Alexey Vermeulen (Jukebox-Enve) won the Belgian Waffle Ride California, part of the 'Quadrupel' Crown of Gravel, in San Marcos on Saturday after launching a decisive move in the final 60km that shook off former US road champ Alex Howes (EF Education-EasyPost).
Cape Epic winner Matthew Beers (Toyota-Specialized) sprinted for second against Griffin Easter (OpiCure Foundation-Orange Seal), who finished third, six minutes behind Vermeulen. Howes crossed the line in fourth, seconds behind the duo. Racing on a broken wrist, two-time defending BWR champion Peter Stetina – listed on the results with his team name as Case of the nightly Waffle Sweats – was an impressive fifth.
Considered the most challenging edition yet, the 12th Belgian Waffle Ride topped out at 222 kilometres with more than 3,352.8 metres of climbing and 10 categorised climbs. The riders tackled off-road sectors totalling 88 km.
"I've idolized this race for a long time," said Vermeulen, who finished the brutal course in six hours and 34 minutes. "Coming from the road, this is something that I've always dreamed of – that weird mix of off-road and road riding – it doesn't really make sense, but, for some reason, we all love it. This race was pretty high up on the board for me to win.
"This is my third time doing this race, but I had flats at bad times the last two times. I flatted with 11 miles and last year, with 20 miles to go, so I kind of realized that if you want to be up there, you have to take your chances when you have them. I saw an opportunity and pushed it hard, I didn't know how I was going to feel, but I gave it a go."
Vermeulen's first opportunity came with 64km to go, when he attacked up the kilometre-long Bandy Weg Climb. Only Howes could respond to the acceleration and made the catch at Mule Trail. They traded pulls until Vermeulen made another move on a climb with around 16km to go, and this time Howes could not answer.
Despite his dominance, Vermeulen's experience at the Belgian Waffle Ride made him overly cautious about celebrating too early.
"You just never know with this race. It's so unforgiving," said Vermeulen, "You can be one of the strongest guys and capable of winning. I just kept focusing on what I knew I could do. Over the past couple of days, I've pre-rode the course, so I knew where I needed to focus and where to take it easy."
Vermeulen plans to take a quick break before turning his focus to the Rule of Three gravel race at the end of May. He'll move to the road bike for US Pro Nationals and then concentrate on the four remaining events on the Life Time Grand Prix.
Howes and Stetina are also part of the 60-rider invitation-only field competing in the national grand prix series, along with top-10 finishers Haidet and John Borstelmann (Abus Pro Gravel). Other series contenders in the BWR California were Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon) in 16th place, Rob Britton (Easton Overland x WIRTH it) in 22nd place and Kiel Reijnen (Trek Bikes) in 36th.
How it unfolded
The accelerations from Vermeulen left a select chase group – US national cyclocross champion Eric Brunner (Blue Competition Cycles), Lance Haidet (L39ion of Los Angeles), Beers, Easter and Howes – to fight for the remaining podium spots.
After Haidet faded, Beers, Brunner and Easter rolled together for the final 40kms. The terrain eventually took its toll on Brunner, leaving Easter and Beers to pursue Howes. After learning the time gap was just 40 seconds, the duo put their head down to catch, and eventually pass, the EF Education-EasyPost rider right before the finish.
"When we got onto the footpath, I just went a bit crazy," Beers said. "I tried to use my mountain biking skills through the turns, and we managed to bridge the gap to him by the time we reached the tarmac again. I didn't actually look at the finish, a very rookie move, but it played in my favour. I just sat on the front and went as hard as I could."
Beers said he was satisfied with his performance, considering this was his first US gravel race.
"Alexey was the stronger rider today," Beers said. "He was on another level. I'm glad I could salvage second. I'm really pleased with how I rode."
Easter was equally as happy with his third place after losing the sprint to the South African.
"For me, this is the first time I've ever done the Belgian Waffle Ride [California]," Easter said. "I looked at the course map last night, and, from what organiser Michael Marks was talking about, I knew there was a section with a lot of waterboards and sand. We entered that, and Alexey was at the front and just started ripping it. He was going so hard. I was focused on staying within myself and not getting dropped because there was still maybe two hours left in the race.
"It was just brutal out there. It was such an experience. Oh my God," said Easter, who raced road for seven seasons before making the full transition to gravel this year. "I was in Belgium last year, and things didn't really pan out with the pandemic, so I came home, and there were all these gravel races. I signed up for a few, got the bug, and it just made total sense to move in that direction."
|Pos.||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Alexey Vermeulin (USA) Jukebox-ENVE||6:34:33|
|2||Matthew Beers (RSA) Toyota-Specialized||0:06:07|
|3||Griffin Easter (USA) OpiCure Foundation p/b OrangeSeal Gravel Team|
|4||Alex Howes (USA) EF Education-EastPost||0:06:12|
|5||Peter Stetina (USA) case of the mighty Waffle Sweats||0:10:05|
|6||Eric Brunner (USA) Blue Competition Cycles||0:12:04|
|7||Lance Haidet (USA) L39ION of Los Angeles||0:14:41|
|8||John Borstelmann (USA) Abus Pro Gravel||0:23:10|
|9||Freddy Ovett (USA) Above Category||0:24:29|
|10||Brennan Wertz (USA) Competitive metals||0:26:31|
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