Belgian Waffle Ride made its debut in Canada on Sunday, greeting riders with a hefty 218-km course that balanced road, gravel and single track in a way that delivered dynamic racing for those at the front and a challenge worthy of the BWR name for riders throughout the pack.
Canadians successfully defended their home turf, landing wins in both of the pro races. In the mark of a truly balanced course, Rob Britton and Haley Smith rode very different strategies to victory. While the tactics differed, Britton attacked solo on a long climb while Smith established a gap on a stretch of technical single track, both produced the same result: a hard-earned victory.
Waffle men: Britton brings BWR home
While all Canadians were racing to some extent with the idea of winning at “home” in mind, this was probably most true for Victoria local Rob Britton. The pro road racer turned gravel specialist has logged countless hours on the side roads and various gravel surfaces of southern Vancouver Island over his decade of training in the area.
“It probably wasn’t a secret beforehand, but it was very important to me to win this race. I put in a lot of work to make that happen, but you can make all the goals you want. Looking at the start roster, with all those fast guys, there was no guarantees. I had a plan to attack where I did. To pull it off is pretty special.”
While Britton had the motivation, he also had the weight of expectation and the eyes of his competitors trained squarely on his back. Instead of leaving anything to chance the Canadian attacked early, launching up an extended paved, then steep gravel climb over 100km from the finish line.
Nieuwesteeg looks back on South Shawnigan as the group hesitates
Evan Russell showing the effort of the chase. The group was working, just not always together.
Andrew L'Esperance leads early in Belgian Waffle Ride Canada.
Roche, Kabush and Nieuwesteeg navigate Tzou jumps
Roche ripping through Prevost
Kabush putting his mountain bike background to good use on the way to fifth
“Rob attacked right at the bottom of the Shawnigan Lakes climb, kind of as expected,” said fourth-place finisher Carter Nieuwesteeg, who also spent several years training and living in Victoria. “He knows that climb better than most of us. Seven of us tried to reel him in, but he was gone.”
While the group eventually put in a concerted chase, Britton benefited from some initial hesitation among that group to lead the chase.
“The way I saw the group work wasn’t super cohesive,” Britton says. “I kind of thought they let me go, the way I was able to ride away.”
By the top of the climb, the gap was formed. The Easton Overland rider extended his advantage on the return towards Cowichan but says even with a healthy gap, the win was far from certain. Especially when he hit the 20 per cent grades of Mount Prevost.
“I rode with everything I had, but that wasn’t a whole lot at that point,” Britton admits. “On Prevost, I felt like I bounced off of every single rock on the climb. I had a pretty good gap, which was great. I needed it.”
Rob Britton on the first men's BWR Canada podium
Britton didn't just win the race. After somehow palming open everyone else's beers for them, he won the podium, too.
Britton’s impressive Belgian Waffle Ride Canada men’s winning time of 6:57:40 was nearly 10 minutes faster than second-place finisher Nicholas Roche. The former World Tour pro crossed the line in 7:07:11. Canadian gravel national champion Evan Russell, another Island local, followed 1:02 later ahead of Nieuwesteeg and Geoff Kabush, all within four minutes of Roche’s silver medal finish time.
Waffle women: Haley Smith finesses singletrack to solo win
On the women’s side, Haley Smith took advantage of several stretches of singletrack to separate herself from the star-studded women’s field. Where Britton used raw power, Smith finessed south Island trails to ride away from Austin Killips, Rebecca Fahringer, Katerina Nash and BWR regular, Flavia Oliveira Parks.
“Katerina, Austin and myself were the front group after Double D, leaving Tzouhalem. Then on Cobble Hill, it was Austin and I” Smith says. With that last major section of singletrack coming well before the halfway point, that left Smith off the front for the last half of the race. “If I had been alone, I would have been so nervous. But I was able to find groups of people to work with, so I just went with it. You just send it and hope!”
Austin Killips flies through the Tzou
Rebecca Fahringer steadily moved up through the field to finish third
Katerina Nash climbs on her way to fourth.
Flavia Oliveira Parks was far enough forward that she could hold onto fifth even with a late flat tire.
While Smith was off the front, the racing behind was much more dynamic. Killips, Nash and Oliveira Parks traded positions all the way until the final climb up Prevost.
“I was behind leaving Cobble Hill and put a massive bridge. I didn’t get to them until the bottom of the second QOM,” Killips says. Hitting the climb already on the limit, the Nice Bikes racer moved into second and rode solo between groups of men’s riders back towards Cowichan.
“The group Flavia was in didn’t catch back up until pretty late in the race, 110 miles in, or,” Killips pauses to translate to Canadian, “180 km in? I actually got dropped off that group, but she had a mechanical and I was able to get second.”
The flat tire would cost Oliveira Parks two more places. Fahringer passed first, moving into third. Then Nash followed, taking fourth. Oliveira Parks would finish fifth overall. For Killips, that’s all part of a BWR experience.
“It’s an eight-hour race, all I think about at the start is that anything can happen. You just control your controlables. I don’t think I had a strategy, it’s such a long day. It was a great course.”
Smith described her victory as many other BWR finishers did, defined more by an experience more than any specific moment.
“How do you distill an eight-hour day?” Smith said. “I really enjoyed the single track, and I was lucky to be in a group of about 10 people working well. It was enjoyable! ”
The crew behind Belgian Waffle Ride Canada. BWR founder Michael Marckx, course designer and Cowichan local Alison Keple, and race promoter Jon Watkin
And the beer at the end of Belgian Waffle Ride Canada
Full 2023 Belgian Waffle Ride Canada results, including Wafer and Wanna categories.