The Belgian Waffle Ride has changed. When it began in 2012, you had to do it because you were invited, and only 150 or so select idiots got the nod. In those days of yore, the BWR was all about punishment, on the bike and off. Select enforcers were given “purple cards” that they handed out to cheaters, course-cutters, even paceline shirkers who refused to take a pull. The cards were emblazoned with the face of The Cannibal, under which was the slogan “Eddy Don’t Want No Freddies.”
At the end of the ride, three riders below all others were singled out and publicly humiliated for having accrued too many purple cards or for having committed supremely egregious purple infractions. The losers got a purple jersey and a matching pair of purple SPY sunglasses customized for the event.
The following year people were allowed sign up, and there was a fierce vetting of supplicants as riders were sent off depending on their racing category. Racers who lied about their categories (all vigorously cross-checked on USAC) got demoted to the last wave, from whence there was no hope of much advancement. More purple cards were handed out and purple behavior was scorned.
By 2014 the Belgian Waffle Ride had become a legend, kind of like the Tower of London, where the good and the bad, the lucky and the accursed, the innocent and the guilty, were sentenced to ride. It seemed as if everyone in North County San Diego and the South Bay/West Side of Los Angeles was there. As a cult ride, the BWR would reach its apogee in this year. It was brutal beyond belief, each year harder and longer than the one before, and fierce disapprobation rained down from above onto the hapless heads of those who were too weak, too cowardly, and too purple to be worthy of the moniker “Waffler.”
Time waits for no ride
By 2015, the year I completed my fourth and final Waffle, I was flat fucking done. The route had become so grueling that no person, regardless how crazy, could seriously consider re-upping for a fifth consecutive ride in 2016. In fact, by the time this year’s edition came bellying up onto the beach, maw open and fangs bared, less than five riders lined up with perfect Waffle records: Giants like Dan Cobley, Andy McClure, Logan Fiedler, and Neil Shirley are to my knowledge the only riders to have finished all seven Waffles without cutting the course. Even the ride’s creator and high priest, Michael Marckx, ended his streak at five Waffles.
But though the ride peaked as a cult event, and only the Cobleys, McClures, and Fiedlers earned the title of hardest of the hard, the BWR morphed into a kinder, gentler, unspeakable horror fest of some of the best riding you will ever do anywhere. And that’s about the time I decided to have another go but this time to take a smaller bite, to have a shot this time at the Wafer.
For some reason I thought that 8,000 feet and 70 miles of riding, 40 of which were off-road, would be a relaxing day on the bike. For some reason I thought that if I gave up all delusions and simply pedaled to finish, it would be fun. For some reason I had forgotten who had dreamed this thing up.
No training needed
Since it was just the Wafer and not the Waffle, why train? I was already fit and going well, and I also had a new Giant TCX with knobby tires and disc brakes. This should be a piece of cake, especially since some of the nightmare off-road sections such as the Oasis had been shelved. This would be the first Belgian I’d done where I actually knew all of the roads.
Not too expert with the through-bolt thing, I put on my front wheel and rode to the start. Sam Ames and his killer crew at Gear Grinder mobile Bike Grill had already been working 24 hours straight to prepare for the operation of feeding 1,000 hungry riders in time to get them out of the starting gate at 7:30. The day before I’d visited the Expo Center and marveled at the Canyon Bikes showroom, unlike any bike showplace I’ve ever seen and stocked to the ceiling with mouth-watering, full carbon bikes, every one of which was made of 100% carbon.
I’d also enjoyed a cup of incredible Blast Radius coffee, the first coffee brewed especially for athletes. Although no one who knows me has ever considered me an athlete, this stuff worked. With a proprietary blend of four bean types and a mild roast to maximize the caffeine, this stuff had me wired in minutes. Perhaps it was the caffeine from Blast Radius that propelled me to the head of the feed line at 5:00 AM pointy-sharp, where I scarfed waffles, syrup, bacon, eggs, and a slice of my own home-baked sourdough multi-grain bread.
Problem was, it was in the low fifties, the sun was nowhere up, and seated as I was in my bib shorts it got fuggin’ cold fuggin’ quick. I hustled over to the car, cranked up the heater, and fell asleep, only to be awoken by Dandy Andy, shivering outside and looking colder than a joke from a 50’s sitcom. “Get in, dude,” I said.
