"A man's got to know his limitations"
- Clint Eastwood
This is my account of riding the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, the gruellingly difficult, 102-mile ride from Spartanburg, SC to the top of Mt. Mitchell.
There were six of us that drove together down to Spartanburg: Ed Downing, Bernie Hanson, Chris Kalberg, Robby Powell, Rance Sellon, and me. [picture] NCBC president Jim Fredley was going to join us too, but a conflicting business trip to Saudi Arabia caused him to reluctantly sell his ticket to Karen Plunkett. When his trip was delayed for a week freeing him up for the ride, Jim nonetheless kept his agreement with Karen. What a guy.
We loaded up the van with bikes, equipment, and riders, and headed south. We arrived in Spartanburg mid-afternoon, and headed over to the registration point at Converse College. Inside a gym there were tables and tables of packets, along with all sorts of vendors offering their wares. [picture] It seemed like everyone offered Powerbars and energy gels, and there were several mechanics set up to offer adjustments. [picture] Rance got his bottom bracket tightened up, and the Trek Wrench force was there. This is a rolling bike store, and the most incredible bike rack I've ever seen. [picture] It turns out that Trek was offering triple chainring equipped Trek 5200s for folks to ride the next day. What a deal! The only catch was that you had to give the bike back after you finished. We encouraged Rance to go for one, but we all elected to use the bikes we were accustomed to and had trained on.
We checked into the Residence Inn, opting to go for comfort rather than budget accommodations. We unpacked the bikes and went out for a short, 14-mile warmup ride. [picture] All of us had special gearing for the ride, and you want to make sure everything works properly before you start. After doing as much damage as we could at the pizza and pasta buffet at Mr. Gotti's we went back to the rooms and got our bikes and equipment ready for the next morning.
It seems like I always sleep poorly before a big ride, and this was no exception. We were all up by 5:00am. I was fixing pancakes, topping them with Ed's homemade applesauce. [picture] I guess most folks have their own pre-ride rituals; one of mine is to get a good meal under my belt. By 6:00 we headed off for the starting point. It was a cool (no, cold!) morning, and the sun had not yet risen. I stuffed a section of newspaper under my jersey, and pulled on my arm warmers. I was carrying leg warmers and a jacket, but I kept them packed in case I needed them later on. Other folks chose differently, there were lots of gloves, tights, and jackets on riders at the starting line. [picture]
They had a big time and temperature sign giving a countdown to the start, and promptly at 6:30 the 22nd Assault started. [picture] My strategy for the ride was simple: shameless wheel-sucking. With this many riders (my guess, around 1300, with 3-400 only going to Marion) a large lead pack forms, and I was simply planning on hanging onto the back. Getting up to the lead pack was an effort - the start got strung out and I was pushing hard catch the group ahead. Once done, the miles melted a way quickly. The sun was still rising, casting long shadows of the riders. As we rode by fences and tall grasses the quickly moving shadows produced an odd shimmering effect.
The lead pack was probably a couple hundred cyclists. In spite of its size, the group rode together well, with everyone seeming to ride predictably. The only incident I was aware of during the entire ride happened as we were slowing for a turn by the first sag stop at about the 19 mile mark, and I heard someone behind me go down with the the kind of 'Aaaahhhhh!!!' that often precedes road rash.
At about the 40 mile mark two things happened. The gap widened between me and the lead group, and I was really needing to make a pit stop. I elected to not try and close the gap. I took a quick rest stop and pulled off the arm warmers. Meanwhile, Chris had broken a front spoke (still can't figure out how he did that) and he had stopped to deal with that.
As we got underway we hooked up with a growing group of "off-the-back" riders, some 30 or so. This group had a very different (and much more frustrating) riding dynamic. In particular, the group wasn't attacking hills, so that at least some riders when getting to the bottom of a hill would continue to coast up the other side, losing momentum. As a result the group was always slowing unpredictably and prompting otherwise unnecessary braking. Nonetheless, the group was riding faster that what I'd do solo, so Chris and I continued with them into Marion.
At Marion we stopped briefly to stretch and get some food. I decided at this point to take the remainder of the Assault as a "Tour de Sag Stop." Sometimes when I ride I really feel like hammering as hard as I can to see what I can do. This wasn't one of those days. I knew I could finish OK, but my internal motivation was to enjoy the beauty of the day and the company of the other riders. [picture]
When we hit the hills on highway 80 Chris pulled on ahead, and I kept an easy, steady, 7 mph pace. This is the hardest part of the ride, but since I decided to not worry about the clock, I also wasn't worrying about the distance; I was just riding and enjoying the scenery. At one point early on you could see a bridge on the Parkway way-way-way up above you. Whoa! That much altitude was sobering. In that respect the switch backs were merciful - you could only see (and hence only had to deal with) a little bit of climb at a time.
At the sag stop at the top of highway 80 there were some riders laying in the grass like they might have been asleep. It was tempting - it was the type of cool, sunny day that that invited laying down in the grass. After a stop and a stretch I continued on for the seemingly interminable climb up the Parkway.
At this point I started yo-yo'ing with Gregg Warren. I'd stop to stretch or relax and Gregg would pass. I'd get on my bike again and then pass Gregg. We did this all the way up the Parkway. [picture]
At the spur road up to Mt Mitchell I was simply trying to get closer to the top a tenth of a mile at a time. Time and distance move slowly at 6 mph. I had a first hint of cramps about a mile up, so I stopped and downed some Tums. No problem, mon! When you pass the entrance gate the road levels out some, but it seems like you go around curve after curve until you finally reach the finish line at the top!
So I made it! Gregg came in a few minutes behind me. [picture] Mike Wallace had finished a few minutes ahead. In past years I'd seen thunderstorms, snowfall, and hypothermia at the top of Mt. Mitchell. I was thankful that today we had a clear sky and a warm sun. Warm tomato soup seems like an odd post-ride snack, but it sure tasted good!
Chris and I caught a van back down to Marion and met up with the others at the campground. I'm thankful for the showers there - damn they felt good! We ran into Don and Mac Edwards - Mac had set an impressive new PR of 6:08. Good going, Mac! [picture]
We loaded our gear back on the van and headed back. We agreed Mexican food would taste good and stopped at a place in Winston-Salem. We lost count of the number of baskets of chips they delivered to us. We got back into Apex around 10:30 Saturday night. It takes several days to recover from Mt. Mitchell, both physically and mechanically. I wasn't much anxious to ride the next day, and started the task of cleaning the bike and re-installing the old gearing and aerobar.
When folks ask how the ride went, I tell them, "Great!" In retrospect, though, while I enjoyed the ride and the event, I also know I didn't really challenge myself, and that leaves a certain feeling of restlessness and unfinished business. Oh well... there's always next year!
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revised on Monday, June 30, 1997.
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