The Belgian Waffle Ride was my “A” race for the year. I was getting it out of the way early to give Becca plenty of room for her events in 2018. She was coming back from injury and with the race being brought forward by four weeks I was looking forward to having a relatively sane 2018 after a very busy 2017!
My approach to the race started back in January when I attended the Source Endurance BWR Camp. <insert placeholder write up#1> It’s a great opportunity to catch up with old faces, make new friends and more importantly spend some quality time on the course. Going into camp I had a pretty good base of fitness, 12,000 miles in 12 months will do that to you! I had attended Neil Shirley’s Four Days to Fitness over the holidays where I notched up nearly 300 miles in four days with 20,000’ of gain <insert placeholder write up #2>.
This year I took a step closer to getting a Coach. I started working with Apex Coaching from Colorado and was using the Apex Sufferfest Extended Training Plan which officially started the last week of January. As my training is primarily indoor based, the plan was a combination of Sufferfest rides, customized training rides and a long (most often) ride at the weekend, I actually knocked out an indoor 100 mile too! It just doesn’t have the touchy-feely side of coaching, which is fine as I have no issues with motivation. This format was the weekly rinse and repeat for the 11 week lead up. I had the initial consult mid January and a follow up call with Coach Cody two weeks before BWR. All my Training Peaks boxes were green and I had completed in excess of 95% of the workouts head-on…including the twice weekly Core. I had also completed the Sufferfest 30 Yoga Challenge and extended it out to 50 day to get me to Race Day.
I was carrying a slight niggle in my right knee/quad into Race weekend from the preceding two weeks so I aggressively pre-habbed it with Foam Rolling, Compex Recovery and Epson Salt baths. In the end it held up without any issues.
As a lead up I had planned to go the Rock Cobbler in Bakersfield in February, it’s truly an amazing affair and I was bummed when work got in the way and that plan got deep sixed. Instead three weeks before race day I headed south to Temecula for Jon Hornbeck’s SPNDX Stampede <insert placeholder write up #3> on the Saturday and then stayed for the BWR Recon Ride <insert placeholder write up #4> on the Sunday. Over the weekend I accumulated nearly 150 miles, notching up 90 miles or so on course. I spent much of the Recon Ride on my own as not long after we started the group shattered and we all went our separate ways. I had a course in my Garmin and I followed it like a bloodhound with the scent. As a result I was able to mentally join a lot of the dots and it proved an excellent opportunity to burn in the course in my brain.
My goal for this years BWR was a revisit of last years, a sub 9 hour finish. With the temperatures topping 95f in 2017 last year’s goal got knocked sideways, fell over and was jumped all over due to the heat. In 2017 crossed the line in 11:01 with a moving time of 10:28. So 32 minutes of stoppage time. You can read the full report here. This year the 9 hour goal was to be achieved through two distinct actions; (a) quicker Aid Station stops, I hoped to easily save 15 minutes and (b) an increase in intensity over the day. My Normalized Power in 2017 was 162 (HR 132bpm) and I felt that I could increase this. My FTP had increased from 258 (April 2017) to 268 (January 2018).
It was a lofty goal, made even more so, as this year the course was a mile or so longer, had more dirt and more elevation. The only saving grace was the month earlier meant there was a good chance of cooler temperatures.
So with all that said and some placeholders for what’s not said let’s go on with the show.
My bib number put me in the second of two waves. It was only a 5 minute lag from Wave 1 and I wasn’t overly worried I was racing the clock.
There was a slight delay in the start and instead of rolling out at 7:05am we left the Lost Abbey at 7:35am. Other than an extra 30 minutes of nerves this was no biggie. After a stirring rendition of the National Anthem we were on our way. A couple of sharp right turns and with a Police escort we left San Marcos and hit the long descent towards the first dirt section. Of course, as these things usually go, my Garmin decided to take a dump and reboot. It recycled and came back online within the first mile, other than this it performed without issue (no I don’t want a Wahoo, thanks).
The roll down Del Dios was not really what I would call neutral. Folks knew what was coming and were vying for position. I took the attitude that a long day could be easily cut short by someone doing something stupid so I kept my nose clean and had a gentle but quick descent. I knew what was coming and 4 bikes wide making a switch-back turn up a curb onto single-track dirt Sector could be recipe for disaster!
