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Rob Britton and Haley Smith win first Belgian Waffle Ride Canada

"Unroad" race series makes its maple-flavoured debut on Vancouver Island

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.

Rob Britton climbs Shawnigan Lake Road during Belgian Waffle Ride Canada
Rob Britton launching his attack up Shawnigan Lake Rd.

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.

“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.”

Rob Britton descends Mount Prevost during Belgian Waffle Ride Canada
Britton looking slightly less fresh, but still far in front, on the final rowdy descent down Mount Prevost

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.”

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.

Haley Smith on Tzouhalem
Haley Smith climbs out of Maple Bay early in BWR Canada

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!”

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.”

Haley Smith on Tzouhalem during Belgian Waffle Ride Canada

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.”

Belgian Waffle Ride Canada women's podium
Haley Smith on top of the first-ever women’s BWR Canada podium.

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! ”

Full 2023 Belgian Waffle Ride Canada results, including Wafer and Wanna categories.