He struggled into the back seat and we covered him with greasy bike blankets. He didn’t care ’bout no grease. He was about to nail down his seventh consecutive Waffle.
With age comes slowness. And wisdom.
This seventh edition of the BWR had a very different flavor to it, I could smell it as I rolled up to the staging area, and it wasn’t from leaky port-o-potties. It was an air of camaraderie, of excitement, of trepidation, but of confidence that somehow it would all work out even though facts pointed to the likelihood that they in fact would not.
There was Bill Pinnell, the only guy to ever finish the Waffle on an Elliptgo, not once, but six straight times if he pulled it off today. In 2016 it took him seventeen hours, and this time he had a couple of other Elliptidiots to keep him company. There was Jim Miller, the voice of the BWR, a guy who had completed his share of Waffles and now was in active retirement, grateful to have an excuse not to mash his manhood into bleeding sores over the roughest roads in North County San Diego.
But there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new faces, a sea of strangers, and they all appeared to have been infected with the best of vibes. People were going to ride, some would cheat, some would cut the course, some would behave in the purplest of ways, but so what? None of it could make a dent in the giant steel bucket of hurt that we were all about to get dunked in.
Except for me. Because I had a plan.
The best laid plans
It’s hard to explain how amazing it is to see more than a thousand riders queued up, ready to go smash themselves senseless for anywhere from four to fourteen hours. Michael Marckx’s vision of a rolling madhouse really has come to pass, and through his efforts he has created an event that brings out the very best side of cycling, and more importantly, the very best side of people. You could feel it everywhere, and not a purple card in sight.
My plan was to start at the back. Dead last. Instead of staging towards the front and spending the day getting passed, I decided to start at the back and spend the day passing others. My mediocre result would be the same, but I wouldn’t have to go out hot, blow up early, and suffer like a dog the second half of the ride. I’d conquer the Waffle by doing the Wafer, and I’d conquer the Wafer by going easy.
In the beginning it looked like my plan was going to work. My steady, no-stress pace put me in front of a couple of hundred riders by the time we hit the first dirt section, a nasty, walled and rocky climb that immediately jerked people up short. Stuck in a long mule train of idiots, we toiled up the wall, and as it descended people began to pass me … like mad.
Tires and egos wildly overinflated, people bounced and flew past in the hurry of an insane asylum doing parachute jumps sans parachutes. If you had brought a small truck you could have started a bike shop with the shit that people unwillingly jettisoned: Water bottles, food, cages, tool bags, pumps, components … someone not only lost a pedal but didn’t even stop until much later when I saw the sadsack hobbling, one-pedaled, out in the grass looking for his Eggbeater.
People flatted everywhere, and that’s when I took secret pleasure in being slow and safe on the descent, but on running my 33mm knobbies at 55 and 50 psi front/back. No matter how fast you go, the other guy goes faster when you double flat. Michael had of course made arrangements for such nonsense, as the course was patrolled by electric repair bikes, by VeloFix mobile bike shop, and by SRAM technical support. It felt like being in the Tour minus the salbutamol.
The Rock Garden
After the first interminable dirt section we hit Del Dios Highway, and although I held to my game plan of “never pedal hard,” I still passed plenty of people … until Lake Hodges.
Michael had given some great pre-ride advice in a short presentation that few of the Wafer riders appeared to have attended. “Go slow to go fast,” he said. This is completely false, of course. The fast riders went so fucking fast it was almost beyond comprehension. They went fast to go fast.
But they also knew how to pick a line, how to corner in the dirt, and had pro-level bike handling skills. For the rest of us, “Go slow to go fast” really meant “You can’t go fast lying in a gurney.” The message was on point: Steady is your friend on the BWR.
But the “Ain’t Got Time For That” crowd didn’t get the memo, and all the people I passed on Del Dios came blitzing by me on Lake Hodges and Rock Garden at speeds only really good riders or really stupid people attempt, and all of the really good riders, all ten of them, had passed by more than an hour earlier.
Desiring to a) not flat b) not bonk c) not crash, I watched them pass. Many I saw minutes later, splayed out in the grass frenziedly trying to change a tire, adjust a derailleur, weld a bottom bracket or replace a diaper, but many were gone, apparently for good.
