I rolled into the finishing shoot, cramping and crying out with pain, my face contorted in both shock and exhaustion at the fact that I had just spent the past seven hours racing my bike on roads, dirt, dust, mud, wooden bridges, piles of sand, and just straight up rocks that would make even a 29er reach to upper limits of its comfort capacity.
I quickly unclipped–nearly falling over in doing so–and proceeded to just stand, crouched over my legs, staring at the ground, as volunteers came to drop cold wet towels on my neck. I was incoherent and just wanted to lay down, but the 100-degree temperature that had turned the tarmac that played host to the finish line into a parking-lot sized griddle wouldn’t let me. So I just stood there, absolutely shattered.
But I had done it. After 130 miles (40 of which were on dirt), 10,000 feet of climbing, upwards of 20 bottles of water, and what probably equated to about a cup of lost body salt amassed on my bibs and jersey, I had not only finished, but had come in second in my first Belgian Waffle Ride.
The event lived up to any and all expectations I had going into it. As a SoCal-based cyclist myself, I had been hearing about the Belgian Waffle Ride ever since I had started cycling almost three years ago. In what has proven to be a meteoric rise in both popularity and notoriety, the race-ride, held in San Marcos, about thirty minutes inland from the coastal beach-town trifecta of Carlsbad/Encinitas/Solana Beach, has quickly become a staple in many racers’ spring season calendars.
This year proved no different, attracting a bevy of Continental and former WorldTour professionals, alongside more than 500 participants in total.
I arrived to the race start early in the morning to take care of important business: snagging some free waffles.
Though I had to wake up at 4:45am to get them, I attribute my survival throughout the day in large part to ones I doused in syrup scarfed hastily before heading back to the car to start pinning numbers.
Once 7:00am rolled around, it was time to line up and ship out. The Herbalife24 crew, consisting of Blake Anton, Nate Freed, Dave Christenson, Matt Chatlaong, Sam Bassetti, and me, mozied over to the front of the throng of people congealing in the bullpen, and before we knew it, the whistle had blown, and we were off, not to return for what would seem like an eternity.
We immediately headed east and into the foothills. Though we encountered some steepish climbs in the first sections of the course, nobody was truly interested in making any decisive moves just yet. Phil Gaimon went for the first KOM of the day on Mountain Meadows, and the pack hung back. The climb would winnow the group significantly to about only sixty serious contenders looking for a win, but we soon caught up to Phil moments before our first dirt descent.
This would prove just as sketchy as I thought it would be. Though I had been training on dirt and gravel the past week non-stop, specifically getting ready for the ride, there’s only so much one can do with regards to pack handling.
Inevitably, descending on loose gravel with fifty-nine other dudes around you is going to be a bit (read: extremely) sketchy. People were sliding out, tires were skidding and losing traction, bottles were rocketing out of their cages left and right, and the motorcade leading the way in front of us was a producing a dust cloud that not only made it quite difficult to breath, but also pretty darn hard to see ten feet in front of me.
Welkom to the Belgian Waffle Ride.
We exited the gravel and found ourselves back on normal roads once again, continuing our way eastward toward Romona/Julian (home of the famous Julian Pie Company. If ever you are there, it is definitely worth a visit).
The race had been quite benign leading up to this, as we had been going at a steady clip the entire time. It was around fifty kilometers in that a rider decided to go up the road solo and spice things up. At first it seemed innocuous. The pack remained undisturbed and continued at a Zone-2 pace. But quickly the rider had amassed well over three minutes on the pack and I was starting to get antsy, which felt (and was) ridiculous given that there was a good 160 kilometers left.
I had been chatting to a rider from the Canyon-Shimano Pro-Team, and he had jokingly quipped, “If we keep riding like this, we’re going to be here all friggin’ day.” And in a brilliant moment of Cat-5 logic, I thought, “You know what: you’re right!” And what I did next was stupid by all tactical accounts, but I did it anyway: I went off solo and began to chase.
