If you rode the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride and your name wasn’t Neil Shirley or Brent Prenzlow, you cracked, entered a very bad place, and either quit or soldiered on to the finish. For some people the destruction happened far from home in the middle of the course on a dogforsaken section of dirt on a miserable and lonely mountaintop. For others it happened the night before at the pre-ride celebration somewhere between beer #5 and tequila shot #3.
For me, it happened during the neutral rollout.
How can something be the “most unique?”
The ride bills itself as the most unique cycling even in America. It’s not the hardest or the longest or the one with the most dirt or the most climbing. Is it unique? Yes. The BWR brings together all the elements of a tough one-day event and lets you make it into a ride or a race, as your legs are capable.
Still, I’ve wondered how something can be more unique than something else. If it’s unique, it’s the only one, right? Aren’t my fingerprints the most unique fingerprints in America?
Set in North County San Diego attended by over 500 riders (three hundred or so of whom managed to finish), and built around a grueling course that includes 12k feet of climbing, 30 miles of dirt, and an endlessly challenging series of undulating roads, the BWR is unquestionably unique. It’s something more than that, though. It’s a lens through which we can personally and vicariously experience amazing intensity of positive emotion.
It’s the happiest ride in America.
And now would someone please define the word “neutral”?
The first 23 miles of the ride, which was broken up into three waves, was designated neutral. When I hear the word “neutral start” I think about a warm-up at conversational pace, so I was surprised to feel the full-leg burn that comes from a 500-watt effort simply to get over the beginning rollers. People were panting, forcing the pedals, and half-sprinting within the first mile.
I’d been placed in the first wave, which contained most of the contenders for overall victory. I wasn’t one of them, having struggled in mid-pack in both my previous BWR cataclysms. I knew that if you weren’t planning to hang with the contenders, the worst thing you could do in the opening miles was to try and hang with them.
The effort of the leaders was so hard in the neutral section that I sat up somewhere around Mile 10 and watched them roll away. In addition to finally coming up with a plan and sticking with it, something else had happened at the beginning of this third edition of the BWR.
The food makes the ride
No matter what anyone says, the food and beer concession that your ride offers is what makes or breaks the experience. This year the pre-ride waffles and post-ride brats were prepared by legendary race chef Gear Grinder, a/k/a Sam Ames and his crew from Bakersfield. I’ve never had better food, or anything close to it, at a cycling event, and that’s not just because they had a bottle of private-label Bowen whiskey distilled in Bakersfield that I sampled the day before.
This kind of pre-ride power food set the tone for the entire day, because the vendors like Sam and the volunteers who thronged the 134-mile course are what turned a tough day in the saddle into unforgettable fun. We had flashers throughout the course in various costumes as well as what first seemed like a mirage but was in fact, at Mile 115, a group of Hooters girls in bikinis at the top of the Canyon de Oro climb who filled our bottles, handed up cokes, and cheered as if I were a hero rather than a broken down, flailing, salt-and-snot-encrusted old gizzard trying not to tip over.
Watching a morning filled with self-immolation
I was overtaken by the second wave of riders in the middle of the first dirt section, and it was there that countless eager and fierce riders charged by me, intent on getting to the beer line in the shortest time possible. By Mile 45 I was already seeing many of them again with haggard faces, drooping shoulders, and completely fried legs that tried to lift them out of the endless climb up the back side of Bandy Canyon and Hidden Valley.
One guy passed me early on, waved cheerily as if to say “You’re slow!” and then reappeared on the long grind up to Ramona. “How much farther?” he asked, covered in sweat and desperation.
“You’re almost to the top, buddy, keep it up.”
“Thanks!” he said.
“And then after another 90 miles and the actual climbs, you’ll be done!”
The key feature is the dirt
Although none of it is exactly technical by MTB standards, the dirt sections on the BWR are what really break up the field. They come throughout the ride, with the hardest sections baring their fangs in the final 40 miles, and the jarring, pounding, grinding effect of rocks, holes, water crossings, and treacherously deep sand add and add and add to the building exhaustion of the day.
The deep sand pits along the “Sandy Bandyweg” sector was filled with glum riders walking through sand that went up to their ankles, others who stood desperately trying to bang the sand out of their cleats, and riders who simply didn’t know that to get through the deep sand you had to pedal and pedal fast. Whether it was the rock garden at Lake Hodges that had to be taken twice, and where a fall would result in broken bones, deep puncture wounds, and cactus quills, or whether it was the agonizing climb up Fortuna at Mile 113, which then segued to the insane drop down Canyon de Oro, the dirt defined this year’s BWR almost as much as the food.
Putting a happy spin on things
The SPY slogan is “Be Happy,” but it’s not the kind of happiness you achieve by sitting on the couch. Much of the happiness was quirky and ironic, like the beautiful girls in bikinis (did I mention the beautiful girls in bikinis?) atop a nasty climb towards the end of the race, or the “HTFU” signs strategically posted on all the climbs at just the point where your legs were burning and your mind was rebelling, or the tacit admission that even though we all wanted to stand out and be special, even the best among us is simply an ordinary person seeking refuge, or enlightenment, or introspection, or excitement by pedaling a bike.
These things all came together at the end of the ride when SPY CEO Michael Marckx presented awards, and when riders basked in the sunshine drinking fresh, strong, delicious, and cheap craft beer from Stone and Lost Abbey. Smiles and laughter bubbled as much as, or more than, the foam in the cups.
Despite the grins and backslapping, the BWR is an actual bike race for some. The men and women seeking a winner’s jersey, athletes tackling and conquering the route with a prosthetic arm or leg, people trying to do something they’ve never done before, or the wild-eyed riders oblivious to the fun and seeking a slightly higher spot on the leaderboard … all of these people looked for something, and many of them found it.
For me, it was a chance to end up in the beer garden without dying a thousand deaths the final fifty miles. And I did.