Two buddies, a pair of bikes, sleeping bags, trail food and the great expanse of West Virginia’s wildest terrain — bike trails, four-wheeler paths, rail trails, dirt roads and forgotten logging routes.
Fayetteville biker Joseph DeGaetano said bikepacking appeals to his love of backcountry adventure and the lure of exploration and discovery.
Bikepacking, the combination of adventure biking and backpacking, is rooted in the old-fashioned cycling trip. As early as the 1870s, bicycle touring offered adventurous getaways for a large swath of middle class cyclists who didn’t own a car. A craze called cycling holidays peaked between 1890 and 1905 after inspiring countless paintings, articles and novels, including H.G. Wells’ book “The Wheels of Chance.”
In June 2016, DeGaetano, a teacher at Fayetteville High School, and fellow biker Alex Wilson, a Fayette County native now working in the ski industry in Utah, embarked on the longest bikepacking journey of their lives — a trek they’ve dubbed Tour de West Virginia.
The epic 10-day, 734-mile loop begins in Fayetteville and traverses through or near Richwood, Snowshoe, Spruce Knob, Davis, Thomas, Masontown, Morgantown, Fairmont, Shinnston, Clarksburg, Ellenboro, Cairo, Elizabeth, Reedy, Spencer, Walton, Charleston, Marmet and Thurmond.
The trip spans nearly all of the state’s diverse landscapes, from its most populous towns to its remote wilderness. The pair visited West Virginia’s highest peak at Spruce Knob (elevation: 4,862 feet), crossed its best known bog at Cranberry Wildlife Management Area, passed the tundra of the Roaring Plains Wilderness Area, across the valley of the Little Kanawha River and the state’s iconic New River Gorge before returning home to Fayetteville.
The team utilized nearly 500 miles of off-road biking and nearly 250 miles of pavement. The journey linked outdoorsy hubs and microbrew meccas such as Fayetteville, Davis and Seneca with the urban environments of Morgantown, Clarksburg and Charleston. The trip, DeGaetano said, put on full display what he calls the “stark dichotomies of West Virginia.”
“I knew ahead of time our state is not in the best of economic situations. You see some of the most beautiful wilderness areas, but then come into town and off the bike to resupply, and you are reminded of how dire some of our economic conditions are,” he said.
A stop in Richwood, he said, was a prime example. The Nicholas County town is a gateway to the Gauley River Recreation Area, Monongahela National Forest and Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, yet there is little job and economic opportunity, he said.
Alternatively, DeGaetano said areas like Davis, Albright and Cheat Lake have the indelible mark of recreational tourism, drawing visitors from Maryland and Washington, D.C.
“You can see the money coming it. It was an eye-opener to me from an economic standpoint,” he said. “It made me wonder how we can work on recalibrating job creation in our area. I’d like to see us think about West Virginia for an eternity, not West Virginia for the next 20 years. We can look at models like Colorado, which was founded on extraction and has moved toward outdoor recreation and all the industries that follow.”
Fayetteville and the New River Gorge National River boast some of the best rock climbing, rafting, kayaking, hiking and mountain biking in the region. Bikepacking, although a growing industry, remains fringe, said DeGaetano.
“Some people don’t want to ride their bike every day and spend the night in the woods, but for me, covering country to see new places and explore has always been an adventure,” he said. “It has never been about how physically hard I could climb or how fast I could race.”
Cycling tours mimic the adventures he’s had rock climbing in the Sierra Nevada. DeGaetano has spent weeks at a time climbing a new route each day from a single base camp. A large bikepacking adventure gives him a fresh route and new countryside each day.
And although there is a growing movement to connect Beckley to Fayetteville via bonafide hiking and biking trails, West Virginia is ideal for the type of rogue, extreme trip bikepackers love, he said.
“I started looking at maps in a whole new way. West Virginia is one of the most amazing states with many dirt roads, timber logging roads and old strip mine sites. It has some of the most beautiful, untouched or forgotten wilderness,” he said.
Once DeGaetano and Wilson crossed over U.S. 60 near Nallen, it was dirt roads, four-wheeler tracts, old and overgrown mining roads and gravel roads all the way to Richwood.
“You are out there in the middle of nowhere, but that is one of the greatest things about West Virginia. There are so many miles of these unimproved gravel roads and rocky paths that already connect our wilderness areas and state parks. It is beautiful and exciting from the mountain biking perspective,” he said.
Even for a biker experienced on all types of terrain, the trip had its challenges. After all, DeGaetano plotted the trip using a variety of digital maps but had never actually seen most of the roads they took.
Climbing Bald Knob, his maps showed a gravel road. What they found was a steep embankment filled with what mountain bikers call “baby heads” — boulders about the size and shape of their namesake. The boulders at Bald Knob were loose, and climbing to the top was slow.
There were several sections that involved “hiker-biking” as the duo carried their bikes over difficult terrain.
North Fork Mountain Trail above Seneca Falls has been deemed one of the International Mountain Bike Association’s “Epic Rides” and is considered the “crown jewel” of West Virginia mountain biking. It is also a hiker-biking trail with 15 minute stretches of hiking.
The amount of foot travel involved at North Fork made DeGaetano and Wilson rearrange their trip to make up time. They had planned to make it to Petersburg to resupply and didn’t want to be left on the trail overnight without food. The aborted the trail, cutting down the mountain along a tract cut for a power line, was overgrown and so steep they felt like they might tumble off.
They came out of the forest onto a horse trail. The unplanned shortcut was one of their most difficult and most thrilling legs of the journey, he said.
Many of the tracts they explored were Civil War roads now used for tractors. The old roads led the bikers by open meadows in the Roaring Plains. There, from ancient public access roads now claimed by farmers, they witnessed some of the most remote areas of the state’s countryside.
Mountain bikers are not allowed in wilderness areas, but their trip along the outskirts gave them views of those areas few have seen, he said.
Together DeGaetano and Wilson make a good team despite contrasting backgrounds. Wilson is from small town West Virginia and DeGaetano grew up in the suburbs of Leesburg, Va. Wilson is more quiet and reserved while DeGaetano has an intensity for outdoor adventure that borders on obsessive.
“Somehow the rift of differences between us was something we both always gravitated towards, and in that sociological canyon of exploration, we found friendship and a growing love of exploration by bike,” DeGaetano explained. “Sometimes on the trip we would hit a rough spot and were cursing, but it was all in good spirits.”
With national buzz about bikepacking increasing, including more products tailored to the needs of lightweight bike-hiking and camping, DeGaetano looks toward new conquests. He, Wilson and three other friends are considering a trans-North Carolinas tour akin to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
“My goals with mountain biking are getting bigger. I could see myself doing a 900-mile solo trip to Montreal or a trip to Argentina by bike. For now overnight trips or 50-to-100 mile trips locally, but it is definitely on the radar,” he said.
For a detailed map of Tour de West Virginia, visit https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14442501.
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