This was sobering and a bit disappointing. I fancied myself fit. I fancied them idiots. Yet they were plainly much faster and fitter. “Oh, well,” I thought. “The true beauty of cycling is, and has always been, its ego reduction function.”
Imagine my surprise when, 21 miles in, all of the people who had passed me and scores more were huddled around the first grub stop like addicts queued up at a free Oxycontin dispensary. With less than a third of the ride to go, and all of the horrible sections remaining, people looked frazzled beyond words.
I pedaled on, and the riders thinned out. My only near catastrophe was in the Boulder section, when I noticed a funny jiggling sound that had begun miles earlier, as it began to get louder. I glanced at my front fork and saw the end of the through-bolt pointing forward.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “It’s supposed to be pointing backward.” I braked and got off. When putting on the wheel I had failed to tighten the bolt enough and it had worked itself loose over the last fifty miles. It was connected to the fork by less than a half-turn; one more joggle and I would have had a really unforgettable tale to tell from the comfort and safety of the ICU. Jay LaPlante, holler when you need me to work on your bike.
At the halfway mark I had begun pedaling more vigorously, and by the ride’s end I was completely done in, as wrecked as I’d been after finishing any Waffle. The cruel fact of the Wafer is that it is cruel, and if you put your legs into it without the right training you will be beaten into a quivering pulp. As expected, I finished faster than some … slower than others. Many others.
Turn, turn, turn
Back at the start/finish life continued on. The crazy fast riders came in about an hour after I did, doing double the distance in about the same amount of time. Brian McCulloch edged out second place by a bike length, sprinting for the win after 137 miles and 11,000 feet of hell. Happy riders dismounted and realized that the Hell of the North County wasn’t for everybody, but it was for almost everybody who went all in. Michael looked relaxed and happy, as he should have been, having morphed along with his baby, soaking in the good energy and shrugging off the bad.
No purple cards were handed out that I’m aware of, and I could tell by the funny look on people’s faces that they were already plotting for 2019.
I know I am.
Support your local blogger! Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!
Several of my clubmates from Big Orange also tackled the Wafer, and were kind enough to share their misimpressions.
Tom D.: This year, I decided to do the Wafer ride instead of the Waffle. After completing my first Waffle last year, I was absolutely destroyed. While I felt very accomplished and glad for that experience, I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat it. I also wanted to ride with Joann! I had missed out on the JWR last year due to a surgery and have been neglecting FDR lately, so this was a good chance to make up for all of that. Finally, the reddish off-road sections reminded me of Sedona, and I wanted to see how fun it would be to ride them without worrying about planting my face in the dirt. So, my plan was set. I was going to ride the hard tail MTB that I had bought from Frenchie and putter along with Joann. I would try to hang on during the pavement sections and enjoy myself on the dirt.
First of all, I underestimated the inefficiency of riding 2.3” mountain bike wheels on the road. My “puttering” consisted of pretty solid efforts to hang with the people on road bikes, especially during the flats and descents. I don’t know what the actual figure was, but I felt like I spent about 25% more effort than I would have on my road bike. Also, riding into the wind without being able to really tuck took a toll. Finally, I usually don’t ride my MTB, and when I do, I don’t sit on it for 7 hours. So after about three hours, I started to feel it on my sit bones, and sure enough, by the end of the ride, I got to go home with two lovely saddle sores as a souvenir.
The suffering on the road gave way to bliss once I got onto the dirt. I told Joann that I’d wait for her at the pavement, and sped off. It was so fun to finally let loose through sand and gravel without worrying about crashing. I was enjoying myself immensely until I caught up to the traffic jam of riders falling off their bikes in the single track sections, sapping all momentum and negated all of the benefits of bringing an MTB. Unfortunately, most of the off-road portions were packed dirt, so the MTB didn’t really help all that much. Still, there were at least a couple of sections, particular the ones near the lake, where I got to really put the suspension and plush tires to use. And I sped through Sandy Bandy happy as a clam!
