It was 11 o’clock Friday night before we rolled into camp. Rows of cars sat idle in a grassy bald atop Experience Learning’s Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Bikes glimmered under the headlights, their owners fast asleep. Devious clouds loomed overhead, threatening to overtake the night sky.

The drive in had been uneventful, but long. The slow and winding climb up the very gravel roads we would soon be racing felt interminable in the blackness of night. Still, it hadn’t rained like the forecast was calling for, and I silently thanked the universe for sparing us thus far.

“Let’s slide in over there,” Adam said, pointing to a gap between two campsites.

I backed in, rolling down the window to get a better view. Brisk mountain air flooded the van, and I cursed myself for not bringing more layers. We’d be spending the weekend above 4,000 feet. I knew firsthand West Virginia’s reputation as ‘Wet Virginia,’ and that Spruce Knob, the Mountain State’s highest point (and the pinnacle of GRUSK, or Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob), was notoriously cold, wet, and windy even in the dead of summer. Maybe central Virginia’s heat and humidity had fried my brain.

Shaking off my questionable packing skills, I donned my warmest layers and settled in for the night. Just a few hours later, the crack of a tent pole sprung me from my sleeping bag. Rain poured from the sky, whipping every which way in the wind. I pulled the bag closer up under my chin, mind spinning, convinced I was ill-prepared and unequipped to go race 52 miles up to Spruce Knob in soggy conditions. I had a pair of shorts, a short-sleeved jersey, and a rain jacket. That’s it.

What was I thinking?

My alarm woke me some five hours later, feeling more tired than I had the night before. It was still raining, but just light enough that you questioned whether it was worth bringing a rain jacket. Fog hung low in the trees, clouding out the view of Spruce Knob.

Despite my gnawing hunger, I had to force an egg burrito down. The coffee, I couldn’t even touch. What was making me feel so anxious? I wasn’t in it to win it. Was it the weather? My layers? The course? The 5,286 feet of climbing ahead?

A stormy start to GRUSK 2017. Photo by Jacob Ritter

Photo by Rick Morrison

By the time our mass of 100+ cyclists peeled away from the starting line, all of those inhibitions evaporated. Maybe it was the insulated Giro vest that my friend Shane just-so-happened to bring along in case I was interested in buying it for an upcoming trip (Shane, you’re a gahdamn hero). Maybe it was the glorious descent on hard-packed gravel right out of the gate. Maybe it was the supportive kindness of everyone, racer and course marshall alike.

Whatever it was, I felt good. And the weather was good, too. The thick canopy sheltered us from the early morning rains, and by the time we spilled out into Whitmer, the weather was sublime (minus the headwind-on-pavement). I bypassed the first aid station, then the second. The miles came blissfully fast. Riding along Gandy Creek felt like a dream.

“You don’t look like you’re in my age group. Wanna ride my wheel?”

A woman just a few years my senior smiled at me behind a neat row of braces as she pedaled past. I chugged in line, and we chatted back and forth while churning out the eight-mile Dry Fork climb from the valley floor. She was a GRUSK veteran, and assured the few riders we came upon that we were still on course, despite the scant signage.

My company was short-lived. She left me in the dust. I pedaled alone again until the third aid station, where I downed my remaining water and filled up on Swedish Fish and peanut M&Ms. I would need the fuel. From here, it was a steady 10-mile climb gaining over 1,100 feet to the summit of Spruce Knob.

Cruising past Sinks of Gandy, my favorite part of the ride. Photo by Rick Morrison.

I rode out of the aid station with a local who lived in Seneca Rocks. As we passed through one mystical boreal forest after another, I couldn’t help but envy him. On any day of the week he could ride from his front door to Spruce Knob’s stunning summit.

My legs were feeling remarkably fine, but not nearly as strong as the lead Epic 73-mile course riders’. The top five easily blew past me on their road bikes and skinny tires, despite having already ridden 20 more miles and tackled a helluva lot more elevation than me.

