HTFU: Happy to Finish Undestroyed

If you rode the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride and your name wasn’t Neil Shirley or Brent Prenzlow, you cracked, entered a very bad place, and either quit or soldiered on to the finish. For some people the destruction happened far from home in the middle of the course on a dogforsaken section of dirt on a miserable and lonely mountaintop. For others it happened the night before at the pre-ride celebration somewhere between beer #5 and tequila shot #3.

For me, it happened during the neutral rollout.

How can something be the “most unique?”

The ride bills itself as the most unique cycling even in America. It’s not the hardest or the longest or the one with the most dirt or the most climbing. Is it unique? Yes. The BWR brings together all the elements of a tough one-day event and lets you make it into a ride or a race, as your legs are capable.

Still, I’ve wondered how something can be more unique than something else. If it’s unique, it’s the only one, right? Aren’t my fingerprints the most unique fingerprints in America?

Set in North County San Diego attended by over 500 riders (three hundred or so of whom managed to finish), and built around a grueling course that includes 12k feet of climbing, 30 miles of dirt, and an endlessly challenging series of undulating roads, the BWR is unquestionably unique. It’s something more than that, though. It’s a lens through which we can personally and vicariously experience amazing intensity of positive emotion.

It’s the happiest ride in America.

And now would someone please define the word “neutral”?

The first 23 miles of the ride, which was broken up into three waves, was designated neutral. When I hear the word “neutral start” I think about a warm-up at conversational pace, so I was surprised to feel the full-leg burn that comes from a 500-watt effort simply to get over the beginning rollers. People were panting, forcing the pedals, and half-sprinting within the first mile.

I’d been placed in the first wave, which contained most of the contenders for overall victory. I wasn’t one of them, having struggled in mid-pack in both my previous BWR cataclysms. I knew that if you weren’t planning to hang with the contenders, the worst thing you could do in the opening miles was to try and hang with them.

The effort of the leaders was so hard in the neutral section that I sat up somewhere around Mile 10 and watched them roll away. In addition to finally coming up with a plan and sticking with it, something else had happened at the beginning of this third edition of the BWR.

The food makes the ride

No matter what anyone says, the food and beer concession that your ride offers is what makes or breaks the experience. This year the pre-ride waffles and post-ride brats were prepared by legendary race chef Gear Grinder, a/k/a Sam Ames and his crew from Bakersfield. I’ve never had better food, or anything close to it, at a cycling event, and that’s not just because they had a bottle of private-label Bowen whiskey distilled in Bakersfield that I sampled the day before. Adding to the ambiance of the event was a fantastic selection of wine donated by Dean Patterson, vinted not far from the site of the ride itself.

This kind of pre-ride power food set the tone for the entire day, because the vendors like Sam and the volunteers who thronged the 134-mile course are what turned a tough day in the saddle into unforgettable fun. We had flashers throughout the course in various costumes as well as what first seemed like a mirage but was in fact, at Mile 115, a group of Hooters girls in bikinis at the top of the Canyon de Oro climb who filled our bottles, handed up cokes, and cheered as if I were a hero rather than a broken down, flailing, salt-and-snot-encrusted old gizzard trying not to tip over.

Watching a morning filled with self-immolation

I was overtaken by the second wave of riders in the middle of the first dirt section, and it was there that countless eager and fierce riders charged by me, intent on getting to the beer line in the shortest time possible. By Mile 45 I was already seeing many of them again with haggard faces, drooping shoulders, and completely fried legs that tried to lift them out of the endless climb up the back side of Bandy Canyon and Hidden Valley.

One guy passed me early on, waved cheerily as if to say “You’re slow!” and then reappeared on the long grind up to Ramona. “How much farther?” he asked, covered in sweat and desperation.

“You’re almost to the top, buddy, keep it up.”

“Thanks!” he said.

“And then after another 90 miles and the actual climbs, you’ll be done!”

The key feature is the dirt

Although none of it is exactly technical by MTB standards, the dirt sections on the BWR are what really break up the field. They come throughout the ride, with the hardest sections baring their fangs in the final 40 miles, and the jarring, pounding, grinding effect of rocks, holes, water crossings, and treacherously deep sand add and add and add to the building exhaustion of the day.

The deep sand pits along the “Sandy Bandyweg” sector was filled with glum riders walking through sand that went up to their ankles, others who stood desperately trying to bang the sand out of their cleats, and riders who simply didn’t know that to get through the deep sand you had to pedal and pedal fast. Whether it was the rock garden at Lake Hodges that had to be taken twice, and where a fall would result in broken bones, deep puncture wounds, and cactus quills, or whether it was the agonizing climb up Fortuna at Mile 113, which then segued to the insane drop down Canyon de Oro, the dirt defined this year’s BWR almost as much as the food.


Putting a happy spin on things

The SPY slogan is “Be Happy,” but it’s not the kind of happiness you achieve by sitting on the couch. Much of the happiness was quirky and ironic, like the beautiful girls in bikinis (did I mention the beautiful girls in bikinis?) atop a nasty climb towards the end of the race, or the “HTFU” signs strategically posted on all the climbs at just the point where your legs were burning and your mind was rebelling, or the tacit admission that even though we all wanted to stand out and be special, even the best among us is simply an ordinary person seeking refuge, or enlightenment, or introspection, or excitement by pedaling a bike.

