The Sūffer Files: Belgian Waffle Ride
The first in a series profiling extreme endurance races and the people that tackle them.
The Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego is North America’s rendition of a single-day Euro-style Spring Classic race. Here, amateurs can join the fray to test themselves against the pros and then party with them in the beer garden. The course is a little different every year, but there’s been one infamous consistency in the event’s seven years: it will absolutely brutalize the hardest of hardmen and hardwomen. The 2018 edition set the stage for some supreme suffering, covering 133 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing and 46 miles of skull-rattling dirt.
BWR is the kind of event you survive, one that leads you to deeply uncomfortable places but rewards every finisher with a new kernel of self-truth. Photographer Jake Orness snapped portraits of BWR riders before and after this year’s ride, documenting how a hard day on the bike literally changes us. The toll is evident in each weary, salt-caked face, but even more intriguing than the physical manifestations of a long day in the hurt locker are the mental shifts or psychological breakthroughs that can occur.
Meet eight finishers of this year’s BWR, each with their own understanding of the virtues of self-imposed suffering on the bike.
- 35, pro cyclist for Elevate-KHS; coach with Big Wheel Coaching
- Yucaipa, Calif.
- BWR finish position: 1st overall
When I was younger I raced motorcycles professionally. I was never incredibly successful, but I was always working to be the most fit racer on the track. That’s when I got introduced to cycling as a way to cross-train. I loved the simple notion that success in cycling uses this formula: hard work + discipline + a willingness to suffer = good fitness and a chance for results.
BWR is a crucible, an arena for cycling’s gladiators to test themselves in the most brutal of conditions. BWR demands its competitors rise to the occasion, and nothing less than your very best will get you across the line. Just signing up means that a rider has something special, a passion and determination to persevere. I think epic challenges like BWR are the experiences that reveal character, they are events where competition (but not survival) is guaranteed. I know the course will strip me bare, just like it did when I crashed in 2017, and when that happens, my only hope is that I will rise to the occasion and give my very best.
Mental toughness is the most important aspect of ourselves and should be developed. When the mind is willing, the body will follow, but when the mind sees no hope, the body cannot and will not perform. BWR is my opportunity to test my own mental toughness and the chance to lay it all on the line and to be vulnerable and raw amongst my tribe of cycling friends. Cycling has given me the tools and experience to dig my personal pain cave deeper and to be more resilient when faced with difficult situations.
- 33, stay-at-home dad
- Agoura Hills, Calif.
- BWR finish position: 36th overall
A neighbor gave me a Mountain Bike Action magazine when I had my tonsils out in 1994. I read it cover to cover so many times it fell apart. I saved my allowance and bought a purple ’95 Specialized Hardrock and started making trails and jumps in my woods. I got addicted. I rode for fun for years and started racing on the road in 2009 but got tired of it and started racing mountain bikes and went pro in 2014.
There’s something hardwired in us that makes it so we can’t truly enjoy comfort without putting ourselves through pain. We pay money for an experience that tricks our body into feeling as though it’s dying so that afterwards we feel truly alive. That’s crazy.
The first time I rode the BWR was in 2015, a week after my dad passed away from cancer. It had been a horrific month, and physically I was probably ready for the ride, but mentally I couldn’t keep it together and cracked halfway through the race and abandoned. I felt like I let him down, and not finishing haunted me for the next year. I went back the following year and finished third, and I’ve never pulled the plug since, although this year had its moments. If your mind is elsewhere, you can be in the best shape of your life but still struggle to cross the line. I always ride well when I’m having fun.
Cycling allows me to be a better father. I’m with a two-year-old and a four-year-old all week, and that’s more of an endurance sport than any bike ride. My wife’s awesome, and on the weekend I can go race or hit the trails for a long ride, and it allows me to mentally reset and realize how much I miss them and how lucky I am to be able to spend so much time at home. And, when I get back home my kids want to hear all about my adventures.
- 32, high school math teacher and pro mountain biker
- Silverado, Calif.
