Culture

Groad Trip: Competition and camaraderie in the desert

My Belgian Waffle Ride finish wasn't what I was hoping for, but I was happy to have raced hard and honorably like so many others there.

When VeloNews and I first agreed to create this Groad Trip column, the idea was to follow along with my gravel racing journey. I wanted to share my experiences in my new career change and, hopefully, share why I became so smitten with this scene. I’m happy to say that, for the first time since The Mid South in March, I have a perspective to share from a big gravel event, as the Cedar City, Utah version of the Belgian Waffle Ride took place last Saturday.

The organizers of the BWR, one of the Monuments Of Cycling, set out with a very stringent COVID-safety policy. They thought of many angles and ultimately landed on what they hope can become a template for others to utilize until COVID outbreaks aren’t a major threat. I applaud their effort and wanted to attend both for myself (to see it in person and how I felt in a mass gathering) but also to support them and their effort to host a race in a responsible manner. Masks were mandatory around the venue all weekend, and during the neutral four miles until the racing really opened up.

Their messaging was bulletproof and it was impossible to not understand the protocol. Rather than a short disclaimer, it was baked into all the information about the route, aid stations, and route info. Of course, there will always be bad apples who are oblivious about the masks outside of official race settings, but those are the same people who will be doing that regardless of where they are.

In Utah, there were way fewer masks worn in normal, “town-life” than there were at the race venue. The start line was 100 percent masked up, from what I saw. I think people who are normally against masks accepted this was the price to pay to attend and didn’t complain.

The field contained international-caliber mountain bikers, pro roadies, cyclocross pros, and international triathlon stars. Everyone came together in the melting pot that is the booming gravel scene and was enthusiastic to finally race.

Dust devils and gentlemen’s agreements

A small front group established itself early, and everyone rolled through until they couldn’t. There was no sitting on. Photo: Jake Orness

The course was, in true BWR fashion, diabolical. The start was chaotic and dusty. If you were more than a few riders back you were literally riding blind, praying you didn’t slam your rims. There were multiple pileups and my main rival for the event, national cross-country champ Keegan Swenson, got tangled up and broke his front brake lever early. Fortunately, he was running a 1x up front and, with his superior MTB skills, he was able to finesse pre-braking and rear-wheel drift many corners, thus assuring our inevitable battle. Surely such a mechanical would have spelled early defeat for anyone else in the peloton — myself included — but not Keegan.

The initial separation started when we hit the first climb and a rough two-track sector. Fifteen leaders emerged and over the next 40 miles the course only got sandier and more undulating. Fueled by a tailwind and eager legs from many COVID-couped-up racers, the pace was relentlessly fast. By the midway point, seven of us remained up front.

Perhaps the thing I love most about gravel is the honorable racing and camaraderie. While there were attacks and riders pushing the pace through certain sections over the next 50 miles, everyone also always rolled through. No one skipped a pull, preferring to drop off with their head held high rather than give themselves an unfair edge by sitting on. The course was so dusty there was even a small bottle of lube shared between riders on the pavement sections, talk about leaving it to the legs!

This course was highlighted by its sting in the tail: The last 20 miles featured a tough three-mile climb, followed by a short descent and a rock-mine of singletrack trail before dumping the rider on the urban bike path snaking through town to the finishing straight.

I attacked Swenson and Vermeulen on the big, 10 percent climb at mile 107, and had a few seconds over the top. Photo: Jake Orness

On this climb, I showed my hand and went all in. I eventually was able to dispatch both Keegan and a resilient Alexey Vermeulen (he would hold on for third). I slammed a gel and readied myself for a bumpy 40-minute TT to the line. Keegan wasn’t far back, however, and he made contact with me halfway through the singletrack. Then the tables turned and I dropped my chain! I was back on the bike fast however and made contact before we exited the trail.

We were both pretty fried at this point and, in true gravel fashion, struck up a gentleman’s agreement to not attack each other along the sinuous urban bike path that we figured might have unsuspecting pedestrians. We agreed to leave it to a drag race to the line. I knew this favored him and I’d be lying if I didn’t think about the advantage I possessed along the twisty net-downhill bike path with his missing front brake. That idea was quickly put to bed; that’s not a situation I want to take advantage of and I’m sure he would have done the same had he been in my shoes. So a sprint it was. I lost in the drag race, and while it stings, it was a great battle against a rider I respect. I have no regrets about the way I raced. It looks like I’ve found my off-road nemesis, between this and our battle for the White Rim record.

The night was fueled with socially distanced craft beer imported from California with friends old and new in a parking lot in camp chairs. Everyone, regardless of their result, seemed eager to celebrate the re-gathering of the gravel tribe.

The BWR brings a close to my strange 2020 season. While the racing was minimal, I kept my foot on the gas pretty much all season, with my pursuit of solo FKTs between The Mid South and the few races I did this fall. I am mentally tired from the continual training and alternative projects I pivoted towards. I am optimistic the 2021 season will look a bit more normal and if that’s the case, it’s the time of year for the bike to collect some dust, the tires to lose some pressure, my belly to gain a spare tube, and for my mind to rekindle that flame of motivation.

After the Belgian Waffle Ride, my wife Dyanna and I visited some national parks with my friend and mechanic Wayne Smith and his girlfriend Katie Livingstone.