Brennan Wertz is a world class rower, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming a world class cyclist. Here is the big man's recap on his outstanding third place finish just behind Adam Roberge and Ian Boswell.
My first Belgian Waffle Ride experience was earlier this summer at the San Diego event. I had heard so much about these storied events over the years and was extremely excited to finally take to the start line. The racing was fast and aggressive all day as we covered a variety of terrain. What was interesting about BWR San Diego, was how most riders in the 'pro race' were running road bikes with 28-32mm tires. There was plenty of technical terrain during the race, but we also spent many hours on tarmac too. When I was beginning to prepare for the Asheville edition of the BWR, it was a little bit less clear to me what the optimal setup would be.
I knew there had been big rain storms in the week leading up to the event and was quite worried mud would be a big factor during the race. However, after talking to a few local riders, they convinced me the gravel roads in the region were quick to drain due to the clay in the soil. I took a bit of a gamble with my setup and ended up opting for the 44c Rene Herse Snoqualmie Pass tires. These high volume slicks also featured their endurance casing, something I was very thankful for when riding some of the more technical descents. With my tires and bike sorted, all I had left to worry about was the course profile, a menacing one boasting some serious elevation gain. While this race was quite a bit shorter than many of the other races I have done this season, including BWR San Diego, Unbound, and STB GRVL, the elevation and punchy climbs more than made up for the lower mileage.
At 6'5" and 190 lbs, this course definitely didn't have my name written all over it. Even with the steep climbs on tap, I was super excited for another opportunity to line up against a number of the world's best mixed-terrain racers. The day prior to the race, I had the chance to pre-ride a small portion of the course with Ian Boswell and Adam Roberge, two riders I have already raced a number of times this season. As the season has worn on, it has been great to build these friendly relationships and continue to see one another at the various races where our calendars align. It was hugely beneficial for all of us to recon a few of the sectors and get a feel for the conditions on course. With a mellow pre-ride in the legs, it was time to rest up for the early start the next day.
On race day I was able to sleep in a bit later than I normally would due to my proximity to the start line. I was able to secure a room at Kanuga, the camp where the race and expo were located. I scarfed down a quick breakfast and rolled over to the start line to grab a few pre-race waffles. The air was thick and misty, a drastic yet welcome change from the thin and dry air in Colorado where I had been in the days leading up to BWR. After a few minutes of friendly small talk with the other racers on the start line, it was finally time to set off.
The neutral rollout was relatively uneventful and soon enough we were accelerating out of the Kanuga property and onto open roads. The bunch stuck together until we made a sharp right turn onto the first gravel climb of the day. The pace was immediately lifted and riders began dropping like flies. Within only a few minutes, the group had whittled down to a small selection of 5-10 riders. We rode a grueling pace to the summit of the climb, a roughly thirteen minute effort. After a fast descent, the group began to ease off a bit and I noticed the size of the group began to swell. This same pattern would occur a number of times in the first few hours of the race.
As we approached the midpoint of the race where we crossed the state border into South Carolina, the 'front group' was seemingly established. We had a group of 10-12 guys who had been consistently riding at the front of the race. As we climbed back up and out of South Carolina, I was feeling quite good and wanted to test my legs against the others in the group. I was sitting towards the back of our small group and saw we were nearing the summit of the climb. I flicked my chain into the big ring and accelerated sharply, coming around the guys at the front with considerable speed. After a few hard pedal strokes I looked over my shoulder and saw a number of my competitors sprinting hard to try to close the gap. It looked as if a few would make it across, but I sensed I had caught some of the guys off guard and now had a chance to cause a split in the group. I put in a few more hard pedal strokes as we crested the climb and began flying down the descent.
Unfortunately there was a person in a truck driving circles around our race and moving the route marking signs. The lead car followed one of these misplaced signs and made a wrong turn. We were then neutralized and forced to come to a stop as the lead car turned us all around and brought us back on course. The time spent making this minor detour was almost negligible and our group maintained the same composition. While I was frustrated to have the wind taken from my sails while I was attacking, it was a challenging situation that the race organization team did a phenomenal job addressing while out on the road.
