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Course preview: Belgian Waffle Ride Asheville serves up Appalachian punishment

Race designer and retired pro John Murphy takes us inside the brand-new BWR Asheville course he has created.

After a year of postponement, a brand-new Belgian Waffle Ride is rolling into North Carolina. BWR Asheville, the second of the BWR brand’s Monuments of Cycling series, kicks off on Saturday in the hills and hollers outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

While many details surrounding the event will unfold with the event, BWR Asheville will be sticking with the overall Belgian Waffle Ride theme. Riders can expect extremely challenging courses in the spirit of the great European one-day Spring Classics but with a distinctly Appalachian vibe.

At the event’s Ride Kanuga host venue, a weekend of typical BWR race-related festivities are on tap. On the Friday before race day, a bustling expo will play host to a crit-cross race, race-related presentations and films, and rider interviews. On Saturday, while riders tackle the three race distances — Waffle, Wafer, and Wanna — their friends and loved ones can stick around for lots of beer.

While course details will not be revealed until Friday, we checked in with John Murphy, former road pro and one of the BWR Asheville course architects, to get a taste of the terrain and what to expect.

The pre-ride

Murphy said that when BWR founder Michael Marckx approached him to ask if he’d help design a new BWR course in western North Carolina two years ago, he immediately said yes.

“I was more than happy to use not just roads that I trained on but also to explore new roads to put together an epic awesome course,” Murphy told VeloNews. “It was like, ‘sure, I can design a course for, wait, what’s the race?’ I didn’t understand exactly what I was getting into, but as a bike racer you never really know what you’re getting into.”

A look at the 102-mile Belgian Waffle Ride route. Image: Belgian Waffle Ride
The 61-mile Wafer course cuts out several sections from the Waffle course. Image: Belgian Waffle Ride

While Murphy, one of the fastest U.S. sprinters to race internationally, may not have been familiar with gravel or the Belgian Waffle Ride, he has been riding off-road around Asheville for a decade.

“For a roadie I shifted to gravel pretty quickly,” he said. “As soon as I found the gravel roads that I could ride on safely with my 23 or 25c tires that’s where I was going. I was a mountain biker at heart, so I wanted to be on the dirt. The road was just more of a viable career option for me. But I used gravel as a fun part of my job. Once I finally got ahold of a gravel bike, my world opened up. When you’re training 5-6 hours, you never wanna be stopped on the side of the road fixing a tire. Once I could put a 42mm tire on the front, things changed and I could do whatever I wanted.”

john murphy
After a 17-year career on the road, Murphy is now the brand manager for Gulo Composites. Photo: Gulo Composites

Much like the way in which Burke Swindlehorst developed the iconic Crusher in the Tushar course by linking together his favorite training rides, Murphy — and his former teammate and training partner Matthew Busche — already had the skeleton of multiple great gravel routes. In that way, Marckx’s directive to create a challenging course didn’t feel like rocket science.

However, the exercise has taught Murphy volumes about the intricacies of course design.

“You have to make sure you get permission to ride these roads,” he said. “I think in terms of coordinating a race course, it’s not just the rider experience, you have to have volunteers out there, EMTs, police control. That’s where the complication lies. It’s not about finding the best gravel climb for this superstar to attack and get a good picture. The learning curve is not how do I make a good route, but how do I service all the riders?”

The ride

Like other BWR events, BWR Asheville is comprised of multiple events of varying distance. There’s the 102-mile ‘Waffle’ race, the 61-mile ‘Wafer’ route, and the 36-mile ‘Wanna Ride’ distance as well.

At 102 miles, the BWR Asheville ‘Waffle’ course is nearly 40 miles shorter than BWR San Diego. Murphy said that initial feedback related to the distance included a lot of disappointment.

Nevertheless, he said, those 102 miles should not be underestimated.

“You’re gonna be tested from start to finish,” he said. “While this might be the shortest route in the BWR series, I don’t think there will be many groups. I think it’s gonna explode, and it’s gonna be an epic race of attrition. It’s gonna be the longest 100 miles you’ve ever ridden.” 

The 102-mile Waffle route packs in plenty of hills. Image: Belgian Waffle Ride
A look at the 61-mile Wafer profile. Image: Belgian Waffle Ride

The route boasts over 10,000 feet of climbing on all manner of gravel roads. A complicating factor is the recent wet weather that western North Carolina — at the time of this posting — continues to receive. Up to 10 inches of rain will have fallen by race day, and Murphy is crossing his fingers that the route can remain as planned.

“It’s gonna be muddy but it’ll tame a little bit of the dust,” he said. “We have a lot of ruts, rocks, loose pack, and hardpack. It’s gonna be a mix of everything in terms of type of terrain. The climbs never stop. They range from 4-5k to short little punchers. There are long gravel climbs, short steep gravel climbs, and short, steep pavement climbs.”

Murphy on some stereotypical western North Carolina gravel. Photo: Gulo Composites

So while the route will suit someone with strong power on the uphill, Murphy also said that time trialing and bike handling skills will also come in handy.

“You need to be a climber because the gravel climbs are slow,” he said. “Or, a time trialist because the roads are so tight and twisty and shady. A  10- to 15-second advantage will have you out of sight for most of the day. And the last third of gravel descending  you have to be able to keep your bike together and stay upright.”

Finally, regarding the million dollar question of tire choice, Murphy, who is the brand manager for local wheel manufacturer Gulo Composites, said that bigger is definitely better (despite what Michael Marckx might say).

“I’ve ridden it with a 42mm Doublecross from IRC and loved it, and I’ve ridden it with a 36mm Boken and thought I needed more,” Murphy said. “It depends on your ambition and goal and maybe your strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot of chunky descending, especially coming down Pinnacle. I feel like if you’re on the side of the road fixing a flat you’re gonna have a hard time winning. I’m pushing everyone toward a bigger tire. I think MMX would probably ride a 25 with his road bike but he’d be on the side of the road throwing away his wheels.”