The Grind: Brennan Wertz’s rising star
The former rowing world champion says he wants to take gravel seriously. "But at the same time, I don't want to take it or myself too seriously. A whole lot of people are doing this as recreation; this is their outlet."
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The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.
Brennan Wertz was a world champion at the under-23 level in rowing, and now he’s making waves in the gravel scene. The 6-foot-5 rider from Northern California has already won three races this year, following his top 10 at Unbound Gravel 200 and second place overall at the Belgian Waffle Ride Triple Crown last year.
This weekend he’s headed to The Mid South in Stillwater, Oklahoma to face off against the likes of two-time winner Payson McElveen, Colin Strickland, Pete Stetina, Ashton Lambie, and others.
For the 25-year-old Wertz, gravel racing is a sweet spot of fun and high-level competition.
“This is my second attempt at a sporting career,” said Wertz, who is racing this year for Scuderia Pinarello. “I want to take it seriously. But at the same time, I don’t want to take it or myself too seriously. A whole lot of people are doing this as recreation; this is their outlet. I really felt that these events are the level of fun I would like to have at a serious sporting event.”
In the boat
Growing up in Marin County, Wertz got into rowing in high school, following the lead of his parents who both rowed.
“They introduced me to the sport going into high school,” he said. “I had been mountain biking a bit just for fun, not competitively at all. Mt Tam was in our backyard. It was a great place to explore the world. I was in good shape from mountain biking, with strong legs and good cardio. With my size, that was a sport that suited me. Being a taller guy, having a longer lever. I really enjoyed the sport.”
Wertz quickly found success, traveling and racing in Europe with the junior national team, and was recruited to Stanford, where the team won gold in the world championships in his junior year.
From boat to bike
Brennan came to cycling after being injured in rowing, and hopping on his dad’s Klein road bike.
“I came back from a summer racing in Europe with the rowing team,” he said. “I had had a pretty severe rib and back injury. I really had to nurse my body through the competitions. On paper, everything was going great — we won gold and set a world best time. But I was held together by KT Tape and all the legal painkillers like Ibuprofen. It was a pretty challenging experience, and I knew my body needed some time off.”
So Wertz pulled his dad’s road bike out of the garage and started showing up to group rides.
“I was in great shape, and quickly transitioned into group rides,” he said. “I really enjoyed the thrill of riding in the bunch. Also, it was humbling to go out and get dropped in my first few group rides.”
In 2019, Wertz graduated from Stanford with a double major in sociology and German studies, got a job in a bike shop, and went from Cat. 5 to Cat. 2.
He also went back to Europe, seeking out the type of competition and adventure that he knew from rowing, but this time on the bike.
“That experience wasn’t daunting, I loved that,” he said. “The plan was to live in Belgium, find a cheap apartment, and go to as many kermesses as possible. But I got hit by a car in the first week, so that changed things. Still, I had a great time. I did some bikepacking and really enjoyed the culture and the community that comes with riding a bike.”
Back in the U.S. for the start of 2020, Mike’s Bikes put him on their elite team, and he headed to Arizona for the Valley of the Sun stage race. There, he won the road race, time trial, and overall in the Cat. 2 field. Then, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the racing world.
From road to gravel
With racing at a standstill, Wertz found himself enjoyed pointing his tires off the pavement.
“I really enjoyed getting out and riding when the world was shut down,” Wertz said of 2020. “It was a really horrible time in a lot of ways, but at the same time I was able to make the most of it. With gravel, the events are amazing, but the style of riding is really fun. At the time, my old rowing teammates were trying to navigate how to training together and prep for the Olympics when everything was uncertain. I felt lucky to be able to enjoy riding without really any worries.”
Beyond his time racing in the water and the Belgian misfire trip, Wertz had done an internship in Germany in college, where he rode a mountain bike every day after work and bikepacked through the Black Forest and the Alps.
“I really got drawn to the adventurous side of the sport,” he said. “No power meter, just sleeping in a hammock and having a ton of fun — what people now call alternative riding, I was doing that before I was doing any bike racing,” he said.
Soon, local California gravel events started opening back up, and Wertz jumped in.
“I did a few of the Grasshoppers, had a ton of fun, and found some early success there,” he said. “That got me thinking, maybe I should try a few more of these.”
Working at the high-end Above Category bike shop in Marin, Wertz got an opportunity through Enve to do Unbound Gravel — and Above Category built a bike for him in the process with a Mosaic GT-1 frameset.
“I really enjoyed geeking out thinking about the bike part — the Mosaic frame, the wheels, the tires, everything was custom down to the last detail,” he said. “And the relationships that came with that — Getting to know Neil [Shirley] at Enve and the guys at Mosaic and Ceramic Speed, and seeing the community that puts on these events and the bikes and all the human element — I loved all of that.”
Wertz came into Unbound Gravel as a virtual unknown, and finished 10th.
“That got the ball rolling for me,” he said.
A week later, he went to road nationals, and struggled with the quick turnaround.
“That was a reality check,” he said. “I realized that I needed to pick and choose.”
Wertz finished top 10 at the Belgian Waffle Ride California and then was second at BWR Asheville, ultimately finishing second overall in the BWR Triple Crown. At SBT GRVL, he was also top 10.
Wertz found that he loved the effort and self-sufficiency of gravel racing.
Also, in comparing it to road nationals, he found that he loved the atmosphere.
“At road nationals, everyone was super serious and focused, and no one is talking to each other. It really felt like all business,” he said. “Then, I went to BWR, and everyone is hanging out. It felt like a party. The racing is still super intense and the organization is professional — we’re getting bottles fed from a car. But then afterward, everyone is hanging out, and you’re sharing stories with people who finished at all different times. That element really drew me in.”
Eyes on the prize
Racing for Pinarello, Wertz is working with former pro and director Mike Sayers as his coach. He’s no longer working at Above Category, but is instead focusing full time on racing.
This season he will be going for the BWR Quadruple Crown, which is the cumulative competition across BWR California, North Carolina, Utah, and Kansas. SBT GRVL and Unbound Gravel are also priorities. He opted not to apply for the Life Time Grand Prix.
“Some of the events didn’t suit me, and with SBT GRVL as a priority, doing Leadville the day before didn’t make much sense,” he said.
So far this year, he was won Miami Gravel, the Huffmaster Hopper, and the Shasta Gravel Hopper.
“It’s been fun getting into it so early in Florida, hitting all the warm states,” he said.
Next up is The Mid South, with the forecast in Stillwater, Oklahoma calling for snow on Friday and a starting temperature on Saturday of below freezing.