Here’s the play-by-play of the RockStar Gravel Challenge (250mi/27k ft of climbing from Harrisonburg to Roanoke, VA). that started Saturday, April 22. You can check out my Strava file here: https://www.strava.com/activities/8946580278/segments/3085445706833854480
Before the start
Monica Desjardins and I each drove on Friday to Virginia so we could shuttle ourselves between Harrisonburg and Roanoke on our own schedule (vs. taking the shuttle). We dropped my truck off in Roanoke and ordered Longhorn to go for dinner once we got to Harrisonburg. That way we could make final packing decisions in the comfort of our hotel room.
Saturday morning’s wake up call was 5:30 a.m. so we could drop Monica’s car off and ride to the start by 6:15 a.m. Unfortunately Black Sheep Coffee was slammed with fellow Grand Depart riders so the biscuits we preordered and paid for were not ready by 7 a.m. Oh well, we rolled anyway and would have to figure out something else for breakfast (because our hotel didnt have breakfast until after 6 a.m.).
The grand depart
I ate a pack of peanut butter crackers as we rolled out. Besides an empty stomach, I also had a gigantic headache that made me feel a little nauseated. So I was a little quiet at the start, even though we ran into a couple friends before the depart and while riding.
I did manage a smile and tons of hope as one rider quoted one of my fav AC/DC songs to me, “remember, it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll”…I actually get this song in my head a lot while climbing on the bike. And we had A TON of climbing ahead of us.
After telling Monica, “nothing like trying to nurse yourself back to health at the start of the ride” we saw a couple tandem riders, one even had a trailer! Nothing more inspiring than seeing a tandem on a big ride, and one rider helped me smile again with their “it’s tandemonium!” while we cheered them on.
We had no plans of stopping at the gas station 14 miles in, but Monica had to pee and I’m fine not turning down a toilet. Plus, my headache was so bad that I bought some NSAIDs to take, which meant I was really desperate to feel better.
At this point I couldn’t quite decide if it was severe allergies or potential illness. I felt so warm I was a bit worried I had a low grade fever. Was definitely hoping it was allergies given what I was about to do the next 2 days.
Bonus: this gas station had biscuits so we each bought one so we could eat breakfast at the top of Reddish Knob at mile 35 (which meant 12-17 miles of climbing from the bottom of Union Springs).
Day 1 continues
As predicted, it started raining as we started climbing. The temperatures were nice at this point, but it was important not to get too wet this early in the ride. Temps were predicted to get into the 30s at night so you don’t want to be wet when it’s dark and cold. But since it was pretty warm, you also don’t want to get too wet from sweating. And rain gear is HOT.
This was the beginning of the ride of a thousand wardrobe changes. MY LEAST FAVORITE THING. I got so sick of taking things off and putting them back on, packing and repacking them. Oh and of course I didn’t notice one of my (newly replaced) Handup Gloves gloves fell out of my pocket (glad I had 2 spare pairs since it was supposed to rain).
Ultimately the Union Springs to Reddish Knob climbing was pretty tame for us. It was motivating to pass several riders who had to walk when it got steep.
And the downhill in this part of the course got spicy (my fav!). It was wet, muddy in places and pretty rocky in some parts. We caught a group of 3 guys who were walking their bikes down a rocky section, but they were nice to move over when we said, “riders back”. It got rough enough that my rear blinkie light jumped ship. So were barely into this ride and I’ve lost a glove and now my blinkie. GREAT.
We finally found some hike-a-bike in this section, too. And the rain came down hard enough that it was time to put our rain pants on. We eventually heard thunder as we were approaching an opening at the top of some hike-a-bike. I looked back and 2 guys walked back down to “get some cover” but we quickly pushed on so we could get Reddish done and get back down a couple thousand feet.
Reddish was the highest part of the route at 4,400 ft. The storms made for foggy views, but they were still pretty. (I do think the view from Buck Bald in Tennessee is a little more scenic though.) We kept our visit short since it was chilly, wet and windy up there.
