Gravel

Belgian Waffle Ride founder says likelihood of 2020 edition ‘keeps eroding’

‘We are using this time to better prepare ourselves for conducting events in 2021 and beyond,’ says BWR founder Michael Marckx.

When organizers of the Belgian Waffle Ride announced in mid-March that they were postponing the May 3 event in San Diego until November 8 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the new date seemed like a lifetime away. Most of the 4,000 registered riders saw their race entries automatically roll over to the rescheduled date. They penciled the new date in on the calendar and hunkered down, hopeful that the health crisis would improve by then.

Now, November 8 is only 102 days away, and ‘better’ is not exactly the way things are going.

While BWR plans to make an official announcement regarding the fate of the 2020 event in September, the continued uptick in coronavirus cases in the United States is putting the event in jeopardy.

“We’re spending all sorts of time and psychic energy to figure out what would be the best practices for such a large event,” said race founder Michael Marckx“We do this as much with optimism as we do to be better ready for 2021, as the likelihood of a mass event in San Diego in November keeps eroding with the pandemic’s spread in neighboring counties, cities, and states.”

A shift to November

When the great gravel calendar reshuffle began to play out in March and April, September race dates quickly filled up. In fact, Marckx said he would have liked to reschedule the May 3 event in San Diego for September, “but at the time there were so many other events that month, we didn’t want to step on top of another promoter’s event.”

Because they already had city and county permitting for a different event in early November that had to be canceled, Marckx and his team slotted BWR into the November 8 date. It seemed like the lateness would turn out to be fortuitous, as events that had either originally been planned for September, such as Rebecca’s Private Idaho, or had been rescheduled until then started to cancel outright, like DK.

Marckx at Belgian Waffle Ride
Michael Marckx at the start of the Belgian Waffle Ride. There will definitely not be high fives in 2020. Photo: Steve Driscoll

Nevertheless, the cancelation of every major gravel race since the Mid South on March 14 does not bode well for BWR, even given its mid-autumn date. Not only does holding an event pose a major risk to both racers and the community where the event is held, there is currently no blueprint for how to safely hold a mass-start event of BWR’s size and scope within a COVID-19 hotspot. When I asked Marcxk if he had seen any examples of bike races whose COVID-19 mitigation plan he found reasonable or achievable, he didn’t give the answer I was expecting.

“I haven’t seen any,” Marckx said. “Have you?”

Utah event likely to continue

If there is opportunity for a test run for BWR, it’s in Cedar City, Utah on October 17.

In February, BWR’s production company, Monuments of Cycling, announced that it was expanding from the original San Diego location to include events in Asheville, North Carolina and Cedar City, Utah for 2020. The August 3 race in Asheville would commence the ‘Tripel Crown of Gravel’ series. While the Asheville event was canceled, the race in Cedar City is still on the calendar. Marckx says that although the local government and business partners in the southwestern Utah city are very keen to have the race come to town in mid-October, he and his team are reticent.

“We have a few items on our minds that we are grappling with, as well as a large checklist of things we need to do to make this safe for the riders and the community,” he said. “This includes the fact that we will not host any indoor functions, that we will require temperature readings, riders to wear masks during the expo/registration (including during the opening neutral section of the race and after), there will be social distancing in practice, food will be served in individual wrapping (including at aid stations), and we will have aid stations that are manned with people there to clean up and constantly sanitize.”

Bacon before the final climb at the Oasis aid station in 2018. Photo: Wil Matthews/@pinnedgrit

The laundry list of COVID-19 mitigation measures that Marckx would apply to the Cedar City event seem much more manageable due to the size of the field: there are only around 500 riders registered. The city is taking its COVID-19 cues from Dr. David Blodgett, the director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department; Marckx says the physician “remains open and encouraging.”

The race organizers plan to announce whether the race will happen on August 17, which is 60 days ahead of the event’s October 17 date. Although going through the motions of revamping the race so that it’s safe for everyone involved requires a massive amount of time, resource, and energy, Marckx says that it’s not just 2020 he’s thinking about.

“Our desire is to create a blueprint for events that the county and cities can use for all events,” he said. “We want to be added value in the process for all stakeholders, including other race promoters who aren’t as engaged as we are in this process and dilemma.”

So what about San Diego?

While smaller field sizes have been the saving grace of local bike events, and social distancing is made more easy on high alpine mountain bike courses, neither of those qualities apply to the marquee BWR event in San Diego. The race unfolds primarily on paved roads, and the legendary pre-, during, and afterparty at the Lost Abbey brewery has thousands of participants and community members passing around pints. Even with the measures Marckx mentioned for Cedar City, the scope of the San Diego BWR seems too wide to modify.

“It seems a massive event would be too much to conduct properly,” he said.

Despite the early morning start, the crowds were thick for the rollout of the 2018 race. Photo: Brett Rothmeyer/@pinnedgrit

No matter how clean the port-a-potties, how many hand sanitizer stations, or how many small wave starts, there are certain things that will elude the control of even the most hypochondriacal organizer. Currently, that is the state of the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., specifically in California. In the end, Marckx says, local authorities and health officials get to make the call.

If a blueprint of best practices for how to hold an event safely in the future is what comes out of the pandemic, then Marckx feels like his time will have been well spent. And, if that blueprint indicates that hosting events in either Cedar City or San Diego this year would create too much cause for concern, that’s OK, too. The most important thing, he says, is that BWR has a plan for the future — even if it seems like a lifetime away.

“Obviously, it’s a strange time and we are just preparing as best we can for the eventual day we can put on an event with minimal concern,” Marckx said. “This may be further off than any of us want.”