There are many reasons the ‘gravel ride’ craze has exploded––Features like beautiful courses that challenge riders or just personal fitness goals in new arenas are keeping this segment growing, as is the equipment game. No two events require the exact same setup and rarely is one bike the right bike for the entire race. This was very evident at the 2018 Belgian Waffle Ride.
PELOTON / Images: Steve Driscoll-LIFTcs.com/PELOTON
The 2018 Belgian Waffle Ride was 133 miles with 11,552 feet of elevation. It’s not a gravel ride, and it’s not a road race, but there’s plenty of gravel and plenty of road. Imagine if the queen stage of the Tour de France merged with Strada Bianche, with a bit of single track tossed in just to keep riders guessing. What would you ride? This was the question facing the PELOTON Service Course’s Director of Peak Wattage Studies, Mike Easter.
“The route is brutal and it stresses you physically and mentally. It is unique each year, but with enough sections kept in year to year it’s always a bit familiar. Each year it requires that you accept, at some point, you are on the-less-than perfect bike for the section you are riding.” said Mike.
Leading up to the event Mike was leaning toward a disc ‘cross bike with 28mm tubeless tires and road pedals. Then Michael Marckx, the BWR promoter, sent out the course reveal.
“As I digested the idea of 133 miles (appox. 90 road, 40 dirt, and 11,500’ of climbing) I started leaning towards riding an S-WORKS Tarmac Ultralight rim-brake for the event. I knew from years past that one bike is not ideal for all elements of the course, so I chose the bike that I felt was best for the 90 miles or road and enormous amount of climbing, but would survive the dirt.”
In the end Mike opted for the S-WORKS Tarmac and its rim brakes.
With the Ultegra Di2 GS rear derailleur Mike was able to run a 34-34 low gear.
“Each year as I climbed/crawled up Double Peak and watched my Garmin pause and start due to my absolute lack of speed and power, I would swear that the next year I would bring an easier gear. Year one: 53/39, 11-25. Year two: 53/38, 11-28. Year three: 52/36, 11-28. Year four: 50/34, 11-34 and finally I found the perfect gear that kept me fast enough on the road sections, but kept my legs spinning up Double Peak and some of the steep dirt sections.” says Mike.
Wheel and tire selection are absolutely critical. The Bontrager XXX6 wheels Mike chose gave him aero depth for the fast sections but stay light enough for the huge climbs, while offering a nice, wide platform for the IRC Formula Pro Tubeless X-Guard tires in 28mm.
The Tarmac’s direct mount rim brakes offered plenty of clearance for the 28mm IRC Formula Pro Tubeless X-Guard tires in 28mm. Mike rode 90f and 95r PSI, at those pressures on the wide Bontrager XXX6 rim they measure a touch over 29mm.
A cheat sheet is critical with a course that is long, challenging and varied. The Shimano Di2 remote climbing shifters add a touch of convenience.
Mike opted for XTR pedals and SIDI Tiger two bolt shoes. With some unknown new sections hike-a-bike was a real possibility.
Mike felt confident he was onto the right set up, especially when seeing the other riders expected to be at the front. Many where on full on road set ups.
2017 Gravel ‘World Champ’ and Red Hook rider, Colin Strickland rode his Pinarello Dogma F10, unlike his Gravel Worlds win when he rode his GAN GR.
Image: Steve Driscoll-LIFTcs.com
How’d it go for Mike seen here on Double Peak? With three top tens to his credit at BWR, Mike may have been hoping for better than 25th at 7:21.39, but the 2018 field was simply the strongest ever assembled for “The Hell of the North (county),”with pro Brian McCulloch finishing in 6:34:29 beating ex-World Tour pro and Kanza champ, Ted King, into second.
With a day or two perspective Mike weighed in on his bike choice again, “Having finsihed the race and still being sore two days later I would have chosen a different bike. I would have gone with a disc road bike with a longer wheelbase. It wasn’t that I needed more braking power, but the disc would have saved a lot of hand fatigue from all the extra braking effort the rim brakes required through the rough sections. The longer wheel base would have allowed me to be a little more relaxed through the rough stuff and likely better handling through the loose sanding sections.”
“I would make no changes to my gearing, pedals, or shoe choices. I absolutely loved the IRC tubeless tires and Bontrager XXX6 wheels, both were super-fast and despite one flat (rider error) they were an excellent choice. I would also lower the tire pressure in the front, from 90 to 80 and the rear from 95 to 85ish. I had far too much air pressure for every dirt sections. In the end, the 2019 BWR will bring new challenges and another bike selection dilemma, but I am already excited and anticipating what insanely brutal course Marckx will come up with next.”