2000 Assault on Mount Mitchell

Ride Summary by Tom Sheffield

bicycle chain

A successful ride consists of three essential elements: preparation, circumstances, and fate.

My preparation for my 3rd AoMM began at the finish line of the 1999 event with a bold declaration of “Wait until next year!”. My training for last year’s AoMM was focused on riding, but this year I concentrated on self-education. I read books by Burke, Friel, and Carmichael, but found equal value in the advice of local cyclists who have earned my respect by regularly dropping me during pick-up rides. I found that I needed to improve the quality of my training rides, along with including periods of reduced activity to allow for recovery.

When you’re sitting in a rocking chair reading about training techniques, it’s easy to have delusions of grandeur such as, “These hill sprints sound really great!” My first 1 hour “hill sprint” session at Wakefield one Tuesday night in February was a rude awakening, which I repeated as often as possible this Spring.

I visited the “Y” at least twice a week when there wasn’t enough daylight to ride after work (between “Falling forward” and “Springing back”). I saw Barney Baxter there quite often and, during a discussion of my plans for AoMM, he suggested that losing weight would produce better results. Coincidently, I was 10 pounds lighter for this year’s AoMM than I was for the 1999 event.

This year’s “Road Dogs AoMM Training Weekend” was May 4th through 7th, only 2 weeks prior to AoMM on May 20th. For me, this was perfect timing. Thanks to Allen Walker for coordinating this year’s siege of the Tunnel Road Motel 6. During my 4 days in the mountains I rode every possible mile, totaling 275 miles and 30,000 feet of climbing. Many thanks to those who waited for “Rocket Man” (that’s me, in case you didn’t recognize the connection) to close the gap while they were taking a break and “getting cold”. The weekend left me with some vivid recollections:

During the Training Weekend, Buckley and Walker convinced me that repeating the Marion to Mt Mitchell ride on Monday, 5/15 would be a good idea. Supler joined us and we all enjoyed a spectacular day of riding in the mountains. I had a personal record (2h24m) for the climb and benefited from the resulting self-confidence during AoMM a few days later. During the trip, while I was whining about not being able to stay with the lead pack during AoMM, someone suggested that I should try to stay with people I ride with often (ie other Road Dogs).

Tom Fissel found a SAG/driver and provided my transportation to/from “The 25th Annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell”. (Thanks Tom!) We arrived in Spartanburg about mid-afternoon on Friday, 5/19. After picking up our registration packets (including a really nice long-sleeve shirt), we enjoyed an excellent pre-ride meal at the Macaroni Grill, a major improvement over the meal I ate the night before the 1999 Assault.

Rather than riding to the start (which would have been more of a warm-up than I wanted), I rode with Fissel to the hotel near the start where Mack Edwards (the stoker for Fissel’s tandem, this year’s first tandem finisher at 6h31m)  was staying. From there we proceeded to the start, spotted some fellow Road Dogs, and were able to enter the mass of bikes (official estimate was 1400) from the front. My plan was to follow the wheel of the Fissel/Edwards tandem as long as possible, but I immediately lost them in the commotion of the start. Fortunately I spotted Allen Walker ahead of me and used his wheel as a guide through the crowd. Soon I recognized many familiar bikes: Buckley, Dinges, Don Edwards, Fissel/Edwards, Murray, Powell, Sharrar, Supler, and Walker. This is just where I wanted to be and the relatively slow pack, which I estimated to be 400-500 bikes, allowed me to remain there until we reached Bill’s Hill.

