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You're gonna do WHAT???

When I outlined my plan to a friend, his response was, "You're CRAZY!!! That's INSANE"

Sometime over the winter of 2006, I was surfing one of the bike forums, and came across a posting about The Assault on Mt Mitchell, which according to the poll on the forum, was rated as one of the most difficult centuries in the southeast. It's a 102 mile ride with about 11,000 ft of elevation gain, mostly occurring in the last 30 miles.

At this point I had been riding for only one season, so I figured this would be a great challenge, even if not held on my actual birthday, I figured this could qualify for a Birthday Challenge. click, click, click I was soon signed up! Oh crap..... what have I just done?

Let's see.. I had completed three century rides, and the Ride Across Indiana (RAIN Ride) which is 160 miles. I had no experience in climbing an extended grade whatsoever.

It's a perfect match!

Should I train for this? Uh, yeah! I bought a trainer and a bunch of DVD workouts and busted butt in the basement all winter long. I had a plan to do 4 centuries and a big climb as a test run, and followed that plan to a T.

Okay - time for the ride recap.

It was a huge struggle to get to sleep the night before. I woke up SEVERAL times thru the night, and finally got out of bed at 4:00 AM. Time to get ready for the big day!

We made our way down to Spartanburg, where the ride leaves promptly at 6:30 AM from in front of the auditorium. Tons of cyclists getting ready! Not all of these riders are going to attempt to climb Mitchell - the first 70 miles is called the Assault on Marion, and then the Mitchell riders will continue on State Road 80 to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then into the park for the summit. There is a limited number of riders that are able to get a number to ride to the top of Mt Mitchell.

Here we are getting all staged!

I find my way towards the back of the pack because these mass starts sometimes make me nervous, and the pavement was wet from rains in the morning. There are so many riders of varying degrees of experience and ability. Ingredients for a nice pile-up!

There were riders getting flats right off the bat! One poor guy rolled about fifteen feet before the telltale pssssssssst!!! Bummer! The first rest stop (sag stop) was around 20 miles out. I decided NOT to skip any of the sag's mostly because this being my first big climb, I wanted to stay really well hydrated and fueled.

This is the first sag - all of which were really well stocked with water, PowerAde, cookies, peanut butter and jelly sammiches, and lots of other stuff!

Can’t say enough good things about the sag support!! There were mechanics at each stop, and they swept the route all day long.

It usually takes me about 25 miles to really figure out how I’m feeling for the day... on this day I felt pretty good. Rested and ready! The next stop was at the top of Bill's Hill – this hill is where they say the strong and “not so” strong riders will part ways. After cruising along some gentle rolling hills, this hill hits with a bang! From flat to 7% grade in the blink of an eye.

Here is a shot of the readout on my bike computer while going up Bill’s Hill.

I found a cadence I could stick with and started the push up this mile-long hill. No riders passed me on this hill, or really many of the others - most of the really strong riders skipped the first stop altogether so I was riding with folks that were just a bit slower than me. I guess that is partly due to me starting near the back of the pack, taking an easy opening pace, and my long breaks at the SAG’s to hydrate and fuel. I was cheering people on as I passed them going up the hill. This is the biggest group I made it by:

Most of bill's hill was 9-12% grade. Not bad, not bad.. I didn't like seeing my heart rate at 177 this early on in the day, though. Each time I go above my LT (lactate threshold), I’m burning energy that is hard to recover from later in the day, and since this type of event is new to me, I’m not sure how much energy to conserve for the big efforts later in the day.

and here we are nearing the crest of bill's hill. Notice the SAG wagon is right there with us!

I keep chugging along, up Bill's hill – more of the same:

And after the rest stop at the top, was rewarded with a nice downhill section and view:

Sometimes it get's kind of boring on the long rides. I really had hoped to find a group of riders going just a bit faster than I wanted, and latch onto their wheel and draft for a while. I did find one group, but kept dropping them on the climbs - I knew this just wasn't going to work for me. I really like finding a rhythm and sticking with it. If other riders choose to draft me, that's fine... and would give me the chance for some conversation. On this day I was riding mostly alone, which sometimes makes me crazy.. hehehehe

I made it to Marion easy enough. I actually felt really fresh after 70 miles with about 5,000 ft of climbing already under my belt, although I knew the real grind was getting ready to hit. I had read quite a bit of other riders' report of previous AoMM rides, and knew that the stretch of Hwy 80 that took me to the Blue Ridge Parkway was to be pretty challenging. It’s an unrelenting 10 or 12 miles with grades rarely going under 6% - there were even some peaks over 13%. I had a chance to gather myself between Marion and when the real climbing started. After rolling along in the big chainring for a bit, I came up to this sign, which is like a cyclists' dream come true:

Man! That was a pretty tough stretch. I didn't take many pictures during this part as I was focused on just keeping rhythm, cheering on the other riders and staying within myself. It’s really a big mental game, doing these long grinds, something that I find “fun” or as close to it as suffering can be! There were a lot of riders that decided to walk portions of this stretch as the grade was just unrelenting – it just keeps coming, and coming mile after slow mile. Finally, the SAG comes into view after yet another switchback. This stop had WATERMELON!!! Some of it was YELLOW too!!! I’ve never had yellow watermelon, and my body was READY for some of that sugary stuff.

