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Alexey Vermeulen Recaps His Win at the 2022 Belgian Waffle Ride

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This year’s Belgian Waffle Ride in California was an unforgiving race that (finally) gave back.

The best way I can describe the atmosphere of San Marcos last Saturday morning is by giving some insight into the start. After everyone had settled down and Dave Towle finished the call-ups we paused for the national anthem. It started, but quickly stopped because of a speaker error…without skipping a beat the entire start line kept singing until the end and kicked off the race, not so much with a bang but, with a feeling of companionship as we all set out on an epic adventure together.

Alexey Vermeulen Belgian Waffle Ride 2022
PC (both): Freddie J

Going In: My Approach

After the last two editions of the Belgian Waffle Ride, I had left each a bit dismayed. I’ve always thought this race is a great fit for me, coming from a road background and having worked on my mountain bike skills over the past two years. A successful BWR relies on both of these skill sets. In 2019, I flatted 11 miles in; in 2021, I flatted with 20 miles to go. Going into this year’s event, I wanted to take this race into my own hands as early as I could, and force people to be better than me if they were, and if something went sideways, I wanted to have enough time to fix it and keep moving.

I knew that I just needed to focus on what I can do—with a course that stretched over 200km, that meant eating and drinking appropriately, it meant being relaxed and not stressed, and knowing when to close gaps and when to let things go. It’s a game of saving energy and saving calories, and I think I was best at that on Saturday.

Play-By-Play

The course was 136 miles long with 11,500ft of climbing and plenty of sharp rocks to make your day less fun. After making it into the first dirt section in the top 10, I focused on eating and drinking more than I needed knowing I would be asking my body for more than I should very soon after. After about two hours, we hit Black Canyon, which is the big climb at the far end of the course. I went to the front in a group of about 20 and rode a hard tempo. Over the top and going into the big descent that everyone calls the truck trail, the group had been whittled down significantly.

This road would have been much more fun on a hardtail, or even full suspension mountain bike, but a road bike would have to do! For the next 20 minutes or so we maneuvered our way down the jeep road, puckering and holding our breaths anytime we hit a rough section. At the bottom, Alex Howes, Griffin Easter and I found ourselves with a mix of cross and mountain bike racers in a group of seven with about 3.5 hours to race home.

The group—Alex, Griffin, Matt Beers, Sandy Floren, Eric Brunner, Lance Haidet, and myself— were motivated by the gap we’d managed to create and started rotating as the miles ticked down. With 50ish miles to go we hit the Sandy Bandy dirt section on the way back. It is a bit deceiving because it is slightly uphill and actually one of the easier sections, but it is quite long and ends with a bang as you are forced to dismount, limbo under a metal gate and then ride up a 20% climb for 3ish minutes. This is where I had attacked in 2021, Pete {Stetina) came with me then…I wanted to try the same move again today and see who was still feeling spry with under 2 hours of racing left.

I slid under the gate with Eric close behind and immediately got on the pedals after clipping in. I punched it hard and then settled into a pace I thought I could hold to the top. I looked back after about 10 seconds and saw a big gap and everyone sitting down. Another 10 seconds passed and I looked back once more to see Alex clawing his way back to my wheel. We reached the top and ripped back down towards dirt as we wound our way towards the Lake Hodges section which had ended my chances of winning back in 2021. I could tell that Alex was hurting a little bit, but he was kind enough to pull through and emotionally support me on our journey back into San Marcos.

With just 15 miles to go, Alex came off the wheel while going back up Del Dios Highway. I was sad to see him go, but I also knew exactly what I had to do now. I had a stiff headwind for the next 7 miles and I focused on holding speed where I could and relaxing, eating, drinking when I got small descents.

As I entered Elfin Forest (the second to last dirt section, 10 miles to the finish), I focused on each little rock that could mess up a perfect day. Once through I had 4-ish miles of climbing all the way up to the top of Double Peak! It was nice to be around people again and hear the cheers as I neared the top and made it through the 19% grades without tipping over!

As you come over the top, it is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. It is a speedy fast asphalt descent for a half-mile before hitting the last dirt section and descent to the finish. I kept telling myself “be safe, be light, be careful,” but about halfway down the dirt I collided with a runner. I had a bit of a yard sale, then picked up my Wahoo, glasses and checked to make sure everyone was okay before jumping back on the bike. I had held off cramps until now, but this was the breaking point. I pushed through to get to the road and then just stood up for the entire descent into the start finish. I switched my computer to distance remaining and just watched the numbers satisfyingly tick down as I started to hear Dave’s voice again over the speakers. I came across the line alone, elated, cementing a first-place finish with a hard, dusty high five from Michael Marckx, the creator of this event.

After sitting down and chatting about how the race went, I took in the next hour of friends crossing the line, each with their own battle story. The adventure we’d all shared had started 7 hours earlier but would leave lasting memories for years to come. I cannot wait to come back.

Cover Photo: Courtesy of Belgian Waffle Ride

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