The Reluctant Rockstar
Guest Post by Lisa Thomas
In 2018, my husband Rob Issem created and organized a bike event that would start in Harrisonburg, VA (Rock Town) and end in Roanoke, VA (Star City) dubbed The Rockstar. It is designed to connect some of the national forest/park/trail systems and corridors that exist between the two cities. It is an unsupported race with three different options: a trail route that winds through the national forests and ridges/mountains (270 miles), a gravel route that uses some trails, fire roads and other non-paved roads through the same mountainous area (250 miles) and lastly the pavé route that avoids the mountain trails and glides along the bucolic valleys between the ridges on mostly paved roads (170 miles). So, when Rob asked me to do the pavé route with him on our tandem bicycle, I laughed and said sure, thinking that he’d forget about it once the time came to actually do it. But as the date approached, I realized that I was on the hook to do this thing and was terrified. First of all, I’m not a strong rider. Second, I don’t sleep well under the best of conditions much less on the ground, in a tent. So when our friend Jason Cromer asked if we were bike camping or credit carding, I was like, “What’s credit carding??” And that is how we ended up adding a B&B into the accommodations! Thank you, Jason!!
April 22, 2023,
6:00 AM Black Sheep Coffee
The Grand Depart for Rockstar 2023. We arrive early, and Rob tasks me with checking everyone in via video. Approximately 100 cyclists from all over the country have come to do this race. I meet folks from NY, MI, PA, FL, NC, TN, WV to name a few, all here to beat themselves up on this grueling, unsupported ride through some of the most beautiful countrysides you will ever see. The atmosphere is charged with excitement and concern. Rob and I are riding our tandem on the pavé route and taking four days to complete it. We are accompanied by Russ and Elizabeth who are also on a tandem bike. We call ourselves Tandemonium.
At 7:00 am we all took off into the foggy, overcast morning and head towards Harrisonburg’s new greenway system which winds through cow pastures and heads up over the mountains through Mennonite farms so bucolic you forget what year it is. The other cyclists around us made it festive and exciting. We ride up and up, and the excitement is the only thing distracting me from my ass, which has already started to hurt. We end up in the George Washington National Forest and see lots of friends riding the new mountain bike trails there and stop from time to time to chat (thank goodness). The climbs on this first day were very difficult, and I never thought that standing up and pedaling could be a relief, but I actually started to look forward to getting out of the saddle and using different muscles. At times, we would be in such an easy gear that it felt like we weren’t moving at all.
It started to rain about halfway into our first day’s ride, which didn’t really phase us since we kept our furnace burning by climbing the entire time. Once we got on the eight miles of flat road to our destination (The Mountain View General Store in West Augusta), Rob kicked into full gear, and we pedaled hard and fast through a cold, driving rain. Once at the store, I changed out of my wet clothing, got a cup of hot coffee, and we settled in to meet the other cyclists coming through. Spandex-clad, mud-spattered men and women arrived shivering and shaking from the wet, cold weather and shoving food into their mouths. There was a lot of joking, laughing, and congratulating. The mood was charged with something like excitement mixed with fear. Some of the cyclists, like us, would be camping overnight at Braley Pond right down the road from the store while others were soldiering onward. We waited out the rain and gathered some food supplies, firewood, and beer and went to set up camp. After a great night of sitting around the campfire, drinking beer, and chatting with the other cyclists, we headed for our tent.
April 23, 2023
West Augusta, VA
I’m not a happy camper. I didn’t sleep well; it’s cold and wet. My ass hurts, and I have a weird twingey feeling in my right hamstring. And my head hurts from one too many beers—what the hell was I thinking?? We pack out, and I cannot bring myself to put my already freezing feet into my cold, soaking-wet cycling shoes. We pedal off to the trusty Mountain View General Store to get breakfast and see the other cyclists off on their respective routes. I load up on sausage biscuits, coffee, and caramel cold brew M&M’s. Reluctantly, I shove my feet into the wet shoes, and we head off down Deerfield Valley Road through gorgeous scenery, ridges flanking us on both sides along creeks and streams.
My feet stay cold for at least 30 miles despite some expired hand warmer packs that I squished under my toes. I am slightly hungover, and it’s only about 50 degrees out with periodic sun peeking through cloud cover, but at least it’s not raining. We head into the Jefferson National Forest on a gravel fire road. (Uh, Rob, I thought this was the pavé route—what the hell???) We climb up the steepest grade of the entire route, and I’m cursing under my breath the whole time. My inner thighs start to burn and ache so much so that my ass no longer seems to bother me. I look forward to standing up to pedal every few feet. Being on the back of a tandem, referred to as the stoker, affords you the opportunity to take in the sights, take photos, and just lollygag. I am originally from Virginia and have traveled every inch of the state, but it never ceases to amaze me just how beautiful the terrain is. The rolling hills, the pastures, the meadows, meandering creeks and roaring rivers, and a sky vividly blue dotted with white clouds. I wanted to stop constantly to take pics of the many wildflowers: yellow, purple, blue, white, and red. I am still kicking myself for not stopping to snap a pic of the only wild red Virginia Columbine I saw growing in a rock face. Cows, horses, goats, pigs, and even llamas looked at us with curiosity as we pedaled past. Beautiful white church spires dotted the countryside. Abandoned barns and buildings falling down. And farm after farm stretching through the perfect valleys. We stopped periodically to rest and refuel beside farms and along streams. AND to stretch—my body protested the entire time and I discovered new pains every time we stopped. And to add insult to injury, I had forgotten to put sunscreen on my face thinking it was too cloudy to get a sunburn, but sure enough, my face was burning red by the time we reached our destination.
