The SPY Belgian Waffle Ride

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Some months ago I made plans to join my friends for a little ride down in North County San Diego, the SPY Belgian Waffle Ride. SPY’s CEO, Michael Marckx is both someone I’ve been able to count as a friend and a certifiable creative type. I began hearing his vision for the ride a couple of years ago, shortly after he joined the company. He’d spitball ideas at me and I’d drool, if only on the inside.

I needn’t go into the reasons why a few days ago I sent MMX, as he’s known to friends, an email with the subject line, “Regrets.” But I did; pardon me while I use the passive construction and say, it had to be done.

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In place of doing the Belgian Waffle Ride, I’ve had a pretty stellar day. I got a ride in, came home and hung out with the Deuce and watched Paris-Roubaix. Once Philip came back from a trip to the park with his mom, he curled up on the couch with me to play games on our iPad as the Deuce napped nearby. A terrific day, full stop.

The thing is, I missed something special today and that’s gnawing at me.

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If I may be so bold, the BWR is a case study for everything wrong with bike events. Mind you, I’m not saying that the folks at SPY got it wrong; I’m saying that compared to the BWR, nearly everyone else is getting it wrong.

I gave up doing industrial park criteriums years ago. At a certain point I realized that I needed more out of a bike event than just proving I was faster than some other guy I’d probably enjoy riding with if the entire raison d’être for the event wasn’t predicated on proving who was fastest. And because those events were tucked into the disused weekend corners of communities as if they were an embarrassment to proper athletic endeavors, they seemed a disservice to actually promoting cycling as a sport worthy of watching. Nevermind the real-world challenges of securing a course, industrial parks aren’t so much low-hanging fruit as fallen fruit. Picking ripe fruit is worth the effort.

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With the BWR, SPY has created an event meant to reward the fastest, so in that regards it does settle a question that never gets old, while re-imagining just what an experience can be. Thankfully, they dispensed with calling it a gran fondo. While a gran fondo is a special sort of event, and something I love doing, here in the U.S. the term has come to be applied to every century that was having trouble drawing a crowd before. Blech.

4 to go

Promoters ought to take a close look at these flyers that SPY sent out counting down the days to the event. They are genius because they serve so many purposes. First, they build excitement for the event, and being excited about an event is key to having a special experience. They do the entrants a service because they offer insight into course challenges—a handy thing given the enormity of the undertaking. Finally, they pimp sponsors, something most race promoters devote too little effort to.

3 to go

Abraham Maslow wrote about the ingredients that go into a peak experience. Anticipation and expectation offset by preparation. With the exception of the guys at Bike Monkey, who put on Levi’s Gran Fondo, I’ve never seen another outfit put half this much effort into ratcheting up excitement for an event in the run-up.

Perhaps there’s no truer measure of their success than the ache I feel for not having been there.

2 to go

And if my own sense of missing out isn’t enough, I can tell you that several dozen riders from the Southbay drove down for the event. In all my years of riding with my peeps, not another ride has done more to unite to the locals’ ambition (and carpool skills) as the BWR.

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The question I’d like to put to event promoters is: Why bother, if your aim isn’t to give everyone who enters a memorable experience? What have you given to anyone who is not the winner? SPY has created something memorable, even in the missing. Hell, they even got local TV coverage the other day. When was the last time a non-big-time bike event managed that?

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Perhaps the best way to frame their achievement is with my favorite quote by Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

And here those poor spirits to which I refer are not athletes, but event promoters. I challenge you: Dream large.

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20 comments

  1. El Tejan

    Speaking as a part-time promoter of parking lot crits and bare bones cross races, the reason I don’t “dream big” is because (a) I’m busy (b) the payoff usually ain’t worth the cost and (c) racer are often satisfied with having a venue to kick each other in the nuts for an hour.

    Between a real job, trying to race with the 12k dreamers, coaching a couple of baseball teams for my boys, attempting to be not that bad of a husband, I simply don’t have the time or energy to “dream large” these days.

    Even when I did in the past, I found the cost outweighed the benefits in my own personal equation. Too much BS dealing with overly self-important law enforcement types, land owners or just your typical NIMBYs. “Dreaming large” is great when given as advice from he outside, but from somebody who’s tried it, often times experience leaves a bad taste in ones mouth.

