The Next Big Thing isn’t legitimately Big unless it sticks around for a generation (like triathlon, or mountain biking). I don’t care whether the 10-city Bad Prom Run will reach and exceed the Tofurkey Trot or the Twinkie Run. If the Thing isn’t organic it’s doomed to be temporary. (In this context, the opposite of organic is contrived.)
Strip away everything else, all the hype, the marketing, even the competitive element, the entry fee, the community aspect, strip it down to its most basic element. Does the Thing (that you’re hoping is Big) solve a problem? If so, it’s organic to the medium in which it exists.
Consider the mountain bike. If you strip away the phenomenon of the MTB race, and you just plop a mountain bike on a trail, does that Thing (the mountain bike) retain a purpose? Yes! Just like riding a horse, riding a bike is a true Thing (not a fad or gimmick) because it’s fun and useful even if you can’t compare Strava segments. One reason triathlon works is it combines elemental skills of running, swimming, along with the brainiest, cleverest, most efficient, most expansive, transformative human-powered invention in the history of mankind: the bicycle.
With that as a preamble, let’s talk about the Belgan Waffle Ride just concluded a couple of weeks ago, 800 people riding around the inland parts of San Diego County. The BWR is expanding. There will be a metro-Phoenix version. But it’s not precisely the BWR that I want to talk about, rather I’m using the BWR as a proxy for what I think might be the Next Big Thing in cycling.
It’s AllRoad. MultiSurface. These are two terms thrown out by Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of Cervelo, co-owner of both Open Cycle and 3T (and a pretty good guy to listen to when it comes to the Next Big Thing). It is no coincidence that both his current companies make a GravelPlus bike (another name for AllRoad or MultiSurface). What grates on Gerard, and me, is that we think we know what the Next Big Thing is but we don’t have a name for it. Find me the gravel in the images included here of the BWR (all courtesy of BWR). California has no gravel (to speak of). But we (I’m a Californian) do have variability in terrain and surfaces.
Look at the photos here! There is every kind of road surface in this event. Except gravel. The bike most in evidence at this race? The so-called gravel bike. What I saw a lot of was the GravelPlus bike (imagine a cyclocross bike with tires between 38mm and 42mm rather than the more traditional 28mm to 32mm width). Why these bikes? Because the BWR is not a gravel bike race; it’s a Choose Your Weapon race.
The “initial desire” for the BWR "was to fill the void in the US of one day bike races like those in Europe," according to its founder and current owner/producer Michael Marckx (another example of an ex-Quintana Roo employee of mine making good!). Small detail: Unlike Spring Classics like Paris Roubaix or Liege Bastogne Liege, San Diego has no pave (cobblestones).
"You are right, it’s not a gravel ride,” Michael told me. "My courses, of which I have designed many, end up being altered by the County in counterproductive and counterintuitive ways, much to the detriment of the overall flow of the ride. I've had six courses for six years. This adds intrigue to event, but wouldn’t it be nice to have the same course to compete? Maybe.”
In my opinion, this is what makes this category organic. The race organizer uses the judo of the geography, of the county or municipality or state or national agency; you turn your weakness into a strength by accepting the least-impacted, least-trafficked, most obvious course available to you, damned the terrain or road or trail surface. And then you choose your weapon based on that course, much like a nordic ski racer chooses his wax for the day.
There is something I’ve never seen before in this kind of racing unique: The best weapon changes based on the skill and speed of the rider. I can’t think of another sport where this is the case (usually, a good road, tri or MTB bike for a pro is a good bike for an amateur too). The winners of the BWR (Rally’s Jesse Anthony this year, pictured above; Jelly Belly’s Josh Berry last year) ride standard road bikes with pretty standard tires (25mm to 28mm).
Josh told me he rode 25mm road tires last year because that’s what his sponsor (Maxxis) had available at the time. I would absolutely crumble if I tried to ride my road equipment over this course. But I did quite fine on a Cannondale Slate (pictured below, along with some other GravelPlus options). That was my fastest bike. The more offroad, the more the equipment imperatives change. This makes cycling – a grunter’s, not a thinker’s, sport in my experience – much more cerebral.
How does AllRoad/GravelPlus/MultiSurface impress itself on Multisport? It’s damned hard already to find interesting triathlon venues. I’ve always felt that standardized distances were a sad eventuality flowing from the original spirit of triathlon, and I think that’s now finally catching up to us.
I’m no longer the only one who feels that way; a lot of you feel that way too. We don’t use the judo of our geographies. You start with the lake (you can’t move that). There’s the boat ramp we use to get in and out of the lake. Where do we do the bike ride? Once you are hemmed in by road surface and prescribed distance you end up with some pretty contrived courses. Nothing organic about that.
When we ask you all what it is you think you want to do beyond what you’re now doing in triathlon, here is what you say in the poll below:
It took me a long time – decades – to realize that triathlon is really one sport with three expressions: it is the apex sport for people who want an apex challenge for themselves… done safely. With rules, insurance, cones, marshals, predictable aid stations, ice, timing, barricades, and lots of support, camaraderie and fun. Then there is that very same sport, just done at the pointy end (that’s the second expression of triathlon).
The third expression is the sport as it was born, in the 70s and early 80s. It wasn’t much (or any) harder back then – or any more challenging. It just wasn’t predictable. You didn’t know if there were going to be aid stations, or whether 2000, 200, or 20 people were going to show up. Or 2. You didn’t even know if the courses were completable. Triathlon is the sport of pioneers, but not all triathletes are pioneers, or begin as pioneers.
I spoke to Bob Babbitt about Ironman’s recent acquisition of Competitor Group, and the regrettable migration of his once fine publication – Competitor Magazine – into a run-only magazine that many (including Bob and I) feel misses the point of its original theme. That magazine, and Bob himself, precisely matched my own sense of what I am as a multisporter and why this publication you’re reading is simply called Slowtwitch (rather than anything that circumscribes tightly around orthodox triathlon): Bob’s view (I think) of multisport and mine is this: Getting from point A to point B under human powered locomotion. That’s it. Don’t try to get us to hedge ourselves in beyond that.
You may wonder why I write about bikes like this one from Litespeed, which I had them build me in 2013, in a triathlon publication (a year later they put into production because it touched such a nerve with readers). Bikes like this fulfill the mission of getting me from A to B in a slicker, cleverer, way. This is right up into multisport.
Bikes are tools. That’s all they are. Now that GravelPlus or AllRoad or whatever we’re eventually going to call this category is becoming more of a Thing, it’s time to wrap this baby with swim or run or swim and run and whatever else stands in between the start and the finish. My sense tells me this bike is tool we needed to inject some pioneerism for that expression of triathlon that first attracted me 40 years ago, but which we rarely see nowadays.