Joy covered the front of the women's race all day and provided color commentary for all the folks at home as a part of Pure Gravel's race coverage in Instagram...
The 4th and final stop on the Belgian Waffle Ride Series (the Quadrupel Crown of Gravel) for 2021 took the racers to the midwest town of Lawrence, Kansas. In their debut to the series, the town and hosts knocked it out of the park. Each BWR venue has their own unique vibe, and partnering with the Steve Tilford Foundation was an excellent finishing touch for the Kansas event. Live music with Michael Franti hosted at Sunflower Outdoor & Bike with a Silent Auction to benefit the Steve Tilford Foundation was the quintessential kick-off to the unparalleled weekend.
The course is one that on paper, could confuse even the most local of locals. Once on route, it effortlessly came together connecting pieces of single track with gravel roads and thrusting the racers into a 6 mile cyclocross course late in the race. Driving along the route, I was overcome with a strong urge to borrow a bike from a spectator and try my hand at the single track, because the smiles on the athletes as they exited the woods illustrated the untold stories of the perfect trails that lay behind them.
Over 40 women towed the line for each distance in Kansas, making a strong display of interest especially with first time competitors in the Wanna 40 mile distance. Over the course of the 111 mile Waffle, 37 women completed the challenge presented by the course, chilly temps and steadfast headwind.
As the gravel season has progressed, new teams are becoming established and it was great to see the ABUS Pro Gravel Team, Girls Get Gritty, and Gravel Girl Gang making a solid charge. The excitement was building in the starting corral as the chance for a top 5 finish was really up in the air. The pre-race favorites of Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon/SRAM) and Flavia Oliveira (EXCEL Sports) started the race front and center. However, the other racers did not just sit back and wait for them to make their moves!
Once again, the women began 10 minutes after the men’s Waffle start, and there was a 10 minute break before the Wafer began. Due to the course design, the Wafer riders never caught the women of the Waffle, which allowed them to race strictly their race from start to finish. Which was awesome!
The temps hovered around 43 on the starting line, bodies warmed by anticipation and great coffee and waffles, the ladies were about to begin! As I looked at the starting line, I was inspired by the depth of the field - from UCI World Tour professionals to regional racers tackling their first big gravel event. The sideways glances, wondering who would be the first instigator along with the hopes that those who chose to instigate would do it on a portion of the course that would allow the others to hold it.
Once the whistle blew and the pedaling began, the smiles returned and the women relaxed - thankful to finally be able to feel their fingers!
What was cool about this group of riders, was that they were not content letting the favorites set the pace. We saw the ABUS Pro Gravel team take the helm early, as they were the team with the most numbers. Sarah Flamm effortlessly attacked a downhill section of gravel that wound through the thick forest, emerging with a small gap and splintered field as roughly half the field opted for the road traveled at a lighter speed, and the first selection fo 20 was made.
The rollers continued and elevation was gained in 50 and 100 foot increments, you could see Oliveira and Cromwell, joined by Hannah Shell, were converging at the front to lower on more watts and pressure on the peloton.
The trio soon formed a get-away pod for the initial selection. Driving the pace was Oliveira, hungry for the top step on the podium after a 2nd place finish in Ashville. Her form was smooth and her poker pace was solid as she relentlessly kept the pressure on the pedals.
As the leaders neared the 2nd aid station at mile 35, Hannah was put into duress as her breakaway partners continued to turn the screws on shallow climb. Shortly thereafter, Oliveira dug extra deep to distance Cromwell and the race leaders all found themselves solo.
The gaps would remain the same for the next 10-15 miles as each rider dropped their heads and charged into the headwind. Although they were reeling in men from the Waffle group, with the 10 minute staggered start, these riders were riding their own race and the options for even a brief respite or shelter from the elements for our women racers was null.
The area had experienced heavy rains earlier in the week, rendering a section unrideable late in the game heading into race day. The arrows on the course were correct, but they were divergent from the GPS route many of the racers were following on their devices. It’s here at roughly 38 miles, our 3rd rider on the road, Hannah Shell, took the GPS route and found herself off course and needing to backtrack.
As she rejoined the route, she found another hard charging trio of women, motivated to bridge the gap to the two solo riders in 2nd and 3rd. Danielle Larson (ABUS Pro Gravel), Sarah Flamm, and Lenny Ramsey (Girls Gone Gritty) had formed an alliance in the hopes of spreading the workload before getting into the technical single track later in the course.
Speaking of single track, Oliveira headed into the woods solo with a 2 minute gap to Cromwell. Neither seemed overly thrilled to be solo, nor did they seem threatened by the 120 seconds that separated them. Exiting the single track, the gap remained exactly the same as the riders progressed on the course towards the dam. Here, the opportunity to see each other presented itself. Up until this point, Oliveira was out of sight due to the rolling route and twisty single track. However, with the long dam and asphalt segments before and after, Cromwell began chipping into the gap in her career-long skill of time trialing. Being predominantly a rider that shines on the road, this was her time to bridge the gap.
And that she did! In an exciting show of focus and steady work, when we spotted the riders again the lead had been changed and Cromwell was beginning to add a time buffer to the overtaken leader.
Once we saw the change in the lead, we bided our time so we could reconnect with chasers vying for the 3rd spot on the podium. We found the 3 on a long rolling gravel road, with Shell having a problem with her chain while Larson dug deep over a steep bump on the route, and Flamm suffered to hold the draft. This snap-shot moment finalized their podium placings, and was a broader view of just how hard gravel racing is. The untimely mechanical taking you out of contention, the rider with just 3 more watts or one more gel in them to push just over the crest of the climb, and the realization that now the battle would be more mental then physical. Don’t let up and allow others to catch; don’t make mistakes and get out of your rhythm; and don’t go too hard and dig too deep into your energy stores and get passed.
At mile 88 the course jumped onto a private cyclocross course that offered everything from big burms to barriers you needed to run over. Sure, this 6 mile sector was fun, but wow was it taxing! The wind was picking up and temperatures hadn’t risen much above 50. With the lionshare of the course already in their legs, the ladies needed to focus on getting calories in and keeping their brains sharp in order to make good decisions and make back to the asphalt!
Emerging with a bit more mud on their kits, both Cromwell and Oliveira were still riding 1-2 although the gap had grown to over 5 minutes. There had been high hopes of a shift in the wind on the return into downtown Lawrence, but as fate would have it, the headwind was still the largest advisory on the day.
Arguably the most enjoyable piece of the course was wrapped into the final 10 miles with the river front single track section. On paper, one would thinks these miles would tick by quickly, but the demanding course had taken its toll on the riders and I think they may have dialed it back a notch in order to really enjoy all that the Kansas trails had to offer.
Tiffany Cromwell was able to solidify her year-end win at the inaugural Belgian Waffle Ride, Kansas addition. Flavia Oliveira finished 10 minutes in arrears, grinning ear to ear and feeling validated for a hard and long solo effort. As the remainder of the podium and women contenders of the Waffle trickled in, we say countless hugs and high fives and began to hear the stories of valor, calamity, suffering and pure bliss from out on the course.
This was a great cap to the race season for many and it great to see so many regional women take on the challenge of the day. Belgian Waffle Ride Kansas in 2022 is a “must DO” and something every racer, rider and enthusiast can tackle and have an awesome experience.
Joy McCulloch - Big Wheel Coaching - @bigwheelcoaching