These things all came together at the end of the ride when SPY CEO Michael Marckx presented awards, and when riders basked in the sunshine drinking fresh, strong, delicious, and cheap craft beer from Stone and Lost Abbey. Smiles and laughter bubbled as much as, or more than, the foam in the cups.

Despite the grins and backslapping, the BWR is an actual bike race for some. The men and women seeking a winner’s jersey, athletes tackling and conquering the route with a prosthetic arm or leg, people trying to do something they’ve never done before, or the wild-eyed riders oblivious to the fun and seeking a slightly higher spot on the leaderboard … all of these people looked for something, and many of them found it.

For me, it was a chance to end up in the beer garden without dying a thousand deaths the final fifty miles. And I did.

First wave riding "neutrally." Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
First wave riding “neutrally.” Ha. Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.


Greg Lonergan and Lisa Conrad off roaring it. Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
Greg Lonergan and Lisa Conrad off-roading it. Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
The good stuff! First wave riding "neutrally." Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
The good stuff! Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
On top of the world! First wave riding "neutrally." Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
On top of the world and eyes bulging! Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
John Abate powering up Bandy Canyon. First wave riding "neutrally." Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
John Abate powering up Bandy Canyon. Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
Down but never out. First wave riding "neutrally." Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
Down but never out. Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
Chris DeMarchi bringing the pain. First wave riding "neutrally." Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.
Chris DeMarchi bringing the pain. Photo copyright 2014 by Jake Orness, under license and used with permission from SPY Optic.



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58 thoughts on “HTFU: Happy to Finish Undestroyed”

  1. Nice job Seth. It was such a great pace we had going. And the humor made the first 60 or so seem easy. It was the last 74 that became sinister. What a day.

    1. I was surprised when you dashed off on the post-rock garden trail with Craig, Bob, Marilyne, and the others. You guys came by me like was roped to a post. “That’s gonna make a long day even longer,” I thought.

      Great riding with you. Rode to work in my new BWR jersey today. Love it!

  2. The most uniquely written piece on the race. I had a great time. What a brilliant event. Good seeing you out there.

  3. If all races were like this I would actually take up racing. Thanks for the advice on gearing and taking it easy, I’m never going to be contender at any event, but it is satisfying to start passing people after the first couple of hours. For me the dirt sections worked in my favour I seemed to do relatively well on then (in my last half of the field position) and it compensated for dragging my fat ass up the hills.

    Where do I sign up for 2015?

    1. Stay posted for 2015!

      I didn’t start passing people until about Mile 80. By then there were already like, 10,000 riders I’d never see again.

      Glad the advice helped.

  4. Arkansas Traveler

    Ill-prepared. Sick. Going in I knew it was going to be bad. Two hours longer than my projected worst-case scenario bad. But I made it.
    “Don’t feel bad”, they say. “You’re a finisher”. Still waiting on my exhilaration to kick in. Maybe next week…

    1. There will be no exhilaration. Only the absence of disgust at having quit.

      See you in 2015.

  5. Well done Seth. By the way your recon and advice was excellent and really helped me through. The PB&J’s I brought along saved me. Thanks again!

    1. Great! I screwed myself by overstuffing my jersey pockets and losing three of my PB&J’s in the first “neutral” 500 yard sprint.

      Then I lost another while fumbling for crap.

      But the two that made it saved me!

      1. I was in the third wave and whenever I saw a baggie with a PB&J I figured it was yours. Thanks for the words of wisdom leading up the event and thanks for sitting at my table Saturday, introducing yourself and having a beer. I rode my own ride and finished. 9h25m riding, 10h10m total. ‘Til next year. And we both can work on getting KK out to it.

        1. Great job. Sorry about my post-ride coma. I dropped those baggies so people could follow them, like bread crumbs. Problem is, I needed them myself.

  6. Thanks for your post and pics. 48 hrs later and my legs are still wobbly, heart rate still racing, and my sun burnt lips still seeking more water. A funny memory was seeing a buddy have cramps in both thumbs after the ride. Yes those potholes, rock gardens, and sand traps took their toll on the entire body. Here’s to BWR in 2015!

    1. Yes, sir, and congratulations to you!

      I saw a guy shivering with twin quad cramps on Elfin Forest. “Need food?” I yelled. He shook his head and couldn’t even speak. And he still had Questhaven, San Elijo, Double Peak, and the 10-mile slog along all those rollers to get to beer.

  7. The ride is mostly a blur for me. Except for the parts that are a daze. I’m still not quite sure what happened out there. Post-Traumatic BWR disorder.

      1. Thanks Seth, but I think all of us who did this ride can agree that no one, the Neil Shirleys included, had a ride that came close to the CAF guys. When I saw Willie Stewart prior to the start snapping his prosthetic left arm onto his custom handlebar, I knew the rest of us were all riding for second place. That was some inspirational shit.