    So, I’ve enventually settled on a path of not least, but less resistance. Simpler races. Simpler venues. Fewer headaches. While it is easy to disparage “industrial park” crits as unimaginative or uninspired, what it is a race. A venue for people to pin on a number and test themselves against their fellow racers. Maybe that’s it enough for you anymore. But for hundreds of racers doing weekday crits and local cross, it is.

    Is their room for both the “dream big” events and “dream small” events? Sure, of course. In fact, I say that each type is essential and complementary to the other. So go easy on the “uninspired” promoters of the world, cuz they’re serving a role too.

  2. Patrick O'Brien

    I think the Epic Rides events are trying to be the kind of race you are talking about. They are races, but they are also events with something for everyone, and they support a local charity or non-profit. I am an older guy who has never raced. But, I am seriously thinking of entering the Tour of The White Mountains just to be a part of a cycling weekend with the camping, music, food, and riding. I don’t care if I am the lantern rouge, as long as I finish.

  3. Patrick O'Brien

    Sorry, I forgot to mention that you watching P/R with the Duece and
    Phillip on the sofa with you is something only dreamed of a short time ago. Cool!

  4. Dan Douglass

    The American Birkebeiner has done this with Nordic ski marathons. It is 50K/23K point to point race that is annually contested by ~9500 skiers. The front end of the race attracts near-world cup level skiers. The back end of the race is populated by everyone else. And by everyone I mean octogenarians, people with boomboxes blaring Jimmy Buffet and screwdrivers in their Camel Backs, and people who needed some motivation to get in shape and loose some pounds. It is a great community and the organizers do a great job of making sure that there is something there for everyone who has registered for the event even if it takes them 3 times as long as the person who takes home the prize money.

  5. Ely

    @El Tejan, if it weren’t for guys like you, grassroots racing wouldn’t exist. Thank you for that.
    The point of the article wasn’t to disparage your efforts. It was more to highlight the crazy, unique events that you day dream about and train for 6 months out from the event.

  6. tinytim

    Seemed like a cool event, and I would have done if it wasn’t $100 bucks?! Sure they give you beer, a shirt and waffles at the end. I guess the justification for the mortgage killer reg fee, is that it’s kinda like a granfondo but on the dirt. Would have been better for Spy to sell shirts, beer and waffles at the end, have no aid stations, not pay out for a bunch of the ‘Hell of the North” inspired webpages, and make the charity an optional, give what you can kinda thing. Where I’m from races don’t cost much, beer at the end is what ever you bring to brown bag, and the waffles come from a frozen box. Maybe events that are this exclusive are narrowing down the demographic of who cycles. This makes me think back on Robot’s piece, that asks why cycling’s demographic is so small.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Tinytim: Generally speaking, I don’t think that a $100 entry fee is preventing the growth of cycling. For the most part, I think what prevents the growth of cycling is people who don’t buy bikes because they are scared shitless of traffic. But I might be wrong.

  7. Marc

    Agreed, Padraig. I have several mountain biking buddies who think riding on the road is far too dangerous. And if I’m being honest with myself, I think it is as well.

  8. Patrick O'Brien

    Padraig, I think you are right, and the latest evidence on distracted driving, and my personal observations, makes me wonder sometimes if road riding is worth it anymore.

  9. tinytim

    I should have narrowed my point, that the higher reg fees eliminates and discourages more people from participating in competitive events and racing in general. Racing a bike should not cost a hundred bucks per weekend. In my opinion, you are correct to say that traffic (in some areas) influences people to not purchase or ride a bike. A good case in point, is the high school mountain bike leagues that have sprouted up the last few years. These leagues were established out of necessity, for youngsters to pool up resources so that they could afford the drive and have the funds to pay for a mtn race. Cause not too many kids can pony up $100 for a race, buy the bike, and have the transport. Also, traffic is very case specific in terms of how it affects people, their riding habits, local politics and geography. Everyone in Portlandia is on a bike, but not so much in LA.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Tinytim: I understand your point and I held a similar view for many years. My views have evolved. Today, the thought of an industrial park crit does nothing for me. If I’m going to go somewhere and pin on a number, I want to ride interesting new roads. The Copperopolis Road Race you mentioned in another comment is an incredible event for the roads it takes in, but in California is an especially rare phenomenon. Getting permits for roads that run into or out of a city can be both difficult and expensive. Creating a festival-like atmosphere that leaves me with the feeling I participated in something special is worth my $100. I think if you look at a gran fondo through the lens of racing, you’ve missed the point. Events like gran fondos, and other rides like the Markleeville Death Ride really aren’t about competition with others; they are about stretching one’s own limits.

