On two continents, 6,600 kilometers away from their home countries – we found two guys who literally swapped their lives: one in America, the other in Germany. How does biking feel in each of their new worlds? Who finds the best trails? Who drinks the best beer? Hear their stories and follow their adventures as they hit the trails in their new worlds.

Americans have no idea just how lucky they are with the amount of riding hotspots that their vast country holds. In fact, you could argue that there’s one mountain biking epicenter after another – and it’s a figure that keeps growing. Compared to the situation stateside, you’d think Germany was still in the Stone Age. I struggle to recall one single location where mountain bikers are welcomed and where the trails have any sort of legality. Perhaps it’s time for Germany to take a look over the other side of the Atlantic at what its big brother is made of.

In fact, Roanoke in Virginia on America’s East Coast could be a good point of reference. In part one of this travel story I recalled how I’d stumbled across this raw diamond in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where there’s such a mass of incredibly diverse trails. In part two I’m exploring it further, and trying to find answer to my questions. Just how did Roanoke, which is quite frankly in the middle of nowhere, manage to create more (and far better) trails than I’ve ever ridden in Germany? And just why is Roanoke still one of the Appalachian riding secrets even though it has the potential to rank as the East Coast’s next big mountain bike city?

Die hohe Kunst des Trailbaus: Roanoke vereint extrem spassige Lines mit professionell gebauten Landschaftsbau zur Perfektion.
The high art of trail building: Roanoke combines extremely fun lines with professional landscaping.
Flow for miles – professionell gebaut und nachhaltig erhaltbar. Viele US Trails wie hier an der Carvin's Cove sind auf absolutem Topniveau.
Flow for miles – many US trails like here in Roanoke offer top-level riding.

Organized Chaos

Our first Spot Check for ENDURO Mountainbike Magazine is becoming a reality. But first we’ve got to get our hands on a pick-up, as the tough trail riding network and photo shootings would be impossible without shuttling so many riders and bikes up and down the mountainside. Eventually we source a Dodge RAM 1500 with 5.7 litre engine – sweet deal! After friend and photographer Max touches down at the airport, we cruise along Interstate 81 through Shenandoah Valley in the southwest of Virginia. Taking highways in the USA is an experience; Americans might swoon over Germany’s Autobahns and fast cars, but I couldn’t be happier to have escaped the stress and constant fear of being overtaken at breakneck speed. Perhaps it’s my age, or my curiosity, but it seems like the USA just grants you a touch more time to admire the landscape and travel at a more pedestrian speed.

„Virginia is for Lovers". Shenandoah Valley und Blue Ridge Mountains bieten East Coast Flair vom Feinsten.
„Virginia is for (Bike)-Lovers“. Cruising through Shenandoah Valley – Flair of the southern states and American country-side.

The Interstate 81 doesn’t just offer views over the idyllic country-side but it’s also legendary amongst East Coast riders. The Appalachian valleys to the right and left are home to treasured riding spots such as Massanutten, Harrisonburg and Sherando Lake: bone-shaking ridge trails, overflowing with the eroded remnants of what was surely once the planet’s highest rocky mountain range. In autumn the whole region takes on the red and yellow hues of an Indian summer and the falling leaves transform the already pretty techy rock gardens into a serious gripless horror show. East Coast gnar at its best!

East Coast Trails sind ein zweischneidiges Schwert: Uphill fahrtechnisch eine Qual, bergab meist Spass pur.
East coast trails are frequently like a double-edged sword: Technically challenging uphill, pure fun downhill.

We’re heading to one of Salem’s long-established bike shops: “Just The Right Gear”. The name says it all; independent, great friendly service and staff that know their thru-axles from their pressfit bottom brackets. We’re stoked to pick up the new Yeti SB5C as Max’s rental bike, but there appears to be a different agenda floating around. I worry that my master plan is slipping out of my grasp and we’ll end up without a bike. Phew, just a temporary misunderstanding it transpires. Yeti-less, we leave the shop with a Santa Cruz Bronson. Not a bad alternative.

Klein aber fein: „Just the Right Gear Bikeshop in Salem bei Roanoke.
Small is good: Bikeshop “Just the Right Gear” in Salem close to Roanoke.

