I’ve been interested in bikepacking (backpacking on a bike) for the last several years. More specifically, I have been attracted to bikepack racing, a multi-day, timed, unsupported, ultraendurance race across long distances. Like many, I got intrigued with Mike Dion’s documentary Ride the Divide which follows a group of riders as they race the Tour Divide, from Banff, Canada to the Mexican border, 2700+ miles. This race follows the Great Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) established by the Adventure Cycling Association and is a solo, unsupported race.
Recently, I targeted the Allegheny Mountains Loop (AML)400 as a good entry into this type of long-distance racing. It’s a 400 mile loop, leaving from Blacksburg, VA and heading up and back along the WVa/Va border (clockwise). Chris Tompkins organizes a grand depart (everyone leaves at the same time) but folks can ride the loop at any time as an individual time trial (ITT–the GPS trackers most racers bring help verify timing and course compliance). More info: AML FB | AML Blog
I could not do the race last year and this year it fell on the parents weekend for my daughter’s college. I mentioned that I was doing the AML 400 over the Labor Day weekend to Matt Lee and he sounded interested in doing it together (I’ve gotten to know Matt over the last several months through a beginners MTB ride I lead where he rides with his son). He’s been itching to try some more bikepacking since having kids and the launching of his new company (Trackleaders). ML is a bit of a legend in the bikepacking scene, having won the Tour Divide five times and plays a prominent role in the Ride the Divide movie. To say that I, a first time bikepacker, was a little intimidated to be riding with ML would have been a understatement.
Since the AML 400 consists of gravel forest roads (65 miles), gravel rail-trail (78 miles), grass-covered abandoned rail-trail (22 miles), and paved roads (235 miles), suspension is not very important. In fact, some of the fastest times have been done on cyclocross bikes. I saddled up a Niner EMD with rigid Niner fork.
I ran the following equipment:
- Velocity Blunt 35 rims, Hope hubs, WTB Nano 2.1 tires @ ~30 psi
- 2 x 10 (26/39 x 11/40); 40t in the rear made possible with Hope T-Rex ring
- XT brakes
- Flat handlebar with Fred bar added for mounting aero bars.
- Revelate Ranger and Terrapin bags + JPac Snak Pak + two Revelate feed bags
My complete gear list can be found here. To the seasoned bikepacking eye, you will find extreme lightness in the sleeping/shelter department. Originally the list included a tent, air mattress, and sleeping bag. But after talking to ML, it appeared the strategy was to go superlight, not really camping but “taking catnaps along the way”, whatever that meant. He did not bring anything for sleeping. I could not go that far and at least brought a bivy sack.
I’ve been able to work my AML training into my Ironman training (Oct race), using the long rides as the common prep. A 140 mile ride on rolling terrain (Greensboro and back) and a 90 mile day in Pisgah with 10k of climbing, both with a 50 lb bike, were my final training rides. Prior to that, lots of tempo work and long (65-85 mi) endurance rides were the mainstay. The running and swimming probably helped some with overall fitness.
We got a late start to Blacksburg and made it there around 11:30, g0t the bikes into the room, made some last minute adjustments and got to sleep round 2 am. We were up at 5:30 and got to the start for a 6:45 departure. The weather was nice, cloudy, temps in the 60s rising into the 70s. The terrain was rolling for the first 30 miles. The first serious climb came around mile 35 heading over to Waiteville. A bigger climb took us over Peters Mountain on Limestone Hill Road heading from Waiteville to Gap Mills. In Gap Mills, we stopped at the cheese shop for a snack and water.
After Gap Mills, some more climbing and then a nice descent into Caldwell (~80 mi) for a stop at the Subway. Next up was the Greenbrier River Trail, an 80 mi, slowly ascending fine-gravel rail trail. You can make some significant time on this trail. It’s beautiful but after a while, it begins to be a little mind (and butt) numbing: no change of cadence, gears or speed for miles on end. To break up the monotony, there were these cool hand pumps along the way to get water.We tried to make a quick stop at Jack Horner’s (~125 mi) but the service was slow and it took longer than we wanted. We made another stop to top up water, put on lights, and get the last food for a while in Marlinton (~138 mi). The river trail ended in Cass. We stopped briefly there for water (Note: there is a water fountain at train depot) and headed into the next big climb from Cass over to Durbin. The initial climb was significant but then a series of rollers and punchy hills added to the challenge. The decent down to Durbin brought us to the West Fork Trail, another rail trail but this one a bit more wild with overgrown sections and some rocky and rutted parts. At this point, it was late into the night and we were getting cold and wet from the thick fog. We considered bivying somewhere along the trail but nothing looked good so we forged on to Glady. We arrived in Glady around 4 am (200 miles, 22 hrs total time) ready for some rest. The only problem is neither of us had much to keep us warm. I put what few clothes I had and got into the bivy sack and ML wandered off to look for shelter.
