After the Black Canyon Climb, about halfway Belgian Waffle Ride, I stopped and grabbed a water bottle from a small aid station.
Two women suddenly passed me. I saw them disappear in the distance as I chugged as much water as I could.
I hopped up on my bike and started rolling, shifting my line suddenly to work out a cramp in my leg.
I heard an eastern European voice behind me:
I look behind me and see Katarina Nash. She stopped for water also. Trouble is, the women in front of her are about a 3/4 of a mile up the road. As we’re rolling, she looks up at me.
Since I was completely out of it, I said, “Hop on,” and I put my head down and wattgodded out.
I hear her say behind me, “You big man, big watts, keep going!”
So I did, producing my peak heart rate of the year and my most expensive match of all BWR, with a solid 70 miles remaining.
I got her to the group, dropped her off. She says, "Thanks, want to ride w/us??"
And that’s how I signed with Cliff as a woman’s racer road assistant.
After the race, I'm sitting alone..
…waiting for my family to arrive by a food truck with a bratwurst, a plate of fries, and an enormous brisket sandwich.
I hear a voice, “Hey, Mr. Mustache! Thanks for the pull! I won! Thanks for helping me!”
I look up and see a beaming Czech face.
And then she left me to eat seasoned meats on the curb alone.
So how did Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego go? Exceptionally Okay. I won’t ever know for sure because I’m not good at thinking:
Take a look at that picture to the right. What would you do with that styrofoam tag? Leave it on your race number, or take it off and stick it to your helmet?
I stuck it on my helmet. I only realized this while standing at the start after 15 minutes when I noticed that other racers didn’t have a giant piece of freaking foam sticking off the side of their helmet.
I took it off as quietly as I could and attached it to my bike number, then realized, 5 minutes before the start, I didn’t have the tiny little helmet tag on.
Ugly you can fix, stupid, not so much.
So, before the gun even went off, I knew that no matter how well I did, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t even get credit for it because I couldn’t read and follow simple instructions.
Not that it mattered, as you’ll see. BWR San Diego is my second major gravel race. A few critical weaknesses in my riding guarantee profound embarrassment in results. In no particular order…
1. Steering is Hard.
Unlike in road racing, gravel racing always features, well, gravel. Gravel in and of itself isn’t necessarily insurmountable for a roadie to navigate. Still, there’s the rub right there. There’s a massive difference between ‘I can basically get through this technical section without touching my brakes’ and ‘I possess the dumb courage of a 7-year-old helmetless boy after two servings of ice cream and fear no obstacle, living or dead.’
I fall into the former category.
Sure, I saw some pieces of handling at BWR that made even me roll my eyes and cackle inwardly as I slipped around them. Still, those people were 20 minutes off the back and would go on to either DNF BWR or finish the last 1/3 of the race, so really, I shouldn’t have been pleased with myself in the slightest.
2. Generally, one can pace a gravel race in two ways:
- Pretend it’s like a road race, use every match available to stay with the lead group with the knowledge that more than likely the lineup of current and former World Tour Riders, National Level mountain bikers, and random people with VO2maxes that would make Bjorn Dæhlie look ordinary will drop you BUT you’ll be much farther along than you would normally be outside their draft and hope you don’t explode too much.
- Pace yourself knowing you’ll inevitably pass hundreds of idiots who did option 1.
As my colleague pointed out, in some sense, if you decide to go route 2, you’ve conceded something that’s hard to admit – you’re not going to win.
So I chose route 1, even after my Kanza experience, even knowing 130 brutal, technical, steep, hot miles separated me from the finish.
My execution of option 1 was brief. I arrived late, forced myself into the crowded start area, drawing glares, and completed the first two corners of the race with all the grace of a touring bus.
And yet, I displayed a complete lack of haste to close the already stretching gap between the mutants at the front and my own position somewhere in the wash of the frenzied scream of freehub bodies in front of me, as if part of me didn’t want to be there and spend all that energy fighting for company in which I didn’t belong anyway.
