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Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego has quickly become one of the premier races on the American gravel calendar, and one of the unique races in the country, too. This year’s 137-mile (220km) BWR San Diego course was made up of a combination of pavement, dirt, gravel, and singletrack – in total, there were 23 unpaved sectors and in excess of 11,300 feet (3,465m) of climbing, making for one of the hardest one-day races on the US calendar.
A major change in 2022 was the inclusion of a steep climb in the race’s opening miles. In years past, BWR began with a long paved section of wide-open highway, before chaotically diving into technical singletrack. To help string things out, steep climbs were added to the first 10 miles of the course, which whittled the peloton down to about 20 riders in less than an hour.
One of the perennial race favorites was Peter Stetina, but before the race began, Stetina’s start was in doubt. Fewer than three weeks before BWR San Diego, Stetina crashed in the Fuego 80km mountain bike race at Sea Otter and suffered a broken wrist. His fractured right distal radius wasn’t going to fully heal in three weeks, so he waited to make a race-day decision.
In the end, Stetina started, and with a hefty custom splint that would keep his wrist basically locked in place. But the pain was still horrible, according to Stetina, which played a major role in the outcome of his race. Nevertheless, Stetina attacked almost from the gun. On the first climb of the day, Stetina was pushing over 7w/kg with the goal of dropping as many riders as possible – or at least, making it to the singletrack first.
Stetina – first 10km of BWR San Diego
Average Power: 345w (5.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 369w (5.9w/kg)
Peak 6min Power: 438w (7w/kg)
The singletrack sections of BWR San Diego are some of the most challenging of the race — not just because of their difficulty but the fight for positioning that leads to them. With no room to pass, riders fought shoulder-to-shoulder on the run-in to these singletrack sections, as the accordion effect threatened to snap the group around every single corner. Just one rider’s mistake could have been the catalyst for a decisive split, and that’s why Vermeulen was pushing nearly 900w heading into the Lemontwistenberg singletrack sector. You can see the spike in Vermeulen’s power just before the tight, left-hand turn onto the singletrack.
Vermeulen – Lemon Twist gravel sector
Average Power: 275w (4.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 312w (4.8w/kg)
Lemontwistenberg (3.2km at 2.0 pecent): 328w NP for 7:55
The Bandy climb would also take its toll on the lead group, with multiple steep sections in excess of 10 percent. However, the sharpest attacks came soon after, near the top of the Duck Water climb where Vermeulen was pushing more than 400w.
Vermeulen – Bandy and Duck Hunt climbs
Average Power: 249w (3.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 288w (4.3w/kg)
Bandy (7.5km at 4.6 percent): 310w NP for 20:25
Duck Hunt: (4.2km at 3.5 percent): 356w NP for 9:07
Having reached the race’s mid-point, the front group was whittled down to seven including Vermeulen, Alex Howes (EF Education-EasyPost), and Matthew Beers (Toyota-Specialized). Beers is a professional mountain bike who just finished third overall at the Cape Epic in March. The South African paired up with American Christopher Blevins to take on the six-stage Cape Epic where the pair raced for a total of 28 hours and 13 minutes and climbed 46,332ft (14,122m). I am confident in saying that Beers wasn’t too intimidated by the 7-hour on-road/off-road BWR course.
Beers – BWR San Diego
Average Power: 296w (3.6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 347w (4.2w/kg)
Peak 3min Power: 598w (7.3w/kg)
Peak 8min Power: 504w (6.2w/kg)
Peak 1hour Normalized Power: 395w (4.8w/kg)
On the bumpy and technical descent through the Wildeman Wilderness near the middle of the race, Stetina’s kind-of-broken wrist couldn’t handle the rough roads anymore, and he was forced to drop out of the lead group. He would spend nearly the entire second half of the race solo, still managing to finish fifth on the day.
This technical descent would prove to be a decisive point, with Vermeulen and other off-road specialists taking the lead and pushing the pace through each dirty, slippery, and sandy corner.
What came next was a 30-mile breather, with the pace dropping to a modest 240-250w as the front group geared up for the finale. With around 40 miles to go, Vermeulen threw down a serious attack on Bandyweg Hill that brought Howes along for the ride.
Vermeulen – Bandyweg Hill
Average Power: 303w (4.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 336w (5.2w/kg)
Bandyweg Hill steep section (1.2km at 8.2 percent): 405w (6.2w/kg) for 3:56
Howes would barely make it back to Vermeulen, who was charging towards the victory at this point. After fighting back multiple times, Howes would finally be dropped by one of Vermeulen’s incessant attacks on a paved climb. Vermeulen went solo all the way to the finish and won by an incredible margin despite crashing into a hiker in the last dirt section. (Both the hiker and Vermeulen were okay.)
Perhaps this is where Vermeulen’s Strava file cuts out – his ride ended about 10km before the finish, although we can be pretty confident that he was motoring along at ~300w with a healthy 5-minute gap.
Vermeulen – solo to finish
Average Power: 253w (3.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 278w (4.3w/kg)
Vermeulen’s win was not just impressive, it was downright ridiculous. Having been solo for only a few miles, Vermeulen had built up a solid lead, but no one would have expected it to be this big. The Jukebox-Enve rider crossed the line in an official time of 6 hours 34 minutes and 33 seconds, putting him six minutes and seven seconds ahead of second place.
Think about that for a minute. Most professional bike races – the long ones at WorldTour level – are between four and seven hours long. A hard mountain stage in the Tour de France might last four and a half hours, while this year’s Milan-Sanremo was one of the fastest ever and still took six and a half hours.
Can you imagine the winner being six minutes ahead of second place? For the stats nerds out there, let me know the last time that has happened in a one-day WorldTour race.
To win BWR San Diego takes a magical combination of legs, luck, preparation, and timing. At this level of the sport, the top riders are often separated by milliseconds in a sprint finish. To win by over six minutes… Alexey Vermeulen is on another level this year.