Cervelo BWR 2016: METAL on Dirt

The Belgian Waffle Ride is a blank canvas. World famous, bigger, dirtier and more irreverent each year. The 2016 gauntlet tossed by its creative creator, Michael Marckx (MMX), traverses 145 miles, 11,000 feet of climbing and over 30 miles of dirt. It also draws 1,000 dirty fools ready to go all Jackson Pollock on that blank canvas.

The Belgian Waffle Ride is a blank canvas.  World famous, bigger, dirtier and more irreverent each year.  The 2016 gauntlet tossed by its creative creator, Michael Marckx (MMX), traverses 145 miles, 11,000 feet of climbing and over 30 miles of dirt. It also draws 1,000 dirty fools ready to go all Jackson Pollock on that blank canvas.  With no rule against painting both sides, I would ride the entire course on consecutive days, while also adding 50 miles riding to and from the course mostly because avoiding car interiors is both a point of pride and a means to measure my quality of life. There is a publication called “The Car Enthusiast” and surely automobiles serve noble functions on occasion such as delivering Fabio to a sexy book signing with his coiffed mane undisturbed, but predominantly they house disgruntled chattel cued up in mechanical moving chairs like those miserable corpulents in WALL-E. They call me METAL, car Unenthusiast; and I call this Belgian Waffle Repeats.

The alarm needlessly sounds Saturday at 4am, an hour after commencement of preparations for BWR rep one; a 190-mile romp. It’s slightly shorter than my usual training ride, but the heady clarion call of an unknown two-day adventure that tests the endurance of my fearful skinny-tired road bike breathes life into everything.  I’ll first ride from my home in Point Loma and jump onto the BWR course at mile 17, a couple clicks before the first dirt. To no shock but ample aggravation, the first ten miles are shrouded in dirty drizzle. It’s April, but around here the coast has two specialties: May Gray and June Gloom. In such conditions, I will confess to flagrantly disturbing the peace by cursing random invective nonsense in no particular direction but make no apologies because how is an idiot ranting on his bike at 5am by UCSD any worse than say a garbage truck with hissing air brakes?  Plus I smell better. I rationalize, but the first battle is in admitting the weather is a problem.

My minimally-prepared Cervelo R3 bike betrays its racing pedigree only with some sorta-fat Gatorskin tires, a new 28mm on the front and an old BWR veteran 25mm on the back. The sun’s up and I’m on the course, and the exhilarating adventure has begun. The second dirt sector in BWR (Saint Lucy/Lusardi) is deservedly infamous due to its hilariously deep sand pits and a nearly unrideable rock garden climb that takes out half of us untalented roadies. I walked less than 50 feet in the course of three killer trails, but the Saint was one. Aside from hinting at my suspect rear tire, I’ve yet to share my history of failure on dirt.

This is actually my second attempt at BWRepeats.  Last year, rain transformed Lusardi’s dirt into impassable clay, meaning my wheels failed to turn and I predictably and utterly ignored the issue until my chain functioned no better than a metallic dirt rope struggling to move cogs. This eventually conjured a snapped derailleur hanger and an apologetic Uber ride home. Bad signs continued into 2016, when I joined MMX for a dirt session and managed to snap my chain not ten minutes into the dirt in the same spot. Really? Yes. Dirt fails to gather and whisper in my ear, ‘none of this happens on pavement.’  I was never concerned about my physical ability to complete this mission; yet warily aware a bike part would tap out and spoil the fun.

Back to live action, I’m nearing the end of Lusardi and my rear tire blows the sidewall. It’s easy enough to boot it with a Mylar wrapper and grab some supplies later, but soon I realize my tube stems are too short and inflating my tires with one of two C02 cartridges will be impossible. Smelling defeat, I text a group of friends who live in the area at the change to salvage my misfortune. I sent out the following:

“Might be stuck on Lusardi, down to last Co2″

The replies were comical.

“Haha METAL rides dirt! It takes a village.”

I curiously determined it was an excellent idea to blow maximum air into the tube with my mouth so that the stem would stick out a little farther and the C02 would not blow 16 grams of sadness into the dirt.  Bladed spokes dig into your face when you are trying to sideways service a stem mounted on a wheel. I know, you’ve all been there.  Trail runners and heavy folks barely able to ambulate now gleefully drop dubious salutations, and it was so bad it became hilarious. Support rang out like, “good luck with that.”  Faced with the miserable prospect of an Uber exit, I held onto my last C02 like that crazy Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark held that burning medallion. Full enough on 70 psi, I embarked on a sudden detour for fresh supplies which included a fresh tire and extra tubes. Fortunately, this was the last of my mechanical misadventures.

Not normally one for dirt, BWR has given me a dual-pronged appreciation for riding off-road.  First, the sounds, smells and solitude one enjoys while riding through varied scenic topography is exhilarating, and imbues the ride with a sense of adventure one might have as 12-year-old. The epiphany in trying to ascertain the source of these waves of euphoria struck in a moment of truth.  It was addition by subtraction; no cars. Yes, this many miles would have certainly produced some goon in a pickup ‘rolling coal’; a double-middle-fingered mom taking her kids to preschool driving with no hands; the texting driver or the left hook from a city bus with no signal.  All these charmers I share the road with don’t do the dirt, which frankly, I find charming.

Second, I make a big fuss about being terrible on dirt and it would be absurd for an Ultra Racer roadie to break his face, coccyx or collarbone chasing a meaningless result hours after the winner rolled through. But excuses get old, and I eventually became compelled to ride on dirt with the appreciation of improving the craft. Many have dedicated time to the cause, and like a beginning musician, improving is fun. You’ll never master it and you’ll leave with a more profound appreciation for the shredders.