Then I dropped my chain, and my anger ignited.
It ignited because as soon as I got it back on, I bridged to a group where one already tired, out of shape looking guy looked at me surging and said, “It’s going to be a long day, no point in going too hard right now trying to hang with those fast people.”
And thus, I expended my second hardest match of the day.
I’ve had one good race this year, and I’ve trained very, very hard – too hard. When you overdo it, and your performance sucks, it’s hard not to feel like you suck, not momentarily, but in essence.
So I dropped the hammer and charged straight into the jaws of oblivion, blowing watts out of my backside and generally unwisely expending gratuitous amounts of energy blundering around a single track, gravel, and boiling early asphalt climbs, regaining some ground until that Czech goddess caught me and I lit my last match.
How was the rest of the course?
Well, have you ever been to a play or a movie, and you’re really taken with it? Do you feel like you’re in the grip of the director, and you feel the tension building to the final climax?
That’s what BWR is like.
The Course director is an evil genius in the mold of the original director of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange. He was famous for saying that the perfect Tour de France was so hard that only one rider finished.
I don’t know who creates this BWR, but it’s absolutely heinous and perfect.
I mean, I’ve done Unbound Gravel 200, so I had that grotesque racing experience as a backdrop to BWR. As I passed mile 120, despite the heat, despite the now-familiar sensation of my stomach closing down for the day, I knew this wouldn’t be as bad as Unbound – how could it? I only had 10 more miles to go, not 85.
At that moment, I heard the cruel laughter of the race director from afar, no doubt sipping a beer watching my naivety play out in real-time. A climb popped up on my screen. It said the final climb was coming up, the 14th major climb of the day, and it was 4.5 miles long and gained 1800 feet.
Instead of getting mad, I smiled. Of course, this was the final climb. Of course, you lull the riders into thinking they’re only 10 miles away. How much worse could it get? Of course, the climb might gain 1800 feet in 4 miles, but it doesn’t say that the last 800 feet you get in the last mile.
To summit the last 800 feet, I had to do something I’ve never done in a bike race before – paperboy. That’s when, instead of just riding straight up the road, you right diagonally across the street to cut the gradient. At this point, it was midday, and the asphalt was hot enough to cook on. Around the final bend, three dudes about 10 beers ahead of me dressed in a costume hollered at me. I asked them if they were real, and they cackled and smashed another beer.
The summit wasn’t the summit. The course made its way around a fence up a small spit of gravel up some wooden steps they had to install to stop erosion. I tried to send it but couldn’t clear it and began walking. Some freaking goddess bellowed behind me and floored it past me, removing the steps and the final summit.
After a bizarre routing around the finish line onto a freaking cross course, I finished, knowing I wouldn’t have a time because I couldn’t read, but almost relieved that I didn’t because yet again, I’d proved that riding on Zwift all winter isn’t real life – you’ve got to be able to steer.
I looked down at my Team Rio Grande kit, barely made it out – it looked like I had been dunked in a vat of salt and laid out to dry.
I sat there for what must have been half an hour, sucking down the vibe, and then pigged out, drank beers with strangers, and found my family and sat around bsing, telling myself I’d never do this again even while my heart dug in on another race to love.
How to BWR San Diego
Rule number 1 in any endurance sport – if you’re fit, you can get away with murder.
BWR isn’t something you want to show up to with only a couple group rides in your legs. 130 miles with 11,000 feet of climbing in intense heat is no joke, so if you actually intend to finish, the first and most important box to check off is your physical preparation.
Don’t get me wrong – you don’t need to be training at a professional level to finish this race, but it will require some significant preparation.
In general, I’d say a finisher should be training minimally 10 hours a week on average for the 12 weeks leading up to the race and have at least 2-3 five-hour + rides in their legs.
You can finish on that. Anything less, well, you’re either planning on pulling out early or you’re interested in a nonpharmacological hallucinogenic experience.
