All photos courtesy of Chris Tompkins Sitting there shivering on a forest road in the middle of the Laurel Fork Wilderness, rain mixed with snow coming down, I was trying to convince myself that I was having fun. I had been riding in rain for almost 12 hours straight and was soaked to the bone. Why had I not brought more warm clothes, why had I not brought a sleeping bag or bivy, why was my stomach not being my friend right now, why do I keep falling asleep on my bike, and why was there a padlock on the water spigot a couple miles back where I desperately needed to get some water? All these questions and more were torturously swirling around in my mind, feelings that every bikepacker goes through at some point or another in the darkest hours of the night. Rewind 20 hours or so to the start of the race. I had dreams of trying to break the record but not having a “cx” bike, I knew it would be a challenge. My plan was simple, pack light and don’t stop for any extended period of time. I made the decision to forgo carrying a sleeping bag, bivy, and extra warm clothing. Knowing what the forecast was calling for, it could potentially be a risky plan. Heck, I’ve ridden in the monsoons in Colorado for days on end, how bad could it be? The start of the ride was perfect weather. Temps in the mid 60s, clear skies, good people to ride with, perfect! Got to meet some really awesome people, hear stories of past bikepacking adventures. Rode with Scott McConnell, first singlespeeder to ride the AML. He joked that we had just gone 4 miles and were 1/100th of the way finished. That’s why I love these events. No trying to get the whole shot right off the start, no being oxygen deprived 200 yards into the race. It’s just light-hearted and fun. 2012-02-07 11.13.12 The first obstacle of the ride came within the first 10 miles. Chris Tompkins, event organizer, had mentioned something about a railroad crossing, that Cricket Butler and Markley Anderson on there ride had gotten stopped by a train, but the previous AML events had never had any issues. Well, as luck would have it, Greg, another rider (sorry, I’m bad with names), and myself got to sit and enjoy watching a train roll by. Funny how little jinxes sometimes happen. The miles were flying by, rolling through beautiful farmland and wooded forest. After Hwy 460, I decided it was time to step up the pace a notch. The legs were feeling good and the wind was to my back. So I put a little gas to the pedal and soon enough found myself all alone. Dropping down into Stony Creek gorge, I came across a construction zone where they were escorting traffic through, and the escort was on the other end. Bummer, I had just put in a decent amount of effort into getting some distance on everyone and it was about to vanish. After getting to know the flagman for a couple minutes, he told me to just go ahead and just be careful. He was the first of many awesome locals I would meet on this adventure. After making it through the construction zone, the route took us up the very beautiful Stony Creek gorge. This is where I really started noticing the changing leaves! Even though I’ve lived in the east for quite a few years now, it still never ceases to amaze me the colors the changing leaves produce. Truly amazing! I guess I was getting a little mesmerized by the leaves because I didn’t hear the logging truck barreling around the corner from the opposite direction. One second, I was peacefully enjoying the leaves, the next, I was diving off the side of the road avoiding an 50 mph Mack grill! Phew, close call, time to start paying attention and stop day dreaming. 2011-10-15 17.00.26 Stony Creek road eventually lead up and over the Virginia/West Virginia border dropping down a roller coaster of a road which lead into the small town of Waitersville. After Waitersville, the route turned left to the first biggish climb of the day. Just over the top, I ran into Jon Shultz and crew touring in the opposite direction. We wished each other good luck and I was off towards Gap Mills and Lake Concove. From here to the Greenbriar trail was pretty much a blur. I remember getting water from a church spigot. Right after I’d filled my bladder and bottle and had drank quite a bit of the water, a local came by and said the water was no good, that people had gotten malaria from it. I didn’t realize people got malaria from water. He said the water on the inside of the church was good but this outside spigot wasn’t good. I’m no plummer, but it seemed like the outside spigot was coming from the inside of the church from the same source. Oh well, maybe he was messing with me, maybe he was serious. I figured I’d be done though before whatever was wrong with the water killed me, and I was very thirsty. Eventually, I made it to the Greenbriar River trail. The Greenbriar trail is an 80+ mile rails-to-trail that is absolutely beautiful. My goal was to get as far along this trail before it started raining because I’d heard rumors that it could get very soft after a good rain. At first, everything was going great! I was really