It is hard to keep going.
The road doesn’t always seem like it’s going to end.
And when it does, the finish may be … not good.
Some people keep pushing while others fall by the wayside. It’s not a matter of superiority. Often it is simply a matter of being unable to quit. Always, it is a kind of perverse doggedness, seen by some as an attribute, by others as a foul curse.
The slog started in 2012, in an industrial parking lot in Carlsbad, California. How it finished and all that stuff, who started, who quit, who purple-carded, that has all been catalogued somewhere and mostly forgotten.
But in 2019 the slog continues, still rolling out from an industrial parking lot, but now accompanied by well over a thousand riders and the extraordinary infrastructure and planning that it takes to launch the annual Belgian Waffle Ride. Most people rightly think that the ride is the slog. Those who have completed it know that “slog” understates it by orders of magnitude. Those who have won it stay mostly silent. The beating speaks for itself.
The bigger slog, though, is the focus, dedication, and sense of purpose that have driven the ride’s progenitor, Michael Marckx, to keep pounding on. Because the moment each year’s production ends, the next year’s begins.
The gran fondo world is a competitive one. Iconic rides such as Levi’s Gran Fondo once sold all 7,000 spots in a matter of hours. Today that same ride is not much larger than most others, and smaller than many.
The Belgian Waffle Ride, however, continues to attract, year in and year out, well over a thousand riders–and more than the numbers, the breadth and the depth of the event continue to grow. Tour de France riders, current professional road racers, international caliber ‘cross racers, and local talent of the highest order fill out the fast end of the BWR’s ranks every single year.
Why? Because the BWR’s course, which changes every year, can’t simply be cobbled together by looking at a map and “going out and doing it.” It’s a ride where an overarching plan backed with coordination by local, county, and state agencies is the backbone upon which the event is hung.
People who want to combine the speed of road riding with the rough-and-tumble battery of sand, rocks, and lots of dirt know that this is the only ride in America where you can get all of that plus well over 12,000 feet of climbing in a marked, supported, turnkey adventure. And it really is an adventure in the true sense of the word: You have no idea how it’s going to end.
This is all by design, because the one thing that Michael has hewed closely to in every single edition of the BWR is that it will be like no other day you spend on the bike, even if you do it every single year. The difficulty, the changing course, and the variations in your own preparation will leave you spent–hopefully intact, but you do sign a waiver.
Slogging your way through eight years of vision to consistently produce a better event is its own kind of mania, especially when you consider that the BWR is executed by a tiny handful of people supported by a vast staff of volunteers. Leaving aside the difficulties of obtaining permits, some of which in past years came through on the eve of the event, and forgetting the vagaries of weather which can be catastrophic, putting together something of this scope means dealing with an infinity of details, not to mention personalities.
Why the singular focus? I’ve never asked Michael, but I’ve ridden with him enough to know that the BWR reflects his approach to cycling. Don’t take the easy way. Don’t tap out when it’s grim. Do your part.
The BWR is as far from the easy way as you can get. Tapping out is of course up to you. And when the ride fractures into grupettos early on, some will do their part and some will sit in for as long as they can. Yet the DNA of the ride is one of a slog, some fast, some less so, and some riders wrapping it up long after the sun has set.
After years of watching the BWR issue forth and then issue forth again, I can also say that it reflects Michael’s obsession with quality. It’s not enough to have a good ride where things mostly go right. The ideal is almost like one of Plato’s forms, an idealization of “ride” in which reality partakes of the ideal to obtain its identity.
Each year is a new attempt to reach perfection, to deliver something better, harder, more challenging, yet still more satisfying than the thing that went before. The willingness to slog is more common than we recognize and the annual BWR roster proves it. But the willingness to slog coupled with the drive to slog in perfection … that is a rare, rare thing, and it’s the ethos of this ride.