The first event of the Belgian Waffle Ride series was held this weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I was lucky to be there. They called the race The Hell of the North Desert. It was a struggle but so much fun. What a day it was! This is my story.
– Did you bring your comb for the ride? The cactus comb?
I want to laugh, but I know it’s a series question. First time I ever had to bring a comb for a ride. Usually, I would not be worried about my hair when I have a helmet on anyway; however, this comb is not for the hair but for pulling out the cactus spites from your skin when you hit a cactus. It sounds painful. I hope I won’t need it.
I put the comb in my handlebar bag, just in case.
Most serious riders wouldn’t race with a handlebar bag, but I love the Almsthre bag, and having that extra pocket is convenient. After all, it won’t be a race decided on who’s the most aero. There are other challenges than wind at Belgian Waffle Ride – or BWR, as most people call the series.
I had such a good experience in the BWR in Kansas last October, and I decided this year I want to take on the Quadruple Crown, a challenge to do four of the eight races in the Belgian Waffle Ride series.
READ FIRST: Belgian Waffle Ride Kansas
The event in Arizona was the first of the year and had a seriously strong field of pro-riders. Some well-known faces were to be found along the men’s field, like Keegan Swanson, Russel Finsterwald, Christopher Blevins, Peter Stetina, Adam Roberge, Innokenty Zavylov, and more. I have been racing many of them before and after being 17th in Kansas, just a week after the World Championship in Italy, and I was hoping to be able to fight for a top 15.
It is almost 7 AM, and we were lining up in the small town of Carefree, near Crave Creek, outside Scottsdale, about 40 minutes outside Phoenix. We are in Maricopa County, named after the Maricopa Native Americans Tribe.
It is a chilly morning. It is in the low 40°F (5-6°C) as we roll out.
I turn on my head unit and load the course to my computer. Ready to go. I am on a Felt Carbon Breed with Zipp 303s wheels and Schwalbe G-One R 40mm tires. I pumped to 32-35 PSI. I would like to go lower, but I don’t dare to go too low after all my flats last season, and I don’t know how many sharp rocks there will be. My bike can take three bottles, so at least I am well-equipped with water, and BWR has many feed zones.
I came with Corey Ray yesterday, flying in from Dallas. It was an early flight, but we added another hour coming into a new time zone, so it was not too bad. The early arrival gave us time to check the first off-road downhill of the course, and later hang in the Expo, catching up with friends.
I feel at home as they play the Belgian National Anthem. I have lived two years in Belgium and can easily consider it my 2nd, or maybe more precisely my 3rd home country, after Norway and Spain.
Most riders weren’t taking La Brabançonne too seriously and kept chitchatting with each other, but I loved it. As its name suggests, the Belgian Waffle Ride has a Flemish style to the whole event. The arena is all dressed in black, red, and yellow, with the flemish lion and Finisher’s Belgian beers. The challenging sectors of the route have Flemish names, and even though there are no cobbles to be found, there are enough challenging off-road sections.
When the American National Anthem is played, helmets are off, and jaws are closed. The riders have a deep respect for the American Anthem, at least.
The first 7 miles have a false flat. Then it is a 3-mile downhill, before the climb ramps up over the next 6.5 miles from 700 meters (2300 feet) to 1250 meters a.m.s.l. (4100 feet). We are all together in a big peloton for the first part. First after the 3-mile downhill, things are getting interesting.
I see Peter Stetina is setting the pace. He looks comfortable, but I know he pushes above 400 watts. Usually, I should be able to follow, but not today. My legs are simply not feeling good. I struggle. Before the race, I hoped to stay with the front group, but now I can’t. Today is not my day.
Riders are passing me up the climb. I know several of them, as we have been racing side-by-side before, but today I cannot hang on. The front group disappears. My goal of getting a top 15 is already slipping out of my fingers.
Oh – wait! That’s my road cycling background speaking, saying the result is everything. I try to shift into a gravel spirit. The result is not the as important as the experience is. Enjoy the day and see what the next 100 miles bring.
The sun is up, and it also gets warmer. The view is breathtaking. There is snow on some of the peaks—a rare sight around here. Again, I feel at home, like in Norway, my 1st home.
At the top, we throw ourselves down a twisty and partly steep downhill with some sandy corners. Most of the time, it is a double-track, but you have to choose your lane wisely, as there are some rifts, holes, and stones you don’t want to hit. The last part of the downhill is a single track.
