This is a story about an event of which many of you have never heard, at a place many of you have never visited. While most of us look at our life’s achievements in terms of service to our fellow man or through our families, there may come occasions where we may indulge ourselves in personal quests and answer the questions, “what if” or “how well would I do?” This is a story of such an indulgence of mine: cycling. May 18, 2012, marks the 10th anniversary of what I would consider the athletic highpoint in my life: my best ride to the top of Mt. Mitchell.
Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina, sits in the south-central part of the state. It rises over 6,600 feet above sea-level and is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Beginning in 1975, John Bryan and some friends decided to ride their bikes from their home of Spartanburg, South Carolina to the top of Mt. Mitchell, over 100 miles away. The ride caught on and evolved into an event that drew cyclists from all parts of the globe. The ride was eventually called “The Assault on Mt. Mitchell”. With over 11,000 feet of total climbing, Bicycling Magazine once rated Mt. Mitchell as the fourth toughest century in the U.S. A “century” is a cycling term for a ride of one hundred miles. George Hincapie, a resident of Greenville, SC, and one-time teammate of Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal team, once described the climbs of this 102-mile trek as comparable to the French Alps. It is truly a spectacular ride with a view that is (literally) breathtaking. I rode Mt. Mitchell five times, but my 2002 ride was special to me.
In 2002, I was in my second year of rediscovering my love for cycling. I was a six-foot, one-inch, 205 pound pedal-stomping, gear-crushing maniac who helped get our local cycling club its reputation for being “crazy”. I had already done Mt. Mitchell the previous year just to see what it was all about and I didn’t really know how to train for it. I did that ride in 8 hours and 2 minutes. I dilly-dallied a lot on that ride and had a great time chatting up other riders, but being the competitive person that I am and knowing that the pros who did Mitchell were finishing around 5 hours, I knew I had to do better — even though I was forty. So I vowed that next year would be better.
I wasn’t a big organized-ride type of rider; there were the two Charleston rides that I would do every year along with the Issaqueena ride in Walhalla, SC, which has sharper hills than Mitchell. But otherwise, I was left to my own devices to train, so I got out my De Lorme map book, set out some routes, and rode my tuckus all over South Carolina through that winter while I also played hockey. By the time Issaqueena rolled around the next spring, I was in shape and I could feel it. Mt. Mitchell was after that and my goal was to get to the top in under 7 hours and 30 minutes. If I did that, I was going to reward myself with a new pair of Rudy Project sunglasses. I took my family to Myrtle Beach for the weekend before Mitchell and I rode around that very flat area to “train.” It was hardly ideal, but the parking decks made for some good climbing and I was flying up those levels. I was ready.
I live in Florence, SC, so the trip to Spartanburg is a 3-hour journey. There is a motel near the starting line in downtown Spartanburg where our club reserved rooms and I lucked out and didn’t have to share. I had ample time to clean and wax my chain and do all the last-minute gear checks — my shifter broke the first year and I did three quarters of the ride on my small chain ring. It was hard to sleep that night, but I needed what little I got.
The next morning, it was raining — I couldn’t have asked for better weather! Although I was born and raised in the South, I can’t stand the heat, and muggy heat? Fuggeddaboutit! A cold, rainy start would allow me to get well into the ride and not have to suffer with overheating. I had some coffee and some bananas to get me going while some of the other riders — there are usually around 1,500 — went to the nearby Krispy Kreme. I still can’t believe some riders want pastries before riding but I guess they want the sugar and calories. Me? I had Clif Shots gel packs. In the dark at 6:30, after much milling around in the rain, we all lined up in front of the city auditorium on the main drag and started en masse to our destination 102 miles away. If you have never ridden in a pack of people who are handlebar-to-handlebar, well, it’s an experience. Don’t fumble around as you clip into your pedals and don’t fall!
