By Chris Bagg
All photos by BWR Photo Pool
I seem to only remember the crashes that happen right next to me. Of course, this isn’t completely true, but crashes behind you are an abstract thing happening to someone else: a rain cloud that happened to pass you by, and wrecks in front of you, on the other hand, can be race-enders, and those memories are more emotion than detail: the bolt of fear as you realize you are probably going down. But when crashes happen alongside, you remember everything: the sudden scream of locked-up knobby tires on pavement, the shouts, the brittle snap of carbon, the field of riders swinging left and right like water around a stone. Four miles into the Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City, not even out of the neutral start, and riders are hitting the deck before we’ve even hit the gravel. Less than a mile later and riders would be down again, as we all passed into a small dark tunnel designed for a single car. Race organizers have long sought obstacles and constrictions to force selections, and Cedar City is no different—if you want to have a good race here, make the front early and keep your wits about you.
“We came out of the tunnel after the crashes and I saw Neil [Shirley’s] wheel and I thought ‘That’s the wheel!’” said Ben Hoffman, professional triathlete. “It was a big effort along that first stretch of gravel, but we made it back to the lead group.” Following the tunnel, riders flowed along a series of small rollers, touching dirt for the first time of the day, and then turned left and cruised across a wide, flat plain, where the field swelled back to a large group. A lead group in the men’s race headed off the front not long after, when the raced climbed to its first QOM/KOM of the day. Rose Grant, the eventual women’s winner, crept away from the field here, taking advantage of runner-up Kathy Pruitt’s crash at the entrance to the section. Mishaps and mechanical issues are de rigueur in gravel racing, and very often the winner makes the most of his or her bad luck. Men’s champion Keegan Swenson lost his front brake lever early in the race, “brake fluid pouring out of the hood,” but he shrugged it off, saying at the finish “it just makes you go faster.”
Following the first KOM, the race began to come into focus as the course dipped to another sandy valley: a front group of seven or eight men containing last year’s BWR San Diego champion Peter Stetina, Swenson, and several other riders. Grant rode in the next chase group, steadily putting time into Pruitt, Crystal Anthony, and Heather Jackson, who labored along in the next group down the road. The Cedar City course’s middle miles are the least challenging of the race on paper, but feature some of the rockier sections of dirt riders will see all day, along with cattle guards one athlete described as “miniature jungle gyms.” One valley over from Cedar Valley, one quickly realizes just how much empty space Utah holds, as the reddish dirt stretches all the way to the horizon, unbroken by towns or farms. Riding here is rolling but quick, before turning back towards the starting city and climbing to QOM/KOM #2, an arrow-straight pavement climb that summits in a small saddle between peaks.
From mile 60 to 100, you’ll mostly experience fast rolling dirt and pavement with a wind at your back as you chug steadily south. The groups settled in here, drinking and eating and saving something for the final miles of the course. Grant consolidated her lead, while the men’s group soldiered on, knowing that the final climb would decide the race. Back in the chasing groups, Jackson dealt with a breathing issue, but hostilities were generally muted. At 100 miles, the course turns north, straight into a block headwind and false-flat climb. Your author’s memories of this section are spotty: the rear hub of the rider in front of him, and the steady roar of wind. By this point, decisions are made by balancing the steadily accruing fatigue against what was still to come: a terrible three-mile climb with pitches of 10% and very loose gravel. As predicted, the fields shattered into ones and twos here, alliances jettisoned more out of necessity than choice. Grant went over the top in her race alone, confirming her win, while Stetina made his move against the men’s field, prying only a few seconds from Swenson but distancing the rest of the lead group. Among the mortals, walking was commonplace, as the combination of pitch and surface made it impossible for most riders to keep the rear wheel planted (your humbled author included). Over the top, though, and the difficulty wasn’t over: a steep, washboarded descent followed, jarring jaws and shoulders tenderized by 110 miles of mostly gravel. The work wasn’t done, though, as race organizer Michael Marckx fed the field into a meat-grinder of rocky singletrack to finish. The four miles descend back to Cedar City, and are certainly rideable on a gravel bike, but low backs torched by the efforts thus far, along with rapidly fading glycogen stores, made for a challenging finish.
At the front, Grant cruised in alone, having ridden essentially the perfect race. Swenson and Stetina came to the line together, 125 miles eventually decided by mere inches. Of course, there’s more news here than the race results: an event, seemingly conducted in safety, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Around the finish, you heard the usual wishes and dreams of riders who wanted more, but most qualified those regrets with gratitude for any kind of race conducted IRL. We always want more as endurance athletes—we like events such as BWR because they give us a surfeit of discomfort and challenge—but the general vibe at the finish line was relieved happiness: races still happen, and that feeling of shared suffering is still around for us, even though the doses might come at longer intervals than most of us would choose.
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