Riders at the start of this year's Belgian Waffle Ride

by Chris Bagg

Ed. Note—all of us have been there at some point: an injury or desire for something new has moved us away from triathlon for a spell, and we look for some way to spend our hard-won fitness. Longtime Wattie Ink. professional triathlete Chris Bagg is spending much of 2019 racing for sister company Caffeine and Watts at gravel races around the country, and competed in the iconic Belgian Waffle Ride last weekend. He joins us to explain how triathletes may want to give this "new" kind of racing a shot.

I’m sitting on a flight home from San Diego to Portland trying to describe endurance fatigue. For me, it feels…fuzzy, as if my skin had an extra layer or film on top of it. Not unlike the early warning signs of coming down with something, my body seems to want to get away from itself, to molt like a snake or a lobster in search of a new home. Why the attempt to catalogue fatigue? Well, I spent this past Sunday (and the preceding weekend) on a new kind of bicycle, the “gravel bike,” a chimera that incorporates aspects from road, cyclocross, and mountain bike design. At this point, you’ve probably heard of gravel racing, maybe even seen pictures of grim, grime-faced riders toiling through clouds of dust, stretches of mud or sand, spread across both lanes of blissfully car-free roads. Gravel or mixed-terrain racing, despite the moment-in-the-sun it’s enjoying, is no new thing. What is Paris-Roubaix, after all, other than a mixed-terrain race? Or any of the Tour de France stages before, say, 1960? There are long-toothed gravel road races right here in the states, such as Western Massachusetts’ D2R2 or the venerable Battenkill-Roubaix (now Tour of the Battenkill), have been kicking around since the late 1990s or early aughties. Gravel racing, really, is just an acknowledgement by many that roads don’t have to be perfect, and that additional adversity is something to be welcomed.

That was a long preamble, wasn’t it? Apologies—it’s easy to get rambling on this sort of subject. I’ll return to the subject at hand: fatigue. It’s a deep, abiding one, because I participated in the 8th Belgian Waffle Ride this past Sunday, on the heels of the Cascade Gravel Omnium the week prior, which may be the first race of its kind in the United State (Rebecca’s Private Idaho probably got to “Gravel Stage Race” first, but a points-scored omnium is something new). I’ve been taking a bit of a hiatus from triathlon thus far this year, trying to fix a recalcitrant hip and hamstring, and have been lucky to land a spot on the new Caffeine and Watts Gravel Racing team, which will participate at some of the bigger gravel races throughout the year: Belgian Waffle Ride, Dirty Kanza, SBT GRVL (Steamboat Springs), and the aforementioned Rebecca’s Private Idaho, with smaller races scattered throughout. Lots of you reading are triathletes, so I’ll tailor my BWR report to speak to what you might experience, should you decide to dabble in this kind of racing.

Caffeine and Watts rider DeLayne Hart, on a recon ride the day before the race

The Belgian Waffle Ride is what you get when you’ve got a taste for longer rides, you live in Southern California, you’re a bit sick of the usual road routes, and you love the road races that take place in Belgium and northern France from February to April: hard, long races with plenty of short, sharp climbs (“bergs”) interspersed between tiny cobbled roads and hamlets. The first edition was in 2010, and it grew from a curiosity into a segment-leading model. While not a true gravel race, it features (this year at least) 46 miles of dirt and single-track inside its 134 mile length. The 2019 edition saw many legitimate road cycling professionals stick a toe into the water, resulting in one of the faster/harder races yet. I was there to experience it, but also to get a big day of racing in my legs ahead of (gulp) the 209 miles that await me in Kansas at Dirty Kanza in just a few short weeks. BWR begins with an eleven mile “neutral” roll-out that devolved, unsurprisingly, into an all-out sprint for the first section of dirt. I knew positioning would be important, and did what I could to be near the front of the pack, but 300 riders makes for a dynamic, shifty field! If you are a triathlete coming across to this style of racing, I would find some local road races to get comfortable with this sort of pack riding. It is fast and cutthroat, and you have to keep your wits about you and be comfortable with some amount of contact. If that’s not for you, simply drift to the back, knowing that you’ll be behind some traffic jams once you hit the dirt. I managed to be in the middle third of the field (I think) when we first hit the dirt, which separated me from the front of the field (not that I would have been able to stay up there on the road sections, either), but meant I wasn’t too far back once we completed the first two miles of single-track, which is called Lemontwistenberg, probably due to the small, hand-lettered, ancient sign advertising “Lemon Twists” about a mile back along the main road. This section of dirt did what it is supposed to do: break the 300-person field up into groups of 30-40 riders, and it was with one of those, along with teammate James Walsh, in which I settled into the rest of my day.

One of the dirt sections of the BWR

And what a day it was! I won’t bore you with all the particulars, but I can’t remember having as much fun on a bike. The vibe at BWR is “racy with a hint of irony,” as died-in-the-wool road racers, mountain bikers, cyclocross-istas, and the occasional semi-retired professional triathlete all rub elbows in a challenging yet fun setting. Here are some things that will stand in your favor as a triathlete-become gravel-racer, should you decide to give this a crack. Teammates James Walsh and DeLayne Hart are also both former triathletes, so the three of us could exchange histories of all things triathlon: peeing our cycling shorts (a big no-no in the cycling world; the chamois are thicker, so you really end up with that full diaper feeling), the pain of the final 13 miles of an Ironman, and enough nutrition science to launch a small startup.