enjoying the changing leaves, the beautiful river, the nice gentle grade that was going slightly uphill. But after a while of slightly uphill, no change in grade, just grinding, grinding, grinding, I started to slip into my mesmerized state of mind. Riding a rail trail for me is like riding a stationary trainer for hours on end. You just have to get into a certain state of mind, or you will never make it. All of a sudden, SLAM! I found myself laying on the side of the trail in a pile of leaves. Seriously! I had just crashed on a rail trail! I got up, checked to make sure everything was still intact and began to investigate what had taken me out. Big green walnuts! The trail was lined with black walnut trees who had dropped their evil little offspring to take out any unsuspecting biker. I grabbed a whole handful of them and chucked them into the river just to make myself feel better. After making myself feel better that I’d made those devious, little walnuts pay, I made my way into Marlington to grab a bite to eat and stock up for what promised to be a very long, desolate stretch of the route. It had also been raining now for quite some time and I hadn’t even realized it. Now the trail was a river and there was no dry, solid line to ride in. Small miracles do happen though and a few miles before Marlington the trail became paved. Wow, getting on that pavement made me realize just how much I had been getting bogged down! I must have been quite the sight pulling into Marlinton judging by all the odd stares I was getting from everyone. I couldn’t blame them though, they were witnessing some crazy bikepacker riding in the pouring rain, covered head to toe in railroad cinders. I made a beeline for Subway, talked to a couple people about the weather forecast which wasn’t very reassuring. They must have felt sorry for me looking like a drowned rat because they offered me a place to stay to get cleaned up but I declined their gracious offer. I had places to go and so the show must roll on. Back onto the sloppy rail trail I went towards Cass. It was no longer paved. AML 400 I finally got to the end of the Greenbriar and onto Back Mountain  road. Up, up, down, up, up, was the name of the game on this road. Had a dog chase me that was probably the same dog that bit Chris Tompkins. The dogs in this part of the world seem to be just a little bit more malicious than the dogs where I live. They just have that evil, red glow in there eyes that says they want to kill any biker that rides by. I had a few sprints with dogs on this trip, and after hundreds of miles of riding, sprints are hard to come by. Finally bombing downhill, sharp right turn, across the old bridge, I made my way onto West Fork trail, a 22 mile rail trail. After riding 80+ miles on the Greenbriar, I was really dreading the West Fork trail. To my surprise, it was actually a very fun trail to ride. It kind of had a wildernessy feel to it and even though it had been raining for hours now, it was still fairly solid for the most part. Unfortunately, the first sleep monster attacked me close to the end of the trail. It’s amazing how you can be riding along feeling normal and then all of a sudden find yourself 5 feet off the trail riding through the woods and not remembering getting there, crazy! Anyway, I fought it off and finally pulled into Glady, WV, the half way point and a critical water fill up spot. Or so I thought. I got to the pavilion where the water spigot was and guess what, it had a padlock on it! Not cool! In my delirious state of mind I started to panic a little. I was out of water, it was still pouring rain, the wind had really started to blow, and the temps were starting to plummet. I sat on the picnic table for a couple minutes contemplating my next course of action. A laid down for a couple minutes thinking I’d take a quick cat nap but quickly started shivering. Being the genius I was at the start, I had chosen to leave the bag and bivy in the car to save weight. I had for some reason thought the rain would move out early in the evening and that the temps wouldn’t start to really drop until the next day after it had stopped raining. Well, it was a gamble that I had seemingly just lost, and there was only one option now, keep riding and hopefully keep it together until morning. AML 400 I left Glady without any water and started climbing up into the Laurel Fork Wilderness. I climbed on and on, the sleep monsters continually attacking me, and I continually keeping them at bay. Eventually, one finally got me. I was riding along and the next thing I knew I was laying in the middle of the forest road still clipped in and still hanging on to my bars. How did that just happen? I had just fallen asleep riding my bike! I was so tired, it was all I could do to get unclipped and get out from under my bike. I just sat there not moving. I could hear the wind blowing through the leaves, it had started to spit snow along with the rain. Then the moon briefly popped out from behind the clouds. I must have crashed right at some overlook because the moon