Michael Marckx and the Hell of the North County

Michael Marckx in front of the 2017 Belgian Waffle Ride starting line. Photo credit: Wil Mathews/PinnedGrit

Michael Marckx hails from a large Belgian family with fun stories about distance running and cycling. His aunt dated Steve Prefontaine for the last five years of his life, he debuted in road racing on the bike and in the marathon at the age of 12 but was upstaged by his two brothers who ran one as young as 8 years old, and Michael himself has run in the low 14 minutes for the 5K and sub 2:30 for the marathon. After transitioning to the triathlon during college, Marckx went on to win the World Amateur Championship before his career was quickly brought to halt when he was hit by a car at the age of 23. Decades later a shift back to cycling led to the creation of the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride, one of the most celebrated cycling races in the U.S. As I sat down to learn more about the event from Marckx, he helped me understand the dynamics of the ride by comparing it to the marathon.

Belgian waffles are served up before the race. Photo credit: Jake Orness/PinnedGrit

Seven years ago, Michael Marckx set out to create the premier one-day spring classic in the United States. He had ridden in events in Europe and wanted to offer a fun state-side alternative. Marckx admits that these long, grueling events are what he gravitates toward and excels at, so the act of putting one together was in a small way a somewhat selfish endeavor. It has become anything but over the past seven years.

The course switches back-and-forth between roads and dirt. Photo credit: Scott Draper/PinnedGrit

Beginning and ending at the Lost Abbey Brewery in San Marcos, California, participants are treated to a feast of Belgian waffles (and encouraged to gorge) before the race and then after to various culinary delights washed down with Lost Abbey’s Belgian beer. The course changes every year, but you can count on it covering over 130 miles or more, switching back-and-forth from dirt to road, and traversing the punishing climbs around North County San Diego, including Double Peak, the final climb of the day. The Wafer, a shorter alternative, was added to the event offering in 2015. The first edition of his Belgian Waffle Ride was an invitation-only event for 136 people. This year, like last year, there’s an expected 1100 riders who will attempt to finish the Canyon BWR on April 15, with 650 riders looking to take on the full, grueling 134-mile waffle.

The course is challenging but also rewards the competitors with beautiful scenery. Photo credit: Wil Mathews/PinnedGrit

Let’s review a few of the stats for the 2018 Waffle Ride, keeping in mind that the Wafer offers roughly half of the same challenges. The Waffle course will cover 134-miles, 46 of which are spread out across 11 different dirt sections. There are 13 categorized climbs for a total of 12,000 feet of climbing. And if that is not enough of a challenge, there are also a dozen water or footbridge crossings. Suddenly that Wafer is sounding like a better option, right? And you can understand why the event has been dubbed the Hell of the North County. Marckx explained that getting to the finish line is the main objective for the vast majority of participants. His advice is to stay hydrated, take in enough calories, and save something for the last 40 miles. Marckx compared those miles to the last six in a marathon, or as runners understand, the part where you are almost certain to hit the wall. “The climbs tend to have staircases to them,” Marckx added, “and people will often blow up on the first step.”

The choice of tires is critical for riders with the BWR’s varied terrain. Photo credit: Wil Mathews/PinnedGrit

New this year is a title sponsorship from Canyon Bikes, a revered German manufacturer with a recent, highly anticipated debut in the U.S. market this fall. Marckx commented that Canyon’s involvement is the “coolest thing to happen so far,” and he went on to add that he hopes the brand’s involvement will lead to European teams being sent over to race the event in the years to come.

Jesse Anthony wins the 2017 Belgian Waffle Ride in a time of 6:42:14. Photo credit: Jake Orness/PinnedGrit

Proceeds from the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride and the accompanying two-day expo go directly to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). The mission of the CAF is to provide opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics. Participants are also able to purchase an HTFU registration package which includes a spot in the professional wave, swag from CAF, a personalized training plan, and two seats at the VIP dinner.

 

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After reviewing material on the Belgian Waffle Ride, I asked Marckx if luck was required to get to the finish line. He gave me a sensible but honest answer. “Yeah, you can increase your chances by training, eating, drinking, and choosing the right tires, but the chance of hitting a rock and getting a flat is always there.” If the expo and race preparations on Friday and Saturday go smoothly, then Marckx will be on the starting line that Sunday morning in mid-April, testing his luck and reaching outside his comfort zone with 1100 other challenge-seeking athletes.

A competitor takes a moment to rest post-race. Photo credit: Wil Mathews/PinnedGrit