Above the Beltway
Since 2007, Lost River Barn has been DC racing’s retreat of choice
The coffee maker was topping off a fresh pot when I came downstairs, but I loaded up another filter and left it waiting on the counter anyway. Riding from Lost River Barn, there are no stops at europhilic cafes for cappuccinos and pain au chocolat, so you get your caffeine when and where you can.
West Virginia is a long way from pro team training hotspots like Calpe or Tenerife and we are a long way from pros. But for Washington, DC area cyclists, this outpost on the top of Branch Mountain is our Teide: Removed from the distractions of daily life, graced with good climbs and light traffic.
Jay Moglia, the Barn’s owner, guide, and guru, shouts his hellos from the front door, checking on laundry machines and supplies as he winds back to the dining room where we’re eating breakfast. The salt-and-pepper stubble, the old flannel shirt over his kit and the toque don’t shout “pro,” but he’s the only one in the room to have sniffed that level of racing. You can tell by the legs.
Route planning is quick, straightforward, and profoundly non-Instagramable. There are no downloadable GPS routes, no photogenic tracing of lines on paper maps. Just a question: “How long do you guys want to go?” You answer, then you follow Jay.
In half an hour, cleats clack across wide plank floors, gathering the last bits and pieces for a long day out. Sunscreen, another tube, one more gel. Then we emerge through a human door set into the massive barn door built for cows and tractors, then through the porch’s screen door and out into the sun-soaked gravel driveway. We’ll be back in five hours, give or take.
The rhythmic screech-slam of that screen door is the punch clock of days at the Barn. Between punching out and punching back in, there is standard training log fodder — miles and hours, watts and TSS. But there are also long, meandering conversations about jobs and kids and home renovation, poultry farming and dogs, deals on cosmetically blemished framesets, pro racing, our own racing, and a dozen other things nobody remembers. There are the alternating moments of trying to kill each other and trying to save each other. Later, we’ll eat dinner, watch Jeopardy! and a documentary about marathon running, and drink beers. All of that is as much a part of the Barn as the miles and miles of brutal West Virginia roads.
Alternately known as the Raw Talent Ranch, the Barn is the manifestation of Moglia’s vision of establishing a training base where DC bike racers could escape crushing traffic and limited riding for a weekend or a week. An earlier plan to build cabins in Virginia’s Fort Valley, just west of Shenandoah National Park, didn’t pan out. Just across the West Virginia border, Moglia found more fertile ground.
Hardy County is not the West Virginia of ski resorts and national forests, where the 24 Hours of Canaan helped birth endurance mountain biking in the early 1990s and Snowshoe Mountain hosted the NORBA circus in the early 2000s. Situated in the eastern panhandle, Hardy County is still working country, with its traditional agriculture now supplemented by two large cabinet makers and a pair of Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plants.
Cut through by the South Branch of the Potomac River, Hardy County suits the Barn, a workmanlike getaway for working bike racers from downriver. From mid-March onwards, a steady stream of big-tent clubs, selective elite teams, and everything in between make their way west to knuckle down ahead of season goals. Those camps book up 20 to 25 weekends a year, with more weeks filled by less formal groups looking to hit the area’s web of pavement, gravel, and trails.
The distance from the Beltway takes hold in the final hour of the drive, when interstate traffic and big box chains give way to two-lane blacktop, indifferent cows, and country stores. If another reminder is needed that this is not DC — or even the genteel Virginia horse country that separates the capital from Appalachia — the occasional jar of moonshine waiting on the kitchen table should do it.
“It’s a hundred and thirty miles, and you’re not just out in the country. It’s significant that it’s not in Marshall,” Moglia says, citing Education First-Drapac rider Joe Dombrowski’s hometown about halfway between DC and the Barn.
“It’s significant because it’s just a whole other world. Marshall is beautiful, but Lost River is Appalachia. Full blown Appalachia. You can go down a holler and find someone who’s still putting stuff in jars, or old timers with a big garden and acreage, and they’re down there working, and maybe they’ve never left the holler. That actually exists.”