absolutely illuminated the surrounding mountains and the mist swirling around them! It was truly an inspirational moment that I will not soon forget! AML 400 My inspirational moment soon faded though. I had more pressing issues at hand. I still hadn’t been able to locate a stream and so was just drinking rain water off my rain jacket. Basically, the only clothing I had on under my rain gear was arm and leg warmers, my kit, and my nano puff vest so any time I stopped I would start to shiver. Riding in rain for 12 hours straight, everything was damp to downright soaked and the wind was not making matters any better. So I got up and started riding because that’s the only thing I could do. Eventually I made it up and over the mountain and started downhill. Talk about some cold riding, it was all I could do to hang onto the bars. But like I mentioned earlier, small miracles do happen in the world of bikepacking. There was this amazing, little spring piping straight out of the side of the mountain. That little stream of water was the most amazing thing! The water was so good! The next little miracle was at the bottom of the mountain. I came across a Forest Service group camp with a bunch of empty cabins. They were all locked except for one, old rickety storage shed out back that had an old mattress in it. HOME! I didn’t care that it was dirty and nasty, it was out of the rain and wind. After 220 miles, I decided it was time to take a little break for an hour or so. AML 400 An hour was all I wanted to stop for, but 4 hours later I woke up. Unfortunately, I must have been enjoying my dream too much because I slept right through my alarm. A large tree branch falling on the roof of the shed I was in was what finally woke me up. My plans of trying to break the record had gone right out the window. Afraid half the field had passed me while I peacefully slept, I quickly grabbed my bike, didn’t have anything to pack because I was already wearing it, ate a honey bun, and ran outside. Wowzee, man was it cold and windy outside! Apparently, the high temp of 55 they were calling for today had most likely happened at midnight last night. Fortunately, it had stopped raining and the sun was periodically popping out making me at least think it was going to warm up today. I had camped right at the base of the next major climb, a 2000 foot slog up and over Allegheny mountain on Hwy 250. It didn’t take long before I was shedding rain gear and vest. The climb to the top was absolutely amazing! The cold temps and rain had caused the leaves to absolutely go nuts with brilliant and vibrant colors. All this beauty caused me to completely forget about tired legs and chapped seat, it was just truly amazing! Off the backside, I became a 40 mph human icicle. Why was I so freezing cold? I had to remind myself we had been riding in 90 degree temps and humidity only a couple weeks before so this was quite the shock to the system. Turning onto the gravel of CR 600, I saw tire tracks! Now I was on the trail. Onward across the valley, pushing through a huge headwind, I finally made it to Hwy 84 and the next major climb and the ridge alternate. I had beta about how steep this climb was and it did not disappoint. The first half actually was quite pleasant with a gentle grade on the highway. Then after attaining the state line, the route turned left onto gravel and almost immediately went off the hook! I climbed and climbed in granny for what seemed like an eternity which probably was a good thing considering how cold it was. Near the top, I finally saw someone ahead of me pushing up the last pitch. It was Jeff Mullen. I got off and walked with him for a little while talking about the previous nights adventures. Its always fun to compare stories especially when the conditions aren’t exactly ideal. It can really create some great stories! Jeff informed me he thought there were two others up ahead so we wished each other good luck and I gave chase. It was a long and cold decent back down to the valley and I finally quit trying to be a tough bikepacker and put my vest and shell back on. AML 400 At the bottom of the mountain was the little town of Mountain Grove. Rumor had it that the little store there wouldn’t be open but when I pulled up, there were four other bikes with gear leaning against the building. What an awesome surprise! That was probably the highlight of my trip seeing that little store open. I went inside and there was Michael Intrabartolo and John Shultz’s group whom I’d seen the previous day. Chicken sandwich’s, brownies, coffee, and chocolate milk. We were in heaven! A couple minutes later, Jeff showed up. What a great group of guys and the lady that owned the store was awsome also! It was the boost I needed for the remainder of the trip. All too soon, we were back on our bikes blazing a trail south. Past beautiful Lake Moomaw, through rolling farmland, the miles passed quickly as there were no major climbs till I-64. I was getting so into riding and the rhythm of the road, I didn’t even realize I’d gone off and left Jeff and Michael. I