Pandapas Pond

The clock’s ticking and we’re chomping at the bit to get out on the bikes and scout the first shooting location, which comes courtesy of the guys from the Virginia Tech University (VT) and their glut of insider knowledge. It’s clear that they’re keen when it comes to showing off their home trails, which have been built on year after year in the Blue Ridge Mountains by fresh graduates of VT. We finally make it Blacksburg and hook up with the riders, and my ego and sense of national pride get a boost when I spot the brand new YT Industries TUES on the pick-up. Thanks to Cam Zink, the German direct order company are now selling (very successfully) to the US market too. But enough bike admiration, we decide. Foot down, we’re hitting 100 km/h as we shuttle in an open truck bed for the shoot.

Shuttle Ride mit der Blacksburg Crew.
Shuttle Ride with the Blacksburg Crew.

Annoyingly but typical of the humid South, a milky haze is drawn like a shutter over the sky, dispersing light rays through the canopy of leaves above our head, and it makes shooting trickier. The guys had talked about the incredibly brilliant trails, covering more than 30 miles, all ‘hand-built in Murica’ and everything from steep to rooty, with fist-sized rocks and so many different line choices. After shredding that, you’re back in the green tunnel of rhododendrons, crushing over the earth at speed with dirt flying up in your wake.

Padapas Pond Trails sind handgebaut, rough und schnell. Federweg ist hilfreich, aber keine Pflicht.
Pandapas Pond trails are hand-built, rough and pretty fast.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time to properly acquaint ourselves with these trails around Blacksburg, but they’re definitely one to have on the radar for a future ride. Before heading to Brett’s, one of the ‘Blacksburg Crew’, and his own backyard pumptrack, we buy some crucial supplies: burgers and jalapeños. Once there, the crew are well into their evening jump session so I get the BBQ going, dishing up some genuine homemade German potato salad as a thank you. What ride wouldn’t be complete without a craft beer to enjoy after a long day outside?

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Backyard-Pumptrack Session mit BBQ und Craft Beer.
Evening backyard-session with BBQ and craft beer.

The Cove – Share the Trail!

We end up driving on through the night and I can barely keep my eyes open. Our next accommodation is at ‘Eagle Landing’, a wilderness adventure camp in Newcastle, a small cluster of farms in the Jefferson National Forest. With wooden huts scattered around the camp, a faint glow and the crackle of a bonfire greets us. Sean, the camp manager, emerges with some welcoming beers for us and we’re struck by just how authentic (yet clichéd) the evening is turning out – a beer, a bonfire, wilderness guides and a star-filled sky. The camp usually hosts kids in the summer time, an escape from the big city and a chance to try backpacking, kayaking, climbing, fishing and mountain biking.

Wilderness Adventure Camp „Eagle Landing“ bei Newcastle: Das perfekte Basecamp fuer Back-Packing, Klettern und Mountainbiking in den Blue Ridge Mountains.
Wilderness adventure camp „Eagle Landing“ next to Newcastle: the perfect basecamp for back-packing, climbing and mountain biking in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The next day’s destination is Carvin’s Cove, a picture-perfect reservoir that’s encircled by well-mapped trails that have been built by locals with support from the town. Sculpted and purpose-built, they’re such mellow and well-groomed trails that you know pros have had a hand in it – so much flow can’t have occurred by chance. Only a few trails verge on gnarly, but that’s not what this area is about. The trail network is intended to appeal equally to mountain bikers, horse riders and hikers. ‘Share the trail’ is the motto, and it appears to be accepted by any trail users. Quite unlike Germany…

Chasing Sean: der Camp Manager von Eagle Landing zeigt uns seine Lieblingstrails an der Cove.
Chasing Sean: the camp manager of “Eagle Landing” takes us to his favorite trails at the Cove.
Share the Trail: Carvin's Cove ist perfekt gestriegelt und meist ohne böse Überraschungen.
Share the Trail: Carvin’s Cove is perfectly groomed and without nasty surprises.

The local chapter of the International Mountain Bike Association [IMBA] is responsible for this flush 50-mile trail network. For decades, the IMBA USA have long made it their mission to spread the art of trail building, sharing how to create and maintain environmentally-sound MTB routes. Moreover, the non-profit organization work to lobby municipal and park administration groups to raise the profile of mountain biking up to the eyes of the politicians – making them pretty much the only group of lobbyists that I can feel passionate about.

