The Best Tire for the Belgian Waffle Ride CA (San Diego)
Monuments are generally considered to be the oldest, hardest and most prestigious one day races on the professional circuit and winning one can immortalize an athlete in the annals of history. As such, Monuments define spring racing success in the professional ranks, dictating future contracts and careers for many. Over the years these races have been sensationalized and romanticized by TV and sports media. This hype is true to form and these races are often full of the drama and flair that make for good viewing for all the fans back home and cheering roadside. Millions watch each and every event and millions more are won and lost in sports betting on the outcome. Rarely can something with such production value be replicated in North America and what few attempts there have been usually fall apart. The Belgian Waffle Ride (BWR) is the only event to bring those romantic and sensational features of the Monuments to the masses of non- UCI professionals.
The BWR course features are similar to the Monuments in enough ways that a direct comparison to the European Classics is an easy one to make. At the beginning, that was intentional. Creator Michael Marckx wanted the average rider to experience what it was like to race a Monument. In fact he wanted the average rider to experience it so much that he created “Monuments of Cycling” as the driving force behind the Belgian Waffle Ride.
The Monuments and the BWR are both unique in that while a road tire is the best for the large majority of the day, the deciding moments of the race usually take place where the surface is decidedly unfriendly to skinny slick tread. BWR athletes, just like at the European Classics, would try different methods and gimmicks to outfox the terrain. Things like wide clinchers, tubulars, cyclocross bikes and GUP would make brief forays into the BWR but no equipment really proved decisive in gaining an advantage. The winners were on road bikes and road tires always ruled the day.
All things evolve and as such so does cycling.
In the beginning of the BWR a 25c tire was “wide” and riders who were serious would ride tubular tires to minimize punctures. Sometime around 2016 disc brakes were spotted in numbers at the start line and by the 2018 edition of the BWR rim brakes weren’t even mentioned as an ideal setup. Through the next 3 years bikes and equipment made gigantic strides towards optimizing for a European classic type ride which meant a bike that would be adept at gravel riding could excel. Indeed, they would be well suited for BWR as I had alluded to that back in 2019 when I discussed how gravel bikes would also make great road bikes. Bikes were effectively adapting to the very parcours that made the BWR the “most unique bike race in the world.” But events can adapt to meet the moment as well.
Since 2016 Source Endurance has produced the Belgian Waffle Ride Survival Camp as a premium option to our offerings as the official coaching and preparation service for the BWR. This camp gives coaches and clients the distinct advantage of pre-riding every strategic feature of each BWR event prior to game-day. Because of this, the campers feel that they are prepared for success and they deliver a finish more than 95% of the time. We’ve had many campfire sessions at the camps with the creators of the event as they discuss the reasoning behind each feature, obstacle, climb and WTF moment on course.
Equipment choice always dominates more than one conversation during the camps. For sake of brevity we’re only going to discuss tires, and sometimes wheels. Historically the Waffle has been an event of about 135 miles with 100 miles of pavement and those dirt miles are all pretty tame except for brief (¼ mile or less) sections here and there. In the past we’ve advised that if you’re racing to place then you will need to run a wide tubeless road tire. That requires the discipline to ride that road tire to a level that is within the physical limits of the equipment because unlike credit cards, payment of the “physics bill” is due immediately and it’s usually painful. Likewise if you’re riding the BWR to complete it and have no illusions of riding 6.1 w/kg up Double Peak at the end of the day then wider and a bit more forgiving (pronounced “FUN”) in the dirt would improve your BWR experience.
But like we said, the BWR has evolved too….
When asked about tires (and we do get asked about BWR tire choice frequently) the discussion begins with, “Where do you want to have your advantage and disadvantage?” Until 2022 the severity of dirt has been (mostly) a non-issue and the minimal high-speed dirt descending has made relatively little change for the impending tire choice. The newly evolved BWR course makes that initial answer critical in equipment choice and defining your race strategy. So let’s take it from the top…
Tire choice preamble: Ride tubeless tires. You’re in the desert and every plant that was ever green seems to turn into something thorn based. Thorns and tubes are not complementary. Neither are rocks.
