Words and photos by Zdenka Worsham
For over a year, my friends had been trying to talk me into doing RockStar (RS) Challenge, until one day I told them to hold my beer while I removed cats off my lap and signed up for the Grand Depart on April 23, 2022.
The RockStar Challenge has three options: the 266-mile RockStar Trail, 250-mile RockStar Gravel, and 166-mile RockStar Pavé, all starting in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and ending in Roanoke. Based on my current fitness as a seriously couched athlete, I opted for the easier gravel route. Not knowing how long a 250-mile gravel route with all the necessary gear can take as a relative bikepacking newbie, I signed up for the four-day stage race option with set spots for camping. Four days sounded lovely and easy! (Insert an uncontrollable laughter here.)
Unlike most others, I didn’t really plan much until the last few days before the event. My feelings toward it also changed because none of my friends who were going to do the trail option could come. I became little anxious about doing the event completely solo, but I’m a skilled rider, and I knew I could take care of myself and my bike. I knew where I was going to sleep. And the GPS trackers we were going to use during the event would keep me feeling safe. Rob Issem of Virginia Endurance Series—the brain and the muscle behind the event—helped me figure out the last few details, like where to park the car and how to catch a shuttle offered by the Roanoke Mountain Adventures. I finally studied the maps, packed on Thursday, and drove to Roanoke on Friday to take the shuttle.
On Saturday (day one), about 50 riders lined up at the Black Sheep Coffee and departed at 7 a.m. I took my solo journey seriously and was the last person to leave. Riding through Harrisonburg was extremely difficult—it was too beautiful and I was constantly getting distracted by the cows. I quickly realized I needed my regular riding friends to tell me to quit goofing around and start riding my bike. Once I got into the woods, there were no cows to trigger my ADHD, and I managed to spin the pedals for a change. Some of the hills were a little too steep for my cyclocross race bike gearing, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was our route to go through jeep roads and me being stuck behind a line of off-road vehicles. There was lots of hike-a-biking in those unrideable sections. I managed to catch another rider at the Reddish Knob, the highest point of our day, and I was a little disappointed I would lose my voluntary sweeper status. I didn’t. It was too pretty on the top of the mountain to hurry. The evening at the camp was spent talking about dishes from the Motherlands with my new friend Mariusz, who is originally from Poland. I’m from Slovakia. Believe me, the imaginary feast was amazing!
On Sunday (day two), I was snailing along the route as intended, when I finished giving my last delicious gummy bear a photoshoot on a pile of moss before he was going to be decapitated. After I picked the last pieces of the prickly moss off his bottom and finally ate him, I realized it was past 4 p.m. and I still had 44 miles to go. Oops! A minor panic was followed by 14 of the slowest gravel miles of my life, but I covered the distance in less than five hours, finishing my day in the dark. The moment of enlightenment had come: “I actually need to ride and not dilly dally if I want to finish this!”
On Monday (day 3), I got adopted by another female rider. Harleigh is 19 years old, agriculturally strong (in her words), a photographer and flower farmer who can eat a whole rotisserie chicken. She’s from Harrisonburg and she decided to do this event all on her own. She has no other friends who bikepack, but her family came to support and check on her the first two nights. She is very shy and it took a lot of courage to ask me, a complete stranger, if I’d like to ride with her. And the rest is history. If I didn’t have her keeping me focused on the ride, I’d probably be still out there.
The biggest benefit of teaming up was deciding not to stay at our designated camp stop #3 only 44 miles in that day, leaving us with over 90 miles for the last day with expected rain. We wanted to chip away as many miles from that dreaded last day as possible, that’s why after a nice visit with Steve, the host, we kept going and hoped we’d find a good spot to camp. The miles were slow and the heat in the high 80s was not helping. We were exhausted, and after one creek crossing, I noticed Harleigh’s little devilish laugh. I was curious about what happened, but she couldn’t stop laughing and said: “THIS IS HARD, DUDE!” I was dying laughing with her because I had to agree.
By the time we decided to stop, we were out of the public land and deep into private property. After a discussion as to whether the man we were going to ask to stay on his property was a serial killer or not, we trusted our instincts and took a gamble. This kind man let us camp in the woods with a view of a beautiful sunset and complete privacy.
On Tuesday (day four), we pushed it, we ate a lot, we somehow avoided heavy rain, and we hated the sight of the Roanoke Star up high on the hill toward the end of the day, because the hill still had to be climbed. The view on top was incredible but not as amazing as the moment a few miles later when we finally turned the corner in Roanoke and saw Texas Tavern, the official end of the RS route, where we received our finisher pint glasses and I ate the most delicious hot dogs of my entire life!
The event was much harder than I expected, and even though I’m very grateful for all those who made it happen, I think Rob Issem may be just a little bit evil.
Lessons from the RockStar Challenge:
- RockStar Challenge miles are slow!
- Do not accidently buy disinfecting hand wipes with alcohol instead of the wilderness wipes with no alcohol. I do not recommend them!
- Chicken biscuits and hamburgers carry pretty well all day long in the heat up to 90 degrees.
- Even if you’re shy, please ask others to be your friends. It will pay off.
- Sometimes we need to count on kindness of strangers.
- The RS Trail finishers are absolute superhumans.
- DFL is a badge of honor in my books.
“Never in my life have I felt this disgusting!” –Harleigh after three days of riding and camping.
“I knew this was going to be harder than I thought, but this is even harder than that.” –Harleigh, day four.
“Found pig! Call…” –A poster on a pole at the end of Steve’s street.
From the organizers
Sixty riders started, but scorching heat turned the RockStar Grand Depart into a battle of attrition. Still, numerous women battled through to score historic performances that highlighted the 2022 event! Ultra-cycling legend and multiple world record holder Amanda Coker of Team Twenty24 won the 166-mile RockStar Pave Race and set a new FKT. Coming in just 27 minutes behind Amanda was Harrisonburg’s Taylor Abraham, who also beat the prior FKT by over 1.5 hours! Cynthia Frazier of Velocio/Exploro became the first woman to break the 24-hour barrier en route to winning the 250-mile RockStar Gravel Race, and Susannah Cadwalader won the grueling 270-mile RockStar Trail Race in 3 days, 17 hours, 34 minutes riding a 170/160mm travel Trek Slash (the longest travel bike to ever complete the Trail route) proving that you can bikepack well and have fun with basically whatever bike you’ve got!
RockStar also added a Non-Binary division in 2022, and AJ DeLauder won the Non-Binary RockStar Gravel Race! Charlie Snyder, Eric Henderson, Chris Thorpe, and Andrew Adere won the Men’s Trail, Trail Singlespeed, Gravel, and Pave races, respectively. For all RockStar results, along with lots of race reports and photos visit the 2022 event page.
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