What does it mean to race in a time when we are encouraged to stay apart and stay home. When we skirt around each other in grocery store isles and wearing a mask out in public has become the norm?

For some that means signing up to the online riding/racing world, Zwift. But that is not for me. Don’t get me wrong. Zwift is a great tool. There is something to be said for going hard against other people, virtual or not, which allows you to push just a little bit more than you may be able to in training. It is safer than risking a potential injury in the outside world, which may require you to pay an otherwise unnecessary visit to the hospital (clogging up valuable resources and increasing your risk of exposure). Also, people that live in densely populated areas may not be able to get out much due to over crowing and thus Zwift gives those individuals the opportunity to get in a good workout and escape the monotony of the stationary bike in the basement facing the wall. 

While more and more people have taken refuge in the virtual cycling world I have been reluctant to join. One reason is because I am trying to enjoy this time away from racing and focus on the other joys that bike riding brings me. Another reason I am reluctant to throw my hat in the virtual ring is because I am fortunate enough to be able to ride outside. Barring any severe weather I am able to get out in the fresh air and be far away from people (I live in Winston-Salem, NC).

Part of the reason I love riding my bike is because it takes me outside, into the woods, and puts me in touch/touching nature (it’s more intimate than it isn’t). So until my coach says it would be a good idea to get into a Zwift race for training purposes I think I’ll stick to outside for as long as I can. 

That’s why what I did last week was so awesome. Jeff Brown and Carla Williams in Roanoke, Va, put together the “Roanoke Socially Distanced Stage Race.” A 6-stage STRAVA segment competition aggregating some of the best MTB (2 stages), gravel (2 stages), and road (2 stages) riding the Roanoke area has to offer. It is a virtual race of sorts where the camaraderie is based on the web but the sensations are rooted in reality.

The rules are simple (I say “are” because it is still open for participation), you have to join the Strava group, reg is free (though a donation to the Roanoke Valley United Way Covid Relief Fund for $35 is suggested), you have from May 2-June 1 to complete the stages and upload the files to Strava, your times are put into a master excel sheet and the totals are tallied. The Friday after the deadline for submission the winners are announced. 

More info here: https://roa-stoked.com/stagerace.html

However, this simple idea shot into the arm of an area with a strong cycling community produced some excitement and certainly piqued my curiosity. When the majority of racing calendars are empty for the foreseeable future and goal sheets are collecting cobwebs the race is giving/gave people something to aim for. It’s an excuse to let the reigns go and test ourselves out on some fun trails, tough climbs, and ridge traverses. 

I found out about it as we were visiting a friend for an MTB ride in the surrounding Roanoke area. I was immediately smitten by the idea and it took all of two seconds to convince Emily that it would be fun and we should do it the following week.

After a rain delay due to Tropical Storm Arthur we were off and running. We drove our RV up to the Roanoke area and were looking forward to spending the next 8 days in it, just Emily, Sherman (our beagle, he would say we’re his people…), and I bounding between our friends yard, Jefferson National Forest, and trailhead parking lots. 

The rain forced us to rearrange our initial schedule for how we were going to tackle the stages. We now had to allow the MTB stages time to dry so we set off and tackled the road stages first. 

Stage 6 was a short, south side of town, 14.7 mile rolling loop that climbed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, rolled across some foothills, and ripped back into town. 

Because the loop was so short we pre rode it. I was glad we did because I could take my eyes off the route more frequently and focus on the effort, which in hindsight was a bad idea because this was the first time I had gone wicked hard for 40min or so. With no big climbs it was like a short CX race and I forgot how much those hurt. 

We slept in town that night, in our RV in our friends yard. The next morning we shoveled in breakfast and headed northeast to Troutville to take on Stage 5, the 2nd road day and longest day on the docket, 40.9 miles. 

I should point out that this is done in a tt format. A route is picked and we have to go hard for the whole thing rather than complete the route and just go hard on a few selected segments along the way. 

From the Appalachian Trail Trailhead parking lot we got in a quick warm up then had to trust the GPS route on our Wahoos. We spent the first 17 miles winding along a railroad grade making our way north along  I-81, on route 11. 

Then we cut east and headed 4.5 miles uphill to the Blue Ridge Parkway. That’s when the rollers started to kick and make their presence known, however, the views helped to numb the pain. As the parkway undulated its way south we were treated to ridge line views off to the east and west over looking the James River and Roanoke Valleys.

After a missed turn, which would have been avoided if I’d have read the route description, we dropped off the parkway and were close but not finished by any means as there were a few kickers waiting to land their K.O. blows. 

After a quick dip in the creek off the A.T. we drove 25 miles north up I-81 to Arcadia and nestled into the Jefferson National Forest next to Jennings Creek.

We woke up to rolling waters, soft morning light poking through tree top canopies, and all the smells Sherman could sniff. 

After breakfast we rode from the RV, this time on MTB’s. This will consequently be the last hoo-rah for my older style Hei Hei. (2020 Hei Hei build coming soon).

We did a pre ride loop of 20.5 miles. It ended up being about 2hrs of riding before we sent the hot lap but it was worth it to see some of the descents, tight turns, and know when the climbs were coming, trees down, etc. 

This was my first effort on the MTB since last year’s BC Bike race and I forgot how much fun it is getting pinned in the woods, ripping past trees, feeling knobs grip/ get loose, busting cobwebs. All that can be done just by riding but I think it’s more fun at speed while your pushing.

