By Neil Shirley

Neil Shirley is a two-time Belgian Waffle Ride winner, and five time finisher. He is also returning to the BWR Survival Camp as a ride leader.

If you’ve never done the Belgian Waffle Ride before you’ll find it’s a bit of an anomaly compared to just about any other road cycling event you’ve experienced. It’s actually like two events combined into one: one that rewards a traditional road setup that is lightweight and efficient due to the unholy number of pavement miles and elevation gain. Then there’s the other part, the dirt, where a cross country mountain bike would be the best tool for the job. Unfortunately, you have to decide on one bike, and one setup that can tackle both on-road and off-road making as few sacrifices as possible.Neil-Shirley-Pic-200x300.jpg

You have two advantages that many others don’t when readying for BWR. The first, you’re going to be previewing the entire route in a relaxed atmosphere during the BWR Survival Camp where you can test your setup and then make any changes you deem necessary well ahead of the actual event. Second, the advice below comes to you from years of experience at the BWR, experience from my participation and finish of each and every edition of the event.

The number one thing you need to get right for BWR is your tire choice. How big you can go is going to be determined by your bike. If you will be riding a rim brake road bike, chances are a 28mm width is going to be your widest option. That’s okay considering that the top riders out there will be on 28mm tires as well. I always tell people that if they feel the dirt sections will be their biggest limiter on a course such as BWR’s, then opt for the widest tires possible (up to 33mm). That will allow much more confidence and safety in the dirt, and the penalty on the pavement will be well worth it. This is when a ‘cross or gravel bike would be a better option, allowing large tires to be used with ample clearance.

For those feeling quite comfortable in their dirt skills, there still isn’t an advantage to go narrower than 28mm. Hutchinson’s tubeless Sector 28 is the go-to choice for many. There is also a 32mm version of the Sector that is an ideal solution for those wanting more rubber, as are the tubeless 30mm Mavic Yksion Elite Allroad tires. If you have the option of running tubeless, definitely do it. There are numerous places to pinch flat every square meter of dirt on the course, so do yourself a favor and eliminate the tubes.

I used to think that road pedals and shoes were best for BWR, but after last year I’m changing my thinking on that one. The majority of riders will end up off their bike a time or two throughout the day, so using a mountain bike setup to clip in and out more easily while having a better shoe for quick hike-a-bike sections is the way to go. Plus, there’s a good chance we’ll encounter mud during the Survival Camp, and let me warn you how unfavorable the relationship is between mud and road pedals.

The BWR route is like a boxer delivering body blows, one after another. On paper, it might not look like there’s that knockout punch of a climb that will do you in, it’s the repeated kicker climbs that will have you down for the count if you’re not prepared. That means, go with the easiest gearing possible. Not one person has ever finished BWR and said, “Boy, I wish I would have had harder gears”. It’s never happened. If you can fit a 32-tooth cassette on your bike, do it. It will be the best money ever spent. In many cases, a Shimano short cage rear derailleur will work with a 32-tooth cog, even though Shimano says it won’t. So take it to your trusted mechanic and see what they can do for you.

There are still a few spots left for the January 27-29, 2017 Belgian Waffle Ride Survival Camp. Check it out or sign up: 

Check out some of our other articles on Gravel Riding and Racing. 


  1. alejandro colmenero on March 14, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    Hey Niel great post.
    I´m having a lot of problems deciding my equipment for the BWR. I have a Gallium Pro by Argon 18, I can fit 28mm tires but it´s a pure rode bike. Since this year (2018) will supposedly be the ride with the most gravel/dirt I´m a little worried. On the other hand I have a Niner RTL 9 Steel bike, it´s a little heavy but super comfortable, I can also fit the 28mm tires or even go with a pair con 33mm Panaracers.
    What do you think?

    • Source Endurance on March 15, 2018 at 7:15 pm

      Great question. The answer is… it varies.
      The higher the dirt: tarmac ratio, the more you should hedge toward wider tires. So, the Wafer and Waffle would have decidedly different optimal setups.
      Pick the tires depending on your weakness. Great fitness + Great handling= wider road tire, 28mm. Poor fitness+ Poor handling= Wider tire is better, 40mm or more. You choose where you land on that continuum. If you choose wrong, you’ll get to pay the price all day so no pressure.
      BWR is hosting some pre rides coming up so check those out on facebook.
      Good luck and we’ll see you out there!