One of the riders I was most impressed with was Granny. This tiny woman on the right is over 80 years old!!!!! Yeah, she beat me to the top... really! You should have seen the biceps on this lady! Here she is with her riding partner, shoving off from the first watermelon sag:

But.. That was not the end of this grueling stretch. The sag volunteers cheered us on, "just a few more miles to the parkway!", which is where things are supposed to ease up for a bit. Yeah, ease up…. So I shove off back to our buddy, Mr. 8% grade. Think of it this way, for every 100 ft I move forward, I go 8 ft UP for an 8% grade.

And then another nasty,nasty stretch of 12%. I HAVE to be getting close to the parkway!! Please???

A nice, long turn... what's that I hear? A radio??? I know what that means! I have to be at the rest stop at the Parkway! Man, the organizers have this down pat with the sag's placed just perfectly. Usually 2 or 3 miles takes just a few minutes, but not at 5mph! It’s time for more watermelon, and this electrolyte stuff that is mixed with water. It’s not the most pleasant tasting stuff, but at this point...... I don’t think I could eat another banana. I take my time at this sag. Actually, I took a LOT of time at each stop. If I had not lollygagged and taken pictures and joked around with folks, I probably could have easily rolled in an hour earlier than I did, but... this ride wasn't about the finishing time. It was about finishing.

When I saw the parkway signs, I started to really feel like I had this ride in the bag, I mean hell.... after that last stretch, I felt pretty bulletproof (mostly)

The parkway is just a beautiful stretch of road. No commercial vehicles allowed, and fairly lightly traveled by cars. There were three tunnels to ride thru, which is VERY cool.

So much for the easy riding though! The mountain reminds me that it's still here... and not going anywhere – back to a nice, long climb:

It’s easy to see why they call these the smoky mountains. Even on "clear" days, there is an ever-present haze up in the mountains. We’re getting up there now - riding with the clouds!

92 miles.. The park entrance is just another 8 miles ahead... but it's also not a flat ride, that's for sure!

I roll thru this overlook, and get my first good look at my goal, Mt Mitchell.

Another treat to some scenery:

Another glimpse at the summit.. Holy cow, am I getting any closer? Climbing these long grades is such slow work. I tell myself not to keep checking the odometer.

I’ve been rolling now for over 10 hours, and am feeling lots of different stuff. I’m tired, elated, humbled, grateful, scared, and strong. Quite a mixed bag. I brought my ipod along for this ride, since I knew I would want some time to just "zone out" for a while and make my feet move in circles... what a help that was! I did lots of thinking on this ride. AoMM was my main goal for this season, and I had spent all those hours on the trainer in the basement during the winter, forced myself to do century trainer rides when feeling like crap, and shared all of that stuff with people both interested and otherwise, then I see another sag, and this sign:

after making the turn into the park entrance, I know I have just 3 friggin' miles left to climb!!!!!! Hell, 3 miles? That’s all? I’m jumping out of my skin at this point, knowing there is no way i would be denied! Lots of riders are walking at this point. Not me.. No way.. If I can walk, I can pedal. I have yet to have to walk my bike up a hill. Maybe someday that will change, but not on this day. I roll up along the rider in the yellow jersey, and we chat with each other the rest of the way. His name is Jeremy, and he just graduated high school. He tells me that this is his second trip up the mountain, so I’m impressed with this kid. It’s unusual to find the young'ns interested in road biking like this. Here is the summit, staring us right in the face:

About a mile inside of the park, we hit the very last stop before the top. Jeremy and I almost skip this one, but he wants to stop for a quick minute. I have him snap this pic of me.. I’m tell him, "Hey man.. Let’s get the hell out of here!"

So we start back up the hill... 6,219 ft in elevation, and 10,362 ft cumulative climbing for the day.. Only 465 ft left to climb!!!!!

A couple of rises, a turn and I made it!!! 10:27:10

The Assault on Mt Mitchell was the event that drove my training thru the winter and into the spring. I wanted to see if I had what it took to do a long grind up a big, big hill. With this being my second year of cycling, I’m thrilled to have completed this ride, and to have done so with quite a bit of energy in reserves. I would recommend this event to anyone that has a passion for road biking, and wants to test their limits in a big climb.

The event was meticulously planned, well equipped and the volunteers were top-notch! I would love to make this an annual event, and bring some of my fellow Indy riders with me next time!




from Nancy

keep going Steve...maybe one day,we'll make a ride together :)