2019 Rockstar VA: Back At It
Although only in its second year, Rob Issem’s Rockstar VA events have quickly reached epic-status in the world of long-distance adventures for mountain bike, gravel and road cyclists. All flavors of the event start in the Rocktown of Harrisonburg, VA and wind their way through the George Washington National Forest towards the Start City of Roanoke, VA. I fared pretty well at the inaugural event last year despite the late-season snow and cold weather; I thanked the high attrition rate for improving my overall success. For 2019 the route remained more or less the same, however the start was pushed back a week to lessen the chance of a lingering snow storm. Turns out they tried, but couldn’t avoid all the weather challenges…
Actually my race started with Day -1 like it did last year: me driving a car down to Roanoke and taking the shuttle back to Harrisonburg the night before. In this way I’d have a dry car and clean pair of clothes waiting at the finish line, before staring my long drive back to Northern Virginia. This year I was fortunate to stay at Mike Chavarria’s new house in Harrisonburg, on a couch that was more comfortable than my own bed. While we did get a bit of rain overnight, the forecast called for sunny skies the first day and no snow. Day -1: winning.
The “Grand Depart” once again left from Black Sheep Coffee in Harrisonburg at 0700. This year I noted more riders than last year across all events, including several regional big hitters , Charlie Snyder who was going for the one-day gravel pull record (spoiler: he made it), and a host of familiar faces from the local cycling community.
At 0700 sharp we rolled out for a neutral start—avoiding last year’s mess in Hillendale park because the trails were too wet. The mass start created a different dynamic, and the groups stayed together slightly longer than expected—with the stronger gravel riders pushing the pace at the front.
Things slowly spread out as we wound our way up Flagpole Knob, towards Reddish Knob. Although the sun was out, the trails were wet and stream crossings deep.
I tried to stay with trail legend Michael Scales on the opening climbs, but his single-speed gearing was too tall for me to keep up with and I watched him slowly ride away. Joe Wharton, another 2018-returnee also was riding strong and I tried to find my own pace as we climbed the nearly 2500’ to the top of Reddish Knob, arriving just before lunchtime.
I caught back up to Joe at the summit, and jumped at the chance to chase down Michael who I knew was just minutes ahead. The Timber Ridge and Wolf Descents can be wild and rowdy, especially on a 45-pound bike, and as planned I caught up with Michael just as we crossed the stream at Tillman Road. Michael and I headed up and over Narrowback, down Tillman West, and back up Lookout Mountain together, before I once again watched him ride away on his larger-than-my-legs-could-push single gear. Still a lot of daylight, no worries for me. Before we split we briefly chatted about lunchtime—I opted to hit the Country Market in West Augusta for some food whereas Michael felt he had enough onboard and would press uphill. Sure enough, just as I crested Hankey Mountain and dropped Dowell’s Draft, Sam Skidmore was coming up hill and said Michael was just headed up the mountain again towards Brayley’s Pond. I really wanted a cheeseburger and pressed with my plan to the store.
When I got to West Augusta I found a tired Chris Blakenship, who had some navigational issues and light bonk—but he too bought a cheeseburger to lift his spirits and was feeling on the mend. I grabbed some quick refreshments and in a few minutes the two of us were slowly climbing Braley’s Point together, then up and over to Bridge Hollow with Chris charging the lead.
At the bottom of Bridge Hollow we found Michael refilling his water—he had taken a diversion and was just headed back on trail. Now a group of three, we rolled up towards the Shenandoah Mountain Trail together—Micheal stomping the lead and me trying to bring up the rear. As we reached Confederate Breastworks just a after 6:00 pm I couldn’t help think about being in the same spot last year, in the snow, only two hours in the day later. More daylight meant it could be a long night. Just as we were about to take off we heard a racket coming behind us; Sam Koerber shot out of the woods like a man on a mission. Traveling light, and missing the grand depart due to navigational issues, he had been charging all day and wasn’t about to slow down. He led us across the road and up the SMT towards Southern Traverse—again with Michael smashing the single speed.
Last year the SMT cold, snowy and dark for me, and I made mental remarks about how much more fun it was in the dry and light. I couldn’t help but stop and take a photo at the campsite that Joe Knetchel and I shared that 14-degree night last year.