Time for the long, descent to the Mountain View Store. This store is on the Shenandoah Mountain 100 course so it was a familiar sight. We loaded up on fluids and food, wiped/lubed our chains and headed up the next climb (serious the climbs just keep coming) to Confederate Breastworks so we could take on the singletrack section. This was a paved climb and felt pretty easy so that was a nice surprise as well.
The singletrack was definitely backcountry trail. The leaves were deep with tons of rocks and debris underneath. A majority of it was rideable though so that was good. There was a stretch of rough double track with deep grassy patches. I tried to ride over a small, wet log while riding downhill but it took me down when my tire/wheel slid on it instead. 65 miles in and already a bloody, bruised elbow and traumatized fingers thanks to my brake levers. Was glad my Shakedry jacket didn’t rip though (but the arm warmer underneath did)!
Picked myself up and tried to catch back up to Monica so we could hit some more singletrack before what would end up being my fav. section of the course.
We had another smaller climb at mile 80 but then it was what felt like a super flattish (compared to what we’d been riding) rolling section with tons of turns…and many puddles! Had to be careful not to take the wrong line since they were at the bottom of every fast downhill. It was getting closer to dark so we tried to take this section as quickly as possible before having to use our lights.
It was dark by the time we got the Woodland Union Church at mile 107. We refilled our bottles and it was getting pretty chilly at this point. We saw another rider at the church who also commented how cool it was getting. We decided we should push until at least the turn for the Douthat State Park at mile 120 and decide if we should rest there. The showers/bathrooms would at least be warm.
I’ve learned that I love riding in the dark. My vision is surprisingly good and I feel incredibly relaxed, even without my lights on full brightness. BUT I do get pretty sleepy when I keep my lights low and it gets past midnight. It sort of feels like being rocked to sleep in a way.
We stopped at the state park so we could dry out, close our eyes and get dressed for the cold temps that would remain well into the morning light.
There was already a rider at the park bathhouse sleeping in one of the numerous shower rooms. Monica and I each found some space and I set my alarm for 3:30 (it was almost 1 a.m. at this point). We were both up before that alarm, and I told Monica if she was ready to roll before me, she should ride on.
I was pretty comfy and warm in my SOL bivy and had a tough time wanting to get ready. Monica was ready to roll by 4 a.m. and told me the bathroom was really warm so I transitioned there to get ready and told her I’d try to catch up later.
Day 2 begins
Around 4:50a.m. I was ready to roll from Douthat. I added another layer to my wardrobe under my rain gear which was enough to keep me warm in the 30 degree temps. We had a climb after getting back on course so didn’t want to get too sweaty with too much clothing. I ate a bag of cheeze-its, 2 oreos and a 5hr energy before leaving the toasty bathroom. I was running low on food I wanted to eat so was looking forward to a resupply in the next 20 miles (with 2 more big climbs along the way).
I really enjoyed this section from Douthat to Covington. The first climb was tame (and the descent was fast)…but there was one more climb before the last descent to Covington, and this was the first time things felt difficult for me. I had to stop once so I could make myself eat more food. But I got a message from Monica that she was at Hardee’s at mile 140 so I pushed as quickly as possible to meet her.
The warm breakfast was a delight and everyone was so friendly (and curious!). We looked odd but tried to act as normal as possible haha. Day 2 was about to truly begin. I put a fresh AXS battery in my derailleur (even though it wasn’t dead) and loaded up my bike with more Hardee’s food and Monica and I rolled toward yet again, another climb.
I was grateful it was paved but the climb out of Covington was very difficult (especially after breakfast). And we needed to change clothes again since it got warm while climbing (but then the descent would be cold).
The second part of the course looks easier on paper, but that’s not necessarily the case. The paved sections give you the illusion that it’s going to be quick but we were soon welcomed with steep rolling gravel sections that had a ton of chunky gravel AND creek crossings. At this point our butts were getting cranky so we ended up standing up the steep punchy uphills quite often.