Slowly, I gained on the few 52-milers ahead of me. The sun had finally broken through the clouds, and the day was cool and beautiful. Long, paved, and steady, the climb wasn’t terrible. Bordered on all sides by thick spruce and fir with clear blue sky above, I almost forgot about how hard the climb was, until the last few miles. In the distance, the summit parking lot rose high above, looking ever-so-faint between the trees. Talk about despair.

Racers on the final push to the summit. Photo by Rick Morrison

I’m riding up to there?

I sighed, trying to nudge away the frustrated exhaustion creeping in. On any other day, watching the top riders zip back down the ascent might have sunk me further into the pit of despair, but on this day, it had quite the opposite effect. Most everyone I passed smiled and shouted words of encouragement. The relief in their voices was contagious, reenergizing.

And that’s when something struck me—I had seen very few women coming down from the summit. The volunteers working the last aid station had said they hadn’t seen many riders yet, so I knew I was toward the front of the pack, but I hadn’t been keeping close tabs on the other racers. I was just out for the ride.

The grade stiffened, and I leaned forward, gritting through the final hump. Thank gahd for granny gears. Jacob was at the top working the volunteer aid station, and the sight of him, and the knowledge that I was now through with the most difficult part of the race, empowered me. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins as I stood out of the saddle and sailed through the last push.

“YEW!” I shouted, giving Jacob a high-five and grinning from ear to ear.

“Dude, you’re killin ‘it!” he said.

“I might be able to podium!” I said, still unsure how possible that really was. I looped through the parking lot and circled back. “And now I cruise!”

Or, so I thought. The descent off of Spruce Knob was not nearly as effortless as I had imagined. Small and deceptively punchy climbs snuck up on me. But still, I was ecstatic. Just as the lead riders had done before me, I whooped and hollered and tried to keep the climbing racers’ spirits up as they made the long slog to the summit.

Adam (right) making easy work of this grassy descent early in the race. Photo by Bobbie Swan.

I passed by the third aid station again, catching Adam and his plaid shirt out of the corner of my eye. Having signed up for the Epic 73-miler, he was just about to begin his ascent.

“How ya doin’?!” he yelled at me as I flew past.

I smiled, blowing kisses and doing my best princess wave as I pedaled on. There was no stopping now. At last, I was on the home stretch.

By the time I cruised the short, grassy descent to the finish line, my legs were feeling sufficiently fatigued (the climb back up to the center is demoralizing!). I collapsed down in the grass beside my bike and drank nearly an entire bottle’s worth of Skratch.

“Daddio, you’re first!” said Don Parks, the event timekeeper.

“Bull!”

“Jess Daddio, 4:29, first place Classic, women’s open. Says it right here.”

Ladies’ Open Classic podium! Photo by Adam Ritter

The finished cyclists clapped and gave me high fives, even though it took them less time to finish 73 miles (some of them on singlespeeds) than it did for me to ride my 52. Adam came cruising through an hour later, averaging 18 miles per hour for 73 miles and over 8,200 feet of elevation gain. We both were spent, but the Chaga Tea Project tunes and spaghetti dinner brought us back to life. I still had a hard time believing I had won my category, but as the afternoon wore on and the race day stories trickled in, the day became so much more than the podium.

Bull chases and cowboys, too many flat tires to count, glorious gravel, out-of-this-world scenery, perfect weather, lasting camaraderie. The race was an adventure in and of itself, and the caliber of athletes that showed (and the wide range of ages on the podium) was awesome to witness. If you ever have the desire to go ride the gravel roads of West Virginia, make sure you let GRUSK race director Travis Olson show you how it’s done.

Congrats to everyone who finished and to Travis for putting on a stellar event! We’ll be back next year. You can check out more amazing images from Rick Morrison and Bobbie Swan here.

Best campsite this side of the Mississippi.

Adam (left) and Jacob (right) post-race.

Adam in all of his post-race hot and stinky glory.

The most spectacular setting for one tough gravel race!