The U.S. gravel racing season continues to chug along with San Diego’s Belgian Waffle Ride on tap this Sunday, July 18.
The race returns after missing its 2020 edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for 2021 the event boasts a new host venue, a lineup teeming with top riders, and a few major tweaks and changes due to ongoing caution around COVID-19.
The biggest change for 2021 is the date — organizers have traditionally held BWR in mid May, when inland temperatures in Southern California are still starting to rise. This year, due to restrictions in San Diego and Riverside Counties, organizers had to bump the race back to mid July.
The later date likely means hotter temperatures and dustier trails.
Director Michael Marckx said the race has boosted its number of volunteers and support infrastructure this year in an effort to serve the riders.
“We have more course marshals out on the dirt, more mechanics stationed at strategic points on course — in general we’ve more than doubled the number of vehicles we have on-hand to support the riders,” Marckx said. “The idea is to serve people better than anyone else — they’ve paid a chunk of change to do this event and we want to respect that.”
Another change for 2021 is the addition of film crews to focus on both the men’s and women’s race — the team is shooting a documentary that will air later this year on Outside TV. At Belgian Waffle Ride the men and women start in separate waves, and Marckx said the 2021 investment in media is aimed at better telling the story of the women’s race.
“We have a separate wave [for women] so we can give them full [California Highway] support and full media support too,” Marckx said. “We’re hoping to document the women’s race better than anyone’s ever documented a women’s gravel race.”
“It’s a stacked field and they deserve that attention,” Marckx added.
Indeed, both the women’s and men’s elite fields have attracted top gravel riders, U.S. road riders, and even international riders. Headlining the race this year is recently crowned U.S. road champion Lauren Stephens, who heads to Belgian Waffle Ride after completing the Giro d’Italia Donne with her Tibco-Silicon Valley pro road team. Stephens won the 100-mile race at Unbound Gravel earlier this year, yet she has never claimed the title at Belgian Waffle Ride.
Stephens will face off against Lauren De Crescenzo, the winner of Unbound Gravel, who also was a star of the U.S. road national championships after being the final survivor of the race’s early breakaway.
Taking on the two are a long list of top gravel, road, and mountain bike racers. Katerina Nash, Amanda Nauman, Amity Rockwell, Heather Jackson, and Hanna Muegge, among others.
In the men’s field, there’s likely to be a rematch of Unbound Gravel, as the top-five finishers are all in attendance: Colin Strickland, Ted King, Pete Stetina, Laurens ten Dam, and Unbound Gravel winner Ian Boswell. Also challenging for the win will be Keegan Swenson, who recently claimed the U.S. cross-country MTB title.
The race kicks off Sunday morning with wave starts for the men and women. New for this year is the start/finish venue, as organizers have moved the race from the Lost Abbey Brewery to North City San Marcos, a development not far from the original venue, but big enough to host three days of events.
Nearly 4,000 people have registered to race. Marckx said the large turnout was a sign that riders were ready to return to mass-participant races.
“Every day reinforces the idea that people are excited to get back to racing,” he said. “I thought there might be some reluctance, or that people had discovered other outlets. What happens every day is I wake up and 10 or 20 have registered overnight, and that keeps going. To me, it indicates a willingness, and a general cycling zeitgeist, that events are OK.”