This year at the campsite I found Michael instead—his single speed buzz was wearing off and he had to let Chris go on ahead, with Sam still charging. Still having more than an hour of daylight we pressed on with a goal of making it to the end of the SMT before evaluating our night. Michael settled into his own pace, and I enjoyed the snow-free southern traverse much more than last year!
I dropped into Scotchtown Draft I caught sight of Chris off the side of the trail in his bivvy. The next section down to Fort Lewis was notoriously difficult to navigate, and it didn’t take much to convince me to call it an night, just around 11:00 pm. About an hour later we heard Joe come flying by—he reported Michael was done for the night and in his bivvy further up the mountain, but that he was going to push for a few more hours that night. I did my best to stay warm in my survival bivvy, having been convinced to go “light” without a sleeping bag this year. Let’s just say I’ve had better nights sleep.
Day 1: Harrisonburg to Scotchtown Draft. 99 miles, 16 hours.
Chris and I were lounging in our bags around 6:30 am when we heard a bike approaching, and Laura Hamm came down the trail towards our camp. She had also camped up on the ridge, but got an early start and was ready to go bushwack the last section with some company. She saw Micheal still asleep on the trail with no sign of waking—we decided three was better than one, and to give the overgrown section of trail a shot. I ate my left-over cheeseburger from North Augusta and we set off downhill again. Turns out a little trail maintenance goes a long way, and the “awful” section from last year wasn’t quite as bad—although there were still a few creative trail choices. We rode as a group down through the valley on rolling roads—I was a bit tired from the long day before and lagged at the back of the group. At Little Mare we all crossed paths again, and headed up the long grind. By this time the clouds had moved back in, and it was beginning to drizzle. Forecast said 100% chance of rain by afternoon.
I rolled solo over the top of Little Mare, and headed south in the drizzle towards Ingalls Airport assuming Chris and Laura were ahead of me. To my surprise, they had taken a quick stop at Trapper’s Cabin, and soon joined me up and over Bald Knob in the clouds.
Chris and I flew down the Salt Stump descent and pulled into Douthat State Park in heavy rain. We were soaked. To add insult to injury, the camp restaurant was closed (no more cheeseburgers for us) and the lady at the camp store said heavy rain, wind and tornado warnings for the afternoon. Once again, Clifton Forge was trying to kill me. Or at least severely curtail my journey. We weighed our options, and in the end decided to make a wet push to Covington. There were several bail-out opportunities on Fore Mountain if things really got bad, and we could always crash in a cheap motel for the night. Hoping that Michael was grinding away behind us, we left him a note and headed back into the storm.
As expected, Middle Mountain was brush-free (thanks Michael) but wet, as was the climb up Fore Mountain. Fortunately, it was more than 70 degree so cold was not an issue—more of an issue of not overheating with your rain gear on. I tried some alternate approaches to stay cool in the rain.
The weather alternated between driving rain, warm breeze, and patchy sun as we pushed up the muddy jeep trail to the ironically-named Dry Creek. I wasn’t feeling the pace that Chris and Laura were pushing, and did most of the climb solo. Dry Creek was more fun than last year’s 6” of snow, but still challenging in the rain. I felt like I was moving at a snail’s pace, and was sure the others would be well away when I got down. To my surprise, I caught them both just at the end of Peter’s Ridge, before the last section of the night just as the sun went down. We rolled into Covington together with some decisions to make.
At this point the rain had stopped, and there was a warm breeze from the east. My clothes I was wearing had dried, but others packed were soaked. It was not clear from the forecast what would happen overnight. For a minute we contemplated pushing on towards Roaring Run, but in the end chose to call it a night at my favorite one-star establishment in Covington—if nothing else to use the laundry to rinse and dry our soggy clothes. Micheal was still on the ridge above us, and we hoped to see him soon. But around 11:00 pm the sound of rain and wind awoke us, and the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees. Good call on the hotel. Then Michael called—he was holed up a few miles out, trying to stay warm in his bivvy. He’d see how the night went.
Day 2: Fort Lewis to Covington. 65 miles. 14 hours.
