It was fun knowing that I’d be doing a partial Belgian Waffle Ride recon with Pablo. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s commitment.”
Two days before the ride, I got the call that so often comes from people who, three weeks before a trip down to North County San Diego, are brimming with enthusiasm and commitment. “Uh, dude, I can’t make it,” he said.
“Yeah, sure.” I was used to it. The only thing I really cared about was the excuse, because I collect them.
“I think I got the sniffles,” he said.
“Sniffles. I been having a little runny nose and my poopies aren’t as firm as usual. I think I’m coming down with a very uncomfy case of the sniffles.”
“Okay,” I said. “Wouldn’t want you to have to wipe snot on your shirt sleeve during the ride. Heal up, pal.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ve got a big box of Puffy Luvvy tissues right next to my bed. Hopefully I can beat this thing.”
“Don’t beat it too hard,” I advised, and hung up.
Riders susceptible to sniffles, soft stool, and diaper rash need not apply
I ended up riding down with Dan and Major Bob, two of the best riders I know. None of us had seen this year’s course, which was supposed to drastically differ from 2013 and 2012 in length, elevation, and difficulty. Especially difficulty. I got up at 4:00 AM and made the drive with foreboding. So many times I’ve wound up in the clutches of the sick fanatics in North County San Diego, and today would be no exception.
As we rolled out from RIDE Cyclery in Encinitas I took note of my fellow travelers, and the feeling of doom deepened. In addition to Cobley and Major Bob and MMX there were Tinstman, Stinger, Abate, Joshes A & G, Andy & Dandy, Tait, the Pilot, Canyon Bob, Boozy from the South Bay, and another dozen or so North County pit bulls. The only riders I was certain not to get dropped by were the secret triple agent from Germany, Jens Nerdenheimer, and Jeff Beeswax.
Thirty miles into the ride less than twenty riders remained. Nerdenheimer and Beeswax dropped me heavily as I struggled up Hidden Valley, preparing for a very long and very lonely and very cracked day in the saddle.
Three and done
What follows is a somewhat serious report on what awaits you in the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, and some very serious advice about how to prepare for it, and some deadly serious advice about what you can expect. I made it through the first three dirt sections before cracking completely somewhere around Mile 28. Here’s how you (and I) can avoid that nasty fate on April 27. More importantly, what follows isn’t for the strongmen and women who are actually trying to finish first or with the fastest riders. It’s for the weak, the unprepared, and those who are way in over their head without even knowing it.
- Bring real food. Keep a couple of Harmony Bars for quick energy boosts, but make your main food arsenal solid food that will stick to your ribs. You will need substantive food throughout the ride. I brought three PB&J sandwiches on wheat bread that was denser than an imploding star, and even though Cobley ate one of them, it was the other two that got me through what ended up as morale-and-leg-shattering 85 miles that covered only three of the numerous dirt sections. As I learned in 2013, it’s a very bad idea to fall for the “yummy waffles” trap prior to riding. Do not eat 24 waffles beforehand, no matter how tempting.
- Run 25mm tires that are the beefiest you can find. Trying to descend the Lake Hodges Rock Garden on regular tires will leave you punctured at best, crashed out at worst. It’s not like last year, where we only came up the Lake Hodges trail; this year we do it both ways and the descent is hairy and fast. I had 38 mm tires and floated over the rocks, but suffered like a dog on the pavement. Phil, Jeff, and Jens were running ‘cross tires and that seemed like the ideal compromise between skinny road tires and super wide ones. Some riders will even be swapping bikes during the ride as it transitions from the first phase of heavy dirt to asphalt.
- Go out easy. I was panting hard before we hit the first dirt section. Every bullet you shoot early on will equate to twenty missing bullets as the ride progresses. Resist the temptation to keep up if your group is going faster than you are, especially on the first dirt sections. A hard effort here will leave you with nothing. This is so important in the beginning because you’re hit with three dirt sections right off the bat, one of which is brutal, the second of which is fast and technical, and the third of which is long and flat. This third section ends and you go immediately up the backside of Bandy Canyon, a super steep, twisting climb about a mile or so in length. Your legs won’t have recovered from the dirt when you hit the climb, and at the top you’ll be gassed only to now be faced with the incredibly long, steep, and arduous 5-mile, endless climb up Hiddn Valley. In other words, even if you take it easy you’re going to be cracked very early on. If you go out hot you’ll be whatever is worse than cracked, with most of the climbing and most of the really hard dirt riding in front of you.
