As a kid growing up, one of the things I enjoyed doing was riding my bike. In the woods, on the road, anywhere. I even did some group rides at the time although I was on a mountain bike for them. And I remember hearing of some of the bigger rides in western North Carolina at that point… Bridge to Bridge and the Assault on Mt Mitchell, notably. So when I really started to get back into riding a while ago, I thought about at some point going and doing some of those rides. Since I’m not really doing any road racing this year due to being a bit too busy with work, I decided to try to tackle some of these long and hard rides that I’ve wanted to do for a few years to keep me motivated and riding hard.
First up is the Assault on Mt Mitchell. For a bit of background, Mt Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi ending up over 6000 ft. And about an hour from where I grew up. So starts out sounding a little intimidating. The ride itself actually starts in Spartanburg, SC and you then spend the first 75 miles riding along rolling hills until you reach Marion, NC. From Marion, you go up 5000 ft over the remaining 25 miles. Okay, lots of climbing when you’re already tired. This sounds awesome. I’m in.
Preparation and Pre-Ride
I signed up for the ride back when registration opened in March. From that point, I received a steady stream of emails detailing the training rides that they offered and suggested including things that covered a lot of the route. Living about 900 miles away, those weren’t an option. So I basically did a pretty typical set of spring riding for me; stretched out some rides a little more to get more rides in the 80+ mile range instead of 50-60s but no real hill work, etc.
Given that my parents still live in NC, we decided to make a family trip down to see them. So I shipped my bike via FedEx to my dad’s office (unnerving!) and we flew down. We arrived on Saturday, I put my bike together and did a little loop on Sunday to stretch the legs and shake down the bike after reassembling it. All good. I packed everything I needed, the bike survived being shipped, and my legs even felt decent with the lack of riding I had done the week before.
Of course, up until this point, the weather forecast for the ride on Monday was looking less than great. Showers and thunderstorms through the day. Because riding 100 miles in the rain is fun. Ugh. Luckily, after riding in some sloppy drizzle on Sunday, the forecast for Monday magically got better. I’ll take it!
Given it’s about an hour and a half from my parents house to Spartanburg and roll out is at 6:30, we stayed at the Marriott around the corner from the start on Sunday night. So Monday morning, I woke up super early and headed to the start with plenty of time. Breakfast was my first rice cake of the day (the classic egg + bacon recipe for this batch) although in hindsight I should have gone for something more. As I had picked up my packet and number the night before, I didn’t really have to do anything other than get to the start which was nice. As I did so, the size of the event really started to become clear, around 1000 cyclists all told.
I made my way towards the front of where people were lining up. We had the entire street (four lanes) and I wasn’t going to get caught up in the back. I had modest goals for the event — stick with the front as long as I felt comfortable but mostly in it to finish. Time wasn’t at the front of my mind as I was thinking of it as a ride, not a race really. As the countdown got to zero, we took off. And the front went fast… we were going a sprightly 26-27 mph for the first mile or two. This was made possible largely due to the awesome support the event provided — a police detail at the front, officers at every intersection to let us through. And this largely continued for the entire route.
As we got going, the pace settled somewhat and I just sat in to draft as much as I could. <rant>There was a ton of just random braking, though. The smell of burning carbon wheels filled the air more often than not. I think a lot of the braking was due to people crossing the yellow line, seeing oncoming traffic and then trying to rejoin the peloton. It was nerve racking and quite frankly unnecessary. And I think it was also the cause of the one person that I heard go down at one point behind me. If event organizers have made it so that we have full use of a lane rather than just two abreast, people should respect that.</rant> As a result of the pace and the braking, the lead group continued to shed people. Given that I wasn’t really trying to be in the front, I ended up on the wrong end of those sheds a few times and had to jump hard to close the gap and rejoin the lead group.
Unfortunately, around mile 60, I got gapped and couldn’t close it. 22 mph for that stretch and I was ready to drop. Was bummed not to hold out until Marion at that point but I also knew I needed to save some energy for the second part of the ride. So I ended up in a little group of about 8 people and we did a solid bit of effort working together. But when we got to Marion, my bottles were empty so I stopped to refill and lost my group. And I then just missed the second big group moving through and couldn’t quite catch them meaning that for the remainder of the ride, I was going to be doing it basically solo.
Marion to the Parkway
As I headed out of Marion after the stop, I had a difficult time finding a rhythm riding alone for the first time of the day. I think I definitely would have been better in a group in this section as it wasn’t that intense but I definitely wasn’t at my best. I kept going and didn’t stop at the next rest stop. And after that is when the climbing really felt like it began. That section of Rt 80 was grueling. Luckily, I ran into others who said it was the hardest four miles of the ride. So I believed them and just tried to settle in and keep my legs moving. But looking at the data from the ride, you can see just how slow it was. I just suffered through it and accepted that the rest of the day was going to be hard. And I just kept watching the mileage creep along knowing that the next rest stop wasn’t that far ahead. Switchbacks, steady climbing… you really can’t find anything like it in Massachusetts. On the plus side, the scenery was gorgeous or at least seemed so to my oxygen starved brain.