After this minor debacle, we continued to ride a steady tempo on rolling roads as we approached Pinnacle Mountain. I tried to attack a few more times, but everyone was on high alert at this point and each move was brought back without much hesitation from the group. As we rode into the base of Pinnacle Mountain, the tarmac quickly turned back into the sandy and rocky gravel. The tension in the group was palpable as we approached this very key point in the race. After a few minutes on this rolling gravel road through a beautiful and lush forest, Russell Finsterwald went to the front and began accelerating. This acceleration certainly put most of the guys under pressure, but there was still a solid 8-10 of us in the lead group. As we crested the climb, I looked around and it was obvious that guys were on the limit. I too was very much on the limit at this point in the race.
Then the road pointed down and I breathed a sigh of relief thinking I would finally have a moment of respite and be able to recover from the hard effort up the climb. Unfortunately for me, the pro mountain bikers saw this as their opportunity and began attacking the descent. This was ultimately what split the group and formed the selection that would ride into the final climb together. As we made our way down Pinnacle Mountain, it was clear the mountain bikers were on a mission. The limits of traction were being pushed and there were a number of close calls as guys attacked one another down this technical descent. I was slightly caught off guard by how technical the terrain was, but was able to manage my slicks and safely navigate the descent without getting dropped. As we came off the descent, we had a brief moment to look around and take stock of who had made this important selection.
At this point our group was now down to 6 riders. After some steady riding on rolling roads, we came into the final gravel descent on our way to the finish. I was towards the back of the group and had Ian Boswell behind me. Partway down the descent, I looked over my shoulder and suddenly Ian was gone. I feared he had crashed, but hoped he was safe and had maybe flatted or had a mechanical of some sort. It turns out he had dropped his chain and rode a heroic chase effort to bridge back up to us after he was forced to stop on this final gravel descent.
There was one last gravel section through some farm fields on our way towards the final climb of the day, the Jumpinjeterberg, and I figured I would use that stretch of dirt to test my legs. I put in a decent effort, but Russell and a few others were quick to respond and it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to get away. As we rolled into the base of the Jumpinjeterberg, the pace slowed dramatically and everyone began looking around at one another. We rounded the corner at the bottom of the ~10% climb and Ian immediately took off, charging up the climb at a pace no one could come close to matching. Adam Roberge and Russell picked up the pace, in an effort to chase down Ian. Russell went out real hard and seemed to be paying for the early surge after a few minutes. I had gapped the remaining guys in the group and began to claw my way back to Russell. I was able to pass him, but Adam was still a little ways up the road.
I managed to ride a steady yet brutal pace up the climb and chase back to Adam over the crest of the climb. As we began the fast descent towards the finish, we were cooperating very well, knowing that was our only chance of catching Ian. We continued to rotate and I forced my way to the front as we turned off the tarmac for the final time and entered the ‘Crit Cross’ sprint corral. I wanted to be on the front since I knew the wet grass would be really slippery with my slick tires. I led us through the first root section, but then Adam came around me and took one of the most badass lines I have ever seen another rider take. He leaned the bike so far over on the wet grass and came inside me on a tight, slippery corner. He put heaps of faith in his side knobs and it paid off for him. I knew I couldn’t lean my bike over like that with the slicks I was running, so he rolled ahead and maintained the advantage as we both opened up our sprints.
Immediately after crossing the line Adam collapsed in a heap, writhing in pain as his legs cramped. I sat with him on the ground and Ian and Eddie Anderson came over to congratulate us. The atmosphere at the finish line was incredible and a big part of what makes these events so enjoyable. We raced our hearts out all day and then spent the rest of the afternoon socializing, relaxing, and enjoying each other’s company. The community is strong at the Belgian Waffle Ride events and I am already counting down the days until the next round in Cedar City, Utah. These events are so well organized, professional on so many levels, and an absolute joy to be involved with! Huge thanks to the entire BWR team for all the support and putting on such fantastic events!