I first heard of the Rockstar Challenge a couple months back. A fall bicycle tour was in order, and after one too many rides on the C&O Canal Towpath it seemed a new route was called for. My good friend and touring partner Lee Cumberland was finishing prep for the Shenandoah 100 mountain bike race and caught wind of the Rockstar ride from others in that circle.
A brief history: the Rockstar Challenge began as a trail ride catering to the hardcore mountain biking enthusiasts of the Shenandoah and Roanoke Valleys in western Virginia. It’s part bikepacking route, part all-out race that ties together some of the more challenging MTB trails in the area as it cuts a path from Harrisonburg, once known as Rocktown, to Roanoke, ending at the Mill Mountain Star. Rocktown to the star - Rockstar. You get it.
The mountain bike trail is notoriously grueling, and in the years since it was first mapped both gravel and road options have been routed. I long ago decided mountain biking wasn’t for me, but I figured it was time I give the gravel life a go. The gravel route sounded like a good opportunity to form a proper opinion on the fad that has swept the industry over the past few years. It was also a great chance to push the capabilities of the new Pass Hunter frameset as a lightly-loaded touring steed.
I swapped out the 700c wheels and 32 mm tires I had on the Pass Hunter for a set of 650b Shimano GRX wheels with 47 mm tires. I outfitted the bike with a couple of bags from our friends at Roadrunner. I went with the Jumbo Jammer and Fred Saddle Bag, two styles not offered as part of our VO luggage line. I packed in my camping hammock and quilts, a change of clothes, enough food to last a day or so, and water. We also brought a Sawyer filter to pull fresh water from the mountain streams we’d cross. The route does a good job of meeting up with towns and services when possible, but it is largely a backcountry ride with limited access and poor cell phone service. With proper planning of distance and timing, you could probably get away with relying on restock points along the way.
As a disclaimer, due to time limitations the intention was never to ride the entire route. We cut off the first 50 miles or so by staging at the Stokesville Campground with plans to pick up the gravel route nearby. We’d discover that even the time we had allotted would end up being not quite enough.
The first day began with about 10 miles of gentle climbing on paved roads in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains before reaching the first gravel road of the day. From there on, it was mostly fire roads and access roads leading to electrical towers. East coast mountains aren’t the towering behemoths of the western US. The climbs tend to be shorter but much steeper. And here the steep climbs on shaky gravel roads became both a physical and mental challenge. The first major climb traversed a bombed-out doubletrack before forking off on an overgrown road following a mountain ridge. The waist-high grass hid the obstacles below, including a large branch that caused my first (and thankfully only) wreck of the trip. With the initial bruises out of the way the next curve ball arrived: a dead-end.
The route said go forward, but there was nowhere to go but densely overgrown woods. With no desire to backtrack we forged ahead, eventually bushwhacking our way to the yellow blaze marking a singletrack mountain bike trail. So much for the gravel ride. Needless to say, there was more hiking and less biking at this point. The day was already growing long and not much ground had been made up.
The trail eventually gave way to another gravel road making its way down the mountainside. At the bottom it was time to go up again. Did I mention that this route packs 27,000 feet of climbing into 260 or so miles? Luckily the trails were a bit more “gravel” than “mountain” from that point on. The rhythm of the ride became apparent at this point as the rest of the day followed a similar pattern of climbing to the ridge, dropping into the valley, and then climbing back out, crisscrossing from the eastern to western faces of the mountainsides. The day ended at the top of one such ridge with camp being set up in the nearest clear patch of woods. We only managed about 40 miles or so of what we had hoped would be at least a 70-mile day.
The second day of the three-day excursion began with an undulating descent out of the mountains to a brief respite on paved roads. The hope was that a gas station or market would materialize for refueling, but the route continued to find us deeper in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, eventually back on gravel and once again climbing up into the mountains (the Sawyer filter was clutch here, allowing us to refill our water bottles from a fresh mountain stream). With supplies dwindling and significantly off-pace to finish the gravel route in three days, we made the decision to jump on the alternate road route around Douthat State Park. This was about 40 miles into the day with a plan to knock out about 40 more before setting up camp.
At a much needed dinner at the Dairy Queen in Clifton Forge, VA, we set our sights a little off route for a campground with running water, bathrooms, and hot food. We called ahead and learned, much to our delight, that the evening would also feature live music and the undisputed number-one recovery drink: beer. The sun was setting and the destination was perhaps a bit ambitious given the added distance, but a couple more hours winding through the mountains in the dark and we made camp. I can confirm the beer was very good.
The third and final day was mostly easy riding on the road. Switching paths to the shorter paved version of the Rockstar Challenge left us with only about 50 miles to cover to reach Roanoke. It was not without a few challenging climbs as we crossed the mountains one last time before descending into the Roanoke Valley and finding ourselves making quick time to the city. Tired from a few long days on the bike, the last few miles were business-like with a singular mission to cap things off with one or two more cold brews and a good meal (which luckily did not require too many extraneous miles to locate).
We never did make it to the Mill Mountain Star--we stumbled upon a brewery before getting that far. With this abbreviated, alternate routing I can’t say I successfully bested the Rockstar Challenge this time around, but I had a taste and perhaps will tackle it again in the future. Gaining this little bit of familiarity will certainly help for preparations for any next attempt.
A solid plan and the best intentions do not always make for smooth riding. This is a fact I should have learned by now, but--surprise--I haven’t. I accept that there will always be a certain level of self-inflicted torture involved with bicycle touring. I think most bicycle tourists have a slightly sadistic streak. That or some philosophy about the impact of suffering on character.