- BWR finish position: 1st female
I started mountain biking as a teenager, and it was a super fun challenge to ride up the trails behind my house every day during the summer. When I was in college, my boyfriend, now husband, gave me an old Frankenstein mountain bike. I fell back in love with scrambling over rocks and flying down terrifying descents. When we moved to California because hubby got a job with Felt, I started racing mountain bikes and was surprised after a few years of racing to suddenly find myself on national-level podiums. In 2015, I quit teaching to race full time. That same year, Felt bicycles agreed to sponsor me, and I had a ton of fun racing European World Cups races on the rad bikes that my brilliant husband designed. I recently went back to work because I just love math and high schoolers, and transitioned to racing ultra-endurance races.
I really, really like waffles, and even more than waffles I like riding my bike all damn day. BWR combines my two loves, so it’s basically my perfect day. The mass start aspect of the race is pretty fun because I get to play with the boys. Any ride that has me laying on my back, unable to move for half an hour after finishing is the best kind of ride. I guess I’m just a glutton for suffering.
I think about the lessons I've learned from cycling a lot when I’m teaching. My kids sometimes think they can come to class and by osmosis know how to solve a quadratic equation, but grit and hard work—that's the sure-fire way to get anywhere. Life and cycling are like a roller coaster, and if you know how to ride out the tough stuff you will be rewarded with really good times. I think this is reflected in long races like BWR. There are highs and lows, and the most painful of times yield the most satisfying outcomes.
- 35, former pro cyclist, Chief Maple Syrup Proselytizer at UnTapped Maple
- San Anselmo, Calif.
- BWR finish position: 2nd overall
I rode bikes around the neighborhood, to friends’ houses, and to the local general store for candy and soda as a kid. Then the bike took a decade hiatus until I got into cycling in college. My older brother was a bike racer, he was pretty speedy, and I figured I could adopt his bikes and we shared some fast genes.
The length of BWR, the difficulty, the caliber of the field, and the fun that ensues afterwards were all a big draw. Going off course with about 20 miles to go was a low point. From there I figured my race was over, but that’s part of the challenge and charm of mixed-terrain races—you never know what’ll happen. The overall energy, the vibe of the gravel peloton, everything about the ride is really positive. Despite the navigational woes, the day was really great. The big high of my day was being there to watch my wife Laura finish second, too.
Cycling is so freakin’ good for the world as well as me personally! It’s given me a career, a family, and friends. On a good day, it’s what makes it great; on a bad day, heading out for a ride just plants a smile on my face. Cycling has instilled hard work and a tremendously disciplined work ethic. Nothing comes free, so you get out of it what you put in.
- 24, pro cyclist for MeteorXgiordana
- San Francisco
- BWR finish position: 4th female
I started as a distance runner—my mom was an accomplished ultra-marathoner and I figured that would be my future, too. I was sidelined by some running injuries a couple years ago and needed a different outlet, which is when I started to see the bike as more than just a means of cross-training. My fitness from running competitively all those years carried over, and I was able to see a lot of success right off the bat.
I’m attracted to crazy. Seriously, the gnarlier and longer and more technical a race, the better a chance I have. I’ve never had a lot of speed, but I have grit and I’m stubborn, which will get you to the line eventually. I like how you never know what you’re gonna get with BWR; it’s truly a unique experience whether you’re off the front or the back or floundering alone somewhere in nowhere-land.
I was never super confident growing up, never one to charge headfirst into challenges or see myself as necessarily very strong. Cycling has taught me that strength can come from all kinds of places and reveal itself in so many different ways. To have been given the opportunity to race with meteorXgiordana is bounds more support than I could have ever imagined in what is barely my third year racing. Having sponsors who see the value in these events is a dream come true. I suppose I’ve always been an athlete, but the technical, tactical and social aspects of cycling have let me be so much more than just “strong”— they’ve taught me to be skilled, smart and compassionate. What sets adventure racing so far above the road discipline for me is the sense of community and shared experience. BWR is the ultimate synthesis of all that I love about riding bikes.
