The most ambitious race ever conceived.
April 7, 2018
Black Sheep Cofee, Harrisonburg, VA
Rob Issem has truly earned his title Captain Insane-O for conjuring up a race that scoffs at the thought of being called an Epic. Epic ain't the word. The RockStar VA gets its absolutely perfect name from the town of Harrisonburg, also known as Rocktown, and the town of Roanoke, also known as The Star City. The race offers 3 grueling routes, trail (270 miles, 36k feet), gravel (260 miles, 20k feet), and pave (164 miles, 9.7k feet). Two facts stand out as astounding statements to the nature of the area in which this race takes place. This is a one way, 270 mile ride on trail that only gives you a taste of each trail section. The trail and gravel routes don't diverge until mile 36.
I want to give a huge round of applause to the 35 racers that started this event. Prior to the start date the person I was teaming with said he no longer wanted to do an insane multi-day bikepacking trip, fair enough. On top of this the weather turned abysmal, as it does for the first year of any event, especially one this ostentatious. The forecast: 3 to 8 inches of snow, and a low of 25 degrees over night on Saturday. The fact that all these racers took that situation, gnashed their teeth and took it head on is truly remarkable.
After a relatively chill night with my friends from college. I set out to Black Sheep Coffee to get my Spot tracker and hopefully find someone with a similar pace that I could camp with. I was immediately smacked in the face with the motif that would follow this whole weekend. I needed fresh AAA batteries for my Spot tracker but only had heavy duty 18650s. (and a lot of them) This was my first foray into bikepacking, I packed wrong.
We set out and hit the downhill pump track at Hillandale Park before a 12 mile rolling section through rural Dale Enterprise and Hinton. This section is a perfect warm up, and you will want a warm up, because what comes next is heinous in every sense. 2,900 feet in 12 miles is what you will be gaining up Slate Springs Mountain, you may be stopping, and you will certainly be pushing if you are a loaded down bikepacking rig.
Given the grim look of the weather, my misfortune in packing half my weight on my back, and the fact that I was alone, about halfway up this climb I contemplated bailing. The thing that was alien about this bail contemplation was that it had nothing to do with physical ability, it was all to do with safety. Stone Spring Mountain climb is made more intimidating by the fact that you will be touching and even crossing the West Virginia border in spots. I came to a pretty healthy creek with no good way to cross. I begin to step from rock to rock, careful as I go to not get wet this early I stop right in the middle, and ponder turning around once more. Time slowed as I weighed the pros and cons of this decision. I press on, and make it without a drop of water in my shoes. I ride a little farther down to the next creek, and then turn around.
Just as I turn around, off in the cold distance, 2 riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl. One on a loaded Ibis HD4 and another on a less loaded Raleigh gravel bike. Travis Jones, doing the trail route on the Ibis makes it across with ease. Ed Bridge, doing the gravel route on the Raleigh goes head on into the somewhat deep creek, gets caught on his pedal, and gets both his feet soaked. Ed don't care. He dumps his shoes out and keeps going. I asked if they would be keeping this pace and suggested we camp together, of which these two characters agreed.
We ascended up Stone Spring and reached the ridge by midday. Towards the middle of the ridge there is a large clearing up on a plateau that the trail leads to. We heard dirt bikes idling in the distance. Suddenly, they sped off past us from the top of the plateau. Feeling less entrenched in the backwoods, yet still unsure of what we would find at the top we pressed on.
A group of friendly Jeep enthusiasts who hadn't kitted out their machines to merely park them at the mall were what we found. Satisfied just to rest for a while we chatted, then all too soon made our way down the path again. It was quite a shame the temperature was so low on the ridge, because there are many good places to camp, and even a metal pipe spring coming out of the wall of rock. (keep your eyes on the right as you go down towards Reddish Knob)
I'd rate this trail a 2 out of 10
This 2 is gonna become a 10 real quick if we don't get off this rock
The Jeeps eventually caught up, just as it began to snow. Me, Ed and Travis said goodbye to them, looked at each other and knew. We had to move. Now. The small descent to the base of Reddish Kob was quite fun for doubletrack. Easy grade rocky technical sections meant that us on the full suspensions finally excelled in both speed and enjoyment. Me and Travis wait at the next junction for Ed. As he comes up, he says "Oh you missed it. Some of the best bike riding of all time back there, I mean people would pay to watch that." He then goes on to tell us a piece of gear he had strapped to his bike had fallen off due to the bumps. "No matter, I'll just shove it down my jacket." (which was much too thin for now)
Cold. Fatigue. Little locational awareness. I felt genuinely anxious, for the first time in a long time. My body tapped its adrenaline reserves, but alas, no drop of survival gasoline could be siphoned. We reach the base of Reddish Knob, snow accumulating, CamelBaks frozen, more climbing. I gave out. My plan had always been to just start and see how far I got in the weekend, so I suppose this was not a drastic deviation, but given my heavy packing woes, this new plan was defeat. As we stood at the junction to the beginning of the Reddish Knob ascent, Virginia on our left arm, West Virginia on our right, I announced, "I'm bailing." I blew down Briery Branch rd 20 miles into Stokesville, where I took refuge at Stokesville Market.
They say that sometimes when you need things most, they appear. Feeling defeated, foolish, I waited at the Stokesville Market. As I walked the aisles I naturally gravitated to the beer section. I scanned up and down, surprised by the quality selection of craft brews, something I would not expect for a shanty, rural market in western Virginia. I look up, and think I'm hallucinating. There it is. The beer I've been looking for since November. The beer who's recipe changes every year. I had already come to terms with the fact that, yes 2017 could have been a great vintage, but I'll never know, because I never found it. Here in my darkest hour, the Stokesville Market had Anchor Christmas Ale.
In a grand irony I sat outside on the bench, arm around my bike, drinking an Anchor Christmas Ale, watching snow fall on April 7.