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One of the biggest gravel races in the world was never meant to be a gravel race.
Coming from a Belgian family, Michael Marckx has always been enamored with the spring classics, long one-day professional European events that are often punctuated by sections of cobbled roads and climbs. So when he launched an epic, open-to-all-who-dared road race in 2011, the objective was to create a Belgian-style spring classic in San Diego County.
Nine years ago, 136 riders showed up for the first Belgian Waffle Ride, an all-day race of more than 130 miles. In the absence of cobbles, Marckx routed the race through a sequence of dirt sectors.
Today, the race’s 2,800 spots sell out, and the country’s top gravel racers point to Belgian Waffle Ride as a marquee event on the gravel calendar. And while the Belgian Waffle Ride route may not contain the same amount of gravel sectors as some of the other events on our Monuments of Gravel list, there are features of the event that place it firmly within the world of gravel cycling.
First: it’s a mass-start event; everyone is on the course together. Second: the event has become a favorite within the growing gravel community, and you’re just as likely to see the stars of gravel cycling lining up at Belgian Waffle Ride as you are at Dirty Kanza.
And finally: those sections of dirt and trail are far more gnarly and challenging that would be allowed in a traditional USA Cycling-sanctioned road race.
Marckx said his event’s growth has sprung from the combination of disparate cycling loves he wanted to unite.
“At the time I had a UCI pro card for racing cyclocross,” said Marckx, who was then CEO for Spy Optics. “I love ’cross, and I love the classics.That is the romantic side. The selfish side is: I love long races, and also love racing in the dirt for an hour. So how can I combine those things into one thing that doesn’t exist?”
Every year Marckx tweaked the course, adding in more dirt, more challenge, more climbing. It peaked at 146 miles and has now settled in at 138 miles with about 50 miles of dirt broken up into about 20 sectors.
“Some of the sectors are a mile long; some are 11 miles. Those sectors really determine the outcome of the race,” Marckx said. “Some people are ill equipped, and they flat and they are done. Others run out of skill and crash; hopefully they get back up and chase. Some of those sectors involve climbing.”
To pay homage to the Belgian classics, Marckx names the various dirt sectors and painful climbs with Belgium-inspired names, such as the “Kakaboulet,” “Twistenweg,” and “Muur van Dubbelberg.”
In recent years, Belgian Waffle Ride has become a tactical affair in the front pack, complete with searing attacks and even sprint finishes to the line. The front group yo-yos on the sections of dirt and trail, and then regroups on the pavement.
Last year Peter Stetina dropped Eddie Anderson on the final climb to Double Peak (the Muur van Dubbelberg) for the victory. In 2018 Brian McCullough of the Elevate-KHS team out sprinted Ted King at the line. Think of Belgian Waffle Ride as a brutal mix of Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Il Lombardia, only with a heavy dusting of dirt and trail.
As with any gravel race, the hot question is: What tire should be used? But unlike Dirty Kanza 200, which is almost entirely on gravel, Belgian Waffle Ride features nearly 100 miles of pavement, which complicates things.
“The best riders can do it on a road bike with a 28mm [tire] of their choice. But for others, a 32, 34 even up to a 40 may be best,” Marckx said. “The interesting dynamic is that riders cogitate on what gear, what bike, what tire to ride, all the way up to race day. People are fixating on what the heck am I going to do? Even the best riders, even people who have already done the event will ask me, ‘hey, which tire do you think I should use this year?’’
Out of habit and perhaps to prove the point that it can be done, Marckx pre-rides the course every year on a road bike with 25mm tires. For race day, if he is able, he will use 28mm tires.
“The dynamic is, we are on the spectrum of gravel,” Marckx said. “There is Dirty Kanza on one side, and we are on the other. It’s a hard road race with all these challenging dirt sectors.”
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