Up on the hill rather than down in the holler, the Barn offers hospitality that the old moonshiner below might not. A hive of guestrooms ranging from queen bed singles to bunkhouse-style quads to a nearly hidden loft spring from spacious common areas, including the cavernous former hayloft upstairs, its block and chain still intact. It can be difficult to count, but all told, there are beds for 21 riders; more if a few guests are especially close friends or willing to inflate an air mattress on the hayloft floor. The Barn’s rates reflect its potential capacity — it is $800 a weekend for up to six guests and $120 for each additional guest. DC’s District Velocity Racing team holds the unofficial capacity record at 25 riders.
There are no well-ordered hallways or numbered guestrooms, and finding teammates can take some work if you don’t know where to look. This is not George Hincapie’s posh Hotel Domestique, three states south at the other end of the Appalachians. It is a barn reborn, and beneath its warm, rough-edged style, its roots still shine through. Farmer Grover Funkhauser built the barn in the late 1930s with chestnut oak he cut and milled onsite. The barn housed a cattle operation run by the Funkhausers and the Mathias family, the namesake of the nearby town of Mathias, and it remained a working barn until 1990.
By the time Moglia first saw it in 2005, though, the working farm was gone and two human families had joined their dogs, goats, and pot-bellied pigs in an alarmingly communal living arrangement. A single remaining cow was the only semblance of a cattle operation, and the crudely constructed living quarters slapped together in the Barn’s interior were piled high with junk.
“Value is in the land” is a common refrain in rural real estate listings, and for most of the Barn’s potential buyers, that would have been the case. Moglia, though, was looking through the dirt, clutter, and poor carpentry to Funkhauser’s massive beams, still sound despite it all. Even better, the outward condition brought the 4,000 square feet of potential living space and 7 surrounding acres into Moglia’s price range — but only just. As a working messenger, there wasn’t much room for error in the purchase.
“Me being a bike messenger with a limited safety net, it required a full throttle push for sure,” he says of getting the funds together. “The up side is that it pushes me riding. The idea and notion of a lodge for cycling was a motivating bridge, to offer a corny cycling metaphor, but that’s the reality. It seemed like my best and maybe only chance at a tangible endeavor in cycling. And I didn’t want to take business loans. Probably even if I did they wouldn’t have been granted.”
He signed the papers, and he and partner Audrey Taucher commuted from DC every weekend for a year and a half to muck out and renovate the space. Friends and teammates were the first guests in late 2006, and in 2007 Lost River Barn officially opened its doors. It remains a passion project, but one that has grown into a profitable business, if not a full-time career for Moglia. He still does courier work in DC three or four days a week between weekends in West Virginia.
Today, the Barn could — and sometimes does — pass for a rustic bed and breakfast, a good spot for a family reunion or a yoga retreat. It doesn’t take a cyclist to appreciate the views or the quiet or the mountaintop breeze, but a close look around betrays its true purpose. Like the road to hell, the driveway is lined with old Spinergy Rev X wheels, and below the main living area, the old animal stalls house a bike shop with tools, pumps, and workstands. An adjacent dirt floored space fits even a large club’s worth of bikes and keeps everything dry and secure between rides. Back upstairs, a big screen TV and collection of race videos stands ready for a legs up evening on the huge sectional sofa.
In keeping with the appetites of its guests, the kitchen is stocked with pasta pots and basic supplies of staples like sugar, coffee, and spices. It’s no quick trip to the store if guests arrive without. Two whirlpool tubs help wash away the aches and pains of the road, and low on a front bathroom shelf there’s a ready supply of Tegaderm, gauze, and an ominously large bottle of hydrogen peroxide to address more acute pains. Because shit happens, no matter how idyllic the setting and the roads may be.
