1997 Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Ride summary by Jack Powell

bicycle chain

The week before I was to attempt the Mt. Mitchell assault, David Cole our NCBC Web Master( and master of the wheel I should add) asked me if I would write an article. He thought it would be of interest to hear from a first timer. So here is my story and I hope you enjoy:

In my fifty years, I have never been big on event rides nor wanted to travel great distances to get to rides, so in the past I had given little thought to doing the Mt. Mitchell assault. I have preferred small groups of family, friends or club activities were you get to know the riders and trust their abilities to keep their wheels rolling up right. I cut my biking teeth on a ten speed 25 years ago in the PA mountains and hills. It had been hard enough up there and the thought of going up a really big mountain like Mitchell just did not sound like fun. However, every year in winter I always hear a lot of the other local riders and some of my friends talking about getting ready and training for Mt. Mitchell while I am still kicked back by the fire.

What is all the hype all about anyway? By the time the March winds get here I am starting my usual spring training , but they mention Mitchell with every other breath when their heart rate allows them to talk. This is usually the time of the year when I am trying to get up a little speed and not bonk for forty miles, but they are wanting every ride to be a double metric at 19mph rain or shine. It's a Mitchell training ride here and a Mitchell training ride there, just look at any club news letter.

Well this year I also had a heavy spring training schedule planned because I was preparing to do a 500 mile tour fully loaded self contained hauling about 65 pounds of camping gear and food up and down the southern hills of VA above Kerr and Gaston lakes. My touring buddy Jerry Allen from Durham is big on the Mt. Mitchell assault and he has done it for the past several years. This year a couple of days before we were to leave on the May 3rd tour, he told me someone in his group to Mitchell was not going and I should buy his ticket. I agreed to do Mitchell the day before we went on our eight day tour. Upon return the 10th of May, I had only one week to focus on getting ready for the Mitchell assault.

I have heard that the pack is fast from Spartanburg to Marion, but I had not done any speed training all spring because I had spent all my time concentrating on long hours on the bike, distance endurance and power to get the loaded bike up hills. Jerry told me not to worry about speed, I could just hang on to the big pack and they would pull me to Marion the first seventy miles and then going up the mountain would be like doing a century loaded. That is why Jerry likes our tour vacations, he says it trains him for the Mitchell climb.

My touring bike is heavy but has the benefit of a triple chain rings. My road bike is very light, but I was afraid I would not be able to spin the 13-23 cassette I usually turn. At a Oh Melo Velo ride the Wednesday before we were to leave, Ed Downing assured me I would be better off with a light bike than a heavy triple bike, so I took one of my rear wheels to Jeff Hutchinson for help. He got a 29 tooth cog on it, but it was a squeeze. I had hoped for a 30 tooth but he said actually the derailleur was normal 28 tooth max. but he did not think I would have any trouble with clearance using the 29 tooth cog. It would be complicated and expensive to convert to a triple crank and I would not want the weight after I got back. So for a bail out gear I was happy to be one tooth up on some of my other NCBC friends, that I knew were going with 28 max for bail out. In past years I have done some riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway up near the NC/VA line area. I had once borrowed a 12-28 freewheel to ride the parkway but found I did not need any thing bigger than the 24-tooth cog. I knew the hills were not as tough or long as the Mitchell area, so I hoped my 39x13-29 would do okay.

Upon arriving in Spartanburg Friday night we checked into our rooms and went to the registration area to pick up our trip ticket package. Then we ate out and bought some provisions for midnight snacks and breakfast. I was lucky to have been matched up with a fellow Carolina Tarwheeler rider John Crill and shared his room . We were up early Saturday morning as the mass start is at 6:30 AM. We rode our bikes to the start as it is to congested to drive a auto there. It was quiet cool that morning (in the forties) so I wore long tights and sleeves and a wind breaker. Most of the other riders had only a jersey and shorts and they looked uncomfortable standing around in the dark of the morning. You could see the chill bumps on the shaven legs and bare arms..

