A Whole Lotta Waffle
One day ‘Gravel’ appeared from outer space whilst no-one was looking and took over the world.
A Whole Lotta Waffle
It provokes questions like what is it? Why does it exist? Who is doing it and should I be doing it too? Well, we thought it was time to answer those questions, and who better to ask than the man behind dirt, gravel, trail classic, the Belgian Waffle Ride. Prepare to be entertained, introducing Michael Marckx.
Gravel is growing in popularity each year, but for many still feels ’new’. You started Belgian Waffle Ride nearly 15 years ago, when it must have been niche. What motivated you to kick things off?
Yes, there is still a freshness to the idea of ‘gravel’ and perhaps even more so to our sub-genre of gravel, Unroad, which is a more dynamic, exciting, and diverse form of racing. Some say it’s more punk rock, like BMX for adults, or cyclocross meets Spring Classics. We call it unroad because we like our races to be a cocktail of ingredients in juxtaposition to the typical gravel races, which, um, just roll on gravel. Our courses feature gravel, yes, but more importantly single-track, double-track, fire roads, foot bridges, sand, mud, rocks, water crossings, and even some asphalt… sometimes quite a bit of it.
The genesis of this Unroad thing goes way back to my childhood. I grew up in an active family with a Flemish heritage and we all rode our bikes and ran marathons; all six of us. We started early, too. I did my first marathon and bike road race at age twelve, but that’s not saying much because my younger brothers did this at ages 8 and 9, and my sister at 14. My parents did all this stuff with us until my mom had a terrible bicycle accident bombing a big hill where we grew up.
"Some say it’s more punk rock, like BMX for adults, or cyclocross meets Spring Classics. We call it Unroad."
It’s clear that your family upbringing had a big impact in shaping what you think could be possible. If you can run a marathon as a tender age, there are no other barriers! Tell us about that a bit more, where was home?
Palos Verdes in Los Angeles was where we were raised. The community had a very big running contingent and the two major high schools were always top in the state for cross country. Palos Verdes was also a fantastic destination for cyclists all over LA. It still is and people come from all over to ride the hilly but relatively open roads and expansive network of trails. It was these trails that really captured our imaginations and we spent so much of our training along the same terrain that has become the hallmark of the BWR Unroad cocktail. We were blessed to grow up in such an endurance sport heaven, and its no wonder that it was here that I took my first road bike into the dirt, and later in life used these unroads to gain a UCI pro card to race cyclocross. In my youth, we would paddle our surfboards twenty miles when the waves were flat. We ran 15-miles to get an Orange Julius only to have to run back 15-miles. We’d host running races with aid stations where you had to pick between a beer, a cocktail, or champagne. We ran the Catalina Marathon during track season. We rode our bikes to Malibu and back on lazy Sundays. We lived in a community of endurance freaks.
"We’d host running races with aid stations where you had to pick between a beer, a cocktail, or champagne. We ran the Catalina Marathon during track season. We rode our bikes to Malibu and back on lazy Sundays. We lived in a community of endurance freaks."
You make life sound like it has no boundaries! A community of endurance freaks sounds incredibly familiar within the Thimson world. Let’s fast-forward to birth of the Belgian Waffle Ride.
I created Belgian Waffle Ride as a marketing exercise for SPY Optic, which was a publicly traded eyewear company I was hired to turn around in 2011. The BWR was meant to be this experiential marketing campaign that emoted the brand’s irreverent brand position, combining a really hard and unique race with a big celebration of waffles and beer, and community, with a name that belied the event’s utter extremeness. The event was meant to serve the Vision and Mission of the brand (as I imparted it) based on our brand new lens technology, the Happy Lens, still the only patented therapeutic lens technology in the world. The Vision: Happy smiles sitting on faces everywhere. The Mission: In every thing we do, show a happy disrespect for the usual way of looking (at life). So, you can see the event itself was just a manifestation of the brand’s ethos.
"The Mission: In every thing we do, show a happy disrespect for the usual way of looking (at life)."