Guns, grits, and gravel
And the setting and the roads are idyllic. With a population of about 14,000, there are about 24 people per square mile in Hardy County, a statistic that’s juiced by the higher density in Moorefield, the county seat. In the Lost River district, the number drops to 15 per square mile. Compared with DC’s 10,000 per square mile, it’s an airy feeling. The low-density population and relatively high-density road network make for plenty of free blacktop for long, low-traffic rides, and the dirt and gravel farm roads that crisscross the area add variety and expand the route options.
“I’m still finding cuts and cut-throughs and little spots to build routes out of, so teams that have been coming for six and seven years, I can still find new things for them,” Moglia says.
With an encyclopedic knowledge of the roads built up over a decade, Moglia can tweak routes depending on a group’s abilities and goals and keep things fresh, even over a week’s riding. He’s notorious for upselling a longer route, given the opportunity. If he says a nice stretch of road just over the hill will only add a few miles, it’s best to get specifics. For planning purposes, though, the formula for a Barn ride is simple — for every 10 miles, figure on 100 vertical feet of climbing. Easy enough, right?
“Seventy miles, 7,000 feet doesn’t sound that outrageous, but you have however many little 100 meter risers that go to 20 percent in the middle,” says Moglia. “One or two or three or four of those can crush you. That only adds up to not even 500 feet, but all that added together…”
Added together, those Appalachian foothill jabs can deliver a knockout punch, and they’re interesting and challenging enough to keep pros coming back. Virginia’s two World Tour pros, Dombrowski and Dimension Data’s Ben King, are regular visitors.
Dombrowski started coming when he rode for local elite team Haymarket Bicycles as a teenager, and still comes each off-season when he returns from his European base in Nice. In November, he typically joins up with King and longtime mountain bike pro Jeremiah Bishop, who lives just over the border in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and an assortment of local heavy hitters. The pros’ affection for the barn is reflected in their signed jerseys hanging above the giant farmhouse table in the dining room — Dombrowski’s Bontrager-Livestrong, a RadioShack from King, and Bishop’s yellow leader’s jersey from the Pisgah Stage Race.
At that time of year, though, this is no training camp. It’s more about hitting the gravel roads and trails and drinking beers around the bonfire. To its participants, the weekend is known as GGG.
“GGG stands for Guns, Grits, and Gravel, which captures the atmosphere of the trip,” says King. “We shoot guns, make big fires, eat like kings, play and record music, and do giant bike rides.”
King also uses the Barn to jump start his training after the off-season, mentally and physically.
“The Barn is a place I go to remember why I love to ride my bike,” he says. “A trip to the barn usually kicks off my first long block of training for the new season. After a long off-season it can be daunting, exhausting, and discouraging to restart the build, but not when I’m up in the mountains with my friends doing it because I love it.”
King cites Helmick Rock Road, a lesser-used gravel grunt up the eastern slope of Branch Mountain as a favorite ride. Dombrowski favors the ride to the top of Spruce Knob, 65 miles from the Barn and, at 4,863 feet, the highest point in West Virginia. At 130 miles round trip from the Barn and a few vertical miles of climbing, it’s a pro-level outing. Even if you turn around at Smokehole Caverns around halfway to Spruce Knob, though, the topography delivers.
“There’s this one section of road along the creek near Smokehole, and it’s really twisty and up-and-down and it’s just beautiful,” says Dombrowski. “Then you finish coming up the backside climb back up to the barn. It’s a big ride and there’s some great scenery, and finishing with the climb is nice. I’ve enjoyed that.”
Dombrowski might be one of the only visitors to enjoy the climb that takes riders the final five miles back to the Barn from the north. There is a more gentle approach, from the southeast winding up through shady Lost River State Park, but a full trip to the Barn isn’t complete without a showdown on the steeper, more brutal northern route.
The white clapboard Harpers Chapel Church of the Brethren marks the start of the climb proper, and while the Brethren preach peace and nonresistance at its foot, for riders, there’s plenty of torment and resistance ahead. From the church’s driveway, the road climbs from 900 feet to 2,500 feet in the space of 4.4 miles before it tops off at the ridge road, and sections touch 20 percent.