- Whatever gearing you have, it isn’t enough. The first dirt section is a 3-mile climb very early in the ride. It is steep, endless, and will utterly wreck you without the right gearing. The final little kick is so steep that you can’t even think about getting out of the saddle, so if you lack the gears you are in trouble. I had a 36 in the front and a 25 on the rear, and will likely go up to a 28 or a 30 on game day.
- Underinflate your tires rather than overinflate them. The long horse track that we rode last year was firm yesterday due to the rain, but on the day of the ride it will be very sandy and very deep in places. Worse, on the return route we’ll be in a sandpit that goes along for more than five miles. Even after rain it was so soft that it looked like the sandbox on a playground. I didn’t ride it, but could see that there were countless areas where riders are going to get stuck and fall over.
- Shoes — I went with ‘cross shoes and Eggbeater pedals, but everyone else ran road cleats. If you have any questions about how you’ll do in soft, sandy, hilly conditions, go with the MTB configuration rather than road, as your cleats and pedals and shorts will fill with sand if you have to dismount.
- Don’t stop except for water and to pee. The course is so long (136 miles) and so arduous that you’ve got to keep pedaling. There will be endless temptations to get off and rest or catch your breath or buy another box of Puffy Luvvies for your sniffles or even kill yourself, but except for that last one, don’t give in.
- Remember that this isn’t a race except for a handful of riders. For the rest of us mere mortals it’s a hard day on the bike that you hope to finish in enough condition to be able to lay prostrate in the parking lot at the finish, choking on your own vomit.
- Many people have told me that they’ll just “find out what it’s like on the day of the ride” or “no sense knowing too much beforehand.” I think this is a grave mistake. Even if you just do a couple of the dirt sections, you’ll be much better prepared, especially in terms of deciding what equipment to use. And with regard to equipment, make sure it’s all in top running order. Do a trial run to get the kinks out and to find out what parts need adjustment or replacement.
- This combination of road-and-dirt, with the distance and hilly topography, make it unique. If you finish it, you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. If you don’t finish it, you’ll be impressed with yourself after the fact for even having tried.
Getting a tow home
As I was wandering around lost somewhere the eastern hell of San Diego County, grimly realizing that I’d be out for the rest of the day, and even more grimly regretting not having brought my phone and iMap, a rider came whizzing by. It was MMX. He’d had enough and turned around early.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He grinned. “Three weeks of hard training and I’m tired. Hop on.”
The timing was perfect because I was at my most lost. He started mashing into the wind, then looked back. “This headwind we’ve been fighting all day?”
“We’ll be fighting it on the 27th, too.”
“We?” I said, tucked in on his wheel.
Back at Lake Hodges we stopped for water and ran across Jens and Jeff, who were as defeated and crushed as I was. They stared vacantly into the puddles of transmission oil at the service station. “Hey, guys,” said Jens to MMX. “We tried to help Seth but he was so tired and weak that he couldn’t come with us.”
I was finishing up a bottle of coke and my last PB&J sammich. The four of us got on the Lake Hodges dirt trail and stayed together until the water crossing, when I heard a lot of noise behind me and some pitiful cries for help. Then it got silent, and we never saw them again. “I tried to help them,” I said to MMX. “But they were so tired and weak they couldn’t come with me.”
On Del Dios Highway MMX put it in tractor beam mode, hammering the headwind downhill, then really hammering the uphill. I cursed my 38mm tires as he caught and dropped a small group with a dozen or so riders. Once he got tired he began going even faster.
It’s not simply that I didn’t take a pull, putting myself in the early running for a purple jersey … I couldn’t. In fact, it wasn’t until we were back at El Papagayo in Leucadia, surrounded by fish tacos and several foamy pints of Belching Beaver IPA that I was even able to speak.
An hour later Major Bob, Cobley, Craig, and Canyon Bob showed up, which was just in time for me to have a second order of lunch. I probably shouldn’t have had the garlic-and-black-bean soup since the ride home would be in a small enclosed space, but what can I say?
The minute I got home, my day that started at 4:00 AM continued with an evening engagement Chez Starvin’ Marvin, where he poured great quantities of his famous Belgian homemade brew into my glass and stuffed me with barbecue, taters, and banana cream pie. Sometime around midnight I flopped in bed.
Oh, and one other thing about the BWR I forgot to mention: The following day you’ll be looking for the monster truck with the giant studded tires. You know, the one that ran over every bone in your body out there on the course.
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