        1. Yes, he was amazing, especially when you think about the depth of the sand on Bandyweg and the banging on the Rock Garden. Truly incredible. But that course brought out a little bit of amazing in everybody.

  8. Thanks for the preride advice. Go easy, then go easier and keep eating. Still suffered and still recovering. Fortunately I remembered to turn right at the bridge or I would still be out there.

    1. Glad you made it home. Sometimes they say you have to go slow to go fast, but for the BWR you have to go slow to get home.

  9. Seth, I had minor surgery last Tue but couldn’t let my $125 go to waste. I’m a cheap bastard/hardman like that. So I was out there with a sutured up arm and a watermelon sized contusion on my right leg/hip. At mile 60, I had to diagnose myself and concluded that the weird feeling in my legs was the result of cramps and not a blood clot. These morbid thoughts helped quiet my mind. Next 75 miles I was in Zen-like state…probably because I couldn’t get out of the saddle one single time on any of the climbs.

    Anyhoo, the scenery was gorgeous. That one last forest road was Middle Earth Magical. And, bumpy roads can cause cramping? Who knew…

  10. great one seth!! it was nice to talk to you at the start but, for me it was all about surviving on my own terms and thus most of my day was spent pondering in my own thoughts.

    HTF:) = Happy To Forgetabout Uploadingtostravaforanotheryear

    1. You rode off with the big boys and stayed there. I’ve got my one Strava upload for the year, too! And that’s enough.

  11. Two days after and I think I can now say it was an epic event. Very glad to have been a finisher and proud to have worn my jersey for an easy ride today. Thanks for all of your advice Seth, I don’t even like PB and J sammies, but they tasted damn good when I needed them.

    1. Oh, man, glad the advice helped. Yeah, when everything’s in crisis mode you need something that will stick to your innards like glue. Good job to you for finishing.

  12. Thanks for sharing the first thirty or so miles with me. I dig hanging out with the “older” guys, though in terms of legs, you’re all beyond stronger than I. It was great meeting Joe and Craig, as well. Good times.


  13. 10.5 hours moving time, 11.5 hours total time. There were Hooters girls? At least someone left a cow bell that I could ring for myself up at the top of Double Peak in the pile that must have been the leavings of the feed zone.

    Longest ride ever. Got my finishers shirt and BWR ale, so yeah, I’m happy, but I missed out on the food.

    1. It could have been worse. Several people sank into the sand traps and were never heard from again.

      1. Those poor people. I didn’t see any of them meandering around the wilds during my sweep ride. I did see a few baggies of PB&Js and bars dropped on the ground out in the remotest of places, so maybe there is still hope they can survive..

        1. Australia is doing a search-and-recovery mission. They think it’s somewhere near the Malaysian flight.

  14. I think BWR must be more addictive than crack… yesterday was bad, today is even worse… what am I going to do for another year….

  15. So psyched to read the report. Thought about all of you while on a measly 80 miler of dirt with 9000′ of climbing up in NorCal for fun. Love the new HTFU!!

  16. After all of the anxiety and concern and gear swapping and preparation for this ride, I was just left with a huge feeling of relief at 8am when the ride actually started. Whether I finished the ride or not, at least I didn’t have to worry about it any more. When I saw you, and Junkyard, and other riders I know are faster than me dropping behind, I was certain y’all would pass me again, and that I would be floundering at the finish. My secret weapon was chicken tacos. I had two of them, along with the assortment of goo, gels, bars, and cokes. It was good having some real food that wasn’t sickly sweet. I never knew where I was, I enjoyed the hell out of the dirt sections, and I met and rode with some really cool people throughout the day. The volunteers at the aid stations were simply awesome. I haven’t stopped eating since the ride ended and sensation has almost returned to my nether regions.

    As a bonus, I appeared in the news segment on the ride, and as far as the general public is concerned, I could probably pass for a cyclist.

  17. So Sal and I are sitting there pouring wine for people, and generally staring in wonder at how much beer really tired and shattered racers can consume (did you see how long that line was at the Lost Abbey tent?)…and this guy – Mike (Harmony Homes Racing) – sits down, and he is from Vegas, and is an optician, and finished in the top 40 (I think), and he is just the nicest person. We talk…He has a beer, some wine, eats a brat, and takes off to drive home to Vegas. No issues, no problems, just pleased to race. That, my brother, is what HTFU is all about. One person can make a difference.

    1. …..always my pleasure to meet incredible people living AND sharing their dream!! Thank you for taking the time to make me feel special after a long/hard day!!! See you soon!!!:)))

  18. I’ve started calling you and Pablo the godfathers of the BWR. Thank you for all the advice and inspiration – I needed both!

  19. Seth…thanks for a another great recap.
    Also, good news and bad news for the guys at Spy, first their brand is more poular then Oakley in Thailand. Second they are being knocked off and are available for $3.30 US dollars at the local night markets.
    An unfortunate part of Asia

  20. Sometimes you realize there is some actual awesomeness in the world, not content with laying on the best one day Cycling race/adventure/let’s face it bucket list event/celebration about what’s cool about riding a bike/place where you go to die, where else can you get a jersey sent to you when you buy the wrong size, big kudos to mmx and the whole SPY crew.

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