I got a little rest but mostly shivered till about a 6. Got up but could not find ML. The bike was still there but no Matt. After extensive searching and convincing myself that he had not been hauled off by meth-crazed locals, I saw a metal storage shed. Sure enough, he was in there, wrapped in a table-cloth. He announced that was one of the worst nights of sleep he had ever had. For a guy who has slept in ditches, under trees, and in bathrooms, that said something. Given his lack of training (longest ride was 2.5h in the last two years) and me being a total noob at this, there was short-lived discussion of a possible bail but since a) we were 200 miles away from Blacksburg and it was unlikely Uber was running out of Glady and b) we might as well finish the loop so we could say we’d done the AML, we packed up to hit the next section. With new resolve, our next move was to find water (the hydrant at the church shelter was padlocked! Dang!). We found some campers who were happy to give us some water (looking the way we looked, people take pity on you).
The second half of the AML is challenging for two reasons: 1) significant climbing with some very steep sections and 2) very few re-supply points. For re-supply, there are the following:
- 25 miles (from Glady): Trents General Store (2.5 mi off route)
- 89 miles: Lake Moomaw Marina
- 118 miles: Marathon Gas Station
- 145 miles: Paint Bank General Store and Restaurant
Between the contemplation of options and the search for water, we didn’t get out of Glady till 7:15. The ride through Laurel Fork Wilderness was beautiful, with good climbs, fast descents and interesting plants..
Since we didn’t have that much food, it became apparent we were going to need to go off-route to get more calories (Trents). After our detour, we made the long climb up Hwy 250. Whew! Then a nice descent, followed by some rollers which brought us the base of the Ridge Alternate. The Alternate is a bit of sucker punch if you haven’t read the course carefully. You climb a steep paved section and then take a left onto a gravel road. The uninitiated will think the climb is over but the best is still to come! The challenge for this climb is a) gravel is much harder to climb up with steep sections and b) there were very few switchbacks; you’d turn a corner and BOOM, there was a straight section going way up, making it mentally challenging.I had to dig deep to stay focused and not get off and walk the bike, which was very tempting. For a guy coming off the couch, ML was a climbing machine. Reaching the top did not give the usual recovery-friendly descent: the backside was a series of rollers along the ridge that eventually got to the descent off the ridge.
We made it down to Mountain Grove as the sun was setting, wondering if we could make it to the Marathon gas station before it closed (10p). We decided to make a run for Lake Moomaw and reassess there. We dropped the hammer on a relatively flat, lonely stretch (CR 600) in the dark. We got to the Mooomaw Marina around 930p and decided (mostly me!) that the body needed a rest and it was unlikely we’d make it to the gas station before it closed. The marina was closed, the drink machine out of order, but we found a guy who gave us a bag of chocolate-covered doughnuts (nasty but high-calorie!). I got into my bivy while ML contemplated sleeping options. I got about 5 hours of sleep before the shiver-fest started (In hindsight, I should have just gotten up at 4a and started riding again. Laying their shivering was not very restful).
I got up at first light to find ML under a picnic table, wrapped in a sheet of shrink wrap plastic, sleeping on the door mat he had borrowed from the marina. Quite a resourceful guy! We ate the last of our food and headed off to the gas station near I-64 for some refueling. I was surprised how strong my legs felt, given the abuse they had received. It was also interesting how the knee pain I had the first day and nursed the second day through the climbs, was virtually gone. I wasn’t fresh but not toast. like I expected after 290 miles (my rear end, however was another story. No amount of A&D ointment was getting me past those saddle sores!). The next section had some nice forest road with some of the straight-up, no-joke climbing. A nice long descent on pavement brought us into Paint Bank where we took full advantage of the general store and restaurant. Paint Bank to Waiteville was a flat, straight ride. I got down in the aerobars and dropped the hammer (it wasn’t a very big hammer) for nice ride into Waiteville. There you re-join the route until the Mountain Lake Cutoff, the last big climb of the route. It was a beast but rideable if you had the right gearing and stayed mentally focused. We took a breather at the top before heading through a series of rollers to the final descent.
The cut-off descent was fabulous. A wide sweeping paved road carved down the mountain through dense forest, breaking out occasionally for a spectacular view. From there, it was a series of rollers with a few punchy climbs on the way back into town. We could smell the stable! Back in town, we were greeted to Hokie-mania, as Va Tech was taking on Ohio State, who only lost one game last year to guess who. We did manage to find someone to take a couple of pics. We knew getting a hotel that night was impossible so after a large plate of pasta, some beer, and some black coffee, we headed back to Chapel Hill.
Final numbers (for me):
- Total time: 2 days, 12 hours, 40 minutes (a little slower than the average finish time)
- Total Distance: 407 miles
- Climbing: 25k to 30k (depending on GPS calculations and corrections)
- Sleep: 9h (~5h quality sleep)
- Caffeine: ~600 mg
What I learned:
- The body has an amazing capacity to put out effort over long periods of time with little rest (not sure I could have done three more days at that pace but there was a feeling of getting stronger with each day).
- A vest/arm warmer combo is the best for wide swings of thermal regulation.
- The hard ground feels so good after 280 miles of riding.
- Saddle sores are very annoying and painful.
- I’m not sure I would have brought a sleeping bag unless I had an ultralight bag (~1lb). A down jacket may have been enough with the bivy sack.
- Don’t lose sight of the beauty of nature on a ride like this.