We took up a position in the middle of the street along with several hundred other riders about fifty feet from the front line. Several hundred more riders soon took their places behind us.Riders on their bicycles were coming from all directions. The mass of bikes was impressive. The line up is a first come first serve positioning basis with no pre-qualifying for pole position. If you are not a fast rider you would not want to be too close to the front line when the gun goes off cause you will possibly get ran over. Looking around I did not see anyone I knew other than Jerry , Rick, and John. I felt dwarfed by the crowd of a thousand other bicyclists. A big clock showed the count down, 59 sec,45,30, 15, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 Bang and they're off.

In about four seconds the bikes in front of us start to move. I pushed off and stepped in to make only about four pedal strokes when a couple of bikes fell down in front of me. I hit the brakes to slow to a near track stand as there was nowhere to go on either side. Fortunately no one ran into my rear.

One of the guys jumped up and mounted his bike and we started again. After three hundred yards I didn't know where Jerry and John were and I had planned to ride along with Jerry some of the way. Now I noticed my odometer was not working, damn bad luck, and that was ironic as John's had quit on him this morning also. I thought of stopping to fix it but I was afraid I would lose the pack so I rode on.. There were lots of local people cheering us along the way out of town and officials directed traffic at congested intersection. The front lot of the pack had already broke away and the group I was nested in were riding at a good speed for me, so I hung on with them. I did not worry to much about the odometer not working because I had planned to ride by the heart rate monitor anyway. This group was pushing me 138 bpm a little harder than the 130 I had planned. Not knowing the course and not having pre-driven it with a car I figured I better play it conservatively. I was thinking I would do the century in about 7 1/2 hours easy. I have done most of my touring in the 120-135 range and I know I can go all day if I stay below 130bpm. This group was pulling me good and I was thinking if I hang on I could easily get to the top in 7 hr. I did not know how fast we were going but it felt good so I stayed in there. This group of at least 100+ bikes was off the back of the front group which I perceived was a couple hundred bikes and a mile ahead. I did not want to lose the group I was in because things did not look organized behind us.

I got a big scare about 5 miles out of town. We were going down the first hill of the ride in a tight group at about 25 mph. Several bikes from behind did not hold formation and went out over the yellow line to pass. Just as we approached a small bridge over a creek at the bottom of the hill where the road curved sharp left, a pickup truck came around the curve with nowhere to go, there being an embankment on the truck's side of the road. There was no room where the passing bikes could go either so they pushed the bikers ahead of me to get in. The pack was already three wide in front of me and one of the passing riders was hip to hip with a lady rider and forced her into the hip of the rider on her right. They bounced back and forth three or four times as the truck passed. I was in the left part of the lane next to the yellow line two feet behind them. I cringed and clinched my teeth and said my prayers quick as I was sure they would take us all down. As the truck went by its mirror missed this guy's head by inches. Somehow thank God, no one fell and we all took a sigh of relief. Then there was much cursing and disagreeable remarks made to two of the passers. If the lady would have stopped I would liked to have given her many hugs and kisses for doing such a nice piece of bike handling and staying up right. She certainly kept us free from injuries and may have saved our lives.The other son of a @#$%^, I would like to have stuffed my mini pump in his( lack of another word I will use wheel) wheel. This unnerved me a little and I slid back to the rear of the pack where bikes were not so tight.

After passing the first feed zone the pack got more stretched out as many stopped. I felt a little more secure now, so I started picking off riders and moving up. I was starting to get hot in my wind jacket and wanted to take it off, but did not want to stop so hung on to the pack. I opened the jacket and that help a little. Soon I had to pee really bad and I did not think I could make it to the next feed zone, so while the pack was climbing a long hill which I thought was Bill's Mt., I stopped. I had hoped I could get done what I needed to do while the pack was climbing slow and get back on before the last bike went by, but I was wrong and too long and the pack got away. As it turned out, where I stopped was not Bill's Mt.

I chased for awhile but upon arriving at the 2nd feed zone, I stopped for food and drink. It was unfortunate that I could not get back on because another big group did not come along.Then I went down a hill which had a sharp hair pin curve and was relieved to have not been in the middle of the pack while breaking for the sharp right turn. I don't feel as comfortable doing right turns as I do left turns at speed. I rode on alone to the feed zone at Bill's Mountain.

After filling my bottles and sucking down some bananas at Bill's Mt, I continued alone, except for a steady stream of other singles. Still no big group came along, I was in no mans land so I accelerated to my own comfortable pace based on 135 bpm and caught about a half dozen bikers. I matched their pace and rode on towards Marion with them but there was no group effort. Every one would break up on the hills and splinter down the hill. Our ability levels did not match.

I kept telling myself I must be conservative, there is a big mountain ahead, bigger than anything I have ever attempted before. I must be fresh when I get to Marion. Thus I went the 40 miles into Marion much alone and rolled in at 4hr 5min. which was about 30 min slower than I had hoped for, a big set back.

Rick Ferguson, our sag driver, met me with a big smile, as I rolled into the camp ground . He was not riding this year due to his recovering from an automobile accident. He asked if I had seen Jerry. Jerry showed up a few minutes later while I was eating. I got out my allen wrenches which I had in my pocket and loosened my saddle clamp. I moved the saddle back about 1 1/2 cm to obtain what I hoped would be a more powerful position while climbing the mountain at low cadence sitting on the saddle. Meanwhile, Jerry and Rick disappeared somewhere in the crowd as I tightened the seat clamp screw.

Not wanting to be off the bike long for fear of cramps or stiffening up, I popped a pain pill for my shoulder and wheeled away alone. I felt good and I felt fresh, I thought I was ready for the climb. I did not know if Jerry was ahead or behind me. Damn, in a split second I had lost him again. There are a couple teaser hills before the lake on route 80. Six riders in a pace line slowly passed me and I let them go, as I was already on my 29 tooth cog. After passing the lake the real hill begins. It is a steep three mile climb up route 80 to the parkway and my heart rate quickly climbed to over 150bpm. I knew I may be in trouble, so I let the cadence fall to about 60 rpm. I soon turned a hair pin curve where the six earlier riders were off their bikes and breathing heavy. I rode on buy with speaking to them. I was watching my heart rate and trying to stabilize it at 145bpm and I hoped the hill would not get any steeper. I resisted the temptation to stand for fear it would send my heart rate sky rocketing into the danger zone and there would be nowhere to recover without stopping.

Now another problem, I needed to pee again, as I did not go to the bath houses at the camp ground. As I rounded another of the many hair pin turns I saw a rider on the shoulder where it was wide( the only wide spot between here and bottom thus far). As I got closer I wondered if I recognized him. He is too tall to be Rip Van Winkle and he is not fat enough to be Santa Clause nor is this the North Pole. Oh hell, it is one of my heroes. One of the home locals I admire so much for his strength, experience, and ability to come back after adversity. It was Ed Downing!

Hi Ed.

Hi Jack.

Ed, is that a good place to stand?

Yes Jack, he said as he started to mount his bike and tried to get snapped in with out rolling backwards and proceeded up the hill. I stopped and took a moment to stand in his foot prints and refreshed the weeds below. Then in less than a minute I was on my way again. I started across the road using both lanes to get my feet in the pedals before turning up hill. It was a little tricky getting started again on the steep pitch. Ed was already out of sight and I was alone again.

My heart rate had not dropped below 95 bpm while I was off the bike and was back to 145bpm in a short distance. Up two more switchbacks and there was a crowd at a food zone. I did not stop as I had plenty of water in my bottle and I did not now need the little blue shack. On I suffered towards the parkway alone. I could see no one in front nor behind as the switchback turns don't allow much view ahead or behind. However the view of the woods and mountain is beautiful. On up the switchbacks I climbed until at last I could see the parkway overpass bridge and there was a feed zone also. I stopped to drink a lot of water and Gatorade while I was there because I had been breathing so heavy on the way up to here I could not swallow my drink nor eat while on the bike.