Where do YOU want to have your advantage and disadvantage on the BWR?
If you want to be at your best on the pavement then you’ll need to consider how to race to that advantage. The BWR usually features some sort of early paved climbing feature to break the group into more manageable and safe sizes. If that’s the case then you’ll need to force the issue there. That’s your advantage and you’ve sacrificed quite a bit to make that happen. You’ve got about 60% of the course to press a pavement advantage. Figure out how to do that and don’t squander the opportunity.
However, if your answer is a dirt advantage, we know that the BWR has used the San Dieguito River Park Trails extensively and that makes for 30-90 minutes of uninterrupted dirt from the start/ finish line to the eastern portions of the course. That is a definite place to press any advantage, especially since there will be Highland Valley Road and it’s +40 minutes of climbing to contend with. However, you’ll feel the extra drag on the paved climbs and straight valley roads whenever you’re on tarmac.
Black Canyon will always be a hard uphill but that doesn’t really favor a dirt tire until you point the bike downhill where the wash channels and soft surface will prove decisive. Then, that will roll into some new course sectors that are fun on a hardtail mountain bike, notable on a gravel bike setup (40c tires) and downright stressful on 28c road bike tires. All-in-all the eastern portion of the route has over 1000’ of vertical drop on rocky and sandy roads.
I can only attest to my personal preference based on the tires I’ve ridden but here’s what I’m thinking would be a good tire choice that will get me to the finish line the quickest.
First, I want a tire with more volume that measures 35mm- ish. Honestly, I’m going to hit some rocks going fast and I don’t want to pinch flat or cut a tire. You can look at the tire label for guidance but you’ll also need to measure the tire on your rim to get a true idea of the width. I’m riding an Enve G23 wheel (23mm internal) so a WTB Expanse 32c measures 33.6mm, IRC Serac Sand 32c measures 33c as examples.
Second, I want the tire to be supple. There are lots of bomb proof tires out there but the ride quality is so harsh that when you get a reasonable amount of air in them they can drive like solid rubber blocks. If you opt for sidewall protection then ride the tires and know what your proper tire pressure is. This course has some sharp rocks but definitely not like any of the flint rock you’ll find in Kansas.
Finally, I want traction blocks that are notable but not too aggressive. Blocks are slow and while orientation of the blocks makes them not as slow it never makes them as fast as slicks on pavement.
The final equalizer is to remember that a slower tire that holds air will always be faster on the day than a light tire that is flat. At one of our Survival Camps we had an athlete brag about how light and fast his tires were, only to double flat and have a 2 mile sector require 40 minutes to hike out to the support car where he could refit new tires on his bike and get rolling. It was about a 1 hour delay in total (0.5 mph average speed).
My choice: I’m only able to comment on what I’ve ridden and have available to me. I currently have WTB Expanse 32 on the bike and I’ll try a Continental Terra Speed 35mm this week before making a final decision.
Coach Zack Allison’s Choice: “Mullet builds. I'm running a 34mm (likely to measure 34) front Byway and a rear 32, likely to measure 33. something rear Expanse, both WTB Tires. That front will help me prevent pinch flats that I usually sustain to the front tire when it happens. It also looks like there's some real loose sectors in Black Canyon and beyond that the front grip can really help with.“
Other tire choices: IRC Tires have the Boken line of tires which should be a reliable tire. Also the Serac CX Sand is a good choice.
This is the first year I believe tire choice will make or break the podium spots at the BWR and I’m excited to see what the day holds for all of the athletes.
Thanks for reading.
Other BWR articles:
About the author:
Adam Mills has raced at the elite level since 2002 and graduated with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kansas in 2005. His true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current research trends and methods in sport and his clients have reaped the benefits from this work with over 22 national championships in 11 disciplines on two continents. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes on a daily basis to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional.