Written by bike racer, adventurer, and stoke-spreader in chief – Gordon Wadsworth
You know the song, ” Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River, Life is old there, older than the trees, Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.” Trouble is John Denver must not have been looking at a map when he penned these words and spread the rhythm of Appalachia far and wide. The Shenandoah River, the Blue Ridge – those are all features of WestERN Virginia. Sorry John, maybe stick to the Rocky Mountains.
Nevertheless, Denver’s tune captures a slice of the place I’ve loved and called home most of my life. The Appalachian Mountains are special and storied. The word “Appalachia” is one of the oldest place-names in America. The legends and lore of the deeply furrowed mountains are well known; native Americans subsisting off the bounty of the forest, coon-skinned pioneers pushing west through thick greenery, moonshiners and revenue men in an ever-quickening chase, all taking place before a backdrop of rugged independence and self-reliance.
The Shenandoah Valley in particular is where I cut my teeth as an outdoor adventurer and where our story begins. A narrow “Great Valley” stretching along the length of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Appalachian Range. These mountains are named such because they appear deep blue from a distance. The dense vegetation and native tree life put off a chemical compound that absorbs more ambient light than usual, creating a blue appearance and often a haze of moisture. The mountains are literally thick and breathing with life. They may not be as rugged and imposing as younger mountains like the Rockies or Alps but their age and wisdom mean that they have had longer to practice resisting mankind’s efforts.
In our efforts to tame them cyclists like me have compiled dozens of routes through their ages-old trails and dirt roads. Many of them have legends all their own and have been pushing into my mind more and more as events I had planned make their wise decisions to postpone or cancel this year. One of these is the aptly named “Rockstar.” So named for its start in “Rocktown;” Harrisonburg Virginia and finish in the “Star City of the South” Roanoke VA.
The route itself launches west from Harrisonburg on rugged jeep trails and then winds its way south through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. There are three variants of the route; singletrack, gravel, and “pave.” For my first encounter with the RockStar, I chose to put a gravel attempt on the calendar. With Dirty Kanza and other long-distance events having canceled my regular stage race partner Elliott Baring was also itching for a long ride and we felt that it was time the Rockstar Gravel route had someone give it an honest go to establish a new fastest known time. For all the bikepacking racers out there, the Virginia Endurance Series keeps records of FKTs in solo and partner formats on the Rockstar.
We committed to the route, made our plans, established our beta, and set to it. The Northern and southern portions of the route were well known to me however there was a substantial portion in the middle of the Rockstar which would be new to me. This was also the most isolated stretch of the route. With the current Fastest Known Time sitting just over a full day at 24:04 we had efficiency as our chief priority. Two bottle cages and Camelbak Chase vests housed our fluid while a water filter in my Nittany Mountainworks frame bag would be our backup should we run dry. Lots of calories were packed and while I was confident in my endurance engine this would be my longest single pull ride in years. It would be Elliott’s longest ride ever by a factor of more than double. The timber was tall, but our axes were sharp.
Check out those axes. We both rode Pivot Vaults equipped with Shimano GRX doubles and Maxxis tires.
A little shuttle from a friend and we checked in for a few hours sleep at a hotel not far from the route’s start at Black Sheep Coffee. Rise before the sun, pound some packed Kodiak cakes and out the door we walked. What little we had of comfort we tossed in boxes with BikeFlights labels to deliver them to our doors in a few days. Nothing was left but the gear we needed to traverse the Shenandoah and arrive in Roanoke on our backs. We opted to run very light. I packed my frame bag and a CamelBak Chase vest while Elliott pared down to a top tube bag and hydration vest.
We turned on lights, shared live track links with loved ones, and warmed up into the cold 40 something spring air. Pushing out into the relative glow of a city was a touch alien to me, living in the forest and cherishing open space. However, as we arrived at the start and set out into the valley the dark greeted us. The calm of a world before even the farmers woke to tend their fields and flocks. There is no feeling to me like Appalachian solitude. The mountains are both challenging and forbidding and also rich with life. The quiet morning filled itself with life as we pedaled into the dark. As we scooted west through the dark moonless morning the sun began to rise and the enormity of the western wall of the valley came into view.
I know “enormity” isn’t something you’d expect from The Blue Ridge. Most of the valley sits around 800-1000 feet of altitude and our first ascent of the day was a clean 3500-foot rise to Reddish Knob’s 4300 feet. There’s no 3500-foot climb I won’t acknowledge as enormous. Especially since in this case, it wasn’t “gravel” we were climbing.
The Union Springs climb was our path. Rugged, rutted jeep road. Gated with several pitches above 20%. This wasn’t “gravel grinding”, it was just grinding. As we rolled along this path dodging boulders, tensioning our muscles long before their due time I felt the rear of my bike get a little soft. I pulled over to inspect, whistling through the already thickening air to Elliott that I had stopped. Sure enough, a tire plug was merited. Well, 20 miles in and the rubber had certainly met the road!
Plugged and soldiering on, the sun continued to greet us. Bodies warmed, and we hummed along avoiding acknowledging the slowness of our pace and avoiding, even more, the resulting math and finish time.
As we summited Union Springs we awoke several 4 wheel drivers who believed themselves the hardiest souls on the ridge. There was no casual morning coffee for us; we had business to attend to. But Appalachia in her way showed there was no business but its own.
Easy on the eyes eh? Easy to feel that it was “all downhill from here!” It wasn’t. But it was for a bit.
Down into the ridge valley between West Virginia and Virginia, we rolled to our first resupply around mile 55. The store owner was eager to hear our story. He had probably heard every bear, boar, and deer hunting story from here to the Mississippi in his time so two already dirty riders just after sunrise was surely a treat. With repacked bags and freshly filled bottles, we charged on. Shenandoah Mountain was our next Quarry.
With the surge downhill and across the valley we entered the George Washington National Forest – 1.8 million acres of wild country – mostly uninhabited and nearly 200,000 acres of recognized “wilderness.” The GW as we call it is a playground for outdoorsman and bears the name of the first US president and surveyor of much of the Shenandoah Valley. My spirit always lifts at the brown and gold signs welcoming me to the wilderness, and today was no exception.
Ascending a brief spell of pavement we were witness to the trenches and walls marking the land in an effort to shore up confederate defenses in the spring of 1862. History surrounded us and not all of it pleasant. A nation divided was on our minds and whether we had truly conquered that division, or merely passed the time since then.
Finally, our course cut south, departing pavement, and entering a stretch of unknown to me. The Shenandoah Mountain trail ushered us along for a few miles of once again steep climbing before depositing us at a powerline bald, unmarked and unknown. Fortunately, I had researched this point in the course and knew that the gravel route used an abandoned segment of Forest Service trail which was barely visible a little above the power line cut.
This portion of gravel was relentless. Never-ending rollers and gradual meandering turns revealing a short climb ahead. It was the kind of road which would be fun, if it came on a different day, a different ride. If I had to pick a “worst moment” from our ride it was this segment. We were eager to move and this shelf road just continued to waste our energy like it was a limitless resource. Nevertheless, we made work of those endless ribbon turns and roller climbs.
Off the shelf though we moved into the Fort Lewis Valley. This stretch began the truly unknown to me. On paper, it looked reliable enough – mixed surfaces and some pavement meaning we would move quickly. What I also knew that my cue sheet kept reminding me is that there was nowhere I could identify which we could get food or water from. I brought my sawyer water filter in case and knew there were clean creeks in proximity. However, some of the smaller creeks were not running near as well as I expected them to be.
Water is an abundant resource in Appalachia. It’s a challenge sometimes but more often it’s a blessing. I carry a small water filter on almost every ride and seldom have to worry about the consequences of being caught out drying up. We had 10″ of rain over 48 hours just earlier in the week. At first, this rain concerned me knowing we had many large mud holes early in the ride and several creek crossings late in the game. Seeing these creeks in the Fort Lewis valley dry however meant we would need to get resourceful for fluid. And we were. Cruising through the valley as folks enjoyed their later morning vittles we eyed two neighbors on their porch; no doubt puzzled at our appearance. I whistled to Elliott and gave a hearty wave to the neighbors and pulled into their drive. Asking if they had some fluid we were greeted with smiles and fresh water. They asked about our route and offered more water as needed. I don’t know if the kindness of strangers is in the bikepacking spirit or not but I do know its in the Appalachian spirit and something I’ve relied on many many times.
