It has been an exciting adventure over the past few days, with lots of great memories and gravel lessons learned that are worth recounting for the Squadra. On Friday, I flew to Vancouver Island to race in Sunday’s Belgian Waffle Ride, one of the world’s premiere gravel racing events and the first time it has come to Canada. Going into the event, based on my level of fitness (or perceived lack, thereof, due to it being early in the season for an Albertan, with snow recently gone and crazy wildfire smoke impinging on training time), I was expecting a mid-pack result and was absolutely thrilled that after over 5 hours on the bike I won 1st Place in my age class by 20 and 23 minutes over 2nd and 3rd places. BooYaaah!!!
The race was a complete blast! What the BWR does is combine elements of road, gravel, and single-track mtb racing into a single, glorious, event. There were two main distance categories of 110 kms and 215 kms for the pros (and the hard-cores). The longer distance tacked on an extra 100 km loop of gravel and road before reconnecting with the shorter course, so both courses pretty much covered the same major climbs and single-track sections. Climbs ranged from short and punchy to long and steep, with the longest climb of the day (up and over Mt. Prevost) sadistically positioned about 20 kms from the finish. It began with a 1 km, 17%, cobbled section followed by 12 more kilometers at a consistent 6-8% gradient, to reach the top. Along the way were a couple of 20% half kilometer long sections thrown in for good measure. Some punchy, loose-dirt, single-track at the bottom hit 30%, and good tire selection on my part allowed me to ride it where others were off and pushing.
I decided to race the shorter, 110 km distance. Why? Hmmm… well, lack of perceived fitness was a key reason, but just as important was I felt going hard for 5 or so hours was a sufficient challenge for my first time at the BWR… plus I wanted to feel reasonably fresh at the end and have lots more time to enjoy myself in the beer tent at the end (there, I said it).
I credit my win to a good race strategy rather than being race fit (it’s far too early in the season for good fitness… LOL), plus I applied some lessons I picked up from watching some excellent coaching videos prior to the event. The key lesson I learned, and can endorse now from experience, is that a long gravel event isn’t like a ‘balls to the wall’ XC race, or a long road race where tactics, surges, and positioning are important… unless you’re one of the pros battling it out for the win. A long gravel race for the rest of us requires longer term thinking as well as the patience to resist the urge to stay in the lead group, lest you pay for it later. Unless you’re someone who can ride at the front all day, it’s important to resist the urge to get caught up in the herd mentality of 500+ riders going hard out of the gate. Keeping a sweet spot pacing strategy in mind and using my power meter religiously, as well as resisting the urge to go hard on the climbs, worked brilliantly. I tucked in with the lead group for the first 10 kms, until we hit the first of a series of steep climbs, then I let myself drift back. When everyone else went hard to maintain their position on the climbs, I allowed myself to get passed over and over and over again (pretty frustrating really) but I kept dialled-in on a target power range I knew wouldn’t overextend me. After around 90 minutes of climbing and single track (where I was badly held up by people with no XC experience… Grrrr!) we hit pavement again and I started reeling people in. My pacing strategy worked brilliantly because the younger, faster, guys had cooked themselves on the early climbsand I was able to hook-on with them on the flats and boost my speed. Hitting the intermediate climbs, I was able to stick with everyone due to having fresher legs, while they were all climbing a lot slower than earlier in the race. Then I kicked it up a couple of notches on a long trail section and passed and dropped about 30 people who I never saw again until the finish. The biggest challenge was having to climb up and over the previously described Mt. Prevost, a few kilometers before the finish. I was expecting a lot of people to pass me on the 13 km climb (I’m not much of a climber), but only three did and I killed them all going down the backside, so the pacing strategy recommended in the coaching videos I watched was definitely the way to go. It was ALL about the pacing, and I can only imagine how cooked I would have been if I had gone out hard for the first 90 minutes, along with everyone else.
At the end of the day, it was a fantastic way to spend time on the bike, and I highly recommend this type of event to anyone if they haven’t tried it already. Ride your own pace or take it as seriously as you’d like… either way, they are a blast and you will have a great time. Cheers, and happy riding.