The best part about the ride was how we took our time. It was nice to be able to do the mental math and realize that we’d get back well before 4:00 PM, even if we averaged a meager 10 mph. (In contrast, last year, I was praying to finish before it got dark and hypothermia set in.) I got to chat with the people at the rest stops. I took my time eating and drinking, so I wasn’t bonked to hell with 40 miles to go. I didn’t cramp and got to enjoy the beautiful scenery without my whole body hurting everywhere. Instead of feeling cold and tired and lonely and wondering if I’d die out there, I chit-chatted with Joann, Jody, Alan and Alan #2 (who we adopted as our own and I used shamelessly as a wind block). Instead of collapsing into a chair and staring into nothing, I had a nice meal at the end of the ride and sat and talked with friends.
I once told a friend that the Waffle was so hard, you can’t worry about anyone but yourself if you want to finish. The line between finishing and not is thin, and if you give up some of that margin for someone else, you may need to sacrifice your ride. Not so with the Wafer, and it feels 100x better to give to someone else than to accomplish something for yourself. On the last dirt section, I saw a Subaru Santa Monica rider changing a flat. This guy was about to finish the Waffle in the time it took us to do the Wafer. I stopped and asked if he needed help, and he asked for a CO2 canister. I gave one to him, wished him luck and went on my way. He was very appreciative. I’d like to think I would have stopped even if I were dazed and confused and delirious as I was last year, but seeing how many people passed by him without a word, I’m not sure I would have even seen him in that state.
I’m all for destroying myself and squeezing every ounce of strength out of me from time to time, but this was a lot more enjoyable! Next year, I think I will do the Wafer again, but I’ll probably leave the MTB at home.
Brandon S.: Redemption is an understatement! I went into the BWR after a failure at the JWR. So I wanted to just smash this ride! Got to San Marcos on Saturday around 5 went to the expo and got my packet. I was with my girlfriend who is expecting our first child and her mother lives 20 minutes away so it worked out.
Went out to dinner with all the Orange participants in anticipation of the event. Lots of laughs, anxiety, and anticipation. Talking about shop, gears, and past experiences. Woke up and went to the Start finish ate my waffles and said some prayers🙏. It was a chilly morning and when the wafer wave went off I just hammered. I thought about keeping my heart rate at 150 till double peak (and forgot my heart rate monitor). I just wanted to finish competitively. I hooked up with some riders from Santa Barbara and just smashed the loop at a hearty pace. I was taking a big bite outta the wafer! Got to double peak and just told myself “pedal dammit!” Got to the top looked around and said “ I should have taken 2 scoops of energize”. But going to the finish line I had my arms up like I finished a stage at the Giro! Very pleased with my performance, I put in a lot of work this year to get stronger. The gym at 4am, nite rides, racing, group rides etc. The ride was great. Very well supported and marked well. Definitely gonna be here next year!!! Waffle??????
Jody N.: I had a goal, simply finish the BWR-Wafer. (I wanted the socks!) It started with a discount code and ended with a high speed descent (47 mph my personal record) to cross the finish line. It would not have possible without the support of so many along the way!!
Thank you to the BWR and FDR for offering the discount code. Thank you to Scott, for encouraging me to continue when fear became an obstacle (those BWR email teasers were killing me!) Thanks to Alan and the group that did the CX training ride and thanks to Seth, Abraham, Brandon and the Big Orange family for making me feel so welcome. BIG thanks to Alan, Tom, and Joann for agreeing to stick together!
The course was challenging-rocks, sand, water crossing and climbs, the SAG/rest-stop support was plentiful and the route clearly marked. But best of all: The camaraderie surpassed my expectations. Thanks to everyone for helping me to achieve this goal!
Joann Z.: I told people that I was going to take it slow and take a ton of pictures but what happened was quite the opposite. Well, sort of. I did take it slow but I didn’t take any pictures. I was too focused on not crashing! I was too focused on getting up and down those dirt sections. It was total concentration the whole time! Unlike everyone else who would speed up, slow down, pull over and take picture after picture. I would pass and hey would say, “keep going! Don’t stop!” I’m glad they took photos because I couldn’t. I don’t often feel like people are taking care of ME. It’s usually, I’m watching out for others. I felt really lucky because I had Tom and Alan who I knew were sacrificing their ride for me. Who I knew were there in part for me. When I passed them taking a picture of me, my heart was full of love for them. I felt so lucky, so lucky to have these men in my life.