Kurt once told me that Bill’s Hill is a place where you should work hard to stay with the pack. During this short, difficult climb, I felt like I was doing just that. There were plenty of bikes around me, so I thought I was still “in the pack”. Unfortunately, at the top of the climb I realized that the lead pack had dropped me. Fortunately, my training rides with the Road Dogs had prepared me (over and over again) for this situation. I found myself in a group of 10-15 bikes (also including Jon Buckley) who were intent on bridging back to the lead pack. We worked well together over some difficult “rollers” and eventually reeled-in the pack (probably reduced to 200 bikes). Once I caught my breath, I found a familiar group (Buckley, Walker, Murray, Powell, Don Edwards, Sharrar) and was able to relax for a while. Later, I found myself “off the back” with Allen Walker and Randy Murray after another brief, nasty climb. Randy and Allen did most of the work in pulling us back to the pack. (Thanks guys, I really needed that one!) On another occasion, I briefly lost the lead pack when a cyclist leaving a SAG stop “walked” into my line. I started a solo chase (not too smart), wondered where Allen was, and looked behind me to see him (you can’t miss all that RED) in a large pack. So I joined this pack and, with their help, used much less energy to once again rejoin the lead pack (now reduced to ~100 bikes) and remained there until we reached Marion in 3h19m.

The restless nights I experience prior to these events can be partially attributed to the excitement associated with a  long awaited event. The other contributing factor is that I don’t have “nerves of steel”. As in previous years, I saw a number of “riding mishaps” (and heard a number of others that occurred behind me), prior to reaching the relative safety of the mountains (and the resulting slower pace) beyond Marion. Knowing that many of those riders had spent many hours preparing for this event made their demise even more pitiful. I was bemused by a single-bike wreck only a few hundred yards from the start and amused by a rider who missed a left-hand turn shortly before Marion, split the difference, and was trying everything possible to stop the bike while climbing an embankment before settling into a roadside ditch.  

One way of describing AoMM is that “the ride doesn’t start until you get to Marion”. There’s a considerable amount of confusion when you pass the campground in Marion. The ~400 participants in the “Assault on Marion” are finishing here. Also, many AoMM riders are meeting their SAG here. This results in a number of bikes that are slowing, stopping, or following an unpredictable line. Somehow I got through this maze and managed to rejoin a large group (certainly not the lead pack) just before we reached Lake Tahoma on NC80. Buckley, Murray, and Powell were also in this pack, but I had lost track of the other Road Dogs. I briefly stopped at the first SAG stop on NC80 for more water. By this time in the ride, it was starting to get hot. I got to the intersection of NC80 with the Blue Ridge Parkway in 4h18m.

When I reached the top of Grandfather Mountain at the end of the 1999 “Bridge to Bridge” ride, I told Kurt Massey I felt “pretty good”. Kurt’s reply was: “Maybe if you didn’t feel so good, you’d have had a better result!” This thought remained in my mind as I negotiated the first long climb on the BRP, which (for me) is the most difficult segment. I was determined that when I finished, I would not “feel good”, AND hopefully I would have a “better result”. The southwest breeze was in my face on the BRP and getting to the downhill seemed to take forever (but at least I didn’t “feel GOOD”). However, I know I was in better shape than some riders I passed who were obviously suffering from the heat and had either stopped to nurse their cramps or succumb to their nausea. After the downhill, I found Randy Murray’s wheel and, for a couple of miles, I shamelessly rode behind him and enjoyed the shelter from the breeze he provided. I reached the entrance to Mt. Mitchell park at 5h30m.

At this point I knew that a major improvement in my 1999 results (6h38m, 237th) was within reach. However, the many riders suffering from cramps and off their bikes along the road to the summit provided a constant reminder that this can be a very cruel sport. While I hadn’t felt the slightest hint of a cramp, my legs definitely did not feel good. As much as I wanted to push a bigger gear, I found it necessary to rely on my triple and was spinning a 30:19 or 30:21 during a couple of the more difficult segments. I had planned on going really hard, once I reached the upper gate. Incredibly, I encountered a strong headwind on this slightly uphill grade and didn’t receive the benefit of a tailwind until I rounded a right-hand corner and the road leveled on the “saddle-back” portion of the mountain. By this time, 20mph on the flat with a tailwind was a struggle. I passed a couple of riders on the last climb into the parking lot, and managed a seated “sprint” (which probably looked even less impressive than it felt) to finish 94th out of the 745 bikes that completed the ride. My time was 6h05m. Although elated with my results, I definitely did NOT “feel good”.

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