I had looked back to see if there was any reaction from the pack, but once again, they seemed completely unperturbed, and rightfully so.
It’s not that I had exactly wanted to be by myself; in truth, I was hoping at least one other person would roll with me. But seeing that no one had any desire to do so, and that I was slowly gaining a lead on them, I decided to commit to the move.
And such was my life for the next five hours.
It’s a long time to be in such a concentrated and exhaustive situation with just you and your thoughts, and I can assure you that I’ve now explored pretty much every inner abyss of my own psyche.
They say cycling is cheaper than therapy, which I now find a hilariously ironic statement, considering the only thing I was saying to myself was, “Why the hell did you go solo? Are you crazy?!”
I want to say something literary and spiritual like, “What happened next was all a blur,” but it wasn’t. True, I couldn’t distinguish one dirt section from the next, but I was highly aware of what was going on with my body and the terrain as a whole.
I had caught up to the rider who had been in front of me, who ended up crashing out on a dirt descent, and so from then on, I had the consistent feeling that the pack was breathing down my neck, so I just kept motoring away, trying desperately to stay upright on the dirt sections, putting to good use the training I had gotten in the week prior and my particular knack for just burning like diesel engine all day. I don’t have a particularly good amount of pop, and I am no means a climber, but if ever you need someone to just go at zone-3 into oblivion, I’m your guy.
Thirty kilometers from the finish, I thought I had it. I had been alone for a little over four hours and I figured the places were solidified and I all I had to do was keep rolling. My body was screaming and my legs were seizing up, but I continued on.
“Ay man, I could win this!”
And then I heard him. The skittering of tires and the squealing of brakes came into earshot as I looked back and saw Jesse Anthony of Rally Cycling blazing a path of his own down the dirt descent I had just traversed. Though I was no doubt a bit devastated that I now had to contend, a large part of me was relieved. “Hallelujah, I now have some company.”
And some good company he was! I am firm believer that mutual suffering is one of the strongest foundations in building a relationship with someone, and seeing as we were both cracked and suffering like dogs, I knew we were going to get along swimmingly for the next forty-five minutes we would ride with each other. We shared words of encouragement, exchanged gels, and even dumped water on each other to alleviate the brutal heat. The glory of the sport!
And finally, on one of the final dirt sections, Jesse was able to use his technical wizardry on the dirt, skills that far exceeds my own even when my body is at its best, and rode away from me. I tried to keep up, but I decided staying off the ground was more important than risking going hard on a sketchy descent.
I would ride the last fifteen kilometers of the course by myself (again), which includes an ascent up the infamous Double Peak Climb five kilometers from the finish, an absolutely hellish climb with slopes topping out at twenty percent. I put out just enough power to keep moving up the hill and prayed for the top to come.
And it finally did, and then it was all downhill.
With Jesse in front of me, and the next closest rider a couple of minutes behind me, I was free to go at my own pace, nothing short of blessing given both of the legs were cramping. If anybody knows an effective way to stand on the bike without working muscles in either legs, please comment below, because I found myself alternating between having one leg seize followed by the other. It made for an interesting dance that I can only hope was entertaining for the moto-refs.
I finally made the right turn into the industrial park hosting the event and the final right turn to the finish. I crossed the line, my whole body on fire.
The team would end up winning the team classification by a healthy margin, with Sam finishing 6th, Blake in 10th, Nate in 22nd, and Matt and Dave in the top-50.
Overall, it was as good a day as I could ask for. Though I would have liked to have won, Jesse is just really good at bikes, and, you know what, that’s why he’s pro and I’m not. To finish as the top amateur in a top-5 podium consisting of only current or former-professionals is a pretty nifty result, and I managed to get free waffles to boot.
As any Belgian cyclist is wont to say, the day was “full gas”, and full of fun. I’m already looking forward to next year!
I just need my back and legs to start working again.