At mile 62 with double peak in the distance we were about 8 miles and 1600 feet to finish. I told Alan to just go. Come back down and ride with me if he wanted or wait at the top. Yeah. Come back down. Hahahaaa! I almost fell over when he came around the corner. He went up to the top of double peak and came back down to get me. Now how could I not love that man!?!?
It was smooth sailing from then on. We all finished together. I don’t think any of us got off the bike more than twice and there were no crashes or even close calls. We sat around and shared photos, except I had none, talked story and then hit the road. I was tired at the end but not too tired. It took more strength to stay awake in the car and I was asleep before the sun went down. Will I do the BWR next year? I was thinking about the Waffle but then I saw my Strava suffer score. 695! More than double of my highest recorded score. So, probably wafer next year too.
Abraham M.: 2018 Belgium Wafer Ride completed!! Before joining Big O I would scout good Century rides for me to do and I came across the BWR. I would watch videos on YouTube and told myself and my family that I will be doing that ride in about 2-3 years. During that time I was only riding a little over a year and had not yet completed a full century. After joining Big O I noticed a post by Joann Zwagerman, it was a BWR redo. I was responded as soon as I seen it and thought that would be a perfect way to get my feet wet on some dirt and try out the BWR. So I never road dirt, I was nervous when riding my road bike on sand at the beach (all my first falls were on the bike path by the beach). F it lets do this. So I bought a Gravel bike and went to the BWR redo ride in June of 2017. What a disaster it was!! Although I completed the ride (in over 10 hours) I was completely beat up. I told myself I would be back the next year and be ready. Fast forward to 4/15/2018 – I hit the Wafer Ride hard. I started at a chill pace until I got to the first dirt section. Once I got there and saw I wasn’t getting dropped and was actually passing people I was pumped!! Game on, I completed the Wafer in 5Hrs and 17 min. I took minimal stops at sag stations for water and nutrition and kept grinding. I didn’t fall, I didn’t walk my bike and the only time I unclipped was because a rider in front of me stopped (twice). I am super excited and will prepare for the full Waffle next year. Thank you Joann Zwagerman, Brent Davis, Alan S and Brandon Sanchez for riding with me this past year in preparation for the BWR.
Michael W.: Hope everyone had a delightful BWR. Quick show of hands, Who’s ever ridden head-on into a breakaway group of world class cyclists? Well, as of yesterday, I have. Here’s how it happened: I go to pick up my Wafer bib # the morning of the ride, (I paid 20 bucks extra for this) and the guy says they didn’t print enough Wafer numbers. Then he said, no worries, just ride numberless. He gave me a timing chip. I said “What if they pull me out of the ride?” He said no worries ride whatever route you like all you need is the chip. So, at the last second, I opted to do the Waffle (I DNF’d a couple of years ago and it’s always bugged me). As you know, it was a perfect day. Then about mile 40 or so on that long fire road through the canyon, I’m hauling down hill around a blind corner right at the exact moment as the lead breakaway group was hauling ass back on their return leg. FUUUHK! There was no way to avoid them with crashing into a deep rain washed gully along the inside of the turn. I crashed pretty friggin’ hard and scratched my lovely bike pretty bad. The only thing I heard from the lead rider was “Sorry bro!” just before I wiped out. There was no lead car in front of the group to clear a path. I didn’t expect a rider to stop, but no chase car did either. Hopefully my frame’s not cracked. My ass is a little sore, but it could’ve been worse. Only one flat and one minor other crash after that. Even though I may have been the last rider in (it was completely dark) I finished. All that said, I still love this brutal, beautiful ride. I might have hit my head too.
Alan S.: BWR – it was a different perspective for a ride, one because of the amount dirt involved and second the tempo of the ride itself. Riding with JZ gave the opportunity to relish the features of the trails, enjoying the surroundings in a relaxed atmosphere instead of rushing through chasing the person in front of you. It was a visual and yet still physical experience. I had front row seats for JZ’s personal struggles which entertained me the entire ride, and as we approached Double Peak she had my sides hurting from laughing as she shared every negative sentiment she had for climbs, climbing and rides with climbing in it. Hilarious yes but still she mustered the strength and determination required to make it to the top. Excellent stuff indeed.