It came like a wave. Suddenly I was just angry.
Angry I was hurting. Angry I was feeling sorry for myself. Angry I wanted to go easier. I yelled at myself out loud to harden up, and no one but the spruce pine trees heard me.
It was a new course to me. I had studied it some, but clearly not well enough to remember the finish in an exhausted state. Was I 30 minutes out from the finish? 10 minutes? I had no idea. All I did know was the cramps were beginning to ramp up, and at any second a leg could lock, leading to disaster.
70 miles into a 72 mile race is never a good time for anything bad to happen. Especially when you’ve been fighting for 3rd for the past 3 hours. Yet here I was, fighting, running from the chasers, and my body was about to give up.
It didn’t though, and I grabbed that 3rd spot at the Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob (GRUSK), one of the more gorgeous races I’ve done. That felt good. Not only because road tactic races are mentally exhausting, but because the season has been very different than I planned.
A little recap -
Last year I moved to Roanoke, VA in June. It was exciting and new, and I loved it. Finishing renovations on a home, selling it and moving to a different state isn’t exactly ideal for training and racing bikes though, so I sort of began my season mid-summer and salvaged what I could. The late start left me fresh and motivated, so I dove head first into winter training.
With the warmest winter temps I’ve ever experienced, and a new place to ride, I had a blast training all winter. Then January happened: we bought a house in need of total renovations. Every room. Goodbye free time.
I did what I could and held onto some of the best fitness of my life into February, but at some point, life+work+renovations+training does not equal health. Downward I went.
It started as congestion, which I deal with regularly anyway. No big deal. Then it became recurring colds. Then allergies got in the mix with flowers starting to bloom in late February. Every 3-4 weeks I would be dead for 2-3 days. I’d get back on the horse and work myself into another sickness.
During one of the “I’ve got a cold, but have energy, so I’m fine” weeks, I went out to race Monster Cross on what must have been the most beautiful February day of all time. 60’s, sunny, perfect. I started in a star studded field and after 20 minutes of hammering, my power dropped and my heart rate spiked. It was an odd sensation, but it’s racing and weird things happen. So I did my best to pull myself together and keep riding.
I managed to get about 40 of 50 miles done before my race ended with me puking my brains out on the side of the course. Sick again. This time it was a good bug that hung on for 4 days, and I was cursing my dumb self for not recognizing I was sick before I started a full gas race.
On I went into spring, training happening as it could, house getting closer to livable. Lining up at 6 Hours of Warrior Creek, I was excited. I was sort of healthy, and only a month past when I knew my form was still very good. I’d always heard the race was really fun, but only on the day did I hear someone talk about how “hard” the course was. I shook that off and got ready to rage.
Rage, we did. Imagine a roller coaster that has no straight sections, just high speed banked turns, one after the other. That’s warrior creek. It’s a battle of lower back attrition as you manage the G forces through 200 berms per lap and a sprint out of each one.
By the end of lap 1, I felt toasted, so it wasn’t much a surprise that by lap 4 I needed major encouragement from the Blue Ridge Cyclery pit crew. Encourage they did with food, kind words, help stretching my destroyed back, I went to salvage 4th. Not what I had hoped for, but with Dylan Johnson and Keck Baker getting 1, 2, 3rd would have been the best I could’ve hoped for anyway. Our awesome pit team saved me!
Next was an annual trip to Leesburg, VA for Bakers Dozen, a *typically* fun 13 hour lap race. I lined up with teammates Gordon Wadsworth and Keck for what we hoped would be a fun day of laps. It wasn’t exactly that.
7 hours in the race was called because the course had been dangerously muddy for the past 6 hours. And we didn’t even win. Terminal velocity and no mud tires kept us sufficiently coated in mud and not fast enough on course, and we destroyed all the bearings in our bikes for naught. We settled for 2nd a bit disenchanted about riding and eating mud. The day long rain and mudfest probably didn’t help my health either, as we shivered our way through those treacherous hours. The saga continued.