- 48, civil engineer
- Carlsbad, Calif.
- BWR finish position: 74th overall
The real passion for cycling began when I bought a mountain bike in college then raced it. We were in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, and I recall seeing these really fit 50-plus-year-old men hammering up the climbs looking incredible for their age. I decided back then that I’d do it ‘til the day I die.
Coming into this year’s BWR 10 pounds heavier than past years, I just faked it, stayed out of trouble, swallowed my competitive pride and took it on the chin. High points were meeting and riding with some cool folks along the way. Low points were taking it on the chin. It’s not the best situation to show up with your B-game (“B” is for beer). It is a hard day, but I keep it in perspective—it's only a day. I’ve raced a number of multi-day unsupported cycling events, mostly in New Zealand, which have tested my physical and mental resolve far beyond what BWR asks.
When I watched the 1982 Ironman with Julie Moss and saw what she did to finish that race, it affected me. We can sit around and chatter about what we think we could do, or imagine that it wouldn’t be that hard, but until you ask of yourself far more than you ever have, you will never know what you’re capable of. You may never know who you are, as going to the limits of mental and physical tolerance often reveals the raw truth of your character. I like learning who I really am. At times, I've been disappointed in the person I found, but it is with this information I hope to improve.
- 35, Director of Sales and Marketing at Velocio
- San Anselmo, Calif
- BWR finish position: 2nd female
I raced triathlon for 12 years recreationally and then more seriously with a focus on 70.3 and Ironman. I qualified for my pro card but was beginning to feel burned out on triathlon. There's something about the balance of work that makes "play" so satisfying, and I've enjoyed that at the end of the day I don't have to rely on my sport for a paycheck. Triathlon progressed to XTERRA as I found I had a knack for the dirt, and then moved into primarily mountain biking and cycling. I was invited to USA Cycling's Talent ID camp at the Olympic Training Center, and that camp helped me make the decision to focus on career first and then sport. It's the right balance for me as a person.
I like to pick events that scare me. This BWR course suits me well. I like riding my road bike on dirt and gravel (and doing it fast), I'm technically adept and I love climbing and long-distance events. It has taken me a long time to manage my mental state of being disappointed about being passed and automatically thinking my day is over when it isn't. It's so key to realize that pacing is important, patience is important and also taking a few risks can pay off when you are feeling good. In a long event, things change constantly. It's hard to stay positive and keep giving your all despite setbacks, but you can often surprise yourself if you just keep at it.
What do I really love about the bike? That it's a tool that forges new relationships and relationships matter—the camaraderie brings me joy, making new friends on the race course and bonding through shared suffering is unique and special, and building others up (even your competition) is much more important than a race won.
- 35, dentist
- Thousand Oaks, Calif.
- BWR finish position: 8th overall
I grew up in a house full of bicycle bits and pieces, and my Dad and I were always fixing up garage sale bikes. My passion for cycling exploded in high school, when I began working at the Trek store in Toronto. I continued to ride and race as time permitted throughout University, and my early dental career. It's always been a passion but not an obligation, and I've endeavored to never be serious enough about it to compromise my enjoyment.
The people that think BWR is crazy... they're probably right. Each year I say it will be my last one, and yet I find myself there again. It's not a case of proving to myself that I can do it. Instead, it's become an opportunity to be a part of something I would never otherwise do on my own. It's far longer and harder of a day than I could ever commit to doing without the motivation of knowing the cycling world is watching. The other half of that appeal is technological—the search to find that perfect balance between road performance and off-road capability.
I’m most happy with the relationships built from hours on the road with some great riders. I feel such a sense of camaraderie from slogging mile after mile with these guys. If they can get to the finish before me, I'm all the more proud of them, having seen the effort they put in to get there. Cycling is not only my tool for exercise, but an outlet for stress, a community to be a part of, and an international sport to passionately follow. It's given me an excellent grasp of European geography, and a fleeting understanding of how to say “last kilometer” in 3 or 4 different languages.