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Trail Mix: Pickin’ and Spinnin’ with the Steel Wheels

The road gets long for hard-touring bands like the Steel Wheels, the popular Virginia-based string outfit currently on a summer jaunt in support of new record Wild As We Came Here.

Members of the nimble-fingered quartet, which formed more than a decade ago, often break up the monotony of travel by biking in and around the towns where they play shows. The avid cyclists hail from Harrisonburg, a well-known biking town, and they’ve even done some short tours on two wheels, pulling their instruments on bike trailers. This month the band will host its annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival, which will also feature sets from Steve Earle, Lake Street Dive, and Mandolin Orange.

At the festival, located in the Shenandoah Valley near the band’s hometown in Mt. Solon, Va., members will be leading group rides with attendees before the music starts. Before the event, singer and guitarist Trent Wagler and bassist Brian Dickel shared details on some of their favorite rides in the region.

Trent Wagler on the Road

Pilot Mountain , Pilot Mountain, N.C.

41 miles, 4,053 ft. elevation

“There is nothing like an extremely prominent mountain on the cycling itinerary to get your blood flowing. Pilot Mountain is one of the best, peering over the rolling North Carolina mountains with an unmistakable rocky outcropping. When we rode this as a band, we rolled out with a group ride from the local community center, taking a pretty direct route to the state park where the climb starts.

“It’s a beauty. The road winds up a little over two miles, averaging a nine-percent grade to the top where we regrouped with some high-fives and pointed our wheels back down the hill. The rest of the ride is a picturesque tour of rolling hills. Since the mountain is an up and back, this ride is suitable for beginner to intermediate riders.”

Shenandoah Mtn. / Reddish Knob, Harrisonburg, Va.—Sugar Grove, W.Va.

78 miles, 7,161ft. elevation

“This ride includes two of the best road climbs reachable from Harrisonburg in less than 80 miles. A morning leave time usually yields a calm route, but on weekends or later in the day this road can be busy with cars. Mile 20 brings you to Shenandoah Mountain, a good time to test your legs, but be sure you don’t spend all your energy here. The descent into West Virginia off the backside of Shenandoah has some switchbacks, but it’s a fun descent with nice pavement. Once you get to the bottom of the hill, you’ve entered Brandywine, W.Va., one of the only towns on this route, so make sure you’re set with food and water. This part of West Virginia always feels a little further away from everything, in a peaceful way.

“When you make it to Reddish Knob Rd., you’ve come to the start of the real climb for the day. There is a temptation at the state line to stop rather than endure the final two miles to the very top of Reddish Knob, but that is foolish. There isn’t a better 360-degree view of the mountains of Virginia/West Virginia anywhere. The route back to town has a few patches of gravel road to mix it up, and one more local favorite called Mole Hill to round out a truly wonderful ride.”

Brian Dickel’s Fat Tire Favorite

North River / Little Bald / Chestnut Ridge, Stokesville, Va.

27 miles, 4,200 ft. elevation

“When you park at the Wild Oak Trail parking lot near Stokesville, the hardest part is choosing which epic backcountry singletrack trail you want to ride. Thanks to the amazing work of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition and Shenandoah Mountain Touring, the list grows longer every year. One of my favorites—taking the long way up to the Chestnut Ridge descent via the North River Trail. It’s a much easier route than the traditional slog up Horse Trough Hollow, but it does come at a price of adding considerable length to reach the ridgeline.

“North River is not one you want to attempt during the wet season, as there are numerous stream crossings that can get deep when the water is really flowing. You gain the majority of the elevation in the first 18 miles, essentially entirely uphill, but at a more moderate rate of steepness than most Virginia backcountry routes.

“The payoff is the insanely good Chestnut Ridge that makes up a part of the Wild Oak Trail. Chestnut is six miles of fast ridge descending with a couple punchy uphills to make you remember that your legs are rubber from the previous climbs. The beautiful part about riding in this area is if you feel like your day isn’t quite done, you only need to pedal a few miles down the road to add on the classic Lookout Mountain Loop or Trimble Mountain.”

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