Photos courtesy of Blind Kenny
Finally, I reached the rest stop at the 87 mile point where you turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. I stopped and drank some Coke, ate a cookie and refilled my bottle. Although I had done the first 75 miles in under 3.5 hours, the next 12 had taken me a little over an hour. Of course, this section was about 2000 ft of vertical gain, mostly in the second half.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The next section of the route was on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’d say that the BRP is one of the classic roads for biking with lots of group rides as well as training camps and the like taking part on various chunks of it. And after riding 11.5 miles of it, I see why. The road conditions are great, there isn’t a ton of traffic and it’s a steady, hard effort. Although I expected a little bit of a respite based on what I was told on my way up Rt 80, it really didn’t come. But riding along the parkway including the scenic overlooks and the tunnels made it worth it. On a few occasions, I wanted to stop and take photos just given the sheer beauty of the scenery… but I realized if I did, I would be unable to get started again and so I just kept pedaling. This became especially true around mile 90 when I cracked kind of hard. Luckily, that was also when there was the remaining downhill segment of the day. I was soft pedaling down but was getting cold given the cloud cover and the elevation and so ended up picking things back up a little. Honestly, other than that I remember little of this section. I know I was being passed by people and also that I was passing people back but it didn’t leave as big of an impression. It was just more of a steady slog and a mental struggle to reach Mt Mitchell Parkway
After 11.5 miles on the BRP, you turn onto Mt Mitchell Parkway for the final five miles. I was starting to feel like it was in the bag and started to relax a little bit at this point, feeling my energy level pick up a little. The section to the last rest stop was still kind of grueling though. Not as bad as Rt 80 and you know that it’s shorter so that helps a lot. I passed a lot of people cramping on this section, though. I was pretty happy with having stuffed a bunch of single serving Skratch Labs secret drink mixes into my pocket and using them rather than Gatorade, especially as I saw that. A few people who had seemed quite strong earlier on were definitely suffering here. But I felt like I was getting stronger for the first half here.
The final rest stop was at the entrance to the State Park and I quickly stopped for a little more Coke here as I felt the sugar would help on the final little ascent. But it was a super quick little stop and then I was on my way. The grade here let up a decent amount and so I was able to stand and really kick it a bit. As I passed the parking lot with the yellow Penske trucks (used for transporting bikes back down the mountain), I knew I was almost there and so of course that was the one point where I got a twinge of crampiness. I pushed through it, though and finished strong.
I ended up with an official chip time of 6:34:33 and a moving time from my Garmin of about 6:20. Since I had hoped to end up between 6 and 6.5 hours, that was right on target. And my time put me at 131st of the 719 people who completed the race and 10th for my age group. Not shabby at all for my first time doing it.
After crossing the finish line, my bike was immediately whisked away from me and I stumbled up to where our dry bags were. I changed into something that didn’t have a chamois (hooray) and grabbed some of the tomato soup that was there as well as a bag of Doritos (mmm, salt). I then made my way to the bus to start heading back to Marion. The ride back to Marion was pretty quiet and I caught up on Twitter and chatted with the guy sitting next to me. He had done the ride a few times before and finished about 10 minutes behind me.
When we got to Marion, I wandered over and made myself a plate of food and kind of forced myself to eat it even though I was in the “not even hungry any more” state as I waited for my bike to make it down the mountain. Kara, Madeline and my mom met me there and then I got my bike and it was on our way back to my parents’ house for the rest of my trip.
So after doing all of it, I have a few thoughts about the ride. First of all, it is very well run. Police escort out of Spartanburg, every turn well attended (with traffic stopped!), good rest stops (at least, the ones I stopped at). The route was awesome — great roads, low traffic, lots of good hard climbing but also some stuff that in a group can just fly by. Getting people + bikes down from the top of the mountain to Marion also went more smoothly than I expected.
Really the only bad I can point to is the behavior of some of the other riders. I saw somewhat rampant littering (gu wrappers, bottles, everything) and even with full use of the lane, people were frequently in the left lane when we were in the large group. Kind of disappointing and reflects poorly on cyclists in general.
Will I do it again? Probably at some point. The logistics make it difficult to commit to doing regularly but I’d definitely like to make another pass at it and see if I can get my time under six hours. To do so would require at least some concerted and different training that I’m not 100% sure how I’d get but I do think it’s doable.
Final ride data is up at Strava as usual. 242 suffer score, Training Peaks gave it a TSS of 471 (both based on heart rate, not power at this point). All in all, not a bad day on the bike.