Straight out of the gate there were some folks struggling with the terrain, skinny tires, rim brakes and 11-25 cassettes make this a challenge. But that’s the joy of this race, equipment choice is critical. Is it a road race with dirt, a gravel race with road…the answer is yes depending on your bike!
Riders were forced to dismount early. Others were sent home! A loud twang followed by an expletive left a SRAM eTap rear derailleur on the side of the trail and someone’s day was over before it got started…unless he had a spare hanger…I am guessing he didn’t! There were plenty of flats, I counted 6-7 in the first mile or so of dirt.
The field strung out quickly as expected. I kept a steady speed knowing roughly what was coming. After some short and sharp climbing we were treated to a nice gnarly descent. It wasn’t long but it wasn’t a cakewalk either. The key here is smooth is fast, choose your line, stick your ass out behind and ride it down like a mountain bike, let all the action happen beneath. I know it sounds easy but it’s amazing what the bike can bounce around and through if you let it.
I kept far enough off the wheel in front the give me bail out room and made it to bottom without issue. A short flattish section followed by a climb back up to Del Dios and we were on the road again. This was really the pipe opener for the day. Spreading people out, testing equipment early and near civilization so it could be fixed and if it couldn’t within reach of SAG or an UBER home. Nobody is coming to find you if you have an unfixable mechanical in Black Canyon.
A right turn and we were heading for Lake Hodges. I have ridden this section multiple times in different months and each time it’s different. The hero dirt of January had been replaced with dust and sand. The good news was the route was well worn by local riders, the bad news was that it was 6-8” wide and opportunities to pass were minimal. Again I was happy to employ the Goldilocks approach, not too fast, not too slow! Keep my nose clean, avoid the big rocks, don’t flat. From memory I knew the right line to take through the stream crossing. Go wide and to the right and it’s 4” deep, take the short route and it’s 6-8” deep with a couple of potholes which add another 6” and will happily swallow your front wheel and give you a nice early bath!
No dramas and I exited this Sector. I saw Becca on the side lines cheering and of all the strange things a Facebook friend from Switzerland! I rode through the Aid Station, I needed nothing and stopping wasn’t on the plan. The next Sector was the Mule Trail; flat, dry and dusty. It was mostly a double track trail where the main challenges was navigating some hikers and other riders who switched lanes without looking.
At the end a right turn and the Sector exited onto the road. This was the first road climb; Highland Valley. Highland Valley is the gift that keeps giving, you climb, catch your breath, climb, climb, and then climb a bit more. I sat in, span up. Did my own thing, passed some and was passed by others. Finally you reach the top and there is a nice roll down towards Ramona.
The key to this road section is to form a group. It’s a gentle climb as you cross this valley plateau on your way to Black Canyon. There was no one in front so I looked over my shoulder and was happy to see 7-8 riders bearing down on me. They rolled by and tagged on. We worked well as a group crossing the 10 mile section in less than 30 minutes. Looking back at this interval my average power was 162 and was spread out nicely across Recovery, Endurance and Tempo. Perfect! Riding in a group is not in my strong suite but I concentrated on the wheel ahead, took my turns at the front, was complimented on an extra long pull and given the advise of not to power off the front when pulling through to lead.
Becca was camped out at the next Aid Station, at Mile 44, and had strict instructions on what I needed. The group broke up a mile or so before this point so I rolled in by myself. I jumped off the bike to pee, I had been wanting to go for the last hour but didn’t want to stop specifically for this, going while on the bike crossed my mind but was followed by visions of ending on the side of the road in a puddle of urine and some nasty road rash who knew where! I saw Becca and made a beeline for her. Bottles off the bike, fresh bottles back on, bars in jersey a quick kiss and I was off. Well under 2 minutes, a good start…or stop as such!
Black Canyon is an up, down, up ride. It’s basically a fire-road and has various vehicles driving up and down it all year round to change the surface structure. There are sections that are sandy, some that are rocky-ish and others that are wash-boarded out from the rain. The first section is the shorter up. It’s a good reminder of what’s to come. You’re soon out of sight of the Aid Station and on your own. As you crest the valley below opens and you get a good vista of what’s ahead. The ride down is like any other, take it easy, smooth is fast, give yourself plenty of room, apex the corners if you can.