As we approached Clifton Forge, we turned down a small road that took us between dilapidated businesses and then onto a rutted gravel road that went along the railroad tracks. We find ourselves rolling through a train car graveyard, and all the while I’m wondering if this is even the right way. Eventually, we popped out right in the little town of Clifton Forge. This was our longest day (53 miles) and we were rewarded by staying in The Red Lantern Inn in Clifton Forge, VA, with a fabulous dinner at Jack Mason’s Tavern just a few blocks away. I was so grateful for a hot shower, a soft bed, and a delicious meal that all the travails of my aching body and sunburnt face seemed to dissipate. I slept like a rock.
April 24, 2023
Red Lantern Inn
Clifton Forge, VA
All my weird little body pains had vanished, so I felt pretty good. It was partially cloudy and in the 50’s, which I have discovered is perfect cycling weather. We got breakfast at Hardees and packed our panniers with extra food and headed off. Clifton Forge is nestled in between soft, green mountains along a railroad. It is a tiny, sleepy town with a stinky paper mill nearby, but it was an oasis to me.
Out of the even tinier town of Low Moor, we climbed the endless uphill, Rich Patch Mountain, where we stopped and encountered other cyclists. After the descent, we entered onto a multi-lane highway (220) for a little way, and even though there was a wide shoulder, this felt harrowing and nerve-wracking since giant semis, trucks, and fast-moving cars zoomed way too close to us, causing the bike to shimmy and shake. I started thinking about how vulnerable we were on a bike and how irreverent and even belligerent some people in vehicles can be towards cyclists. A huge pickup truck sped past us and, seemingly on purpose, swerved to get closer to us and buzz us. I felt my rage bubble up and I thought of all the cyclists who have died being hit by vehicles and how those drivers were punished with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. But before I could let my rage take hold, we turned off the highway back onto the safety and comfort of the small, rural roads.
By this point, I felt pretty strong, I mean, my ass continued to hurt, but my legs felt good. The climbs were fairly short, and the downhills were exhilarating and fun. To feel the wind in your face on a bicycle is one of life’s greatest joys. Another glorious day of cool temps and sporadic sunbursts. More incredible farmland, mountains, and water. And we were just in time to see the mayapples popping up all over the forest floor and along streams, looking like millions of little umbrellas. We stopped at gorgeous wrought iron bridges for photo ops and marveled at the hundreds of shades of green on the ridges. The red patches of earth contrasting with the greens and blues of the sky were so beautiful it hurt. As we pedaled through rural Fincastle, I was reminded of my youth spent out there at my cousin’s farm—riding horses, playing in the creeks, and digging up Herkimer diamonds. I talked Rob’s ear off about all those memories and was overcome by gratitude for the opportunity to live in such a paradise.
We spent our final night in a dispersed camping site off the road on the Catawba Valley Trail. We rode to the creek across the road and filtered water out of a creek full of tires, washing machine drums, and shopping carts and returned to camp to eat our packed-in Subway sandwiches, build a fire, and relax. The next morning, I lay in our tent thinking to myself how I didn’t want it to end. I had resisted and complained and made every excuse NOT to do this ride, thinking that I wasn’t strong enough or that I wouldn’t be able to sleep and what if I simply couldn’t do it? I didn’t realize just how serendipitous it was that I’d started a workout routine at a gym three months prior to the ride which I do believe was helpful. I am 55 years old, and a lifetime of concert dance has not been kind to my body. Don’t tell my husband this, but I think cycling is really good for my body and definitely better than driving/riding in a car.
April 25, 2023
Catawba Valley Trail
We loaded up and started off down the familiar roads of Catawba. As we crawled up Route 311, we stopped at the trailhead for McAfee’s Knob on the Appalachian Trail and saw many other cyclists speeding by on their way to the finish line. We careened down the long downhill towards Salem and on into downtown Roanoke. We had one final, evil climb before we could cross the finish line, and I was not looking forward to it. Rob had the great idea to drop all our baggage and panniers off at Roanoke Mountain Adventures (a great supporter and transporter for the Rockstar since 2018) then eat lunch at the Wasena Tap House before making the last climb.
We took the old Mill Mountain road that switchbacks up and up, and I swore that it was the worst climb of the entire route to which Rob assured me that it was not. I cursed and panted and complained for the last time as we made our way up to Mill Mountain Star, the largest man-made neon star in the country. After our obligatory photos in front of the Star, we whooshed our way down the mountain into downtown Roanoke for the Grand Finish at the famous Texas Tavern for a cheesy western and more photos.
We were done!! I did it! Despite my complaints and grumblings, it was truly a blast, and I would do it again. As we pedaled our way home to our kids, I breathed a sigh of relief and felt as if I’d accomplished something big. I know—compared to many of those serious cyclists, our route was downright “bougie,” what with its B&B and restaurants and measly 40 miles a day, but for me, it was HUGE! I had accomplished the Rockstar and lived to tell about it!