The Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob (GRUSK) triumphantly returned for its fifth trip to the highest peak in West Virginia after a year off due to cancellation for the ongoing COVID pandemic. Highland Outdoors was a proud sponsor of this year’s rendition, and Team HO is already looking forward to next year’s quad-and-soul-crushing climb up to the 4,863-foot summit of Spruce Knob.
GRUSK, which first kicked up dust in 2016, is the brainchild of Travis Olson, who hosts the annual event under his company, Mountain Rides. The two-day event starts and ends at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center, an off-the-grid venue that is home to Experience Learning, an outdoor education nonprofit that hosts camps and programs for youth throughout the year.
Olson first dreamt of GRUSK when he discovered the Spruce Knob Mountain Center while working on a stage race that ended up fizzling out. “I went to the venue and fell in love with it and saw the potential,” Olson said. “People don’t really know about this cool, magical place sitting on the highest peak in the state.”
Modeled after the infamous Hilly Billy Roubaix, Olson’s concept for GRUSK quickly evolved from a day race into a full-weekend event. “I tried to put myself in my participants’ shoes and think about what I would want out of a gravel race,” he said. “I wanted to give them something that they would want to come back to every year.”
And come back they have. GRUSK has grown from just over 100 participants in its inaugural year to selling out at over 430 racers in this year’s comeback event. Olson said he plans to keep a cap on the number of participants to maintain the small festival vibe and minimize the impact on the venue grounds.
While GRUSK’s return to Spruce Knob was a welcoming event for its loyal fans, it was especially sweet for Olson. “Canceling GRUSK last year was horrible,” Olson said. “I have that date marked on my calendar; that was one of the worst days I can remember outside of losing loved ones.”
He said the worst impact stemmed from the feeling of letting down the GRUSK supporters and participants. However, when it came time to send the cancellation email, Olson said the majority of folks were “incredibly gracious and didn’t ask for a refund,” allowing him to donate a portion of the proceeds to Experience Learning and local volunteer fire departments.
GRUSK features a variety of route lengths and styles that traverse spectacular routes in and around the Monongahela National Forest and the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. From the non-competitive 27-mile Spruce Highlights Tour and the highly competitive Medio 50 and Tall 80-mile routes to the Grande 140 and Venti 213-mile, self-supported bikepacking routes, GRUSK offers something for every level of gravel-grinding cyclist.
Jess Daddio, a bikepacking enthusiast from Harrisonburg, VA, traveled to Spruce Knob to bike the Venti route with her riding partner, Lindsey Carpenter. The duo completed their rugged 213-mile journey as a single pull in 33 hours and 19 minutes. Daddio, who attended—and won—her class in the inaugural GRUSK, was thrilled to return to Spruce Knob for her second go. “I had bikepacked a lot of the route, but had never done a distance like that all in one pull and I was really curious about trying it,” Daddio said.
Her course highlight came while riding through a rhododendron tunnel in full bloom on the Allegheny Trail near Green Bank. “I love riding in that area. It is so beautiful.”
Daddio relished in the camaraderie that comes with hundreds of riders competing both against one another and with themselves along various distances. “It’s a cool way to show off West Virginia, which has so much good gravel and is really primed for that kind of riding,” she said.
While there are myriad noteworthy and wonderful bike-related events in West Virginia, GRUSK stands above the rest, making its location on the state’s highest peak quite fitting. “It’s the topography and the terrain and the views,” Olson said. “You’re in the middle of somewhere, and that somewhere is not next to anything. It’s so remote and there’s so much gravel, that’s the allure.”
The Mountain State has long been known for its rugged mountain bike scene, but the vast network of unpaved roads and low population density is ushering in a golden age of gravel. “It’s such a popular medium for cyclists to mix what they know from mountain biking and road cycling,” Olson said. “These events introduce a lot of West Virginians to places they never would have considered to go biking, and it’s introducing a lot of out-of-state people to the treasures that we have here.”
Olson plans to host the sixth GRUSK next year, and expects the event to sell out quickly, so make sure to pull the trigger when registration opens up next spring. You can bet that we’ll be there, crying about our sore glutes in the back of the pack while relishing in the euphoria of grinding gravel on West Virginia’s highest peak. Check out the GRUSK 2021 results here.
Feature Photo: And they’re off! Riders in the Medio 50-mile Race Take off from the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Photo by Dylan Jones