At the bottom you catch your breath on a blacktop section that is 40’ long and then you start the second climb. I kept a steady cadence picking off some riders in front and being passed by a few others. I was in my zone. Kept my cadence high and my watts up. I have only ridden the entire Strava Segment on race days, I’ve never quite reached the top during either BWR Camps. The Segment is 17.6 miles in total, last year I took 1:45:44 with a HR of 142bpm, this year it took 1:27:41 with a HR of 145bpm. Faster at mostly the same effort. The cooler temperature was definitely helping although the cloud cover had become thinner the further east we travelled.
At the top there was an Aid Station, I had plenty of supplies so I rolled through and made a right turn onto the road. Up ahead there were two or three smaller groups of 3-4 riders, I tried to bridge up to one group but they splintered on a climb. The groups further ahead formed a peloton and started to pull away from me. A couple of riders bridged up to me, I hung on as long as I could but they were too strong and pulled away. Another group caught me and we tried to work as a group but it wasn’t coming together and they fell off my wheel. The road continued towards The Julian Pie Shop and I thought for a moment that a slice of pie right about now would be pretty tasty. The right turn at the Pie shop pointed me into the wind. It was just sit in dig my way through the miles knowing that at some point I would make another right turn and pick up some shelter. This section really reinforced the need to find a group and work together, I felt I had been bounced up and down the road and wasted a lot of energy trying to hang on or riding into the wind. The turn came and the head wind eased. Ahead there was a single rider and I focused on their back and wheeled myself up to them. I finally up caught her and passed, she was suffering and had the 1000 yard stare. Shortly after we made a left turn and started the descent back to Black Canyon. The road was pretty badly cracked up and had a fair few number of sharp hairpin turns. Easy and smooth, ride the apex, avoid the big potholes. It was pretty crappy but I concentrated on not making any stupid mistakes. I had ridden the reverse direction during the Recon Ride but traveling at 5mph uphill affords you a lot more thinking time verses traveling downhill at 20mph. The road finally ended in loose, shaley gravel and for a mile of so it was keep the wheels rolling and don’t do anything too fast. Finally I bottomed out back at the bridge and was happy to be back onto the dusty fire road. The climb back out was uneventful and although I was passed by a few riders I pretty much had the trail to myself.
I finally exited the canyon and Becca was there waiting for me with iced bottles and more food, a quick change and I was on my way, another quick stop. I rode out alone but caught another couple of riders who were I had seen several times earlier in the day. There was four of us in total and then another three tagged on and then I fell off the back again. This was getting pretty boring!
As you exit Ramona there is the long descent down the 78 highway. There’s a bike lane, kinda, and there’s usually a headwind, at least that has been my experience to date. Riding it alone is a bit easier than in a group as the cars can navigate their way around you and don’t get too impatient. I wasn’t hammering by any stretch but the road lends itself to speed and 10 miles came and went in 28 minutes and change. As it bottoms out you make the left turn in Bandy Canyon and onto the dirt of Sandy Bandy. This is actually a super fun sector to ride, it’s not technical, it’s flat, you can power your way along it and there are a couple of nice breaks where you can catch your breath. The only challenge is there are some spots with deepish sand but you just drop a few gears and spin through it! At the end you exit onto Bandy Canyon and there is a nasty kicker of a hill which spits you back on Highland Valley Road. This time you to get to ride down the climb and then make a right back onto Mule Trail. This is followed by several Sectors that are strung together.
The first, the Mule Trail was uneventful and I reached the location of where the first Aid Station had been, this was around Mile 99, so roughly 34 to go. The second is back around Lake Hodges without doing anything stupid. Follow the tracks already made, easy through the shallow section of the stream, back through the rock garden, no drama. Smile at and thank the Hikers and other Bikers who pull over and look at you like you’re a lunatic…’cos you are!
At the end I was spat out into the parking lot where we were directed left and across onto the trail that would lead us back to the exit onto Del Dios where we had first entered the dirt. This third Sector is pretty flowy. There are a couple of tricky spots where it’s easier to get off and run or where you may need to dab around your way around. The problem is that you’re tired, doing stupid things with your legs could send them off in a crazy cramping spiral, (been there done that)!
With one dismounted hike-a-bike section and couple of shuffle-dabs I was done. Another left turn onto the fourthg Sector, this was real gravel! Again the path was pretty well established and it was a case of keeping spinning the wheels and keep the cadence high. At the end there are a couple of short climbs which bring you back up to Del Dios. You don’t actually get back on the road but parallel it through to the final section. This is the final Sector in this section; a reverse of the very first dirt of the day. There is a tricky descent, tricky enough that a guy I had being playing tag with since entering Black Canyon was standing on the side with blood on his elbow and knee. I skirted round him and made my way down. Smooth is fast! At the bottom, there is a short flat section and a bridge crossing, the only thing that can go wrong is if you mess up the turning and ride into the bridge!
