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;
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.
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.
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.
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!)
Velo Orange Touring Saddle (and pictured long setback seatpost)