  • Your endurance will really help. In the gravel races I’ve done so far, I’ve discovered that as long as I keep pedaling steadily, the road racers around me (not used to the constant muscle tension that triathlon requires) tend to simply fall away as the day progresses.
  • Your understanding of race fueling. Triathlon is more of a logistical and mental challenge than a pure athletic challenge, and if you’ve come up with a successful fueling plan for a half-ironman or Ironman, you’re going to be prepared for the “out there all day” nature of these rides. Eat and drink early, but learn how to pee while riding your bike (sorry, ladies), so you’re not stopping all the time.
  • Your capacity for steady discomfort. Road racing, while featuring short, repeated bouts of actual suffering, also gives you long breaks while you roll along in the comparative comfort of a peloton. As a triathlete, you’re used to doing it yourself, and this well help you deal with the accrued pain of 6-7 hours of riding (heck, for most triathletes, this is only about half our racing day!)

Bagg and Walsh at the finish

Of course, the cup is not all full. Although you may be more suited to jumping into a gravel race than a classic road race, there are some things your multisport background won’t provide, and you’ll want to bone up on them before your first gravel-staganza.

  • Riding in groups. Nothing screams former triathlete more than not being able to ride in very close proximity to other riders who are moving quickly. Unless you’ve done some draft legal triathlon (good for you), you’ll need to find some places to practice this. Your usual training ride probably won’t cut it, as it could be full of triathletes doing all sorts of verboten things (sitting on the front too long, half-wheeling, letting gaps form). Maybe your town has a road-bikes-only ride, or a weekly training race that has categories for beginners. Do not skip this step! Doing so will place you (and the people around you) at peril.
  • Bike handling/riding off road. Triathletes get a bad rap where bike handling is concerned and—let’s face it—that reputation is fairly well-earned. Our sport doesn’t require a whole bunch of handling skilz, so we tend to disregard them. Buck the trend and instead of being “that guy” take some time and get good at the things roadies shame us for: improve your descending; try out some track-standing; stay off your brakes; discover how much you can lean your bike before it starts to disappear out from under you. A great idea, here, would be to take a mountain bike skills clinic, or a cyclocross class, which should be easily findable in your area. You’ll scare fewer people, and you’ll actually get faster upon your return to triathlon, as you carve through corners and descents with greater grace.

The weekend prior to BWR, I mentioned that I’d taken part in a gravel omnium, out in Bend, Oregon. I was joined by Wattie Ink. professional Rachel McBride, who went on to post a perfect score in her race, winning all three stages: a short, Friday evening time trial on a rocky road outside of Bend; a technical, lower elevation 70-mile route on Saturday; and a glorious, long-climb, plush gravel 65-mile course on Sunday. Here's what McBride had to say about gravel racing: 

"Triathlon prepared me for gravel racing in a couple different ways. First, gravel racing is a super tough endurance sport, so I use my ironman mental toughness and grit to get to through those hard miles. I also need to keep cool with things go wrong - gravel racing is hard on the body and bike and you’re usually out in the middle of nowhere with support a long walk away. In triathlon with 3 different sports and transitions, there’s a lot of room for error or malfunction so you have to have the ability to handle different situations, improvise, go with the flow and not get too worked up about it. Triathlon also helps when the climbs are so steep you have to run your bike up them!

Triathlon does not prepare you for the bike handling skills you need. Every gravel race I do, there is new and different, challenging terrain that I may have never experienced before. There can be gloriously smooth-packed roads, but that usually doesn’t last long. Expect washboarding that will shake your teeth loose and numb your hands, technical rocky roads that drive you batty as you bounce around and can’t find a rhythm, and big washouts and sand traps that got me this time at the Cascade GG. Oh and don’t forget the potholes that come out of nowhere to pinch-flat your tires (game changer: ride tubeless!). So go out and ride some trails first to try it out, take a cyclocross skills session (or better yet, race it!), or take up mountain biking (because we all need yet another bike, right?!).

This may sound a little scary and not so much fun. Well, I can tell you it is sometimes scary, AND it is some of the best fun I’ve ever had. The gravel community is pretty chill and rad. You are destined to come out of any race with some new friends. The courses are always epic, on roads few have travelled at times, and usually packed with beautiful views. And of course my favourite, it’s almost standard you’re supplied with a few pint at the finish. Sign me up!"

McBride on the podium after her Perfect Score

Riders traverse some lonely, open expanses of Central Oregon; image courtesy of Adam Lapierre 

Day one saw some deep, technical, sandy descents; image courtesy of Adam Lapierre

The men's lead group on Day Two—your editor promises he is just out of frame on the right; image courtesy of Adam Lapierre

In short, gravel racing is fun, low-key, hard, safer than riding on the road, and tends to take you to places normal paved roads don't traverse. It's something you should add to your calendar right now. Interested? Head over to Caffeine and Watts to learn more about the Wattie Ink. linked gravel team.