also was not totally sure if another rider, Greg Locke, was still ahead of us, so decided I was going to focus on catching him. Only after the ride was over did I realize he had a serious mechanical and had to bail, so I basically was chasing a ghost the whole rest of the ride. After what seemed like not too long, I got to I-64, checked my supplies, decided I had enough to make it to Paint Bank. I figured that if Greg was still ahead of me, he may have stopped at the store in Callahan, so I continued on hoping to gain ground on him. Right after crossing under I-64 for the last time and going past a covered bridge, a majorly steep climb begins. I’m not going to spend much time describing it other than it has extremely steep pitches on it and I was walking for what seemed like more than I should have been. I kept trying to find tracks in the gravel but just could never find any. I was beginning to wonder if I really was chasing a ghost. I eventually got to the top, bombed down the paved road into Sweet Chalybeate. Turned onto another highway, up and over another ridge, and completely frozen, rolled into Paint Bank. I didn’t spend a lot of time in Paint Bank, just long enough time grab a couple snacks, chocolate milk, and fill up on water. I heard the restaurant had good buffalo stew but I could start to smell the hay in the barn and was ready to get finished. The finish was now a mere 50 miles away, just a long, straight shot down the valley, up and over Mountain Lake, and on to the finish and a warm car. Piece of cake, or so I thought. The ride down the valley was brutal with a very heavy headwind and temps nearing the 30’s. I was really starting to envy those riders that had those neat little TT bars on there bikes. Today’s all day headwind was teaching me why so riders use TT bars in the Tour Divide. AML 400 Eventually I made it back to Waitersville, up to the state line, and onto the gravel road that would take me to Mountain Lake. Up, up, and up with extremely steep pitch’s. I admit that I walked a good portion of the climb up to the top of the ridge. After riding 150+ miles since my 4 hour break that morning and 220 miles before that, my legs were starting to lose steam. Eventually, the top did come and then some enjoyable gravel over to Mountain Lake. Incredible is the only way to describe the snaking, 2000 foot descent down from Mountain Lake! It’s one of those screamer downhills roadies dream about. It made it that much sweeter knowing I was on the home stretch. I just wish I could feel my hands! Across Hwy 460, up a short climb, back down to the New river and back up to Blacksburg, simple, right? I can only describe the stretch from the New to Blacksburg as death from a thousand little climbs. Each one in themselves was not bad but put them all together after 400 miles, it was just a never ending end to the ride. I did survive to the finish and was greeted by absolutely nobody except a couple of drunk college kids. It was great having that hard of a stretch right before the finish because it really made me appreciate and savor the finish! After having a few days to recover and reflect on the ride, I really appreciate what a beautiful and difficult route this really is. Because there is no singletrack on this route, I totally underestimated the difficulty and pain this route can dish out. The AML really gives you an awesome tour of what the back roads and woods of Virginia/West Virginia are all about! Definitely one of my best experiences of the year!
AML 2014
PHOTO: JASON MURRELL
People are always interested in bike setups and gear. Everything I used worked very well and got me to the finish in one piece with no mechanicals. The only thing I need to upgrade is my lighting. A dyno hub is probably in the near future. Bike: Raleigh Talus carbon hardtail with a Rockshox Reba 100mm fork (will use rigid fork if I do this route again). Stan’s race gold wheelset. Bontrager XR1 tires 1.9 inch (old style). Sram 1×11 34t chainring (awesome!). Bags: Revelate seat, tangle frame, and gas tank. Carried rain gear and leg, arm warmers in seat bag when I wasn’t wearing them. Also carried tools in seat bag. Carried food, batteries, water filter, and light in tangle bag. Gas tank carried gels and alka selzers. A small Camelbak carried my Spot, phone, and 50 oz of water. Gear and clothing: Marmot precip jacket, Patagonia rain pants, Patagonia nano puff vest, LG kit, LG arm warmers, Hincapie leg warmers. Lighting and navigation: Light and Motion Mako AA batteries, Garmin Etrex 20

2 Comments

  1. Great article. You killed it man. You’re a beast of a rider and although I DNF’d over a route mistake and then had a bike breakdown, it was an honor to ride with you and then afterwards to watch you on TrackLeaders. Keep pedaling. See you out there somewhere I’m sure.

  2. Jason Murrell

    Hey Greg, it was an honor riding with you also! You definitely need to get back out there for the full pull. The second half truly is a treat! Great climbs and killer downhills!

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