My butt was a little sore because I had not been off the saddle for 45 minutes climbing the hill. I took some of everything, two cups of grapes, two halves of bananas, a couple orange slices and four cookies( who is counting fat calories today).

There were a lot of people standing around as were at the other zone I passed below but I did not recognize anyone. I was careful to not stay off the bike more than five minutes. I must not cool down. I took another pain pill and wheeled away up the entrance ramp onto the parkway where a park ranger waved me on with a big smile of approval. After a short climb there was a short downhill coast ( about 1/2 mile) and it was good to rest and feel the cool wind blow through my jersey. Thereafter the hill went up a steady grade that went on for miles without let up. The view was fantastic but there was not a single place to coast, not even miss one pedal stroke for miles. On and on the road and curves went one after another. There were no sharp switch backs but the road was long and endlessly uphill. No one caught me although I could see in my helmet mirror a couple distant riders whose speed matched mine. I passed only a few as everyone was going about the same speed, SLOW. Most of the ones I caught were off their bikes sitting or laying on the grass. They probably rode too hard to Marion and were not feeling fresh anymore. As I approached two very slow riders who were wheel to wheel, the front one without notice stopped on the road. The second one was surprised and stopped also but started to roll backwards and fell right in front of my wheel. It was easy to steer clear at 5mph. We said nothing to each other. Alone I suffered on. I passed through several tunnels on this section which were cool inside and dark. Somewhere near the end of this 10 mile uphill stretch I approached a tall rider who before I got to him says, Hello Jack, and I immediately recognized Ed's voice. He must have been watching in his mirror.

"Hi Ed." (With a heart rate of a steady 138 I can talk to Ed a little this time.) "Ed, why does everyone like this ride so much, this ain't no fun, this is damn hard and boring, too."

He kept his focus up the hill and without looking my way in broken words said, "No it is no fun, it's for glory, they do it just for glory."

Wanting to hold my rhythm I rode away as I could not go his speed. I would liked to have ridden with him a ways for some company, but I did not have a triple chain ring and I was going as slow as I could and was just keeping the 29 tooth cog turning over. My butt was killing me.

At last I was on top of the ridge and could see the Mt. Mitchell observation tower across a valley to the right about six miles away, as the weather was picture perfect with clear skies. The view to my left was breath taking also. Seeing the tower did not get my spirits up much because it was still about 10 miles by road to the top. Then there was a big downhill and it was fast. As I enjoyed the coast down and a chance to rest my legs and butt, I reached in my pocket and took another pill for pain and guzzled down most of my remaining Gatorade.

Not needing to pull on the bar, I swung my left arm around and hope the pain would go away. I sat side saddle on my hamstring muscle of my leg to rest my sore butt, then stood for a while as I coasted to relax my back.. It was discouraging to know I would have to make all that vertical elevation back up before I got to the top. Without my computer working I did not know how fast I was going but estimated my speed was building to about 45mph.

As I approached a curve that I could not see beyond I slid far back on the saddle and applied the brakes steadily. Thank God I did break because I think I would have been off the side of the mountain had I not scrubbed about 10 mph of speed. The curve was sharp and had a hard 90 degrees right turn. I have already said I don't like those right turns. If you lose it here there is only an 18 inch stone wall to keep you from going over a cliff.

After another mile or so of uphill, I reached another feed zone just before the entrance to Mt. Mitchell Road. I stopped as I was very hungry and thirsty. It is about 95 miles from Spartanburg to here. I was told by a host at the feed zone there is a very hard section ahead about 2 miles long and then after that it is easy with a short grade into the parking lot.

I had been developing a problem all day. I was not able to have a BM this morning and things still did not want to move and my stomach was not feeling good. Also I had been making myself eat all day even though I felt full . My experience told me I had to intake the calories. So I continued my ritual I had developed during the day, two cups of grapes, two bananas, half an orange, and four cookies( yes, four cookies or a hand full, I didn't give a damn about the fats about now). I rationalized eating different types of food would work like time capsules, each hopefully would digest at different speed and provide a continuous source of fuel. Right now I was ready to try anything for a boost. Then I went in the little blue house and had no luck. After wasting 10 or 15 minutes I gave up and went back to my bike. My spirits were down and I was annoyed. I did not BM and I could tell I was cooled down. I had wasted 15 minutes for nothing. Now I would have to warm up on the hill.

