Appalachian Journey Mountaineer
Photos by Olivia Norman
I have spent a lot of time west of Roanoke in headwaters of the James River paddling the gorge of John’s Creek and riding ridgelines like the Dragon’s Back of North Mountain. This region of Appalachia, the Ridge & Valley of the Allegenies, is stunning. Beautiful scenery, great rivers and trails, and easy access makes this destination one of my favorites in Virginia. Another fan of the area is professional mountain biker and event organizer, Gordon Wadsworth. With deep knowledge of the local terrain, he has put together an amazing gravel event called the Appalachian Journey ‘Mountaineer’ that we will talk about in our Q&A below.
Upon scrolling the depths of social media, I stumbled across a post promoting the ‘Mountaineer’ and I was immediately intrigued. The route traversed a portion of Craig Creek, one of the James River’s main tributaries. Its beautiful emerald waters wind gently through a valley surrounded by long ridges, small towns, and national forest. However, unlike Craig Creek’s tranquil waters, the ‘Mountaineer’ takes the strenuous journey less traveled up and over the Bald Mountain ridge. I had not been up there before and after geeking out on topo maps and seeing multiple designated ‘overlooks,’ I had to see what it was all about.
Although I don’t know Gordon personally, I do know he is a badass and if he is putting on an event, it would probably be challenging and worth checking out! Gordon is an amazing ambassador for the region. I enjoy the stories he shares of adventures in his home mountains. Most of his stories are epic rides, so I suspected that the ‘Mountaineer’ would likely go through some incredible places. It did not disappoint. The route was just under 60 miles and had around 5,800 feet of climbing. The Bald Mountain summit was great, but the real thrill was the descent. In fact a week later, I am still grinning and can’t wait to go back. The journey didn’t end there, the entire route was full of amazing gravel roads, cool bridges, and endless views of the mountains. To top it off, the ride concluded with fording Craig Creek, which as a paddler, I thought was extra cool.
I reached out to Gordon to do this Q&A because I had so much fun and think his event was truly amazing and a must do. I also thought it would be fun to learn more about the Appalachian Journey’s history from the man himself. Gordon is a top notch biker known for his single speed and MTB accomplishments (a very impressive resume). To reiderate, Gordon is a huge advocate for riding and living in Virginia. Follow him on social media @quadsworth and check out his adventures. Home on the James is truly honored to have this opportunity to connect. Thanks Gordon for taking the time to answer a few questions around the Appalachian Journey ‘Mountaineer!’
Gordon, I dig your passion for riding bikes in Appalachia, or what you call ‘Brappalachia.’ Your stoke is infectious and it honestly fires me up to get out and explore these beautiful Virginian mountains. Fill us in on what makes living and riding here so special?
Ha! Yeah I'm fond of the #brappalachia mindset for sure and even created #Gravelachia to market and share stories from our Appalachian Journey and Mountaineer events. I grew up in the Roanoke Valley and always considered it a great place to "grow up and end up." I guess young me thought that the wild west or some other far away place was the spot for everything in between. Turns out my wife Emily and I both feel drawn to the Blue Ridge Mountains. We bounced around for a couple years trying on different areas including North Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky but ultimately decided the Old Dominion was our rightful home. I'm no sage or mystic but I think that what appeals to me about this area is the depth of history and lessons to be learned. I've been really blessed to race bikes on 5 continents and see an awful lot of things. And there's something about the challenges of red oak ridgetops and low laurel blooms that keeps me coming back. These mountains are old, they aren't as rugged as the Rockies or the Alps, but that just means they've had longer to learn how to make you hurt.
When I first heard your name, it was at the Shenandoah Mountain 100 for the singlespeed mountain bike podium win. Come to find out, you have accomplished mulitple accolades in the mountain bike world including 3x USAC National Champion and 5x National Ultra Endurance Series Champion. However, the Appalachian Journey is a gravel series, not mountain bike, with three different rides: Journey, Humble, and Mountaineer. How do the three rides differ? What inspired you to organize a gravel over a mountain bike event?
It's surprising more people haven't asked this question. Or maybe they have and I've been too busy to listen ;) I have been blessed to race a LOT and see what works and what doesn't; kind of to pick and choose what I would toss into my own events and what I could leave behind. I was involved as a partner in building what's now a very big event on the coast of North Carolina which gave me an interesting perspective and also look behind the curtain at how to put on events. I've since left that event to its slightly ego-maniacal promoter. That's a campfire story though.
I would LOVE to put on some mountain bike events. I got hot on gravel a few years back when I had the opportunity to race the Dirty Kanza 200. I came 5th overall that year but seeing the community of riders who visited Emporia Kansas to share an experience really stuck with me. What I saw was that gravel removed a technical barrier to the shared accomplishment and experience of an amazing mountain bike event. I'll go to my grave saying that the Shenandoah Mountain 100 post race scene is one of the best in the world. And if I can build that and share it more broadly, with a flair all our own, I'm all about it. Gravel allows me to do that in a way mountain bike doesn't.
