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Groad Trip: Inside the men’s race at BWR

My own disappointing result was tempered by Heather Jackson's incredible finish.

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The Belgian Waffle Ride California.

The OG BWR — the biggest, baddest, and most hyped. It’s a ‘monument of gravel.’ Thousands of riders navigate a dizzying maze of San Diego roads and single track. This race started my transition to greener (dirtier) pastures, and this year brought yet another route adjustment and a very strong field eager to slug it out for top honors.

Related: Groad Trip is back!

Annually, the California edition has gotten rougher. The organizers, Monuments of Cycling, delight in adding new sectors and upping the pucker factor. The percentage of road vs pavement does little to tell the full story because this year the trails were linked together in continuous fashion, creating sections of an hour at a time.

Unroad (Photo: @unroadUNLTD)

I used to view this as a road race with dirt sectors thrown in to keep us on our toes, but after this year, I would officially classify it as a technical gravel race with long stretches of road used as intermission to link the trail networks throughout the county.

This slow evolution is supported by the fact that in all four editions I’ve raced, every year I’ve had to upgrade tire size. From 2019 – 2023, my tire sizes were 28c, 30c, 32c, and 36c, respectively.

On top of the added singletrack, California has experienced one of its wettest winters in history. The relentless rain has eroded the sandy terrain we’re used to, exposing rocks galore. It was clear in pre-riding that tire volume would be important to both prevent pinch flats and dampen the jarring our bodies were about to receive.

So, with thicker rubber but the same excitement only one of the most illustrious events of the season brings, we set off in a drizzly marine layered morning in Southern California.

The first climb comes immediately and acts as a natural selection process before the dirt begins. Fireworks began immediately with riders trying to eke out an advantage before entering the dirt. And in that hour-long dirt I mentioned, all hell did indeed break loose.

Some riders such as Laurens ten Dam, John Borstelmann, and Lance Haidet fell victim to the inevitable punctures and upon exiting we had an elite group of 15 with a majority of the pre-race favorites.

Stetina, Vermeulen, and Ian Lopez de San Roman (Photo: @unroadUNLTD)

Road tactics ensued as we worked our way east on pavement. Frustratingly, riders would skip pulls and open gaps. The group wasn’t cohesive in the slightest, but eventually we got to Black Canyon and the sight of our next dirt showdown.

I pushed the pace through the series of short climbs to the race’s high point at midway just as I had planned, but I had some unplanned and unwelcome sensations in my legs. I already felt a bit too spent. Had I done too much, too early? Was I just on an off day? I took stock of the remaining riders, all in varying degrees of suffering.

Finsty looked sublime, I could tell from his body language and breathing that he had crystal cranks. I made a note to keep an eye out, but I knew deep down I’d need others to fade to my current level if I were to have a chance.

With a smaller group we finally got some cohesion and shared the load until the newest technical sector, and the point where we all knew the fireworks would really kick off. And boy was that fuse short. We sprinted into the singletrack. We were catching short course riders, calling a breathless “Racer back! Thank you!” as they inched to one side or another.

Four went clear and I was just behind in a desperate chase with Alexey Vermeulen, Alex Howes, and Howard Grotts. The gap just kept going out and my lights really began to flicker. I just had to accept that this wouldn’t be my day. I was pedaling squares and my body began to slip into ‘just finish’ mode.

Up ahead, Finsty would put on a masterclass, distancing my fellow Canyon colleague and Dutch Mafia gravel adventurer Jasper Ockeloen on the decisive Double Peak climb. Alexey would keep charging and make it all the way to third.

Isn’t LtD too old to be on that podium? (Photo: @unroadUNLTD)

I rolled home to seventh, disappointed in my worst BWR showing to date. The beauty of gravel however is that we celebrate at the finish regardless of the trials and tribulations.

My inner pity party immediately evaporated when I heard Heather Jackson was nearing the finish with a healthy lead in the women’s race! Heather is a good friend and the closest thing to a teammate I have in this privateering endeavor. We share a multitude of sponsors and have begun to collaborate on some adventures this season.

Heather stepped away from her Ironman triathlon career at the end of last season and has fully stepped into the world of off-road in the form of gravel racing and ultra running. I got a laugh when she reconn’d the most technical trail the day before the race — by running it for training! Keep an eye out for her this season, it’s sure to be inspirational!

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