BWR California isn’t a road race. There are single-track, washed-out dirt, goat paths, technical asphalt downhills, berms, curbs, and even rock gardens.
The first time you encounter this kind of terrain shouldn’t be the race.
What roadies forget but mountain bikers and cyclocross racers understand is that when the road gets spicy, your technical ability matters more than your w/kg.
Your preparation for BWR California shouldn’t just be on Zwift or on asphalt – you need to incorporate some single track and tough technical riding on your gravel bike at speed, and your goal should be to ride through the same stretch of trail faster using less wattage.
What’s the hack here? Buy some mountain bike lessons with a qualified coach. It’ll save you hours and hours of doing the wrong thing. Once your instructor is satisfied, go practice until it’s second nature.
The most important consideration in this race by far is what tire width you run. The choice is easy:
If you’re confident in your skills, pick a 30 mm wide tubeless setup.
If you’re not confident in your skills, pick a 35+ mm wide tubeless setup.
If you’re not sure which one you are, go wider – what you lose in speed you’ll gain in confidence descending extended washed-out gravel and navigating the single track.
Other considerations are up to you. The course has so many aid stations that you don’t need to bring a camelpack for survival, but maybe you think you’ll save lots of time not stopping at aid stations so you’ll carry one anyway. I don’t know – it’s your life.
Just because it’s well supported, however, doesn’t mean you should pretend this is a fully supported ride. It’s not. If you flat, it’s on you, so make sure you’re not caught with your pants down when that telltale hiss begins.
Beyond being able to turn the pedals pretty hard for a long time, the greatest challenge at BWR California is heat mitigation.
Broadly, two camps exist in how to deal with hydration – drink to thirst versus drink to a plan.
At BWR California, you need a plan. It’s too long and too hot to rely on your thirst mechanism for guidance.
First bit of advice – separate hydration from energy. In other words, drink to hydrate, eat to fuel.
Hydration starts before you pedal, because once the starter’s gun goes off, you’re fighting a losing battle with sweat losses.
The night before, drink a beverage with roughly 1000-1500 mg sodium. Pedialyte works great, even if it tastes weird.
90 minutes before the event, drink that again.
During the event, shoot to take down roughly 1,000 mg of sodium per hour. You can do this with a combination of premixed bottles as well as electrolyte tablets.
At aid stations, take down some water as well, trusting your thirst there. But above all, keep the sodium going because in sustained 100 F heat, you’ll probably going to be losing a lot. Once your blood plasma drops, performance drops with it.
Fueling goes hand in hand with your hydration plan. As I recommended, use fluids for hydration, food for eating.
You’ll want to eat a combination of real food and gels. Even if you’re blindly fast, you’re in for a long day, with at least 6+ hours in the saddle. Most people will take roughly 9 or 10 hours.
Consequently, that’s a long time to just be taking down gels or sugar, and if you don’t eat real food, more than likely your small intensity is going to get backed up, and you won’t be able to eat any longer.”
If that happens, things get really, really painful because you have to slow down even more.
Whatever you eat, make sure race day isn’t the day you first try it. Most racers know that, but it’s always a temptation. Just don’t.
If you think you might place really, really well, road race tactics apply – start fast, stay with the lead group as long as possible, don’t do anything insane early, and if you make it to the last 30 miles or so and feel good, attack where the course suits you best.
For everyone else, pace yourself. Sure, BWR California is long, hard, and hot, but it’s no Unbound Gravel, a race that’s so long that basically everyone ends up exploding. There’s definitely a temptation to go super hard because in the end, if you explode, you won’t have to gut your way through 80 miles of scorching heat.
Don’t fall for it. BWR California is still dumb hard, and the organizers always end it on some obscene insanity like Double Peak, which is a 4.5-mile climb with 1800 feet of climbing that they add in the last 10 miles.
If you can find a good group and titrate your effort carefully, you’ll finish much faster than detonating everything you have early and then crawl through the last 30 miles.