The Appalachian Journey ‘Mountaineer’ takes you on a gravel tour of the Craig Creek basin, which is a major contributer to the James River. I have been paddling and riding in this area for years, but never on Bald Mountain until the race. Wow, what an awesome ridge with SPECTACULAR views and incredible decent! Can you give the readers some insight into what makes this ridge so special?
To add on the the last answer some folks may tell you The Mountaineer is a mountain bike ride after all! ;) Bald Knob and the Craigs Creek valley are pretty radical. When I was a kid we split a small cabin off Craigs Creek with some family friends. It was very much my first exposure to "wilderness." I hadn't honestly revisited the area until this Spring. My wife Emily and I did a fair amount of riding in "local" areas we didnt know super well and some of those drew us down to Craig County and after my first trip up Bald as an adult I knew we had to craft a route and an experience and if possible, share it. Appalachia is deep and dark. Its hard to get your bearings and get the view you deserve sometimes. Bald Knob totally shakes that. Riders get an incredible vista back towards North Mtn and across the basin. You earn it though! I felt like it was time we shared both that process of earning the view and also the view itself. To me a ride worth reveling in is one where you do just that- undertake something big, and get back to camp proud with a story to tell!
I road the Patterson Creek section of the ‘Mountaineer’ a couple years back. I didn’t remember it being overly difficult then, however, the road was recently enhanced with some ‘fresh’ gravel prior to the race which made it really tough. I was grateful to be on a hardtail mountain bike for that section (as well as the Bald Mountain descent - again, epic). It had me thinking, given the conditions, what do you think was the best rig for this years ‘Mountaineer’?
Yeah Patterson is usually pretty butter smooth, not this year! I think we may actually remove that stretch next year in favor of something... else ;)
I favor a hardtail mtb on a lot of things. I love my Pivot Vault and the way it rips singletrack but theres something about the comfort and body position of a hardtail where you gain a lot of control without compromising very much on efficiency. I have a friend who calls "gravel bikes" "bad mountain bikes." And I sort of agree. I do love the interplay and bike choice though. That appeals to the bike racer in me and I love that each section of The Mountaineer has all angles and many different faces where one bike or the other may be best. I think you'd really enjoy the 40 mile version of The Mountaineer too; its got a much more extended rail-trail segment with some super smooth grades you can really open 'er up on.
For those who don’t know the area, Craig Creek is more of a river than a ‘creek.’ There were a few river crossings that made the event so unique and really put the ‘icing on the cake’ to what was already a super fun course. The first memorable river crossing was at the end of dead end road with a swinging bridge. Another was a gothic-style steel suspension bridge. The final and most unique river crossing was at State Rt. 614, where you literally had to ford Craig Creek waist deep. In todays modern world you dont see this type of infrastructure often, its really cool that they were included in the ride. Did you specifically craft the course with them in mind, or did it happen out of luck?
Oh it's DEFINITELY a river! You've hit on one of my favorite things about the valley. Originally there wasn't a road where Craigs Creek Rd runs now. Just a rail road bed.
This resulted from miners pulling minerals out of the mountain and loading it right onto rail cars. So lots of the homes and infrastructure are on the "wrong" side of the river now and gone are the rails. This means old plank bridges, foot bridges, and lots of open fords. I felt like we could have riders experience all of those in one day and the fact that there's an open ford which connects to our host venue at Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing within a mile from the finish- sold. ;) And yes, I have forded it myself several times.
I think that a good ride experience doesn't just pass through an area, but digs into what makes it special and gives riders something to share from the experience. I also love seeing people push their boundaries, and fording the river is a big part of that for The Mountaineer. Theres a very easy re-route if you want to keep your feet dry but I dont consider any finisher a "Mountaineer" until they've crossed the creek.
Looking into the future, are you thinking about adding more rides to the Appalachian Journey?
I'm also glad you asked this! When we built The Appalachian Journey and Journey Productions the goal was very clearly to have multiple events. We want to share what Appalachia is about. Its got a lot going and a lot of stories and tales. Its as varied in terrain and community as anywhere I've been and the fact we can share 4 different perspectives on that within a stones throw of Roanoke, VA is something radical. While we couldn't host the inaugural Appalachian Journey because of the implications of a global pandemic, we created the thing and will host it in 2021; albeit in a slightly tweaked format. The Journey itself is a partner gravel event in Floyd County VA. Riders must complete the event together with their partner; sharing challenges and triumph with their partner. This comes from my experience with UCI Mtb stage racing where riders must compete alongside a partner. It's one of my favorite formats and one which I think has a lot of different angles which will challenge and enrich riders.
The Journey was built to showcase Floyd County, VA. It's my wife's home and somewhere near to both our hearts. It's an incredible community where every citizen is engaged and involved in mutually enriching and supporting each other. I've never been any other place like it and cant wait to showcase it properly when our health considerations permit.
The Mountaineer is the flip side of that coin. Where The Journey is duo, on county roads, and celebrates community, The Mountaineer is solo, on US Forest Service road, and celebrates rugged independence. A Mountaineer spirit is one of ardent self-reliance. And while you can be self reliant with your neighbor in sight ultimately you get yourself up that mountain. I love how different the two events are. If we can keep finding more ways to deliver varied Appalachian experiences we will.