“It’s always some guy you know making this shit,” Jay Moglia held up an open Mason jar filled with a clear liquid to our faces: “Try this.” It had been less than 15 minutes since we first stepped foot on West Virginian soil and already we had our first sips of moonshine. An hour earlier, we left behind the highway (and with it, reliable cell service) and headed into the heavily forested valleys lining the Appalachian Mountains.
Once again, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere for the latest edition of the Rapha Prestige. The course – designed, as always, with knowhow from locals – is exactly what you would expect: a 112-mile jaunt over never-ending rollers, climbing two sizable ridges for a total of 10,500 feet of elevation gain.
After driving up a winding, climbing road we finally arrived at the Raw Talent Ranch, located at the top of a ridge surrounded by lush green rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Inside, evidence of appreciation for pro cycling was strewn all around the house: a stack of Rouleur magazines, signed jerseys from local heroes Joe Dombrowski and Ben King, a sizable VHS collection including such gems as American Flyers and a Tour DuPont recap, as well as plenty of photos of the proprietor from his racing days. Looking through the guestbook, I started to get the feeling that this place is one of the well-kept secrets that every cyclist seems to know about – besides me.
As the riders rolled off in groups of four the first challenge was a descent 2,000 feet into the valley below, knowing that in 100 or so miles they would have to climb right back up the same ridge. But there were a few hours grace at least. What lay ahead were miles and miles of roads, paved, covered in gravel, pockmarked by potholes, each roller revealing the next one as you crested its top.
And then there was the heat and humidity. Even the act of simply standing around left sweat stains on your clothes as you gulped breath after heavy, moisture-laden breath. Taking every single opportunity to stop at a grocery store (or in one case, a fire station) was not just a suggestion, it was a necessity. This became abundantly clear somewhere around mile 80, where the riders pulled into a closed gas station not too far from the foot of the most challenging climb of the day. There were groans and brief moments of despair but a few friendly house owners (more specifically, their water spigots) brought about thirst-quenching salvation.
And then came the big climb. Too steep to sit. Too loose to stand. The movement of the air stifled by the trees and the temperature. The buzzing gnats and horseflies a constant reminder of your slow pace. Brutal. And the descent on the other side so rocky and so technical as to pilfer any possible joy from the achievement of reaching the summit.
Then some much welcome calm bestowed by a few miles of tarmac and a final grocery store stop for something – anything – cold before the pavement once again gave way to steep and loose gravel for the final climb of the day.
The course and the weather conditions decimated the field. Only five complete teams finished the entire course. Not that any of that would take away from the tacos, beer, the bonfire and the banjo music to finish out the night.