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The uncertainty piques the curiosity. And then the party, professionalism, and promotion cement the deal.
Belgian Waffle Ride’s formula of huge distance, road race dynamics, mass start, and rocky dirt sections don’t fit neatly into one category. Just like the amateur racers, the elite riders struggle to decide what type of tires to use, where in the field they are as the massive group funnels through singletrack, or even how to categorize what type of event it is.
“BWR defies definition and that is exactly why it has a place here in the Monuments,” said Amity Rockwell. “You can’t win by just being good at one thing, which I think encapsulates the essence of gravel racing. It’s also a blast.”
The course is about 140 miles long, with 10,000 feet of climbing. It’s largely paved, but there are roughly 20 challenging dirt sectors — and bacon hand-ups, and a finish at a brewery with its doors wide open to racers.
The race’s punishing sectors and great distance are just part of the experience for elite riders. The Belgian Waffle Ride is also a media juggernaut, and each year produces thousands of images, stories, and social media posts that circulate throughout the cycling world. In 2019 the race was even the focus of a documentary film crew, and the ensuing film “Hell of the North” chronicled the event. Producers snapped photos of athletes before and after the race to showcase their tired and dirt-covered faces and kits.
For Pete Stetina, winning the 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride effectively kickstarted his move from WorldTour racer to gravel privateer.
“I went to BWR for fun. A buddy in Santa Rosa who was like, ‘You gotta check this thing out, it’s fun. It’s like Bike Monkey or the Grasshopper Series, which are small and local, but BWR is big,’” Stetina said.
“In the race there was a car following us with the media and there was a movie being produced and afterward you’re whisked away to a green screen and shoved beer and waffles and you’re all grimy, and it was so cool,” he said. “All of the production around the race was better and more professional than 90 percent of the pro races I’ve done in Europe. More importantly I was having fun and I could just be me. I could drink a beer and catch up with [Dave] Zabriskie at the expo and just have fun.”
Stetina, who has raced the Tour de France and all around the world, found the efforts of racing to be searing.
“I remember the pain, honestly,” he said. “I went deep, really deep, I was really surprised. I was personally more screwed up for longer than after Dirty Kanza. Kanza was pure gravel grinding; you’re emptying the tank and slogging, and the ultimate test of endurance. BWR was racing. It was attacks. High power, there was more muscle damage there.”
The impact of the race continued to impress Stetina.
“Afterwards, the social media metrics were unbelievable,” he said. “And even in the Tour of California, I’m on this big ass climb, I’d been doing my job and riding at the front, and Richie Porte would be ahead going for the win and guys would be yelling at me ‘Belgian Waffle Winner!’ and I was like, holy cow, people actually care about this. That’s what got the gears going for this whole gravel thing.”
Sarah Sturm said her favorite memory of racing in 2019 was realizing that she was winning the 2019 BWR.
‘For most of the race I thought I was off of the back,” she said. “The start of that thing is absolute chaos. I had no idea where any of the women were, I just assumed that they were all in front of me.”
“So when I asked the camera men were following me who was ahead and they said nobody, I was really surprised,” she said.
Surprise is part of the BWR formula. Stetina compared it to an Ardennes race mixed with singletrack. “You’re coming in full speed on the road into these singletrack paths sections on a road bike,” He said. “It’s like, alright, hold on, and buckle up. It is wild.”