Kein Baumstamm, keine Erosionsrinne stört den Fahrspaß an der Cove. Trailpflege deluxe!
Trail care deluxe! No tree trunk, no ruts “disrupt” riding pleasure.

But there’s still more to Roanoke, and you won’t find any stray treetrunks or devious water run-offs masquerading as trails at the Cove. Trail care deluxe! As I can’t quite get my head around just who puts so much effort into this trail network, I turn to Renee Powers, an outdoor recreation specialist commissioned by the city to look after Roanoke’s bike trails. She tells me about the fairytale levels of symbiosis between the hikers, bikers and horseback riders. Lots of horse riders take chainsaws with them to get rid of any deadwood immediately, while riders keep trails intact, build new sections and link up the various nooks of the Cove piece by piece. The huge numbers of hikers are the drive for big projects that dive into the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a result, every single individual benefits from the work of the others, without any signs of hostility. Respect is a word that they all seem fairly familiar with.

American Craft Pride

The Upper Cove is where we meet the core of Roanoke’s rider scene – more specifically, they’re out on the Old Gauntlet, a 1km-long jump line, which would make any bike park green with envy. The Old Gauntlet [OG] is rammed with berm combos, tables and some pretty hefty gaps. As we’re riding, the rain showers get heavier, before the sun finally makes another appearance and the trails dry virtually instantaneously. Professionally built with machines, the Blue Ridge Gravity crew put in around 1,000 hours of their free time to create this mega spot. The town initially helped to finance the project and then Roanoke’s riding community did their bit to keep the momentum going. While it’s far from being a ‘new’ riding spot, they’re stoked to have evolved it into what it is today from its origins as a scattering of illegal trails.

OG Jumpline an der Carvin's Cove. Das Herzstueck der Blue Ridge Gravity Crew.
OG Jump-Line at the Carvin’s Cove. The center-point for the “Blue Ridge Gravity” crew.
Old Gauntlet bietet Features, auf die jeder gute Bikepark neidisch sein koennte.
Old Gauntlet offers features that could make any bike park jealous.
Wer runter will muss erst mal rauf: Locals wie Ben vertrauen in Roanoke stark auf leichte Trailbikes.
Anyone who wants to ride down needs to get to the top first: Locals in Roanoke rely on light and versatile bikes like the YETI SB66 Carbon.

Our riding session gets another lease of life, with plush bike park and enduro bikes, hardtails, dirt jumpers and 29ers – there’s everything here to merit a seriously fun day of riding and no stress on the horizon. Line choices are discussed, and the banter between the crew is exactly what you’d expect! “The only Double you do is at Wendy’s!” “What, are you trying to say I am fat?” and the like!


Parkway Brewery bei Salem: Handgebraute Craft-Beers made in Virginia.
Parkway Brewery close to Salem: Hand-brewed craft-beers made in Virginia.

In the evenings everyone heads to Roanoke’s local brewery, which – while in its current state of reconstruction isn’t necessary the most photogenic locale – has a very refreshingly different bluegrass band on stage and a ton of hand-brewed craft beers. Note: the pretty strong “Get Bent” IPA is our firm favourite! Amongst the huge beer brewing vats and bottling units, everyone’s sat at German-style beer tables and there’s a satisfying absence of TVs and smartphones. “It’s all about community and good beers here,” reveals Keno, the proud founder of this craft beer house, says with a smile. And they’re not short of knowledge here either, as his business partner and brewing master studied the fine art of brewing beer over in good ol’ Germany.

Amerika's Craft Beer Tradition hat recht wenig mit dem strikten deutschen Reinheitsgebot zu tun. Verdammt lecker ist es trotzdem.
America’s craft beer tradition has little to do with the German purity law. Nevertheless it’s absolutely delicious.

North Mountain – Dragon’s Back

Naturally, shredding established trails is always a pleasure, but true adventure seekers need to head to Roanoke’s backcountry, right into the depths of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The guys tell us about the hundreds of miles of ancient ridge and scout trails, which even they haven’t managed to exhaust yet. As the maps don’t prove much use once you stray off the beaten path, you have to rely on local guides such as Roanoke Mountain Adventures. As some of the trails date back to the civil war (1861 – 1865) and others were carved out by the indigenous tribes in North America, I really have the feeling I’ve been thrown back into a true Karl May classic, weaving a tale of cowboys and Indians.