Hydrated for the long haul it was clean on towards Covington and our refuel at mile 140. Highlights of the “big empty” of Fort Lewis valley include finding a pocketed payday bar I had picked up for Elliott which I had forgotten about. I ate half before handing it over to him. Desperate times. Also smooth road and gravel cruising. This middle stretch was the jackpot we had been paying into for the first 75 miles. Fast pavement and big ring smashing were delightful, it was as if someone had finally pulled our masks off, cut the limiter choke, we were finally full throttle!
As we approached the Highlands are of Virginia I was grateful that the route took us through the least offensive possible path. Well maintained valley cruising rather than the rugged ridge roads and 5 thousand foot peaks to our west, Covington VA is a sleepy town with some of the best backcountry mountain biking around, more importantly, this round it was our first solid food stop in around a hundred miles. As we pulled hard through the rolling rhodo tunnels prior to a long descent into Covington we had a quarry in our sites.
The Rockstar is normally a couple day tour for most folks. Setting into the Journey we knew there was at least one other group out on the route. The bike racer in me buzzed with the prospect of catching them in our single day push and wondered where that might be. As the forest road undulated towards Covington we encountered a friend who had seen our live track and gave us the update. Mike Scales keeps the wild trails in check out here on the edge of the Shenandoah, his update was that the trio had JUST passed by and that we would likely catch them before our next stop. The next few miles were some of my favorites. The energy of making a pass in a 265-mile ride combined with an objectively good stretch of dirt made for a joyful several miles. Add in the long downhill blast and the recipe was tasty.
And sure enough as we pulled off dirt and onto pavement we eyed three pedaling souls who looked a little more weathered than the average rider. Jess, Lizzy, and Ellen were just the company we needed as we sat housing junkfood at the convenience store in covington. Their pace was less than hours but their journey was just as splendid and colorful from the quick stories we shared. I love that about established routes like the Rockstar. Take it for what you want it to be; it doesn’t mind.
However with many miles of speed under us now and many more left we were back into the realm I knew well; and that felt good. Pushing on South from Covington and the wilderness it was into the Jefferson National Forest and an organized drop my dear wife Emily had worked out for us. We packed two boxes that contained food and water that Emily arranged to have available for us at mile 160 before another long stretch of wilderness and then again at mile 200 where again we may need to refuel.
Covington to the next drop flowed like water with a smooth paved climb up and over Rich Patch mountain, followed by an alright tailwind along the James River headwaters before reaching our drop. Fresh water, fresh food, some CBD gummies to help dull the fatigue, and we were off again setting into ORV trail which would lead us towards Roanoke and the finish line.
A brief period of pavement then gave way once again to wilderness. Maybe I was being lazy, maybe I was tired, maybe I was getting a little too forceful in my forward momentum but as I blasted through a creek deep in the Jefferson my back tire deflated rapidly. We immediately team worked a fix, installing a boot and a tube. It seemed my home turf wasn’t going to pitch softballs for us! As we eyed our timing and our speed we started wrapping our minds around the math. It was around 6:00 PM, with 50 miles of forest dirt with elevation and to my memory at the time six substantial creek crossings we needed to get to the deed. The flat had to be dealt with quickly and there wasn’t a lot of time to spare. We had left most of our lights in our last drop, knowing we had fresh lights in the 200-mile drop. Optimistic maybe, maybe just eager to run light for a short period. I retained one very small 350 lumen light just in case because I’m a “just in case” kind of boy scout. As we climbed deeper into the forest that little light grew more and more important. I was concerned because in the preceding week we had received more than 10″ of rain locally. There hadn’t been any positive reports from the Jefferson and Craigs Creek area specifically. The six creek crossings were sure to be high.
Arriving at the first creek crossing however I was shocked to see it ambling no higher than a usual summer day. The momentary wet feet and socks were actually pleasant, I took the opportunity to dip my water bottle into the creek for a refreshing blast of water I knew was clean. Or at least knew carried delayed consequences!
