Belgian Waffle Ride, the high-profile U.S.-based gravel series, is baking up a big day of gravel racing as it gets ready to make its Canadian debut this May 26-28. Among the riders set to toe the start line in the Cowichan Valley are ex-World Tour roadies, gravel specialists, cyclocross national champions and mountain bike veterans.
We talked to two Vancouver Island locals, course designer Alison Keple and road-turned-gravel pro Rob Britton, about what to expect from BWR’s first visit to B.C.
Alison Keple – Course Designer
Belgian Waffle Ride famously keeps its courses secret until just days before the ride takes place. That keeps the playing field level and, of course, adds an air of mystery to the events. But course designer and Cowichan Valley local Alison Keple did share some hints about what the course could look like and what type of gear might suit Vancouver Island’s grade of gravel best.
“There are lots of punchy climbs and there will be one flat stretch for people to recover a little bit,” says Keple, who has been dreaming up this course – and bugging BWR organizers to come to Canada – for years. “It’s definitely up there on the difficulty scale, but hopefully with enough fun thrown in. At some points, you might hate the course, but at other points, you’ll love it.”
For those familiar with the other BWR events, Keple says the style will resemble the original San Diego location. “We don’t have the same length of climbs, there aren’t a lot of 10km climbs on the island, but we have short, steep, punchy climbs. We don’t have the same sand as San Diego but, if it’s been raining, we’ll have mud. There are roots and rocks on our trails, it’ll be more Pacific Northwest-style riding.
The Cowichan Valley is a major destination for mountain biking and Keple is clear that, while the route is still 50 per cent paved, there will be a few stretches of single track for riders to navigate on each of the area’s four mountain bike networks: Maple Mountain, Mt. Tzouhalem, Cobble Hill and even Mt. Prevost.
“I feel like if someone is coming here from afar, they definitely need to experience mountain biking,” Keple shares. “Those four mountains kind of set the course.”
Riders trying to guess how those scattered sections of singletrack will be connected should keep an open mind. Pavement will mix with what BWR calls “unroad.” In Cowichan, that could be anything from rail grade sections of the TransCanada Trail to double track, dirt roads or rough forest service roads. “If there’s an unpaved surface, we’re using it,” Keple says.
“There’s probably no perfect set-up”
If it’s not already clear from reading that description, Keple recommends running tires on the larger side of the gravel spectrum.
“Compared to San Diego, where I might run 32s, that’s not even a tire that I would think of running here,” the course designer says, adding that 38-40mm are a reasonable minimum width.
Keple doesn’t want to get too specific with her equipment prescriptions, though.
“That’s sort of the fun of any BWR event, thinking about your gear and figuring out what’s best. It is half road so you don’t want to throw on a 47, you’ll be suffering on the road. But you can’t go too narrow. There is probably no perfect setup. You’ll choose something and, at some point, it’ll be perfect. At other times, it won’t be. Trying to find what makes the most sense overall is fun.”
That said, if you’re not familiar with the area and really struggling with equipment choice, Keple suggest erring on the side of caution.
“If anyone is not sure, it’d probably be better to go with a wider tire than narrower, more gears than less. But yeah, you’ll have to make a decision, be happy with what you picked and make it work!”
BWR’s first stop north of the border is attracting some big names. Among them are former WorldTour pro, Nathan Haas, and a long list of Canadian road, mountain bike and gravel specialists. Keple is not-so-secretly rooting for and Island local, Rob Britton to take the inaugural title.
If anyone’s betting, Britton’s a solid choice. He’s spent more time riding a bike around the most remote corners of the Island than just about anyone. Add that to his own pro road racing background, and Britton is one rider the other favourites will likely be watching closely. While that may add pressure, Britton is looking forward to the opportunity.
“I thought for a long time that the riding here on Vancouver Island is pretty special and having a race of this caliber is a reflection of just how good it is,” says Britton. “Having it essentially in our backyard is pretty exciting! It’s really exciting to share that with the gravel community. This will be unlike any other location they’ve ridden.”
As for equipment, Britton will be onboard a Factor Ostro gravel bike.
“That will be set up with my usual gearing of a 50-tooth front chainring matched with an 11-34 cassette as well as my Classified power shift system,” Britton shares. As for tires, the Easton Overlander is counting on his technical experience in the area and pushing speed over traction. “For this course, I’ll more than likely run 35C Schwalbe G-One RS tires. From what I know of the route, it’s going to be very fast. But there are a few spots where you can risk losing everything if you slash a tire. I’m sure some folks will opt for something like a 32c road tire, but that wouldn’t be my first choice.”
Belgian Waffle Ride Canada runs May 26-28 in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley. Event info and registration are live on the BWR Canada website.