GRUSK - Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob

by Igor Shteynbuk

by Connor

        About two months ago, my fiancée and I took a road trip down from DC to Seneca Rocks to camp for a weekend. West Virginia, for those of you who haven't been, is absolutely gorgeous, and is undoubtedly one of the most (if not the most) beautiful states on the east coast. I think it all comes down to how undeveloped and untouched most of the state is - no sprawling cityscapes, no mile wide highways, and no McDonald's every 2 miles. Quite honestly, the state is so covered in rolling hills and mountain ranges, it may never be able to be developed nearly as much as it's more suburbanized East-coast neighbors like Virginia and Maryland. 

        On this trip, we ended up taking a detour from Seneca Rocks to hike off the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, and the tallest mountain for hundreds of miles around. Upon our return to the lot, I noticed a son and his father absolutely suffering on their road bikes up the last stretch of the climb to the peak, and I thought to myself "that looks like no fun, I'm not sure I'd ever come down here to do that."

...cut to this weekend.

        I signed up for the GRUSK (Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob) on a whim about a month ago, right before registration closed. I wasn't sure about the course profile, but I knew I wanted to do the standard 82-mile event and I knew I wanted to race in the single-speed class. I arrived in Circleville very late in the night on Friday, and crawled my way up the rocky mountain road up to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center, a privately-owned outdoor learning and camping area. 

        One thing to note if you plan on racing this event - bring a truck. Or an SUV. Or anything but a Volkswagen Golf. The roads up the mountain were by no means paved and I scraped the underside of my car multiple times on the way up. The camping/parking areas were mowed fields, and as I slowly rolled along the rows of cars already parked for the night. I bottomed out my car on a rut and got it stuck on a hump in the field. I then spent the next 10 minutes or so waking the entire campground late at night trying to get un-stuck, burning up my clutch, and ultimately breaking free after a little help from an annoyed neighbor. I got my tent set up, and hoped the next morning would be less bleak. What i woke to far exceeded my expectations;

GTI camping with tent

        The rolling foothills of West Virginia greeted me with a cool breeze and fair skies, telling me that I would, in fact, have a great day after all. I managed to move my car to a less treacherous part of the field closer to the start area, and brewed up some coffee sent our way from our friends at Ruby Roasters out in Wisconsin. The new trend of instant-coffee steeping sachets seems a little gimmicky, but it beats the hell out of dealing with the mess of a French press or the like. Not to mention it makes a damn fine cup of coffee.

Ruby Roasters to go coffee

        One thing that really stands out about this event is how well-supported it was, and how involved the race organizers and volunteers were in the proceedings from start to finish. The venue was a nice little tucked away hangout on a nearby section of the property, and acted as a good gathering place for race starts. It was a great spot for folks to convene with fellow riders as they crossed the finish line and made a beeline for the beer line. People were hanging out, chatting, recalling race stories from days of yore, and coming back to cheer on finishers crossing that line.

Truck  at GRUSK

        Finally, 10am rolled around, and after a moderated rolling start out of the campground, the race was on. A relatively double file line took a hard turn right and exploded into an all-out sprint down the first descent. Bottles getting jostled loose flew to the side of the road, the sounds of punctured tubeless tires whirring in the distance and shouts all around. The course profile really seems rather tame on paper: 
 
 
And that 2000ft climb to the summit looks fairly lengthy and intimidating, but the hardest parts were actually the short, steep, punchy climbs. My 42-18 gear ratio was way too tall, and I spun out on the downhill sections anyways, so I likely could've run a 40-20, or a 36-17. That flat section in the middle was great and I was hauling for most of it, but as soon as I hit those shorter punches up, I got to the point where I almost couldn't physically turn the gear over. Hindsight's 20/20, I guess.


GRUSK - Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob
   

        Jammed in between these few challenging areas, however, were dozens of miles of rolling hills, fast and loose gravel descents, farm roads and shady forest service roads. There honestly wasn't a mile in this race that wasn't surrounded by a sprawling nature-scape. If you didn't look up from time to time, you'd miss the beauty of it all. This was only compounded by the great attitude shared by everyone out in the field. Comments of disbelief and support for one of the 5 single speeders out on the course were abundant, and my VO-spec'd-out Nature Boy was the center of attention at every rest stop and the miles in between. I can honestly say this race had the "happiest" overall attitude among its participants of any cycling event I've ever been to. There was still a competitive air about it, but everyone wanted everyone else to do their very best and finish. I get the sense that this may have been due to the number of separate fields available at registration. Rather than just a "men's open" and a "women's open," there were probably half a dozen categories each, and a few other odds and ends like single-speed classes. More opportunities for podiums, more fun to share, more love to go around. 