I should note, I had a friend, Dave Jaeger, who hosted for decades an invite-only ride called the French Toast Ride, which was a 118-mile slog through Ventura, Ojai, and Camarillo north of LA. It was a familial celebration that included, yep, you guessed it, lots of French Toast, bike riding, and a feast afterwards among family and friends. I asked Dave if I could riff on his ride and turn it into something aligned with my heritage and desire for the unroad. Alas, he said yes and the BWR was born. Now there are seven BWRs throughout North America. To date, having produced 25 BWRs, our team has entertained over 20,000 cyclists in one way or another.
Did you ever imagine that ‘gravel’ would become a thing, a more mainstream thing in the future? Did you think that it could capture the imagination of so many in the way it has?
I never considered at the beginning that gravel would be a thing at all. There were no such things as gravel bikes, tires, wheels, or anything. I envisioned that we would provide the most unique bike races in the US, with bike races that emulated the Spring Classics, where we replaced the cobblestones with unroad features to break the races up, much as the pavé sectors do in Europe. It’s been an interesting transition over time to include more and more of the unroad stuff as the bikes have evolved to take much more than our old road bikes with 25mm tires.
"There are adventures to be had on gravel bikes – they take you to remote places and beautiful landscapes. Gravel is accessible, less intense, and filled with a sense of adventure and camaraderie."
I will say that gravel is still new to Europe and we look forward to being a part of its growth in the months and years to come. In the US, the appeal of gravel has come by way of a confluence of things. Road races have become fewer and far between, riding on the road has become more dangerous with people on their phones, and racing around a parking lot finds fewer and fewer takers. Instead, riders have become enamored with the freedom of gravel riding. They take their semi-road bike anywhere, and somewhere there are no cars. There are adventures to be had on gravel bikes, as they can take you places that are remote and to beautiful landscapes with views you won’t find while confined to a road bike. Gravel is accessible, less intense, and filled with a sense of adventure and camaraderie.
You have a varied background in endurance sport, surfing and music. Is gravel the rock star version of cycling? Is it the version of the sport that can hold appeal for people of all abilities?
I grew up playing all sorts of sports, and my parents were very supportive of it all — soccer, surfing, skateboarding, riding, running, and drumming (which they must have hated the most). I remember showing up at races directly after playing late night gigs at places like The Whiskey and The Roxy, driving straight to the start. Ah, to be young again and not require sleep, nutrition, or common sense.
One could say gravel is the rock star version of cycling because it can attract enough riders of different stripes to fill a massive stadium. It has something for everyone - Roadies, MTBers, Crossers, BMXers, and even Tandem riders. The glory of it is that it isn't intimidating like riding a crit where riders will try to drive you into the curb or crashes happen all the time. You can do it with friends, groups of friends, or just explore on your own. Gravel is a big tent and there’s a party inside. Come along, bring your friends, have a beer, share your story. Reach, aspire, and grow psychically and mentally. Surprise yourself at what you are able to accomplish on two wheels. Get dirty. Tell two friends.
"Gravel is a big tent and there’s a party inside. Come along, bring your friends, have a beer, share your story. Reach, aspire, and grow psychically and mentally. Surprise yourself at what you are able to accomplish on two wheels. Get dirty. Tell two friends."
You said recently that the Gravel World Championship course was similar to a Belgian Waffle Ride format; dynamic and challenging and interestingly, that you imagined BWR as a 6 hour CX race. Can you elaborate; is it the variety on offer that makes a good gravel route – constant changes, varied terrain and difficulty etc?
I was delighted to see all the commentary about this year’s Gravel Worlds course being likened to the BWR CA with its cocktail of unroad sectors. GCN spoke about it, Velo wrote a lot about it, and so many of the athletes racing there shared the same sentiments on social media - that this course was just like ours. We enjoyed that. It means the UCI folks are starting to gain a sense of what the sport actually is.