I know this part, Corey and I did a small recon of this part after we arrived yesterday. We had a 6.20 AM flight from Dallas, arriving in Phoenix at 8.30 AM. As I was waiting for the bikes, Corey got our rental truck, and we were at the start arena in Crave Creek at 10.30 AM. Efficient morning! It would probably have been better to arrive a few days earlier to get acclimatized to the dry air. Maybe that is why my legs feel like s***.
Hey Jonas – I am here to enjoy, remember? I tell myself.
And the downhill is to enjoy. It’s super fun. You have to concentrate and get into the rhythm. A couple of riders fly past me. I’m sure they have more of a mountain bike background than I do. Despite that, I also find a good flow. I must slow down involuntarily at some narrower parts as I catch riders playing it safe. Overtaking riders on the single track is not easy; you may get in a cactus or fall off a cliff if you go around them.
I love this! It’s challenging, yet something else. It reminds me of my event in Norway, Nesfjellet Gravelduro, which also has a lot of single tracks. While now, we are riding in the desert – it is epic!
READ ALSO: Texas gravel season on my doorsteps
Getting through the first long off-road section takes a while. I am enjoying it but also happy when I finally get onto a bigger road. We are still on gravel, but getting the speed up is now possible. I find myself with two other riders. I assume there are about 40 riders in front of me, but with 80 miles to go, it’s about getting through one mile at a time.
– Careful, something is walking across the road! I scream to the rider in front of me.
– Oh, it’s just a Coyote, he replies with no enthusiasm.
What, I think to myself. Just a coyote? He didn’t seem to care less. I am pretty excited. I am definitely the sightseer of us in this place. He must have been local.
The sun is warming. I feared the morning chill, but now I know I overdressed. I started the ride with a neck scarf, knee warmers, long gloves, and a vest. It’s too much now. I left my neck scarf in the support wagon just a few miles after we started, and now I need to take off more clothes. I pull off my knee warmers and gloves on the go and load my pockets. If I weren’t so sunburned after yesterday’s short recon, I would have left my arm warmers too.
I should have used sunscreen yesterday, but I forgot. We only rode a short ride, yet the sunbeams are strong here. Today, I have it, but I don’t want too much sun on my already burned arms. It might be a friendly added shell if I touch a cactus. It’s a big risk to get spiked here!
As we ride onto the trails of McDowell Mountain Park, it’s getting technical. It is a thin line between keeping a good pace and getting spiked. They warned us about this. The cactus has sharp spikes lined with barbs, so getting spiked is painful, and it might be hard to get the spikes out. You should not try to pull the section away with your free hand, as you’ll almost certainly end up impaling that hand. That’s why they gave us the cactus comb. Riding on these trails, I’m not laughing about it but deeply concentrated, not sliding out of the trail or shortening the corner on the inside. What if there is a cactus around the curve? My front wheel almost slips as I ponder it, but I stay up. Thank God.
It is something else riding here. Treacherous ride, but I like it.
We get out of the trails and have now passed the halfway point.
Norway, my home country, has been way behind America when it comes to cultural development. I guess we came a long way the recent years, but there is this song called Miles After Miles, which fits this part of the race well. We are riding a few longer stretches now, and when you are tired, it feels like they are endless. I am by myself now. I dropped two riders and lost the rider’s wheel in front of me. I am starting to feel a bit tired and low on gas. I swallow a gel and try to do my own pace. Miles After Miles. I get this song stuck in my head. In the Eurovision Song Contest, back in ’78, it became dead last, with 0 points.
YOUTUBE: Check out the song
Finally, I get caught by two stronger riders from behind. They are fast, but I manage to hold on. I contribute with a few pulls, but I spin out my gears on the asphalt with my crank ring of 40T. I wish I had 46T. They are pedaling hard, and we are flying. We start to catch riders. Some of them try to hold on, and the group is growing. Eight riders now.
The BWR promoters like to make it challenging, and as we approach Crave Creek, where we started, we are led on a detour up the false flat from the start of the race. I struggle, but I hold on to the group. It has been a long ride, and we are all tired. For the last 20 miles, we have been on the asphalt, but now we are entering a quite tricky single track. What a contrast. Making that mental switch to be fully concentrated on the path is not easy when you are tired.
It takes me a few minutes, but I get into the groove and drop most riders. However, as we start climbing, I feel my tank is empty, and I can not keep up the power. We are all just trying to get through now. Gaps are quickly opening up.
Finally, we get through. I’d love that single track if I were fresh. Now it is demanding. At the top, as we reach the asphalt, there is a feed zone. It’s just another 10 miles to the finish, mostly downhill, but I still take my time for a coke and a small bag of chips. I have been on my limit for a while now, so finishing with a better sensation would be great.
