Why? Why does anyone want to ride 102 miles on a bicycle 72 miles from Spartansburg, SC to Marion, NC and then continue another 30 miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell, highest point east of the Misssippi? With 11,000 feet of cumulative vertical climbing, 2/3 of that climbing occuring in the last 30 miles, this challenge is recognized as one of the toughest rides in the country. Well, last year I was going to ride it as something to do before I get any older, but our 50th wedding anniversary arrived at the same time and we decided that should take precidence. It did. This 51st year we did not plan anything other than passing cards back and forth. And I am really a full 75 this year, so it is also something that I should do at that age before being unable..
I am in better shape this year this early in the season thanks to Mignon Durham who had me out all winter riding 2-3 times a week. I would not have ridden through the winter without her prodding. I did not gain the usual 5 pounds over the winter and my biking strength and endurance had improved noticeably both in stationary bike testing (heart rate vs watts) and in time trials on special sections of the Parkway. So why not ride the event? I felt I was ready.
The day before the event on Friday, May 19th about noon, I left with a well oiled and adjusted bike and hydration backpack, driving my truck down NC 221 to Spartansburg, SC. I had a room reserved at the Quality Hotel, last room they had, a kingsize. Randy Raskin was going to share the room with me, but his wife Nancy had to have unexpected surgery. So I had the whole room to myself, bed wide enough for 3 people with 3 pillows. I just took the right side for easy access to the bathroom...drank lots of water to prepare for the ride and hoped that I wouldn't stub my toe. My big toe nail is black now, but has not fallen off yet from a dog encounter last winter. Didn't want a loose dangling toe nail to contend with on the ride.
The Friday night banquet celebration began at 6:30 and was over by 8:20 or so which was great. My normal bedtime is 9:00. The hotel is about 3 miles north of the auditorium where the banquet was to be held and where the ride starts on Saturday. I made a couple of dry runs back and forth to become familiar with the area...did not want to get lost Friday night or on Saturday morning. Dinner was great, lots of veggies and salad and desserts to choose from. Skipped the chicken. Special recognitions were made for the one paraplegic who rides the Assault each year, "pedaling with his arms the whole way. Also to Mike Davis who has ridden 23 consecutive events. And to one man who weighed 450 lbs at one time and was told he needed a by-pass or wouldn't be here in 6 months, or if he had the by-pass, he probably wouldn't live more than 6 months because of his overweight condition. He got serious about losing weight, took up biking, never had the operation and is fit rider today. Then the mention of two young record holders for the Assault, I think I heard 4:50 for their times. The time spread for the riders to Mt. Mitchell is from less than 5 hours to over 13 hours for the 102 miles. The oldest rider on record was 86, the ages ranging down to about 12 if I remember correctly.
Back at the Hotel I wanted as good a rest as possible. Had a neck ache which I worked on with my "turkish towel" maneuvers, took my usual 3 Bufferin and got to sleep. Earlier I tried to set the room alarm clock for 4:45, but found in the morning it never went off. Good thing Dorothy insisted I take a clock along. Set it at 4:45. But at 4:43 I woke up and never really needed the clock. Probably would have overslept without it.
After limbering up with my stretching and special routines, I ate my normal breakfast that I brought along (granola, bran flakes, banana, soy protein all topped with a can of Ensure Plus) and had a cup of instant coffee. Also remembered to take my batch of vitamins (multi, C, E, zinc and glucosamine). Drank another can of Ensure Plus just to add more fuel. Probably could have drunk another, but why push it...it would not have been my normal routine. The water in Spartansburg is like any other city water, full of chlorine taste.
The first trip down to the parking lot (I was on the 6th floor) I got off the elevator with my bags along with another guy. In the hall I was looking for the door to the outside, but it had disappeared. Then I noticed the room numbers read "3rd floor". Oh, well, it was early. Walked down the stairs and stashed my bags in the truck. Then back up to the 6th floor for the last of the bathroom tricks (hopefully) and to get my bike. Once again, this time down to the 1st floor where I loaded the bike on my truck and once more back to the front desk to check out for good.