Hike and Bike in Roanoke. Viele der unbekannten Back-Country Trails wie den Dragon's Back muss man sich bitter erkaempfen.
Hike & bike in Roanoke. One has to fight hard for many of the less known back-country trails like the Dragon’s Back.

Before the sun has even risen we’re on our bikes. With the local’s warning of bears ringing in our ears, I worry about having left my bear spray back at home in DC, and the following day’s headlines flash before my eyes: ‘German eaten by black bear!” We end up doing the classic hike & bike, pretty similar to the Alps but a lot more humid. Sweat is pouring off us, but we’re assured that the ridge trail will be worth it. Views would be nice too on the ascent, but there are still too many oak trees. I’m hopeful about breaking the tree line and realigning my geography of the Roanoke region.

Jameson, Ken und Ben: unsere Local Guides fuer den Back-Country Ride.
Ben, Jameson and Ken: our local guides for the back-country ride.

After around an hour we reach the highest point, where the Dragon’s Back trail is waiting for us with its rocks and super high-speed sections. Said to be a serious ride down the spine of a dragon, this is far removed from a groomed bench cut trail, it’s off-camber, narrow and technical in certain parts. I’d call it old school gnar, and it takes me back momentarily to the Alps. My favourite sort of mountain biking; this is genuine, wild and breathtaking. And the ride confirms my initial judgment: Roanoke truly is a raw, uncut diamond. Thank you, mountain gods! Thank you, riders who have put work into this!

Alte Gradtrails meilenweit: die schier unendliche Weite der Blue Ridge Mountains  macht Roanoke zum  zum perfekten Bikespot im Sueden Virginias.
Old ridge trails everywhere: the sheer endless expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains makes Roanoke the ideal bikespot in South Virginia.

Riding with us on the sunny morning is Ken from Asheville, North Carolina, a staple figure in the Appalachian bike scene for decades, who declares: “Roanoke is the place to be, believe me!” Nowhere else will you find so many amazing trails, which so few people know about. But just how has this incredible spot stayed under the radar? Unfortunately, the whole of the East Coast seems to be consistently overlooked, and only certain locations such as Asheville, NC, garners any hint of national attention. The media and the industry tend to focus on the West side of the USA, with California, Colorado and the pacific North West and desert states just getting more attention as being the heart of mountain biking. Yet the advantage of these ‘forgotten’ trails on the East Coast means that they’re never over-run with riders and you can go for hours without seeing another soul. But there’s always a disadvantage and that’s visible in the number of now lost and overgrown trails, as maintaining them just doesn’t seem purposeful.

Mountainbiking true to the game: Trotz perfekten Flowtrails haben uns die natuerlichen Back-Country Trails am meisten zugesagt.
“Mountain biking true to the game”: Despite the sensational flowtrails, the natural trails around Roanoke were our favorite.

This is why it’s so crucial and commendable that regions such as Roanoke have recognized mountain biking’s potential in terms of outdoor tourism, and their efforts are laudable. By collaborating with local riders and trail groups to keep the trail network intact, signposted and ever expanded, the bike community are kept on board. Mountain biking is now so much more than a niche sport and it’s going to keep growing in popularity, so decent trails and bike-friendly communities are a necessity – not just in the USA but in Germany too, which – if you ask me – is skulking along with an outdated attitude.

More information to Roanoke:

Blue Ridge Gravity | Bikeshop “Just the Right Gear” | Wilderness Adventure Camp “Eagle Landing” | Roanoke Mountain Adventures | Roanoke Outside BikeIMBA Chapter Roanoke | Parkway Brewery

Enjoyed this story? Take a trip to the rest of the series: Introduction | Freiburg | Goodbye Germany | Stromberg | What a Small World it is | My First European Bike Trip | Let the Games Begin! | Getting to Know the Shapers of Châtel | Roanoke – A Diamond in the Rough, Part 1 | Making Friends in High Places

Words: Steffen Gronegger Photos: Max Leitner Photography, Steffen Gronegger

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