Our offering is meant to have people cogitate up until the last moment about the bike they are riding; the tires, the tire pressure, hydration pack or not, tubeless, tubulars or clinchers, even how much handlebar tape to use. Our courses are constantly changing, and each year for all the events we look to find new, fun, and challenging sectors to share with our riders. These sectors almost always have some fun Flemish name, and often include interesting elements to keep everyone on their toes. It might be a dismount, a narrow foot bridge crossing, some sand, a water crossing, a BMX track, like sectors of whoops, or even a cyclocross course within the racecourse. Essentially, we never want to have a rider on a sector that drags on too long. Therefore, our courses tend to jump between the road to a single-track back to the road and over to a double-track before hitting a gravel sector.
If you were to persuade someone to try riding gravel, what would your elevator pitch be?
Come on, explore the unbeaten unroad and enjoy the unusual experience of getting dirty! Gravel riding offers a manic mix of adventure, nature, and new technical challenges. All the cool kids are doing it. Join us as we conquer new terrains, enjoy stunning landscapes, and feel the freedom of unroad cycling. Without any cars around to bug us. Whether you're a seasoned rider or a casual cyclist, gravelleuring opens up a world of new sensations. Bet you can’t just try it once… you are going to discover a new side of yourself and your new favorite way to ride!
"Gravel riding offers a manic mix of adventure, nature, and new technical challenges. Conquer new terrains, enjoy stunning landscapes, and feel the freedom of unroad cycling. Gravelleuring opens up a world of new sensations, you are going to discover a new side of yourself and your new favorite way to ride!"
We know you like your music, so give us some musical analogies. If Bruce Springsteen is the Tour de France and Kraftwerk are the Spring Classics, what is BWR?
I like this. In following your line with The Boss for Le Tour, Kraftwerk for the Spring Classics, then the BWR is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Here’s why: The Australian psychedelic rock band started right around the same time as the BWR. They have produced 25 studio albums in this time, which is the same amount of BWRs we’ve produced. The similarities don’t stop there. Like the BWR with is multi-faceted racecourses that offer up a cocktail of tastes like the Everlasting Gobstopper of bike racing, King Gizzard offers Hip Hop, Folk, Psych, Jazz and Progressive Rock, Heavy, Nu and Thrash metal all in the same concert. Few bands have managed to produce consistently good music while also exploring the musical spectrum like they do. We think the BWR is the same for cycling.
"The everlasting Gobstopper of bike racing, like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard who offer Hip Hop, Folk, Psych, Jazz and Progressive Rock, Heavy, Nu and Thrash metal all in the same concert."
The key to understanding the King Gizzard phenomenon is a willingness to imagine disparate categories in dense overlap, well beyond anything our post-genre pop era might have prepared us for. It’s about mixing things and bringing forth new delicacies, new tastes, and new experiences. And so it is with the BWR.
The BWR is about mixing things – bringing together elements that don’t normally fit, juxtaposing this with that – where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why the BWR is not a gravel race, per se, because it’s simply not one-dimensional. It’s the only race of its kind where roadies, mountain bikers, cross racers, and gravelleurs can commingle without one group having an advantage, where they all bring sometime to the party.
Its mixology is its mythology. So, no, this is not a gravel race. The BWR is a collage in which its vitality is defined by diversity with variety as its soul…
"Mighty is the mutt. Hybrid is hip. The blurred, the impure, the mélange, the adulterated, the blemished, the rough, the hewn, the black-and blue, the black-yellow-and red, the mix-and-match—these are inheriting the Earth."
For King Gizzard and the BWR, mixing is the new norm. Mixing blurs lines. Mixing erases boundaries. In that sense, mixing trumps isolation. It spawns creativity, nourishes the human spirit, spurs emotional growth and empowers deeper connections between people, and to the things most important to them. The BWR is about mixing, contributing, and borrowing from that which is lost in time or space, either just up ahead or somewhere along a forgotten unroad.
There is no finer way to close an interview than that! A huge thanks to Michael for his time — we hope this have give some flavour for both the Belgian Waffle Ride and the wider world of Gravel. We know that we’re more pumped than ever before to hit the dirt!
For more Michael and Belgian Waffle Ride, head to Belgian Waffle Ride
To see our Gravel trips click below.