Weather was good, cool, partly cloudy. There was no problem driving to the Auditorium. I arrived about 5:55...a madhouse of cars, bikes, people and close squeezes between all of this to find a parking place. Got the gear and bike out, donned sunglasses and remembered to put my regular glasses in my back pack for later that evening. Some final stretching, short test of bike for proper starting gearing and good braking. I locked the truck and remembered to take the key. Went out to the starting lineup and found hundreds of bikers already in position in front of me. There were too many to try to fight my way closer to the front. So I started about 7/8th of the way back in the pack. That didn't worry me too much as I didn't want to get run over by faster guys or perhaps crash in the more crowded sections of the mass of riders. 6:30 arrived without fanfare, or at least I could not hear any start whistle, horn or other signal. Eventually (don't know how many minutes passed) we started to move along. Finally passed the starting line. Crowded. Watched carefully not to crash. Soon the crowd thinned out a bit...that is strung out for a mile it seemed...nothing but bikers ahead of me. The road was now two lane and we bikers had to remain in the right hand lane. Police support was excellent, holding traffic at intersections for the benefit of the bikers.
In the initial 3-5 miles out there were a rash of flat tires, bikers all along the road fixing flats. The first water stop was at the 20 mile mark. I did not stop until I reached Marion at the 72 mile mark. This way I could pass lots of riders at each of the stops, and besides I had enough liquid in my pack to last that distance. Finally after the 20 mile mark I could pedal like I wanted. It was so easy before that, I was beginning to get cold from not working hard enough. Then I was able to ride stronger and pass bunches of riders, reach a new pack, creep to the head of that and so on. I did use drafting when able. With drafting I found myself going 23-27 mph on relatively level ground. Without drafting it is difficult for me to ride over 20-22 mph.
There were a few small hills on this 72 mile stretch which is the Assault on Marion part. One, Bill's Hill, at the 45 mile mark, wasn't steep and couldn't have been more than a half mile, but the downhill side was fast with a 280 degree right turn at the bottom. Also the road slanted to the outside of the curve and had patches of dry mud. It could be hazardous with a tight riding pack. We were not a tight group here so it was easily handled, but it did require braking for the turn. I passed up other water stops and more riders. The final shot into Marion was fast downhill to the Marion finish line. My time to here was 4:06, even with the slow first 20 miles. I had hoped for 3:55. I ate 2 Powerbars (had 6 in the pack) and drank more water (had finished my 100 ounces in the backpack plus a bottle of Gatorade). At this point I left my 100 ounce backpack empty and I would depend on my two water bottles and the necessary stops for refilling.
Then on, almost across highway 70 to NC80, and the ride up to the parkway.This section was quite uneventful. I rode easily, but now on a significant hill and the weather was getting warm. About 100 yards from the parkway, one leg began to cramp. I had to stop here to take about a spoonful of salt and a gulp of water to wash it down. The effect of the previous 72 miles was beginning to show. Practice riding this section never gave any trouble. Mileage was now about 85. I did not stop again until nearing the wooden fire tower at Green Knob. I had another leg cramp. More salt fixed it. After Green Knob I reached 44.6 mph on the 1 1/2 mile decent before the last climb on the Parkway. I was carefully watching my gearing and synchonizing my breathing and picking a level of difficulty which avoided cramping. This took a bit of concentration, so the climb really wasn't too noticible. Time went quickly. I was able to pass quite a few riders. My triple crank set for climbing really paid off. There were guys lying along the road with "cramps...big time" and some walking...in bike shoes...pushing their bike uphill. My bike performed perfectly, no dropped chain or other problems.
The next water stop was just before the turn off the Parkway onto the Mitchell State Park Rt 128 to the top. Again I filled my water bottles with water and Gatorade (might have been Powerade...didn't matter). Watched my effort so as not to cramp, rode quite easily, but significantly slower than on my training rides, to the top and the finish line for the Assault. I held up one arm for the picture taking, which I had seen so many other riders do...guess it is supposed to look cool...anyway it should be a good shot.
Normally on training rides this last 30 miles would have been in 3 hours or less, but today it took about 4 hours. Got to work on that. Total ride time was close to my goal. Finished in about 8:05. Time on bike 7:50. So 15 minutes of water stops...which were a real necessity. Dorothy followed the suggestion about no unnecessary cars at the top and had taken the shuttle from Marion to snap a few pictures. She did, but did not recognize me and missed the time clock in the background. Final time will be on the official picture. I remembered it as 8:05. She left shortly after I came in to get back home in a reasonable time to the dog and cats. I put my bike on the transport truck for Spartansburg and was assured it would be waiting for me. The other truck was going to Marion. This seemed like a good arrangement and there should be no mixup. I removed my computer on their advice.