      To say that NICA was started out of necessity is to completely misunderstand the principles on which it was founded. It was founded to give high school kids an alternative to the other sports. Full stop.

      To the larger point regarding what may or may not inspire people to participate in cycling, I have serious doubts that cheap entry fees make a difference. Anecdotally, most of the better pros the U.S. has produced—from LeMond to Julich to any number of the new guys, they all said that what inspired them into bike racing was seeing big-time bike racing up close. In LeMond’s case it was a race coming by his home. For Julich, it was the Coors Classic. If the goal is less to get people racing than it is just to get more people inspired to ride, I maintain that creating a spectacle is what inspires people.

      There’s nothing wrong with someone putting on an inexpensive race on backroads. I’ve had some very fun times doing that. To your suggestion that racing ought to be cheap, it’s distinctly possible that it is already too cheap for its own good. We know that many of these promoters are generally just scraping by, and sometimes even losing money, and that events that are often times 10 years old or more are getting canceled because of a lack of sponsorship. Charging higher entry fees would keep promoters in the black and save some great events that can’t find sponsors. In the events that do survive year after year, the number of entrants hasn’t grown by any significant amount. Grass roots racing, in short, isn’t growing the sport. Further, USA Cycling, by their own admission reported in 2005 that the only measurable factor that had increased USCF membership numbers (and they did go up radically from ’99 to ’05) was the Lance Effect. Spectacle is what makes cycling cool to non-cyclists.

  10. tinytim

    Padraig, Thanks for the compassionate and thought provoking response. Now that I think about it, I have been used to, and spoiled by race promoters that have way low entry fees for awe inspiring races, that are run on world class courses. The man/organization responsible for races such as Copperopolis, Patterson Pass, Leesville Gap, Santa Cruz Crit, and countless other classics in the NCNCA district is Robert Liebold/Velo Promo. This guy and his team have been putting on these races for something like 35 years. I hear the Junior National course that took place in the early 80′s west of Petaluma,Ca, and won by a young lemond, was chosen by Liebold. When I raced a full season (every weekend) five years ago, all of the road races were $22! It would be cool to do a piece on Mr. Liebold and Velo Promo in future writings of some capacity.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I used to do a great many of Bob’s events when I was racing. I’d check the NCNCA calendar and if the race was a Velo Promo event, that was all the incentive I needed to make the drive up. I didn’t mind that my winnings for 6th place were a T-shirt. But given that the last time I did one of his events, the van that he was driving had 350,000 miles on it, I had the impression we should all be paying the man more. I’ve profiled him in the past (for Asphalt). He’s someone that Velo should be doing a good deal more on. Actually, if they did anything about him, that would be a start. Bob deserves a great deal of credit for truly challenging and creative courses, and for sticking with the sport for decades. I’ve often thought, though, that what he needed added to his operation was someone who could really sell sponsorship. Hell, just charging $30/race would make a big difference in his life.

  11. Slim

    It should be pointed out that a significant portion of the registration fees go to Challenged Athletes Foundation, a cause that’s very important to us at SPY. Bottom line is, we’re an action sports company – we make sunglasses and goggles to help you enjoy the sports and lifestyle you love and look good while doing it. We’re not an event production company, which is part of the reason that even considering an event of this magnitude is so rad. We want people to be happy and do fun things. If we can bring that to them and, in so doing demonstrate the ethos of our brand, then all the better.

    The event itself was off the charts. 365 cyclists covered 130 miles, 10k’ of climbing and 5 dirt sections, some really only suited for knobby tires. There was a huge expo for 2 days and a party afterwards that people will be talking about for some time to come.

    Come join us next year but you can count on the course changing, for the worse…

  12. michael

    had never heard of this ride until this post. hiding in the deep, still frozen confines in my neck of the woods with nary an outdoor ride had thus far, you, kind sir, have just provided the motivation for a road trip of epic proportions in 2014 to take this one in should i manage to snag a spot on the ride before it sells out.

    Am i just crazy enough to drive 53 hours and 5542 kilometers to take part? Why yes, yes i am.

    ps – Patrick, it’s nice to have your nom de plume Padraig back in the game and fueling our stoke. cheers!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Michael: Anyone who would drive more than two days for that ride is exactly the sort of person the folks at SPY are looking for. You are their brand of crazy. And thanks for the kind words. It’s nice to be, uh, doing my job again.

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