A short coast and a park officer motioned me to turn onto the Mt, Mitchell Road. I was glad he was there. Just think of the problem if some one missed this turn and wound up at Asheville.

Now the road definitely turned up hill and I was having difficulty stabilizing my heart rate. It kept jumping up over 150 bpm. I lowered the cadence as I had on the steep climb above the lake. I have a history of a knee problem due to an auto accident long ago and a back problem from about six years ago. I was becoming concerned if my old body would hold up through this last climb.

I soon caught a man and woman as I climbed. She was having trouble and barely moving. My heart rate was stabilized now at about 145 bpm again. He wanted to talk and I was glad for the company. He accelerated to my speed. Maybe I did not look to good to him and he could tell I was suffering. He looked fresh. He tried to cheer me up by talking about the beautiful weather, how privileged we were to get to make the ride as many don't get a ticket that want to come. He assured me this was the last hard climb and just over the high ridge we could see above us it would flatten out. He said he had ridden Mitchell many times. This made me fill better as I did not want anymore surprises this close to the top.

We had ridden away from the woman several hundred yards and she was out of sight behind the curve. He said his buddy had went up with the front group but he was pacing his buddy's wife who bonked last year and she has never finished before and this is the closest she has ever gotten to the top, so he had better go back and check on her. He wished me luck once again and U- turned. I could not comprehend the thought of going back down that section and coming back up again.

As this steep section started turning counter clockwise around the top of the ridge there was a strong tail wind and it made me smile the first time in three hours. Soon I could see the park gate and the other side of the ridge and yes the steep grade did let up. As I passed the gate I shifted up to about my 14 tooth cog and stood and sprinted to rest my aching butt. The bike seemed to move forward effortlessly so I continued to stand and sprint the mile across the ridge top. I was now happy and singing to myself," On Top Of Old Smokey", and for the first time all day I felt sure I would make it without blowing up.

As I reached the last grade I settled back onto my saddle and caught several riders who had not sprinted the flat. I quickly recognized Ed as we played leap frog again.

Hi Ed.

Hi Jack.

Ed this ride is no damn fun.

No Jack it's no fun, it's for glory.

At least I am finishing with good company. Yea, good company is what counts. I am going on Ed, see you in a few minutes on top. It was rewarding to know that of the over one thousand riders I had been among today there was at least one I knew, because several times earlier while I was on that 10 mile grade one of Merle Haggard's old bar room crying songs came to mind, the one that goes, " sitting with all my friends and talking to my self". That is how I felt after riding nearly a 100 miles by my self with a thousand other riders somewhere about.

Then out of nowhere as a curve started I could hear commotion and knew I was almost at the top, and there were parked cars which gave the first sense of civilization in 30 miles. Now I see people, I heard the crowd applauding, cheering and clapping hands and some are calling my name, "Come on Jack, come on Jack, it's just around the corner, just a little farther, go on, don't stop here, go to the clock, the clock!" It was the smiling faces of two of the Six Forks gang, Jon Buckley and Alan Walker. God did it make me feel good that someone knew I had made it to the top. There was a larger crowd at the clock who also all gave me a great welcome and more applauding fan fare. It felt good to get my hands on that Mt. Mitchell patch, but I was disappointed that there was no ceremony, no dignitary, or celebrity to hand it out. I must of been grinning from ear to ear with self induced pride.

Oh yes Ed, this ride is for Glory alright, the ride is no damn fun and it hurts. It was a lot harder than I had perceived it would be. In my humble opinion anyone who completes it to the top deserves Glory, regardless of their time, even if they walk, even if they are dead last, if they finish to the top, to the clock, they deserve Glory. Now I understand. They all have my respect.

Page maintained by David L. Cole and last revised on Monday, June 30, 1997.
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