We got a free cup or two of hot tomato soup and a slice of bread. I had stashed two cans of Ensure Plus in my "bag to the top", so I drank those too. I had a complete change of dry clothing and regular shoes so I would be able to walk about. I had planned to wash up and change. I even had soap and a towel. But after I arrived at the finish line (about 2:35), it began to rain about 3:00, and heavily with thunder. Those poor riders behind me were coming in soaked in the downpour (I've done that too, but was lucky here). We were getting wet standing in the shuttle line. My "bag to the top" was soaked and heavy with about 10 lbs of rain water, but the windbreaker, which I always carry to Mt. Mitchell was still a valuable piece of clothing even wet.The change of clothing, towel and the rest of the things in the "bag" were soaked.
Then the line broke to stand in the shelter (jammed packed by now) with the idea that everyone would get back in line where they were...but no, that is not the way it worked. There also was a grand mixup on the busses from Mt Mitchell back to Marion and the shuttles, how they were to handle the crowd. One shuttle held about 14 people or less, depending on the size. Busses were like the school activity busses and could hold about 50. The busses initially went to the top parking lot, then because of congestion at that location, were instructed to go the restaurant parking lot about 2 miles down from the finish line. The shuttles were to take the riders from the top to the restaurant. So they did, we were in group #7 after much waiting and trying to get on one. The bus drivers had the instructions mixed up and were waiting in Marion, 30 miles down the mountain. John Bryon who has organized the ride since the beginning 25 years ago, was quite upset at the mixup. Cell phones were at work, with Park Rangers, and bus and van drivers, all trying to get some order out of this chaos. The several groups of us (I think now about 9) all waiting at the restaurant noticed that the next vans that came along, skipped the restaurant and drove directly to Marion. So the later arriving riders actually were getting to Marion before we were. At least in the cold rain, we were inside the warm restaurant, and some found the lavatories had hot water where they could warm their cold fingers.
The first bus that arrived at the restaurant to handle the riders took about 3 groups of the van loads. We could not get on this bus. The next one, though, we made. The bus could not shift into a lower gear for braking, because the transmission would upshift. It was not built for these grades. Brakes overheated, so we stopped several times for 4-5 minutes to cool them off. Our downhill speed seemed like 10-15 mph. We arrived in Marion about 6:00.
There we used our meal ticket for a Coke and a skimpy 6" sub. The one bus to Spartansburg was already full and noone knew when the next would be. That full bus left about 7:00. They said the next might be in 30 minutes. We eventually left about 8:00 arriving in Spartansburg close to 10:00 (might have been 9:45). Fortunately my bike was waiting on the ground for pickup by me, along with about a 100 other bikes still to be picked up. It was now quite dark and I was glad I remembered my regular glasses (some of the riders did not and they started looking like blind people without a cane).
I loaded the bike on the truck, drank another can of Ensure Plus and took off. The bus used another way into the city than I initially took, so decided to try to take it out. Only minor difficulties of about 5 extra miles of circling or so. That's pretty good for me. I looked for a phone to call Dorothy about my late arrival time. After driving into 6 gas stations, I finally found one. Used "collect call" method through the operator, but our answering machine at home answered and it did not know enough to say "yes, we will accept the charges", but it heard me mutter something. I hung up in desperation. Dorothy heard me on the machine later and knew I was okay so she did not worry. I arrived home about midnight.
The strange thing about this event is that on the next day, I was not sore, like I usually am after one of my training rides. The training rides are about 60 miles with 7000 feet of climbing, but I work a lot harder on these rides than I did on the Assault, because I am not troubled with cramping. This suggests that I should experiment more with salt type and amount and longer or more difficult riding in hotter weather to see if I can reduce the tendency for leg cramps. I alway get numb little fingers, but this disappears after a day or two. My neck and back are fine and give me no trouble. Powerbars are so difficult to eat without stopping, that I may try to put Ensure Plus in my water bottle, but this time did not. It was in my initial plan.
Whether I do this event next year will depend on 1) working out a better point to point transportation system than depending onthe event bussing plans, and 2) being in as good shape this early in the year (like riding all winter). Mignon, are you listening?
[ NCBC home page ]