2017 : Shenandoah 500 Dual Sport Rally
When I discovered that the Shenandoah 500 Dual Sport was being held on my birthday this year, I decided that a weekend of dirt riding in the mountains of Virginia was exactly the present I wanted to give myself. After securing a hall pass from my wife with the promise that she could run the Yosemite Half Marathon this spring, I began pestering all of my friends who own street legal dirt bikes to come along. A few of the boys stepped up, so I reserved a group campsite at Natural Chimneys State Park and registered for the event.
The Washington Area Trail Riders (WATR) host the SH500 annually, but all of us were first timers and had no idea what to expect. WATR did a great job organizing the ride. Good food, friendly dudes, and most importantly, an epic and challenging route. This year's course took us up a number of the big peaks west of Harrisonburg in the George Washington National Forest, through a huge variety of terrain that included everything from rock ledges and overgrown jeep trails to perfectly groomed dirt roads and twisty blacktop.
I arrived late Friday night and pitched my tent in the dark without a good sense of where we were or how many people were there. I was awakened in the bitter cold of dawn on Saturday morning by the sound of a lone bike in a neighboring campsite kicking over and coughing to life. Within minutes, the beautiful valley was filled with the sound of dozens more engines revving up and barking from all directions. It was clear I would need to get out of my sleeping bag or be left behind.
Registration and tech inspection went quick, and I staggered into the shelter to find a roaring fire and a breakfast buffet already being attacked by my fellow riders. After a brief meeting with some last minute safety and route information, we geared up and headed for the gate. I would guess there were 250 bikes heading out along with us, but the truth is that could be off by a huge margin.
Our little 5 man crew was riding a strange mix of bikes - Steve on his BMW F800GS fresh from the Trans-America Trail, and John on an extremely shiny new-to-him KTM 990 had to work hard in the tight stuff where Rush's DZ400 and my KTM 400EXC bounced happily over the rocks, but everyone was hammering everywhere to keep up with Tim on his clapped out '86 XR600R. It may have been rusty and puking oil, but it started first kick every time and Tim seemed equally relaxed drifting sketchy gravel corners and blasting up the optional "hero" staircase sections.
I estimate I ate 5lbs of his dust on Saturday.
On the topic of dust, it was unusually dry this September, and the huge clouds trailing all the bikes impaired visibility to the point that everyone got caught out at least a couple times by unexpected corners or invisa-bumps. I had one fast downhill section where I simply didn't see a large rock until my front wheel was smashing into it. I managed to hang on and ride it out, but at least a few others weren't so lucky - we were passed twice by trucks coming up the mountain to fetch injured riders. The dust was also a problem for traction, and some of the roads had been recently covered in a deep layer of fresh, un-compacted gravel that caused the bikes to wallow and squirm, keeping us all on edge.
We made it to lunch the first day totally spent, but the fried chicken, hot coffee, and brief naps in the sun had us all feeling pretty good again by 2:30 or so, and we really only had another 30-40 miles of easy country roads and one mountain to cross to get back to camp. We made it back without incident, I took the best hot shower of my life, and we all gathered around the campfire for the evening.
The next morning was wickedly cold and my KTM's tiny little joke of a battery wasn't enough to fire the bike, so I warmed myself by kicking for 5 minutes until the boys felt sorry for me and pushed me down the road for a bump start. Tim had to head back to DC for a prior engagement, but the remaining 4 of us set out for the Sunday loop. I started the morning in the lead, and we quickly turned up out of the valley and began climbing Reddish Knob, a 4400 ft peak that stands guard between civilization and West Virginia. I don't know how far ahead of the others I was when I reached the cutoff to the summit, but I had been told not to miss the view, so I set off on the spur trail assuming that they would want to come up as well. I waited for about 5 minutes before I realized they were either in trouble or had skipped the cutoff. I hurried back to the intersection and waited a few more minutes, long enough to ask a passing group if they had seen anyone stopped in distress on the way up.
Cell service was non-existent and everyone was carrying a map and supplies, so I figured we'd all link up eventually. As it turned out, I didn't see them again until I pulled into camp 6 hours later, but that's getting ahead of myself.
Aside from the occasional faster or slower riders I shared the trail with for as long as it took to safely pass, I had the next 100 miles of pristine wilderness all to myself. At first I was worried that my friends were in trouble or that I would ride off a cliff and never be found, but once I accepted that there was nothing to be done but ride the bike out, I found a comfortable rhythm and began to really enjoy being alone. Sunday's terrain was less dusty and rocky, but also more remote and overgrown. Some of the roads were designed with regularly spaced grade reversals to help shed water and control erosion, and at speed it felt like the Forest Service had built us thousands of sweet smooth kicker jumps to make things interesting. A few times it was hard to tell if I was going the right way, but I mostly just followed the freshest looking ruts and looked for the tape they had hung in the trees to mark intersections.
Being alone and facing a long drive back to DC after the ride, I decided to bypass Sunday's optional hero section, and instead pointed my bike down the mountain. After what felt like 500 identical switchbacks, I popped out on the blacktop down in the Shenandoah Valley. At the trailhead, I noticed that my license plate was long gone, the flimsy DC tag snapped off just below the two mounting bolts. I spent the 20 mile road section worrying I was going to get pulled over, but I saw zero cops and rolled in to camp around 4pm to find my boys just cracking their post ride beers. We were all relieved and happily swapped battle stories before packing up.
While it's true in the case of the SH500 that the Forest Service roads we were riding are open to the public, I would hesitate to attempt a ride of this scale without serious planning and equipment. It was well worth the price of registration to know that the route was passable and that there was backup in case something went sideways - a group of experienced riders from WATR with radios, tools and gas scattered in the pack, plus sweep riders and volunteers in trucks manning key intersections. For our group, this safety net meant that getting separated didn't have to ruin anyone's day, but for some of the others out there it was even more crucial. The WATR guys kept at least a few folks from spending the night in the freezing woods with broken bikes or broken bodies while their buddies improvised a rescue mission in unknown country. They really make it possible to go farther and faster than you could go on your own.
All in all, a great event and one that I'm looking forward to attending again.