We had 2 more climbs ahead (at mile 182 and then mile 193), and the first was a twisty paved climb. My ankle injury from fall was starting to get really cranky here and I had to take my first step off the bike (plus I needed to roll down my knee warmers). I did not enjoy this climb and was already dreading the next one (which was in less than 10miles). It was getting difficult to ignore the pain in my ankle but kept pushing.
The next climb was 3miles of gravel and any other day, I’d call it pretty easy…just a few steep pitches. But today I walked several spots that were steep because it felt better to my ankle to walk vs. mash the pedals. I even laid down once so I could put my legs up on a tree to see if that may help (it didn’t!). BLERG.
At this point the descents were starting to get tricky, too, because I kept wanting to put my weight on my right leg/foot vs. my left (the injured one). So I was climbing slow and descending slow…double whammy!
I was hoping the next stretch to the store at mile 206 would offer some relief…but NOPE. It was one of those “death by 1,000 cuts” sections that had tons of short but steep/punchy rough gravel climbs after fast but chunky/twisty downhills.
The hits just kept on coming for my ankle, and this is when I started feeling a little bit of movement in the joint on top of the pain. I usually only feel this movement when a doctor/PT/coach is evaluating/forcing it.
It was time for my brain to start scanning the facts and consider alternatives to my initial plan. I still had 2 significant climbing sections left, with one being the more remote Carvin’s Cove.
Would it be smart to put myself on that section and risk developing pain while walking, too?
It was getting dark and would I risk potentially rolling my ankle again if I did have to walk any rocky sections (gravel shoes aren’t designed for walking lol)? It was tough to say for certainty what would happen. And Monica and I technically only had each other to rely on. We were each riding unsupported and didn’t have someone we knew close by ready to come get us if something went wrong.
So for me, that means taking more personal responsibility than if Spencer or someone else was nearby. I made it to the Catawba Store at mile 206 just off a main highway that was a 15 minute drive to Roanoke. So this was my best chance to get shuttled back to Roanoke (or worst case, slowly ride my way directly to a hotel there on the road).
Luckily, there happened to be a shuttle driver with a group of AT hikers he was driving to the trail. He said he was available for hire after he dropped off this group. So that was one option. I also posted on the RockStar Facebook event to see if I could pay someone to come get me.
The universe validated my decision with several people volunteering to come pick me up. A gentleman named Peter was waiting on his son to finish the trail version of RockStar so was happy to kill time. Peter and his son Peter Jr. are from Florida and have done Tour Divide together. They were even at Huracan in February and his son did Trans North Georgia the same year Monica and I did.
Bikepacking reminds me how small the world is, even when you feel so small out on such a big course!
I got to see both Peters at the finish because Monica finished shortly after Peter Jr. so got to catch up while waiting at the Texas Tavern finish. Monica’s report of the rest of the course was comforted my decision to pull the plug…it wasn’t a walk in the park at all.
Could I have finished? Of course I could have limped my way through it! But balancing still wanting to do big things and healing from a big injury (that happened last fall!) also takes patience, compromise and dedication to safety, I suppose. At least that’s how I’m deciding to look at it.
Plus, I still have plenty of races and events I want to take on before the end of the year (and my next appointment with the ortho in June!).
So that’s my almost a RockStar journey. I’m super happy for Monica for finishing. She looked SO strong! Will I be back? You know, I just might! This course is wild and beautiful and something about it…so we’ll see if I can squeeze this one in again one day!
Highly recommend it (and my Trek Checkpoint with SRAM AXS 1x was the perfect rig for it, although I suppose I could have put a smaller chainring on for all the climbing lol).
Do know that it doesn’t have to be done the way we did it. There were plenty of folks who split this up into more days and camped/relaxed much more than we did. That’s the best part about bikepacking events like this one. You can finish when/how you want and go the pace that’s right for you. Cheers!