May saw no races, just a stubborn and sick guy trying desperately to sleep more to get healthy. My dear wife finally politely suggested I go to the doctor, and after an hour and a trip to the pharmacy, I was armed with antibiotics ready to get a chest infection killed once for all. That worked, and house work continued. The weather heated up and into June we went.
The Massanutten Hooha has always sounded like fun. I discovered I knew basically nothing about it, but I always heard good things, so why not give it a shot? The stats were sobering, and the average speeds from previous years should have alerted me to my coming experience… it is ROCKY.
The race began with a steep climb to a ridge line of rocks. Into the back country we descended and soon I was in a pack of 4, chasing the two never to be seen again leaders of Eddie Anderson and Chris Michaels. We all worked together until the next rocky ridge where I proceeded to be promptly spit out the back as I hiked my bike fairly constantly over massive rocks with wicked consequences if you took the wrong line.
Back through the start finish I came and found out that I need to work on my upper body strength, as the rocks had sapped my energy! I pressed on and got passed with about an hour to go. I fought hard but in the end was 30 seconds short of 5th. Honestly, I was glad to have just survived racing rocks right after a course of antibiotics that always messes with my system and energy.
A week later, another race on my bucket list came up. Middle Mountain Momma in Douthat state park. “Douthat is so awesome,” everyone says. I couldn’t wait. A familiar feeling came over me like déjà vu when Wake Fulp told me at the start that it was a tough course with a lot of steep climbing. “Ok, that’s fine” I thought, I like climbing…
Douthat is one of those off the beaten path parks. Its gorgeous, but the lack of traffic leaves it a bit overgrown in the peak of the summer. The race got moved from early May and so there we were, climbing VERY steep climbs with both ends of your handlebar buried deep in the foliage trail side. Extra resistance training.
With a healthy dose of heat in the mid 80’s that day, we had our work cut out for us, and I walked way more rideable trail than I ever thought I would. Heat and cramps will make one do all kinds of things to avoid using high muscle tension slow cadence.
I did my best on the day but couldn’t quite catch a fit Andy Rhodes who cleaned every climb (which still amazes me) and finished 2 minutes up on another upper-body-smashed me. That was good for 3rd with Ryan Serbel taking the win a good 9 minutes up on us. The climbs truly were epic though, and I look forward to getting back there sometime when the undergrowth dies out, to ride those amazing mountains again, and hopefully hike less!
With the completion of those races and a variety of home projects, June felt like an easy month. I got to train a bit more, build some fitness back up and prep for GRUSK a bit more deliberately.
I chose to race a Trek Procaliber (hardtail) that Blue Ridge Cyclery had recently gotten me, as I had little knowledge of what the course was like. I really like racing a hardtail at races like Hilly Billy, so I figured this was the safe bet. Ultimatley, I was over biked for the smooth, fast course, but I’ve been testing this setup for a while, and it’s pretty fast…
For instance, I recently set a downhill record for myself on the BRP using the same setup I used for GRUSK. 5 miles, good pavement, and I’ve never done it faster than I did on my Procaliber mountain bike. That sold me on using it at GRUSK right there.
Now, it’s not exactly a stock setup, but its been plenty fast for group road rides and 3rd at GRUSK. I threw on some lighter, carbon Kovee XXX wheels, and paired them with Bontrager’s XR0 tires. And those tires, they’re the real secret. FAST. Really fast. I wouldn’t use them for anything but gravel and road, but wow, they run smooth.
Wait, what? Why would you add a heavy dropper for a 8k of elevation gravel race??
Every single time the road turned down, I dropped that post, and went just as fast as anyone pedaling, but I was just sitting there tucked up on my saddle. I was comfortable, I was saving energy, and I was going as fast, or faster than everyone else. There wasn’t much I could do on the descents anyway, as I was only running a 32t front ring. But it didn’t matter because I was able to get so comfortably low that it made all the difference. I *HIGHLY* recommend droppers for any bike.