I nailed the KOM time and promptly took a dip in the creek. The sun had been out and we got our first nudge of summer’s heat and humidity. 

That night we made trout tacos with trout two fishermen gave us that morning. They pulled some rainbow trout out of Jennings Creek, wanted to keep fishing, so asked if we would take some fish to free up some of their catch limit. Thank y’all, whoever you are. 

The next morning we woke up to a nice morning walk before driving Tina (that’s the name we gave our 1991 Tioga Montara RV) up 43, over the Parkway, and down into Monvale. The mission was to conquer both Gravel stages in 1 day because they were both super accessible from the Day Creek parking lot. Logistically, it made sense but our legs would soon protest, ignorant to the rationality of saving gas and time.

We picked the bigger day first, Stage 4 Zimmerman/ Sandy Ford. It climbed a paved rd up to a ridge, traversed, and kicked us right back up to the ridge but on a winding, steep as, gravel rd. We rolled on gravel across the top, dodged a black lab on the Jeters Chaple rd descent down, and busted a Louie onto Jordantown rd. This took us to a gravel rd , which can only be described as a rd gifted to us from the Gravel Gods themselves, Sandy Fort. 

A fast rolling start quickly pitches up into a nice winding climb, ascending next to a quiet creek. One switch back after another leads to views over looking a power line clearing vista and a punchy traverse across the top.

Back at the RV I crammed in some cinnamon raisin sourdough, watermelon, and salt and vinegar potato chips. It felt like my chamois was glued to the camp chair when I went to stand and get moving for stage 3, but I knew once I got moving it wouldn’t be that bad. At least that is what I told myself…

My legs didn’t start to loosen until I was half way up Boblett Gap, a double track gated forest service rd up to the Parkway. The adrenaline pumped as I ripped down the other side and traversed gravel south to the final climb. 

I think I left part of my soul out there on that climb up to the parkway. I had ridden the climb on an MTB ride two weeks prior so I knew what I was getting into but it still rocked my world. Another forest service gated double track with loose baby head rocks. It was more manageable on 2.25 tires and a full suspension but the Super Jake with 40c gravel tires had me wishing I pulled the Hei Hei off the rack for a game time substitution.

I made it over the parkway and had 2miles to descend back to the RV, where Chocolate Clif Recovery and more sourdough awaited. I navigated 3/4 of it really well but let the Super Jake roll a little too fast into a rockier section and heard the dreadful his of a puncture. I had a Stans Dart plug kit but couldn’t see the puncture as I inspected the tire so I lightened up the front end and rolled it out. 

I didn’t lose too much time but flat tires always bring me feelings of regret as I think they are mostly preventable and I was just letting it hang go for a little too long. 

Back at the RV I darted the puncture and it held, I really just wanted to test out the Dart, it was nice and easy. Then I grabbed the remaining loaf of bread and honey and pulled a camp chair to wait for Emily. 

With Sherman by my side we plowed through the loaf until Emily showed up, just as dejected as I was. That means we did it right!

We showered and headed back to our friends yard for the night.

We woke up with excitement because today was the last day and tomorrow we were going to wake up and not have to ride bikes really hard. However, we were also feeling the stage race hangover. We lethargically loaded oatmeal into our guts, strapped our MTB’s to the back of the RV, and made the 25min drive to Carvin’s Cove, a trail network north of town, the most popular place to ride MTB in Roanoke. 

With only a 14.1 mile loop on tap we pre rode it first. Again, this was a good idea because some of the descents and faster trails had some surprisingly sneaky turns.

Back at the RV I slurped down a clif shot and went full gas into the 75min effort. I was feeling good. The terrain was extremely undulating and the efforts were full gas followed by rest on technical little descents, my favorite kind of effort. 

About half way through the loop I felt my front end getting loose. I thought my headset worked its way loose at first but my front thru axel had started backing out. So I stopped and tightened it with a 6mm(ish) sized rock because like a dingus I forgot a multi-tool. I thought quick, because I was definitely not goin to be able to KOM this segment if I was going to have to stop every 10min to tighten my thru axel with a rock.

Luckily, I remembered the trailhead parking lot had a tool stand. I was hoping the parking lot 3/4 of the way through would have one too. 

The MTB Gods were on my side that day because there was one there. I tightened up my thru axel and finished the last 20min super hard.

I managed to still nab the KOM but barely. Stoked on being officially done Emily and I showered up and headed back to our friends yard for a celebratory dinner and sleep! We were both tired and ready to relax and not move around for a little while. 

Trip summaries: 8 day in the RV, just under 500 miles of driving (from home, through the stage race, and back home), 5 days of racing, 193 miles, 25k climbing, two loaves of sourdough, one jar of peanut butter, and the only mechanical being my flat tire saved by the Dart. 

In my opinion, this model could easily be replicated everywhere and anywhere. Though you’d have to ask Jeff, as he headed up the organization, results tallying, and time editing in the event of wrong turns. Ironically, Emily and I rarely saw other people out riding and didn’t ride with other people. However, all of this was done in an attempt to bring a small group of people closer together and it certainly did. The promoters couldn’t have put it a better way, “to keep us motivated and moving during the pandemic.”

There is already talks of an MTB stage race in the same style and a 1 day soul crusher called the “Chamois Shredder” (123 miles, 15k climbing). I’ll be there! The more excuses I can use to spend in the woods the better!