Sweet Ride

Bike race named after waffles has more to do with Belgium than brunch

John Murphy knows his way around gnarly gravel.
Portrait by Karin Strickland

The Belgian Waffle Ride may sound like a high-carb amusement-park feature. But for professional and amateur cyclists, it represents a grueling 104-mile competition, with 11,000 feet of climbing along a looped course that starts in Hendersonville, follows the mountains down briefly into South Carolina, and returns. Two-time Criterium National Champion John Murphy, who lives in Lake Toxaway, helped design the local Waffle Ride course — the others are in Utah, Kansas, and California — and will assist riders prior to the event during a preparatory Survival Camp. Then he’ll join them for the multi-surface challenge. Murphy is in his first year of retirement from a 20-year career as a world-class professional road-race sprinter. 

Why’s it called the Belgian Waffle Ride?

I lived in Belgium — famous for waffles, beer, and chocolate. The owner of the ride series is very creative and I think what he’s going for is to mimic a classic Belgian race with cobblestones. We turn these gravel roads into our own type of Belgian classic. On race morning they do waffles and pancakes, and when we’re done Sierra Nevada has beer for everybody. 

What elements went into designing this course?

A substantial amount of gravel that is fun to ride. Tons of climbing and some descending on gravel with hills, turns, and some loose gravel, some hard-packed, and some dirt roads. Also, waterfalls and other features you’d expect to see in Western North Carolina, and rhythm — the way the climbs, gravel, and pavement flow together. The course is pretty relentless, making the rhythm difficult to strategize.

How do you prepare?

You first have to be in great shape, with super-high endurance to push the pace in an 8-hour race. Be ready to descend on some pretty gnarly gravel, and know how to set up for downhill turns on gravel and climbing on loose gravel. The last critical pieces of the puzzle are equipment like tire tubes and plugs, spare chain quick links, clothing, food, a ton of stuff — and understanding your nutrition and hydration. You can’t just show up and think you’ll be fine; you have to be here and ride a few days to acclimate.

Especially with the wild card of WNC weather.

It’s daunting. The August heat and humidity destroys most people. Or you think it’s hot, humid, and balmy, but a front moves in and it turns cold and rainy. If your core gets cold, you’re in trouble. 

Cold and wet while descending at what speeds?

Usually between 20-30 miles per hour. You can go as fast as you want, but going faster might puncture a tire. It’s a calculated risk and tactical play. 

How many riders do you estimate will participate?

Between 2,000 and 2,500. These events are fun and got canceled last year due to COVID, so you have a lot of pent-up athletes. It’s a chance to test yourself. I’m excited to do the ride and see do I still have it, my first year into retirement. And there’s camaraderie — you see friends you haven’t seen in a long time while making new ones.

The preparatory Survival Camp runs Aug. 16-21 at Kanuga Conference Center and Retreat, 130 Kanuga Chapel Drive, Hendersonville. The Belgian Waffle Ride happens Saturday, Aug. 21. For course information and details about participating, see belgianwaffleride.bike.

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