Around 5:30 am there was a knock at the door, and there stood a freezing soaked Michael. Not able to sleep more than a few hours he had set out early and was ready for a nap. We dressed quickly and let him take one of the beds for a few hours dry sleep. The long road climb to Rice Patch and over to Roaring Run is a nice warm up for tired legs. Once again I let Chris and Laura pull away to not go too deep. Roaring Run was as fun as I remembered but the stream crossings at the end did get a bit old..at least the temps had warmed up into the 50’s so my feet weren’t too cold. I had a good lunch on the transfer down to Price Mountain, and wondered how far behind Chris and Laura I was. Joe was likely somewhere ahead as well, but we hadn’t seen any updates for a while.
Price Mountain was about as expected—hard, wild and steep. To my surprise, Chris and Lauren caught me about 1/2 way up as I was grinding along. Turns out they took a short diversion at the trailhead and were back on track. Chris was riding strong, and that would be the last time I’d see him for the day. I caught up to Laura on the screaming road descent towards Lee’s creek and tried to save my energy for the monster of a segment called North Mountain.
This year I was a bit smarter about riding up Stone Coal Gap, and elected to eat dinner before the push uphill. Laura went on ahead and I found my own pace. I was feeling pretty good up to the ridge but grew more and more tired as I traversed the undulating ridgeline. Last year it took me 4 hours to traverse from the north parking lot to Catawba; this year I tried to keep an eye on the clock and made it in 3:45.
The sun set just as I was about to descend, and once again I showed up at the Catawaba market just around 9:00 pm with lights on. Laura was there also enjoying some trail magic and a light dinner, and we had a big decision to make: camp or push on? I didn't want to entertain any other option: I wanted to be done. Laura agreed to give it a shot—I’d navigate if she was nice and didn’t drop me too bad on the climbs. We could see Roanoke in the distance…it couldn’t be that far, right?
Once again, I forgot how much more of the course there was. The strong tailwinds made the trip to Carvin’s Cove short work, but my legs were not happy going up and over the mountain. Laura was climbing strong, and was gracious enough to wait up for me before rolling back towards Roanoke. It was just around midnight as we rolled through the streets of Salem towards downtown, first having to circumnavgate a detour due to high water on the bike path. I struggled to read my tiny Garmin, but finally got us on track just in time to run into Lauren Cantwell, who just happened to be out on a MTB with her dogs at 2:00 am…wearing a Unicorn costume. Party on!
Lauren and Laura dragged my sorry behind up to the Roanoke Star, then back around to the Roanoke Texas Tavern, where Tommy Hamm and a few others were cheering our final arrival. It was just at the strike of 3:00 am. I laid down on the pavement and breathed a slight of relief.
Day 3: Covington to Roanoke. 110 miles. 19 Hours.
Final official unofficial time: 2 days, 20 hours.
In the end, my 2019 time was just over 23 hours faster than 2018. I’ll give the lack of snow credit for most of that, but also the fast company I enjoyed this year. This year my time was good enough for 2nd place.
Chris went on to have an incredible ride. He wanted the Rockstar to be won by a Roanoke local, and with a huge effort after North Mountain he caught and passed Joe to finish a few hours ahead of Laura and me. Unfortunately, his navigational mistakes on the first day meant he missed three segments of trail—Wolf, Narrowback, and Tillman West, and he was therefore relegated to “Trail Route Thru-Ride Divergenent (completed more than 95% of the route but missed 1 or more sections)”.
Joe would be awarded with a first place finish, and new course record at 2 days, 19 hours and 21 minutes.
Laura finished in the same time as me, which was not only the course record but the first women to have completed the entire course.
Sam took an enormous pull from Harrisonburg to Douthat the first night, and then a wet pull to Covington the second day before pulling the plug due to other issues related to weather and logistics.
In a related effort, Charlie competed the entire gravel ride in a single pull—24 hours to go 255 miles.
Finally, Michael pushed on after spending part of another cold night on top of North Mountain, and became the first person to complete the Rockstar route on a Single Speed.
Here’s to all the others who took the Rockstar challenge, especially to those who might still be out on the route!
Huge thanks to so many people who made this weekend possible:
Phil and the gang at Haymarket bike for fixing my stuff when it breaks
Greg at Rockgeist for more awesome custom bags
Mike for again helping me sleep the night before the race
Chris and Laura for the miles of company, even when it was miserable
Rob for dreaming up this crazy event
Last and not least, my dear wife for letting me do these crazy adventures