The other side has the gnarly climb up. I have all the gears I need so I pedaled up without issue, yelling at someone who had missed the turn at the top. In my mind I thought it was a lot longer but it was over fairly quickly. I was passed by Mr. Bloody Elbow, who promptly rode too hard into a corner and crashed again! I stuck to my plan, made my way to the end without issue. The was another Aid Station but I knew that Becca was literally around the next corner at the 110 mile mark and so I rode through.
Again a super fast stop. Fluid and gels were all I needed for the last 20 or so miles, nothing solid. I also sank half a can of Coke, it’s worked in the past but wouldn’t sit well with me this time, shortly after my tummy started to churn but fortunately that was as bad as it got. Rob, a friend from Camp pulled in behind me, he had pulled the plug on his race and offered to lead me back up Del Dios. I jumped at the opportunity. He led me up the climb at a steady pace. It was a long slog and I was tired. We had one more challenge ahead and we both knew it. The climb through Quest Haven to the top of Double Peak, it’s only 4.6 miles and you pick up 1200’ of gain…only, right!
The Oasis was a the bottom of Quest Haven, scantily clad boys and girls tempt you with lawn chairs and bacon! I topped off one bottle and rode on. I botched a line ride through the dirt and the bike skidded out from under me. I was on the cusp of cramping and toppling over but it held off and I was able to recover. Back on the road you’re treated to 4 or 5 sharp climbs, I passed someone who was walking one of them. It averages around 8% grade here but one section tips up to 13%. The final climb up Double Peak is never fun. Rob was dragging me up and slowly but surely I was making it. Another swig of Coke and it was the long roll back home but not before the final twist, the route turned right that had us heading away from the finish for a while!
Finally with a couple of hundred yards left, I punched it and pulled away from the group I was with to make the right turn into The Lost Abbey and cross the finish line!
My Garmin said 9:35, I knew I was a little over that due to the reboot at the start. My official time 9:38:52.
79/223 out of my wave 213/413 overall. Faster riders in Wave 1 skew the results.
Overall I had massively improved my time riding a slightly longer and harder course 1:23 (that’s hours and minutes!) faster. I had decreased my stoppage time from 32 minutes to less than 10! Ten minutes! TEN MINUTES! I was blown away! No doubt this was in part to having Becca support me, with a written out plan to follow, even down to Longitude and Latitude co-ordinates on where to stand! She had been able to track me by using the RoadID App on my phone and knew when to roughly expect me. It worked a treat and meant that she didn’t have to wait on standby for hours on end.
I missed my goal by 38 minutes…well 39 I suppose. Nevertheless I was (and am) super happy. Taking 2 hours off was a lofty goal, it would mean being 18% faster than last year. Had I given my all, well I was pretty darn close, there may have been room to go a bit harder, hung with a group for a bit longer, ridden the descents a bit faster? These are all maybe’s at the end of the day.
2017 (top) vs 2018
So with time to reflect and ponder I have come to following conclusion;
The day went about as well as it could of! I had a goal of going sub 9:00. It would take over 2 hours off of last year’s time. My timing goal was on and off all day, at one point I was 10 minutes ahead but I started to flag around mile 110 (go figure!) A massive thanks to Rob who took the longest of pulls to get me over the last 20 miles!
While I missed my goal I remain super happy with my finish. With hindsight and with the pain and tiredness finally subsiding I have concluded that what cost me the time was the down-hills. This may seem counter-intuitive but to be honest I do think the difference can be made with improving my descending skills both on and off road! That takes time on both surfaces and lots of it and my training is indoor constrained due to family, work and the fact that I’m not a Pro! That said perfect practice makes perfect so it’s an identified weakness to work on! Riding down from Double Peak I hit 45mph, that’s fast right…some people hit 55mph! Looking back at all the descents in the race there is always room for improvement. I know that because Strava tells me that while some of them we PRs others were not.
Is there enough to make up 38 minutes…I guess we will have to wait till 2019 to find out!
So thanks for reading this to the end. I have a couple more posts coming with official photos, about the Race itself and my bike set up.