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My First Northern American Gravel Race
Belgian Waffle Ride on Vancouver Island was a blast
I’m sitting in Vancouver overlooking the mountains, the ocean and the city. I’m smiling to myself, “How the hell did I end up here?”, I ask myself for the hundredth time this week.
It’s Monday afternoon as I write this, around 5pm. In just over twelve hours time it’ll be direction Kansas and the circus that is Unbound. That’s a future Joe problem, for now I’m living in the moment. This whole week has been a blast.
Let me provide context. I came here to race the Belgian Waffle Ride on Vancouver Island. BWR is a race series predominantly based out of the States, and Vancouver has been high on my travel list for a while. When creating my calendar at the start of the year, I bookmarked this race. It’d be expensive, but I hoped it’d be worth it. I was right.
I flew out a week ago today off the back of racing the Ras, a five day stage race in Ireland. I stayed just outside of Vancouver in Maple Ridge, and it took me a fair few days to get over jet lag and stage race fatigue. I was worried that the fatigue would mean I’d have to go straight to the race and I wouldn’t get to witness Vancouver at its finest. Luckily, I was wrong. What followed in the next few days blew my mind.
The ferry from the mainland to Vancouver Island is perhaps one of the most beautiful boat rides in the world. Meandering through the different islands, I shook my head at the beauty of my surroundings. I sat on the top deck reading my book as the sun set over the hills, I saw a small pod of whales, it was like a movie. The scenery of the whole Island is spectacular. There are mountains, forests and water wherever you look. It is the most beautiful place I have ever ridden.
I stayed with a Canadian-British family around Shawnigan Lake and was welcomed into the home with open arms. It was great. One of the hardest things about being on the road is going hotel to hotel. Staying in any form of host-housing makes you feel at home, I’m hugely grateful to James and Amick for opening up their place.
I really didn’t know what to expect from North American Gravel. I imagine racing Unbound will give me a better idea, but this past weekend was just dipping my toe in the water. There was strength, but not too much depth in the BWR field, and it immediately split up. The mountain bikers did mountain bike things on the technical singletrack downhills. I did Joe Laverick things and got dropped. Hard. In my defence, we were descending mountain bike trails that had jumps and berms…
The first time this happened I thought it was a race over. There was over 200km to go but I was too far behind the front group to catch them, and too far ahead of the next to sit up. I did what any sane bike rider would do and decided to go hard for the next twenty minutes to see if the gap would come back. To my surprise, the gap did come back, and I rode back by myself to the group.
I caught them at the worst time possible. The front ten or so riders started to push on up a steep off-road trail, and after the chase I was gassed. I started to lose touch on the climb, and then lost another thirty seconds on the mountain bike descent.
So, here we are again thinking my race is over and chasing alone. To my surprise again, I managed to ride it back. I knew that at some point that I’d regret burning this many matches so early on, but I didn’t really have the choice. You’ve got to be in the front group as it moves so much faster.
I’ve only got myself to blame for all these chases. I don’t have the skills in the same stratosphere to keep up on the downhills. Physically, I’m strong. Technically, I’m very weak.
Once I was in the front group it was strange. I knew there was little chance of me winning both due to the matches I’d already spent, and the fact that there was a fast, technical 7km descent to the line. The gap to the group behind was so big that there wasn’t really any dynamics in our front group. We’d tap through at a relatively soft pace.
There would be random attacks here and there from ex-road pro Rob Britton who was just playing with us. We were quite literally in Rob’s back yard. He was the strongest there, and he had home court advantage. A devastating combination. When he attacked on a climb with over 100km to go, I was doing over 400w on the wheel and he just rode away alone. He won by multiple minutes.
With Rob up the road, the group was whittled down to nine, and I finally cracked on a steep uphill trail, paying the price for all of those early chases. I could ride at 300w just fine, but anything more hurt a lot. I lost the group, and then slid out on the descent. I was pushing my own limits trying to chase back on, but the slide out was again, due to a lack of skill. Note to self: get descending lessons when I’m home.
Still a long way to go, I spent the next 70km or so alone in no man’s land. I could see Nathan Haas, one of my best mates just thirty seconds or so up the road. He was also alone thanks to a series of mechanicals, but it took me an hour to close that gap. We rode up the final climb together (10km at 5% hits different after seven hours of racing). Then bid him farewell on the descent.
I started to bonk at the top of the final climb, but as it was all downhill home, figured I’d be okay. You see, in my crash I’d exploded three of my Precision Hydration Gels, meaning I’d lost an hour of fuel. The final couple of kilometres on the flat hurt. I was on such an energy low. Somebody placed a waffle in my hand at the end and I ate it happily.
I crossed the line in 10th place. I’m happy with that. I know I’ve got a great engine, but with my limited technical skills I cannot compete for the win. But, it’s only my second ever Gravel race in my life, so I’ve got to be happy. The skills will come, they will just take time.
In a normal post race blog, that would be me done. I’d finish the race, the team would drive me to the airport and away I go. That’s not the case with Gravel. After arriving back on the mainland on Sunday night, we had the whole Monday free. We made the most of it.
Nathan and I walked to two coffee shops in the morning to get breakfast, did a little bit of retail therapy in Lululemon and then were “guided” to a city tour by Kaelen Coles-Lyster. From there, it was lunch by the water, a little nap and then out for sushi.
I could do this whole Gravel thing on a shoe-string budget, keep as much money as possible back at the end of the year, but that’s not the point. If I ever have a day or so where I can explore a place, I’d rather spend the money and do so. My biggest gripe of road was that I could never experience the places I raced.
For the two days racing on the Island I had Liam, a videographer following me round, I know how influencer of me. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that, because I’m gonna reiterate how beautiful that place is. Again, it’s money spent, but I see it as an investment into next year. My contracts aren’t just decided on race results these days, and I like that.
I’m finishing this up on a flight to Denver, then it’ll be a quick hop across to Kansas. Unbound Gravel. Two hundred miles, three hundred and whatever kilometres. It’s the Tour de France of the Gravel world. I’m probably unprepared, but I’m taking ignorance is bliss outlook.
My plan is to race at the front as much as possible, but if I’m being completely honest, I’ve got no black and white goals of a positioning goal. At this moment in time, I’d bite your hand off for a Top 20, but even that is going to bee difficult. I have two goals, and they’re both personal goals: Firstly, finish. Secondly, finish in under ten hours. If I do that, then whatever my position I’ll be happy.
I’ll make some mistakes and it’ll be a crazy day out on the bike. I didn’t even plan on going originally, it just fell in my lap and it seems to be one of those races you have to go to. Even just to be seen to be going to. Unbound is all about learning. If I’m going to stay doing this weird hybrid race calendar of mine then I’ll almost certainly be back
From the Lincoln GP, to the Ras Tailteann, BWR Vancouver and now Unbound. There’s still my trip to the Blue Mountains north of Toronto to come, but that’s not on my mind right now.
As always, a huge thanks to all of my partners. I had the first outing of my custom Velotec kit this weekend which looks incredible. Also, it’s good to have aero kit when you spend so much time chasing!! My Ribble Gravel SL rode a dream and was getting compliments from all angles about the paintjob. And Pullwood Consulting, it’s amazing the things that get flagged to you when you speak with people just one or two steps out of the cycling world. Finally, Stages Cycling for letting me see how hard I have to go to make up for my lack of skill.
You know, over the past few years people have reminded me that I’ve been “living the dream” and I shook it off. This weekend has made me realise that I am doing exactly that. Whether this whole Project TAG is just for this year, or the next ten, I know I’ll always look back with a smile. That is what bike racing is all about.
While you’re here…
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