We made much shorter work of these creeks and the Jefferson than I expected. I stopped once to top off the tube we had put in as the creek moisture helped the tube and tire settle in. With the sun setting, we were blessed with smooth rolling through rough country. Two giant black bears within the same mile, a few snakes, many bugs, and soon enough the hum of traffic on Rt 311 played on our ears and eyes. Dropping into the pavement we kicked on blinky lights and rolled fast on the pavement. Elliott was now nearing his first double century and even my seasoned legs were feeling the fatigue.
Elliott and I have been stage race partners on several occasions. Regular ride pals, and well suited to partnership on the bike. He carries more fitness these days than I do, I’ll freely admit that. But in nearly two decades of riding and racing, I’ve accrued some extra grit and toughness that is a good temper to quicker legs. These combinations make us good partners. Elliott’s fitness had done hard work all day and I could tell the fatigue was becoming real. I started steadily feeding him a little bit of my secret stash of tricks hidden in my Nittany Mountain frame bag and he came around wonderfully right around mile 195. Floyds of Leadville had provided the recovery and kick I needed for months prior and the day of our Rockstar ride was no exception. There, the secret is out.
As we neared the Carvin’s Cove reservoir the pavement once again ended. At the end of the road, our last drop awaited. Fresh water, food, and fresh batteries for our lights; which we needed desperately at this phase as the world had darkened well into the night.
The previous Rockstar FKT was a sniff over 24 hours. Our goal had been to go sub 20 and stamp a hard and VERY fast time on the books. With slow going on the front end, and the flat tire we troubleshooted in the Jefferson that time was probably out of reach. However, we were still well ahead of the record and set to rattling through Carvins Cove’s loop road and singletrack back out into pavement. The Cove is Roanoke’s singletrack heaven. It’s 60 miles of singletrack and wilderness feel were our last real isolation before we burst into the city and hummed to the finish line.
What Elliott didn’t expect among that hum was me moaning about how much the Rockstar route bumbled around through Roanoke. We could have cut an hour or more from our time by bee-lining to the Star. Alas the route IS the route and we were on this journey to finish it!
Through the pavement jungle for a change. Since it was getting late on a Sunday night there was little traffic. While there was noise and action all around with a full day of companionship under our belts, Elliott and I worked together all but oblivious of the drama of the city. Moving onto the Roanoke City greenway we returned to some solitude. About that time though we were joined by our shuttle driver Matt “Buffalo Man” Clements on his home-tuned moped. The hum of his little engine ripping around the city meeting us to cheer at strategic points was welcome. And as we rounded behind the Mill Mountain park and entered singletrack, Elliott and I could both feel just how close our finish line was. The Roanoke Star is a giant illuminated metal star perched on top of one of our city parks. Its a symbol of the progressive mindset of Roanoke and earned it the nickname the “Star City” of the South. However, to call the Roanoke Star our finish line is a bit of a misnomer. The monument itself was our final ascent before descending into downtown Roanoke and finishing at the Texas Tavern, Roanoke’s “Millionaires Club.” The name is as comical as it gets for the ten bar stool restaurant that’s been serving up dollar menu items and hot bowls of chili for three generations. Its a favorite for the night out crowd and even weather-beaten and exhausted we wouldn’t be the most colorful characters there this night.
The final moments of a single day undertaking like the Rockstar are almost always anticlimactic. The thing itself is solitary. There are no fireworks to announce your completion of the undertaking. There’s not even any finish “line” to speak of. Merely an arrival to quiet most of the time. There’s no wrong feelings in this moment and its a moment which riders all over the world chase daily. This day for us was the fastest known time by nearly four hours, it was a pretty substantial stamp on the books and it was a tremendous endeavor for both Elliott and I. Final elapsed time was 20:07. I stepped into the Texas Tavern to order a favorite which I hadn’t had in years while Emily, Matt, and Elliott sat and enjoyed a group sense of accomplishment over pizza and bubbly water. To the public, I was no different than anybody standing in the Texas Tavern hungry for a “cheesy western.” The cook; who had been there since as far back as I can remember, asked me quietly “did you do that race?” I responded “yeah, I guess we did, I think we even won”