When Moglia was deciding whether to purchase the Barn, it was hard to say whether the climb was an asset or a liability.
“At the beginning, I did think that it might preempt people who are not racers,” he recalls. “And there was another spot in the valley that was kind of nice, too, closer to town. It was almost a toss-up. But [the climb] adds to it. It’s just that little extra bit that pushes the level in training.”
For years, Dombrowski held the best time, but since he was riding with one of Bishop’s head units that day, all the Strava glory fell to the mountain biker. His time has since been eclipsed by triathlete Chris Nocera, who clocked in at 27:31, an average of just under 10 miles per hour. Having finished a few grand tours now, Dombrowski can laugh off the loss of local glory, but Moglia hopes that he’ll take another crack at the hill someday, this time under his own name.
“It was way off-season, and he wasn’t really riding,” Moglia says. “I’d like to see him set a competitive time.”
The spirit of the whole thing
With or without World Tour climbing prowess, the roads around the Barn have plenty to offer, from low traffic to high training load. To that demography and topography, the Barn adds a communal environment that encourages teammates to hang out, interact, and forge bonds that will serve them well in the final kilometers of a crit or road race.
“Being out there, being on the roads for four, five, six hours, and getting tired out there and dealing with each other in those situations after a long day, you learn a lot about each other,” says Jared Nieters, who owns Haymarket Bicycle Studio and rides for its elite team. “And then you go spend the time immediately afterwards with everyone also, the social time. It gives an intensity of interaction with your teammates, and whether that’s a club that takes the racing a little less seriously, or a team that wants to be the launchpad for young riders, there’s a value to that regardless.”
Sometimes, Moglia can see the bonds forming in real time. He remembers a recent visit by Backbone Performance, a coaching outfit affiliated with Cadence Cycling and Multisport Centers in Philadelphia. When Moglia walked in on Friday morning, one of the juniors was in a frenzy in the kitchen, churning out round after round of pancakes and sausage for his companions. The aspiring chef left behind two bowls and a pan filled with grease, but Moglia didn’t mind.
“He was making a feast for his crew. The main thing was the spirit of the whole thing. The cooking was so enthusiastic,” Moglia says. “The kid was in the kitchen just rocking. I love that.”
The value found in a long weekend of riding, recuperating, and relaxing in the relative isolation of the mountain can transcend the colors on a kit. Last year, Erin Connor of DC women’s team Sticky Fingers thought the women’s peloton would benefit from better ties among riders, teammates or not.
“I wanted more women working together and riding together and knowing who they’re riding with, and fostering a culture where, instead of bitching behind people’s backs when they do something shady in a race, we go talk to them,” says Conner. “I was hoping that in the margins, between the riding times, we can have some of these conversations.”
Conner, already a Barn veteran, knew that getting away from the city could serve that purpose better than trying to force relationship-building into the dynamics of local group rides or the stress of a race day. She targeted Easter weekend. To the outside world, it is a weekend rife with potential scheduling conflicts, but for her target audience, it was a rare spring weekend without a local race, and the Barn was available. She sent out Facebook invites far and wide, to roadies, cross racers, mountain bikers — any woman interested in a few days of hard riding and hanging in the mountains. Twelve riders signed up, and the MABRA women’s weekend — better known as Bike Church — was born.
“We hung out, we cooked and ate together, we did some drinking together. We didn’t get up and ride super early. We got in big days,” Conner says. “I think it struck a good balance in that the Barn itself is really nicely set up, really comfortable. It has this nice vibe in that if you want to have some alone time, you can find a nook and have some alone time. If you want to hang around everybody, you can hang around everybody.”
This year, Bike Church expanded to 16 parishioners who dug into three days worth of tarmac and gravel, as well as an impromptu Friday night hayloft show from DC Americana band Run Come See. Conner also brought in Kate Schrock, a mechanic from DC shop The Bike Rack, to attend to the tweaked wheels, dodgy shifting, and worn brakes that accumulated along the way.
