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Despite the colors changing, the 2022 gravel season is far from over.
And, for the Belgian Waffle Ride series of events, this weekend marks the midpoint.
On Saturday, BWR Utah returns to Cedar City for its third edition after debuting in 2020. The race is the third BWR event in 2022, with California and North Carolina in the rearview mirror, and Michigan and Kansas on the horizon.
Utah is also the third race of the Quadrupel Crown of Gravel, a four-race series that wraps up in Kansas on October 16.
The BWR Utah Waffle and Wafer courses stick to the events’ tried and true ‘unroad’ formula (ie. “long, sandy, wet or dry, rocky, hilly, ugly”).
The Waffle course, which rings in at 132 miles and 6,847 feet of climbing, is 85 percent unroad. The 79-mile/3,647 feet Wafer clocks in at 80 percent.
Monuments of Cycling (BWR’s parent company) founder Michael Marckx says that the Utah event is unique in a few ways. One, it’s the only BWR set in a high desert ecosystem.
“What’s unique about that particular setting is we go through a few different types of terrain,” he said. “Yeah there are gravel roads, but there’s red hills and trees near Salt Lake City. Then you’re back out onto the high desert and you get 10 miles of incredible rolling hills and gravel. Then, a bunch of sand and other stuff. Eventually we skirt the perimeter of one mountain. After mile 100, we climb into the mountains on the Zion side.”
Marckx said that this year’s courses take a similar path as in years past, with the general loop of the area the same, but that he’s “added more features to make it more fun.”
Anyone who’s done BWR’s hallmark San Diego event knows that the race organizers are suckers for singletrack, and this year, BWR Utah is full of it.
“We go into a mountain bike park for seven miles and wind our way through that on really flowy, nice, singletrack,” Marckx said.
“With bridges and fun terrain stuff. Not long after that, we literally go onto a motocross course. We do the full motocross course and then get back out onto gravel roads.”
The two hallmarks of BWR Utah come very late in the race for Waffle riders. First up is Kanarra Mountain, a KOM/QOM sector that doesn’t appear on the horizon until around mile 108. There, riders tackle a roughly three mile climb that averages 10 percent.
They then descend for a quick sprint up Shirtz Canyon to the most technical sector of the day, The Tolweg (Turnpuke).
According to the Bijbel, BWR’s iconic race guide, The Tolweg is a “dirty, dastardly and diabolical sector 4.4-miles in length and twists and turns—sweeping and swooping—leaving riders weeping or whooping, depending on their single track skills and whatever energy they may have left, because they won’t encounter this most-feared of all sectors until mile-116.
“This definitive sector is a single track that contours Iron Hills, just above the valley floor, with its most prominent features being rocks, three dozen turns, boulders, junipers, sage brush, pines and more rocks. Riders may encounter one of the chupacabras who call Iron Hills home, but don’t fret, as they only eat skinny tires.”
Riders to watch
In 2020 pro mountain bikers Rose Grant and Keegan Swenson won the inaugural event (Swenson doing so without a front brake), while Whitney Allison and Pete Stetina were victors last year. The latter duo will be back this year looking to repeat.
Allison headlines a handful of pro women who will be hunting for the top step in Cedar City.
Sarah Max and Flavia Oliveira Parks will toe the line on Saturday; both women are contending for the Quadrupel Crown — Max currently leads the series. Oliveira Parks was second at BWR California but had a major navigational issue in North Carolina. Max won that race and finished fourth in San Diego. She has 1.5 hours on Oliveira Parks in the series.
Other pro woman to watch include Kelsey Urban, the MTB pro recently who finished third at Chequamegon, Cecily Decker, a Montana racer who was third at the Rebecca’s Private Idaho stage race, and Team Twenty24’s Melisa Rollins.
The men’s pro race consists of an interesting mix of retired-from-the-road and young gravel favorites.
Representing the former are Levi Leipheimer, Andrew Talansky, Stefano Barberi, and Pete Stetina, while Brennan Wertz, Griffin Easter, Adam Roberge, and Innokenty Zavyalov represent a new crop of gravel talent.
Pro ‘cross racer Kerry Werner will also be in attendance.
Easter will be back in Cedar City this year looking for redemption. After what looked like a guaranteed sprint between he and Stetina last year, the 30-year-old punctured in the notorious Tolweg section. The Utah local is having a great summer, with an impressive win at the Wasatch All-Road in August.
The men’s Quadrupel Crown battle is much tighter than the women’s. Stetina leads Easter by just under 30 minutes with Zavyalov and Wertz nearly tied for third. 18-year-old phenom Ian Lopez de San Ramon sits in fifth, just ahead of Werner.