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Groad Trip: Utterly spent at BWR Asheville

After a frustrating start to the season, I won on a beautifully difficult east coast course.

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In the days leading up to the Belgian Waffle Ride Asheville, the biggest question for me and many of my competitors was — had we recovered from the muddy Unbound 200 seven days earlier?

Sickness seemed to be ripping through the ranks, whether it was Covid, stomach troubles from dirty bottles, or colds. I was a bit surprised some contenders, both in the men’s and women’s fields, didn’t start; I’d personally rather lose a few minutes due to bad legs than completely remove myself from contention in the BWR Quadruple Crown classification. Some of my competitors did just that, unable to bring themselves to compete.

Read also: Peter Stetina soloes to victory at Belgian Waffle Ride Asheville

Stetina on a rare stretch of paved road at BWR Asheville (Photo: BWR)

I also had a personal axe to grind: The first half of 2022 has been a struggle for me. I’ve been dealing with continuous setbacks and logistical challenges all spring. It’s been a combination of external life commitments, over-committing myself, and some plain old bad luck. It seems I just couldn’t find the groove that I’d had in 2021, both results and enjoyment-wise. I was determined to rectify that, sinus pressure be damned.

Another reason for attending was why I’ve come to gravel in the first place — to continuously explore and push my personal boundaries. I’d never actually raced gravel on the east coast! I needed to explore this scene a bit instead of always focusing on the western and central states.

The North Carolinian edition is perhaps BWR’s most beautiful route and is actually their hilliest. In over 130 miles, we climbed nearly 14,000 ft, a full 3,000 more than the California edition. The race conditions are quintessentially east coast: muggy and humid with dense foliage and rushing rivers. The route combines pristine pavement, smooth and chunky gravel roads, sinuous single track, and more. We crossed old bridges next to waterfalls, hairpin down tracks cut through grass fields, and even race through a barn complete with a drum line.

Perhaps my favorite part of the weekend was a lack of something: cellular service. The venue is at a beautiful summer camp deep in the woods and many don’t get a signal in there. The only time phones came out were for pictures. It forced the masses to live in the present and socialize. In a world where our attention is almost always split between multiple platforms vying for our attention, it was relaxing to just live in the present.

How the race went down:

There’s no hiding on this course; the constant climbs and corners took their toll quickly. After 50 miles, we encountered a particularly vicious double track wall where only a few didn’t walk. That was followed by a cyclocross-style descent, and a select group of eight emerged. We rotated well together realizing this could be the race if we collaborated.

Shortly after, we hit the biggest climb of the day in which Paul Voss decided he wanted to pare it down further. Four of us — Voss, Nathan Haas, Griffin Easter, and myself summited, but Griffin punctured shortly after.

Haas leads Stetina on a fun singletrack section (Photo: BWR)

We ripped down the back and into one of most fun singletracks I’ve ever raced on drop bars. We pushed it to the limit over rock jumps, bridges, and into the old barn. Despite being on the limit trying to follow Haas, who is a very good bike handler, I found myself whooping and squealing with adrenaline.

It was only after that we realized we still had a very long way to go and came to the understanding how our early exuberance might become our downfall. Upon the second time doing the same climb, we were detoured into a rough primitive jeep track. It was there I made my final move. There were still 45 miles to go, but I sensed the others were on the back foot there so I bet on myself. Plus, I figured a head start for the coming descent was a good idea against a rider like Haasy.

I quickly put four minutes into them over the subsequent rollers, but then the lights began to flicker. Some combination of Unbound fatigue and my sinus infection,  and my endurance ran out. The final hour of the race consisted of pitifully pedaling squares and constantly asking the media crews for any sort of time gap.

I limped to the line completely and utterly spent and promptly collapsed. Haasy pared my lead down by half and came in two minutes later with Voss shortly after.

Voss and Haas, looking spent at the finish line (Photo: BWR)

The sun was shining, the breeze was perfect, and the jovial celebration by many ensued. For many this was the biggest ride they’d ever done, and that was cause for celebration. It was also nice to take a victory after enough frustration earlier this year.

Now I have what seems a luxurious 10 days at home before the Oregon Trail Gravel Stage Race: five days of racing campsite to campsite in the Cascade Mountains and lounging with a cold one by chilly rivers in the afternoon. This will be the summer camp I truly need.

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