“I have some friends who said, ‘oh, I’ll come and wrench for you guys,” says Conner. “But they’re dudes, and that can kind of throw off the mix a little bit. I thought I’d like to get a female wrench involved.”
Working class prideful
Bike Church is not the only event the Barn’s combination of setting, capacity, and personality have attracted. In February of 2009, Moglia helped Rapha put together a Lost River ride for the third edition of its Continental project. The clothing brand returned last year, but this time it wasn’t Rapha’s select squad tackling the non-stop rollers and kickers in cool winter weather. The Rapha Prestige Appalachia threw 25 four-rider teams onto the backroads in August, peak season for mid-Atlantic heat and humidity. Only five teams finished intact after 112 miles and 10,500 feet of climbing that finished back in the Barn’s lawn for beer and barbecue.
While the Prestige event was technically not a race, from 2009 through 2013, the Lost River Classic gave those who had trained at the Barn an opportunity to race on some of the same roads. A collaboration between Moglia, then-local racer and now CEO of November Bicycles, Dave Kirkpatrick, and their club, DC-area giant National Capitol Velo Club (NCVC), the Classic mercifully excluded either ascent to the Barn. But each 10-mile circuit did finish with one of those signature Appalachian jabs — a five-minute parabolic climb to the line that marked it as one of the region’s toughest contests.
Between the team camps, the race, and Rapha events, cycling kit has become a regular feature on Hardy County roads. Just as the inside-the-Beltway crowd has its reputation, so does oft-maligned West Virginia. How does Moglia’s steady stream of visitors sit with the locals? Despite the prevalence of pickup trucks and camouflage, he says incidents have been rare.
“People like it, with some exceptions. I was afraid it would get to be critical mass, where after a certain amount of time they’d get sick of bikes,” says Moglia. “But it’s been good, mostly. I think it’s been gradual, and people have gotten used to it.”
It helps that the Lost River Classic raised over $7,500 for the Mathias-Baker Volunteer Fire Company over its five years on the mountain. It helps, too, that by now Moglia is nearly a local himself. He knows the farmers, the moonshiners, the storekeepers, and the local media.
“When we did the Rapha ride, I told the guy at the paper and he covered it, did a big piece on it,” he says. “People keep asking when we’re going to have something again. They like the idea of it. They like the idea that guys like Joe and Ben, guys who have done the Tour de France, are out here training on their roads. It’s almost a self-esteem thing. They’re prideful. Working class prideful.”
The Euro-pros stop by in the off-season, and the Rapha rides with their well-dressed participants come and go, but the bread-and-butter business of the Barn remains those local teams looking for the rambling rides and serenity that can only be found away from the Beltway.
“On Sundays, you get that sense people are lingering. That happens all the time. Three good days of riding, the block is done, the sun’s going down, you don’t want to come off the mountain and get on I-66 and come back into this,” Moglia tells me as we’re sitting in a café two blocks from the White House.
He’s not wrong. A relatively short Sunday morning spin down through the state park, past working farms and abandoned farms and some we weren’t quite sure of, had our group back up to the Barn around noon, but nobody was rushing out. Lunches were assembled and slowly eaten on the back porch, even though there are plenty of road food options once you’re back on the highway and rolling for home.
Around two or three, bikes started to make it onto racks, but even after the bags were packed and the sheets were stripped, somehow, we were still there.
Eventually, the knowledge that Sunday traffic flooding back into DC would grind highways to a standstill around seven o’clock finally took hold. One by one, we cracked, and over the course of an hour or so, cars emptied from the driveway. In three hours — if we were lucky — we’d be back in the maw of metro DC, completely cooked and profoundly rested at the same time.
“I think that’s what people who’ve been want to get back. Once you get there it really kicks in. It’s kind of like going out to a nice restaurant when you haven’t been for a long time, because it’s too expensive or you just don’t get to it. You think, ‘damn, it really is worth it.’ It changes the way you feel inside.”