The next part ion the asphalt road. We are on a downhill, going fast. It is relieving after a long day of grinding. We are near the finish, but as I said, the BWR is not choosing the easy way; again, we are led into a detour. We are now on the last miles, but the route makes us climb several 15% ramps on a boulevard through a neighborhood. It would be a pretty epic place to live, as the gardens are full of cactuses, and the view over Maricopa county is amazing. Right now, I’m most interested in making it to the line.
Finally, I’m done with the residential area, and it should be just a little downhill to the finish.
It is not done yet; the last half a mile of the course leads us onto a sand wash. I knew it was to come, so it didn’t upset me too much. My legs, however, are praying for relief. Almost there.
I ride it through, and then it’s only a few hundred meters (yards) to go.
Finishing a BWR is always special, and I am glad I made it through in 7 hours and 3 min on a hard day when my legs were dead from the gun. It is definitely a day to remember. I had been suffering, but it was so much more than pain faces and torture. The Hell of the North Desert was epic. All the single tracks were challenging and fun. The surroundings were amazing. It is an unforgettable experience to ride zig-zag between cactuses and Indian ruins.
In BWR, the fun is not over when crossing the finish line. It’s time to eat Belgian waffles, get your Finisher’s beer, check out the cool bike stuff at the expo, or hang out with like-minded and share gossip from the day. Lots of good stories!
Thank you, Belgian Waffle Ride. This one was epic!
Shout out to fellow Norwegian Thorbjørn André Røed, with an amazing 3rd place. Impressive!
I look forward to the Belgian Waffle Ride in California on April 16.
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BWR has some exciting events on its calendar, and this is one of those I look forward to joining as part of doing a quadruple crown this year. The 127-mile course starting from Scottdale outside Phoenix, in the State of Arizona, might be the most memorable of them!
It’s early season, and I have no expectations except enjoying the ride, hopefully near the head of the race. If I could pull out a top 10, it would be great.
I have some strong contenders in the men’s category, including Keegan Swenson, Alex Howes, Peter Stetina, Russel Finsterwald, Kiel Rejnen, Innokenty Zavyalov, and Nicholas Roche.
In the women’s field, we find names like Sofia Gomez Villafone, Emily Newsom, and Whitney Allison, to name just a few.
The first Belgian Waffle Ride of 2023 will be the inaugural BWR AZ held in Scottsdale, where a vibrant cycling community awaits the launch of the Quadrupel Crown of Gravel Series. Scottsdale offers an incredible array of road and unroad riding options, perfect for the type of racecourses the Belgian Waffle Ride has become known for. The event will take place in and around northern Scottsdale with a start/finish in Cave Creek, which is home to 200 plus miles of trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve with trails ranging from beginner through to the truly advanced for waffleurs. The roads are spectacular and the variations between gravel and mountain biking have allowed us to create an incredibly dynamic course that will take place in perfect spring weather in Scottsdale.
READ MORE AND REGISTER TO A BWR: Belgian Waffle Ride website (External link
Written by the organizer:
Located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, on the fringes of North Scottsdale, the race will start & finish at Stagecoach Village in Cave Creek and take in a seamless connection of beautiful desert and varied challenging terrain with breathtaking views and near-perfect riding conditions. The area enjoys over 300 days of sunshine and incredible scenery, with conditions perfect for exhilarating Unroad riding, including crushing climbs to beautiful views of the surrounding desert.
The destination is a picture-perfect town in the desert foothills that brings together history, culture, and nature in a unique atmosphere. The downtown area has plenty to offer, and the city has many destinations you don't want to miss out on.
The topography, transitioning from the verdant riparian environment along the Salt River to the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, will offer towering saguaro cactus standing sentry against a backdrop of made-to-order sunsets. The springtime temperatures will nurture an array of stunning wildflowers among an ocean of vibrant green cacti and remain mild enough for riders to enjoy the full day of riding. The BWR AZ will bring along technical Unroads punctuated by pristine tarmac in the outskirts of Scottsdale. The course in and around Cave Creek!will boast a fantastic concoction of terrible terrain, including pitchy undulations in!Carefree,!Tonto Forest mountains & washes, Rio Verde, sinuous single-track in McDowell Mountain Regional Park & its Sonoran Preserve, and smooth roads connecting gravel sectors completely unique to this desert playground. The dynamic nature of the course, which at roughly 122 miles is less than the usual BWR, will surely devastate even the most well-trained professional gravelleurs by its finale – a series of steep, paved climbs with pitches of 20%. How do you say, “Ouchie,” in Flemish.! Oh yeah, it’s AUW!