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A 700-mile bikepacking journey across the Mountain State

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By Joseph DeGaetano

Adventure cyclists Alex Wilson (left) and Joseph DeGaetano of Fayetteville took a 700-plus-mile bike tour of West Virginia last year. The route they mapped out is a loop that avoids highways and sticks to trails, paths and back roads. Wilson is a native of Elizabeth and now lives in Park City, Utah.
Alex Wilson on a Spruce Knob Summit Trail.
Joe DeGaetano lives at Fayetteville, where he is a social studies teacher at Fayetteville High School. He loves climbing and cycling. In this photo, he shows what he calls his “deer in the headlights” look.
DeGaetano and Wilson take a break on North Fork Mountain.

About three years ago, life caught up to me, and I found myself desperately trying to sequester time to fulfill my obsession with rock climbing to no real avail. There was no way I could sustain my climbing level and obsessive psyche AND balance my family life at the same time.

So, I did what any good man would do, and chose to prioritize my family over my passion. Needless to say, it was a hard pill to swallow and one that put me into a desperate tailspin with the ground fast approaching. 

Looking back on it now, I was having a serious identity crisis. You see, I’d been a climber since I was 18. I’d spent entire summers in Yosemite climbing some of the best routes in the Valley and some of the most beautiful and difficult alpine routes in the Sierras. I’d climbed all over the Rockies, the desert and up and down the East Coast. I even moved to my current home of West Virginia for the amazing climbing found in the New River Gorge.

My entire being was wrapped around climbing, and now I found myself completely and utterly lost. I tried to wrap my head around things and thought to myself, “Was I destined to become that pudgy dad who got his kicks coaching his son’s soccer team?” Arghhh!

It was during this time that I began to get to know a few of the bikers around town and began to explore the local trails. I’d done a fair share of mountain biking in my past, but it was always a secondary sport for me. I rarely rode for more than an hour and a half and I never really planned adventures around biking.

But that changed fast. I realized pretty quickly that biking checked all the boxes to fit into my life as a family man; I didn’t need a partner, two hours after work was more than enough time to keep Daddy happy and biking was both adventurous and required a new set of skills that I was quickly beginning to get stoked on. Not to get all Darwinian here, but I was slowly evolving into a cyclist.

During this period, I became acquainted with Andy, a local rider who was cut from a different cloth than the rest of the local gang. His bikes were always decked out with some sort of storage system and often times were adorned with a peregrine feather. He would drop lines about riding out to such and such and camping at such and such.

It became clear to me that biking to him was an extension of exploring. That’s how I always felt about climbing and what I loved the most about it. The bigger, further, most adventurous routes were always my favorite. It didn’t take long before I realized that I could merge mountain biking with my passion for backcountry adventure.

Andy armed me with just enough help to get me moving in the right direction, but knowing very well that if I was truly going to become a member of the “amateur homeless personing” tribe, I was going to have be self-sufficient and learn the ropes of bikepacking on my own.

Fast forward to 2016 with backstory in tow, I now had a few tours under my belt and was ready for something bigger, something that allowed me to really see all the beauty and ruggedness of the “Wild and Wonderful” state. By this time, my main riding partner was my friend Alex, who was 10 years younger than me and was always ready to kick my butt anytime the trails turned gnarly.

Alex and I made a good team. He is everything I am not. He is a damn good technical rider who attacks the downhills with reckless abandon. He is quieter and more reserved than I am, but when he says something, he speaks with maturity and intelligence beyond his age. His small-town West Virginian upbringing is completely the opposite of my suburban childhood.

Somehow, though, 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. I never told Alex this, but there was never any question in my mind that Alex would be my partner for what I began to call the Tour de WV.

After many hours of geeking out over multiple online and hard-copy maps, and gaining local beta from Andy and others, I had engineered a route that had become a 700-plus-mile circumnavigation of the state. The route connects the best sections of trail riding, around wilderness areas, through wildlife management areas and national forests by utilizing the hundreds of miles of backcountry singletrack, double track, four-wheeler paths, dirt and gravel roads, rail trails and country roads that characterize our landscape. By linking outdoorsy hubs such as Fayetteville, Davis, and Seneca with the urban environments of Morgantown, Clarkesburg and Charleston, you get to clearly see both the vast and stark dichotomies of West Virginia. Along the route, you travel through the New River Gorge National River, Cranberry Wildlife Management Area, Monongahela National Forest, Snowshoe Ski Resort, Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, around the Roaring Plains Wilderness Area and Dolly Sods Wilderness, Blackwater Falls State Park, Cathedral State Park, North Bend State Park, Charles Fork Lake, Kanawha State Forest and Plum Orchard Lake. The route uses many classic mountain bike trails of West Virginia, such as Kennison Mountain Trail, Propp’s Ridge, Huckleberry Trail, Seneca Creek Trail, the North Fork Mountain Trail, Plantation Trail and the Kaymoor Trail, among many lesser-known others. The route uses the West Fork “rail trail” from Durbin to Glady, the entire Decker Creek Rail Trail and the entire North Bend Rail Trail.

All in all, the route was one of the greatest adventures of my life. Traveling and living off the bike for 10 days with a good friend was an experience that I will never forget, and one that has stuck with me and has me yearning for a whole lot more of it. Climbing is still a part of me and one layer that will probably never be shed, but it’s safe to say that I’ve re-emerged as an adventure cyclist and because of that I’m both invigorated and excited about my future.

The great Edward Abbey once wrote, “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile, than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles.” It is in that spirit that the Tour de West Virginia was born and lives on today.

A few notes about the route:

• The route is a loop and could be started anywhere, but the most logical places to start or end are Fayetteville, Davis, Morgantown and Charleston.

• The section from Fayetteville to Davis (300 miles) is very mountainous and contains the majority of the elevation found within the route.

• Approximately 60 percent (435 miles) of the route is off-road riding.

• There are many sections along the route where you will not have cell signal or have any services. Expect multiple 50-mile stretches of backcountry riding. Study the route, bring maps and plan accordingly. With that said, there’s just enough resupply points to allow for not carrying multiple days’ worth of provisions.

• Water is rarely an issue and can be found all over the route.

• This route includes some very rugged trails that many would argue are full-suspension territory. With that said, a hardtail or even a rigid mountain bike is suitable and preferred for most of the route.

• Quality bike shops can be found in Fayetteville, Snowshoe Ski Resort, Davis, Morgantown and Charleston.

• We did this route in 10 days in touring style. In this style, I’d say plan for anywhere from nine to 14 days to finish it. Racing this route would be proud, and I’d imagine some could finish it in just under four days with very little sleep. The challenge has been set.

• A longer version of Joseph DeGaetano’s story was posted on bikepacker.com. To check it out, as well as a map of the route and more photos, go to http://bikepacker.com/tour-de-west-virginia/


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