Back to GRUSK -
The start is in this kind of alpine field on Spruce Knob. We descended as a big group down the mountain and the climbs started immediately. After the first few climbs and descents, a group of 15 or so had formed and we rode together for a solid 22 miles or so.
Tim Rugg dropped a bottle on a long descent and angrily attacked to get to the next aid station with some time on the group so he could get a new one (which he explained after the race). Chris Michaels set a response tempo up the climb and the group exploded. Near the top, he rolled off the front with an attack to bridge to Tim, and that left 3 of us wondering if our legs could go any harder (they couldn’t).
So now with the fastest 2 up the road, and our trio established, there was no more dawdling. We rode a steady tempo for the next 4 climbs and 25 miles until we hit the base of Spruce Knob. Now, up until this point, the race had been 95% gravel roads and the climbs were not steep. They were almost annoyingly shallow actually, very pedally and fast. We were averaging 16.5 mph. I kind of hoped then that this 11 mile climb up Spruce, to the highest point in West Virginia, would be a bit, you know, climby.
It wasn’t. It was almost painfully worse. It averaged 2% for all but the last half a mile which kicked to a whopping 7%. It was a very unique type of agony trying to keep such a high speed on such a long climb. About 3.5 miles into the climb we hit Aid 3 and my two compatriots stopped for water. Seeing an opportunity, I attacked hard and tucked down to hammer out a bit of a gap. It worked and before I knew it I was climbing, hands on my fork, alone.
Getting away and into the position of 3rd overall is a great feeling. Until you realize you have 80 more minutes of racing to hang onto it. I always prefer to chase than be chased.
But, tactics are tactics and this was the time to go. I started feeling fairly terrible right after my attack and experience told me only a boost from my last bottle of Infinit could save me.
Thankfully, I had recently reworked the custom mix that I race with, adding in more electrolytes and caffeine. That turned out to be a magic combination. The muscle tension on a gravel race is significantly higher and more consistent than a mountain bike race. You aren't coasting and recovering much on the road (as my body is accustomed to), so the fatigue setting in was getting REAL.
I gulped down half the bottle and hoped for the best. I set a pace and stuck to it regardless of how awful it felt. Then suddenly, about half way into the climb, I started feeling pretty good. Strong even. I motored on, confidence renewed, tucking lower on the bike to get as aerodynamic as I could up this gentle slope.
The turn I had been waiting for finally came. The last 7 minutes are paved and steeper. And at that point, I needed a break in the monotony! Steep was welcome and I urged my legs on to the summit.
Chris and Tim came flying past me on their way back down the mountain and it looked like Tim had it in the bag with a decent gap on Chris. I noted the time to check my gap to Chris. It looked like I was a solid 5 minutes back of Chris by then and knew catching him was out of the question
The last drag to the summit is breathtaking. The views off the top of the mostly bald summit are worth it and I was finding myself deeply jealous of the crowds at the top who were enjoying the view. No time for that today. I hammered the turn around loop and started back down.
To put this climb into perspective, it took about 30 minutes to get to the summit from Aid 3. But coming down took 20 minutes. DOWNHILL. It simply wasn’t steep and the descent was a mixture of hammering the pedals as best as I could, and taking a break with the dropper down to tuck in and go fast. The last 3 miles are barely -1% so it was a painful endeavor pedaling nearly as hard going down as I had going up!
5 minutes after re-passing Aid 3 and I was at the base of the final climb back to the finish line. Wondering where the chasers might be, I pressed hard on the pedals and 12 minutes later found myself crossing the line, secure in the 3rd spot.
We had started in a total cloud, with no views of any of the surrounding mountains. But now at the finish, I could see for 100 miles, as it was clear, sunny, with a slight breeze. It was the perfect reward for suffering for those 4 hours, and we all drank it in.
I can’t recommend GRUSK enough. The course is beautiful, and not overly difficult with steep climbs or abusive gravel. It’s all fairly tame, just many miles of it. The venue and after party made it though. Lots of great food and drinks, with an awesome deck overlooking the finish line, hot showers available and views for days. The Wild and Wonderful state delivered in spades, and I’m grateful.