GRUSK - Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob Road Runner Bags

 

        One drawback of not having the summit be the finale of the race is once you get yourself to the top, you really don't have time to appreciate the views. I mean, you do, but you're in a race and you just watched the person one position ahead of you fly back down the mountain in the other direction as you finished your climb, and you can't waste time for a photo-op. Logistically, I understand it's obviously not a good place to finish a race, but you can't help but feel a little robbed of the opportunity to appreciate the incredible views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. 

        After absolutely dogging myself to get to the peak, perhaps the biggest challenge of the day laid before me; staying awake for the 8-mile descent off the summit to the final climb into the finish. The final punch in the gut is the last 2 miles up to the campground, followed by a bumpy, rocky, rutted out taped off course to the finish line. The food was still warm and the beer was cold, what more can I say? I finished 5th in the single speed class out of 5, which means I simultaneously podiumed and finished DFL. Nonetheless, the congratulations and support from strangers were abundant, and it just seemed like everyone was there to celebrate finishers no matter where they placed- an atmosphere any bike event organizer could strive to achieve, and one Travis did a hell of a job setting up. 

Gear Round Up:

        After having Sunday to recover and review notes about the race as a whole and my bike, I had a few things to note that I found mentionable.

        Daija Cycleworks Far Bar (and Splash Tape!)

Dajia Cycleworks Far Bar with SRAM levers and Splash bar tape
This handlebar was absolutely the star of the show for me. Riding single-speed often requires more leverage during climbs and accelerations when you're standing up, to offer a wider grip and helping to counter balance up steeper sections. Additionally, the flat region on the underside of the shallow drop offered a spectacular amount of control at high speeds on loose terrain. Not to mention the numerous other hand positions the bar offers, something I came to appreciate on a 6+ hour ride.
The Splash tape offered a supple, cushioned grip that didn't sop up moisture from my hands and gloves, and stayed grippy all day. It comes in other colors but...why wouldn't you get Splash?
 
Velo Orange Zeste Cantilever Brakes
 
Velo Orange Zeste Brakes
Offering more than enough stopping power and about as much modulation as you could expect out of a set of cantilever brakes, the Zeste brakes paired with the Dia Compe straddle hanger performed flawlessly throughout the day, almost being too stop-y at times. I could recommend them for any cantilever bike, and I'll absolutely be running these in the coming 'cross season.

        Velo Orange Touring Saddle (and pictured long setback seatpost)

Velo Orange Long Setback Seatpost and Touring Saddle
 
As I mentioned in my last post about commuting on this bike, I've been riding our VO Touring saddle to and from work, a couple days a week for the last month. I hadn't yet had a chance to ride it for much longer than an hour at a time, so I was unsure about how my rear end would feel after half a day of getting jostled around on this thing. It offered plenty of cushion and was very forgiving in the bumpier sections, while not being too wide or feeling like a "traditional" touring saddle. I'd put this on any one of my bikes. Not to mention just how pretty that long setback post is- if you're considering one, I promise you won't regret it.
Velo Orange Retro Bottle Cage
 
Velo Orange Retro Bottle Cages on All City
I'll say that the retro cage was the only thing to cause me any trouble during this ride. At the very start, I did hit one or two minor-moderate bumps in the road by accident and the bottle in my seat tube cage promptly shot out of there like a rocket. This didn't happen for the rest of the race, but I did have to run back and grab my bottle, costing me precious seconds. I liked how simple and elegant the tab-less versions looked, which is why I chose them, but I perhaps could have benefited from running the versions with retainer tabs- just something to consider if you're looking at cages and may hit roads less than perfect. The moderniste cages would also have been a good choice.
The Sum-Up
 
        This year's GRUSK was probably my favorite organized cycling event I've been to in a few years, second only maybe to a handful of 'cross races. The venue was clean, spread out, quiet and spacious. There were facilities in each quadrant of the camping areas, and dorm/yurt options were available if you wanted to spring for that. As there was no cellular coverage on the mountain, the lodge on the property offered wifi, and folks were more than willing to answer questions and get you in the right direction. The race organizers, officials, and volunteers did a great job hosting and supporting the event (these were some of the best run aid stations I've ever seen), and the course was spectacular. My only complaint was that in the 4 days prior to the race, Travis sent out 6 emails with about as much information as you could possibly need about the logistics of the event, but he failed to mention how rough the road up and down was, and how poorly marked the camping areas were. I'm sure it's normal down there to encounter gravel roads on a daily basis, but I met people who traveled in from all over, and I was not alone in my surprise at how rough the entry was to the venue. So! All I'll say is, take an SUV, do not take your Golf. Mine is currently in the shop after busting an oil leak from one of those rocks I ran over on the way out. 
 
        I'll likely be going back next year (with either a different ratio or a geared bike), and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a moderately difficult challenge. Gravel racing is starting to pick up more popularity every year, and it's encouraging to see this kind of friendly and good-natured environment be the foundation for another branch of cycling.

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