Registration for BWR was open until 5pm on this eve of the real BWR, but my rear tire debacle cost too much time and I’d have to cut out a large section of dirt and the short but iconic climb up to Double Peak in order to make the cut. I thought of dialing MMX to request a time extension, but that guy is running an empire with more important things to worry about than my arbitrary goals. I was ultimately happy to have missed a few things, as they were fun new treasures on race day.

I finally rolled into the BWR Expo at 4:59 pm, reg’d up, said my hellos to various cycling dignitaries, and soon departed for the 40 mile journey home and jumped off the bike 12 hours before the real BWR with 190 miles in my legs.

Race Day

The BWR area is a giant party attended by everyone you know who rides a bike along with others you’ll want to meet. It’s a sensory overload of colors ranging from the iconic yellow Mavic support car to that guy who did zero training and signed up for BWR yesterday. The collective experience in suffering vast stretches of risable roads means the rider next to you is bound to blurt out some unique expression of bemused disgust at the misfortune plaguing everyone, triggering the first conversation with your new friend. The less mentioned magic of BWR is the social cement it presents to bring uniquely adventurous people together. I’m sitting behind Dave Zabriske, chatting with One-Armed Willie; Michael Marckx is charming the crowd under perfect blue skies while a drone films overhead and a fleet of Highway Patrol vehicles is ready to escort the peloton as we roll out for adventure.  It’s electric, but not that mortifying dance where Electric Sliding the wrong direction means your face is pointing the wrong way and looking directly at your now almost-over-date and every other person who did it right.  I know.  You’ve all been there.
Before we know it the race is on and we’re cruising 30 mph with Lake Hodges gleaming off to the left. A huge bottleneck onto the first dirt section created a yawning gap, so I burned all my matches to close it while dragging some friends back into contention. The second dirt section of gnarly rocks cause audible calamity and I hear at least 8 tires explode.

The gritty battlefield was a comical carnage of flats, walking riders, dudes flying off into the shrubs and most of all, happy riders basking in adventure, uncertainty and the delicious suffering of others.

The BWR Aid Stations are a pageant of peculiar humanity loaded with food, fun and things you just don’t see every day.  Having seen off my fast friends to their 7-hour finishes, my muted legs and commitment to doing the dirt no-crashy style produced a pleasing pattern for the remaining 100 miles.  Being slow on dirt meant tons of riders blasted by me, but being better than your average rider at pumping out fatigued tempo METAL returned the favor on the pavement.

The most hilarious moment of all meets your ears before your eyes. Yes, an actual Oompah Band playing at a dusty outpost miles from civilization.  This is the perfect music to dance to on a bike, as I finished the climb in perfect cadence with the band.  Volunteers at one stop yelled “free donuts” at a cop who promptly locked up all four tires, jumped out with a huge grin and waited for his hand up which was executed with all the haste and professionalism you would expect – if the cop was in the race.  Characters colored the course and a spontaneous quirky element is the unofficial aid stations where people dress up, act foolish and hand out food, advice or booze.  They come out to enjoy the show, but end up becoming part of it.  You can get shots of tequila of unknown pedigree; a guy was dressed up as a knife in the head or something. A number of entire families set up shop out in the sticks with rider provisions and just handed stuff out.  Great family time, let’s sit here and watch these fools suffer.

Into the second half of my second BWR, it was apparent I’d found the great adventure I was seeking. Despite being more than 300 miles deep in two days, the end of the road would come too soon.  Sure there will be next year, and certainly MMX will brew up some new mischief, but the ‘right now’ in cycling can be powerfully good; and oh, was it good.

I climbed up to the Oasis—the famous dirt section inhabited by nearly naked people with squirt guns—and was dutifully informed of the few miles remaining and that this was the last aid station.  I started mentally preparing for the end and set forth for Double Peak—the last major climb a few short miles from the finish. On my way, I see Dave Haase of RAAM fame walking his bike because his electronic shifting died, which was hilarious since he not only owns a shop, but also has the endurance of an ox. Even a little walking couldn’t keep Haase from a finish. I passed one guy dramatically rocking his shoulders and about to die, but luckily Double Peak has become a great gathering of supporters with cowbells, crazy costumes and generous pushes to the summit.  I did not need a push, but near the top I hear “that’s METAL…Double Push!” Sure enough, two friends I barely recognize push me to the verge of speed wobbles.  The winner of the race was later asked, “what was with the guy wearing a green diaper and a cape?”  Technically, Brandon was wearing a blue Speedo and a Belgian flag.

I rolled through the final section of dirt with hunger now dictating the terms of my pace. I hit the line somewhere around nine hours, and placed somewhere in the top 100 to join the BWR party in full swing.  Every person at the finish was stoked.  When do you ever see that? I see Michele Davis, who did team RAAM a few years back, in a shredded kit, covered in blood, dirt and bandages drinking a beer with a huge grin.  My buddy Aaron Sager cheerfully reports “she crashed SPECTACULARLY!” The implication was clear that not only did she crash, she had done it much to his pleasure and entertainment.  Michele approvingly nodded at his assessment. I smiled so hard my face hurt.

I’d spent 345 miles on the bike, but only a few hours at home all weekend.  Surrounded with friends and good cheer, it was time to return to my home of eccentrics who would hilariously expect me to do stuff for them immediately upon arrival.  As for every BWR rider, the World’s Most Unique Bike Event had been uniquely mine. A kaleidoscope of inappropriate characters viewed through the bone-jarring perch of a road bike on dirt had come and gone for another year.

– Andrew Danly*

*an earlier post incorrectly attributed this article to Phil Tintsman

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