neither really is the total elevation gain — while 9,000 feet is plenty, it’s the ever-changing nature of the course that will be its greatest challenge. Half of the course is unpaved and half is paved, with the unpaved sections a mix of dirt, sand, gravel, rocks, and singletrack.

Within the unpaved parts of the race, Marckx has created nine ‘unroad’ sectors. These are really best explained by the man himself in the BWR Arizona Race Bijbel; I can’t do justice to phrasing like: Heads will be spinning, and what will for sure be amazing single-track fun, the route will morph into leg burning, get-me-outta-this-mess mind games (Unroad sector #5: Schilderachtige, Dutch for picturesque)

Seriously, check out the Bijbel for a glimpse into the mind of a … special kind of event director. In addition to interpretive information about the area’s natural features, this race manual-on-steroids also contains helpful tips like ‘how to remove cactus spines from your perforated body.’

On course, there are three Queen/King of the dirt, sprint, and mountain segments and five feed zones. A series of steep, paved climbs with pitches of up to 20 percent greet riders at the end of the race, after which they return to the event venue for waffles and beer.


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