George Hincapie had decided to ride Mitchell this particular year and a local cycling club had arranged to ride with him and serve as his domestiques, the riders in the pace line who ride in front so the riders in back can draft and save their energy. However, a lot of people took off in an effort to keep pace with Hincapie and his group. Needless to say, as this mass of cycling humanity wound its way out of the city limits, the pace was rather uptempo. My plan was to latch onto any pace line I could and find one that was traveling a speed I could maintain. I passed a lot of pace lines.
The really cool thing about the Mt. Mitchell ride is that local law enforcement will direct traffic at certain critical intersections along the route. Ultimately, this gives the ride as close to a closed-circuit pro ride as any schlub like me will ever feel. In a very real sense, you don’t have to stop, the troopers will wave you through as they hold traffic for you. These officers will hear “thank you” from the riders several hundred times before the day is through.
Another of the features of a century ride is that there will be SAG vehicles (SAG: support and gear) along the course to help out riders with flats or mechanical issues or for those who can’t make it to the end and abandon the ride. In addition to the SAG’s, there will be numerous rest stops at certain places along the route to get more Gatorade (which was awful) and food to eat along the way. All in all, the riders are well cared for. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems. I’ve seen some wrecks due to tire-touches and the ambulances pick up the remnants of some high-speed wipe outs. The wet roads make that worse, so I tried to be careful, but I was determined to make my rest stops only long enough to refill my water bottles and grab some orange slices.
There are two parts to the ride to Mitchell. The first part is the ride to Marion, which anybody who signs up can do. Marion is about 75 miles into the ride. There is a huge campground there and it is the staging area for everyone to ride the buses back to Spartanburg. Only about 1,000 riders are allowed to ride further into the parkway and up to the top of Mt. Mitchell. I noticed as I was making my way to Marion that I was overtaking a lot of riders. I found out that these were the foolish ones who tried to keep up with George Hincapie and had hit the wall — “bonked” is one of the terms for this. Most would probably decide that Marion was as far as they wanted to go.
I arrived in Marion at 10:15, according to my bike’s computer. I was doing well and, after reloading my bottles, I set off for the summit. The lower roads on Mitchell are winding, relatively flat affairs, but once the road turns upward, the angle of ascent is something like 6 degrees on average and this can go on for miles until there is a break. Although I love climbing, a big guy like me has a harder time because my body mass is working against me. Nevertheless, I pounded out the miles and eventually got to one of the more spectacular views as I reached the tunnels and saw the clouds were actually below me. If I had been there to take pictures, that would have been a shot to have! I made my way through the tunnels, which are unlit, but the damp coolness was a welcome relief. The top of this climb was close!
The odd thing about Mt. Mitchell is that the weather can be warm and nice at Marion, but that is no guarantee it will be the same at the top. This day was one of those days where the rain of the early darkness gave way to a grey, cloudy morning as the temperature warmed. As I neared the innermost section of the parkway, however, I could feel it was cooling off. The wind was picking up, as well.
At the 91 mile mark is the last of the rest stops and I decided to bypass it and bombed downhill as I tucked and took advantage of the last descent before the end; everything was uphill after this. I continued along, keeping up my cadence in the pedal strokes as I reached the gate to the parking area at the top. My odometer has this as exactly the 100 mile mark — two miles to go! The year before at this very point, for some reason, the bike threw the chain and I had to dismount to put it back on. Some SAG vehicle passed and the people inside were yelling, “Don’t stop now! You’re almost there!” I wanted to throw something at them. This day, however, there was no thrown chain and I summoned what was left of my strength as my legs screamed from the lactic acid. I quickly saw the orange cones ahead as I maneuvered around the last corner and I made what amounted to a pitiful sprint to the end. I’m not smiling in that picture — that’s all grimace! I saw my time as I passed and had to catch my breath: 6 hours and 50 minutes. I had never dared to think I could break 7 hours, but there it was! I was astounded and elated.
As the wind howled around all of us lycra-clad folk, I enjoyed, perhaps, the best amenity of the Mt. Mitchell ride: waiting for every rider who makes it to the finish is a hot cup of tomato soup. Wow, was that ever good! I don’t know who came up with the idea to do this, but it is genius. After getting dressed in a very cramped restroom, we rode the buses back to Marion and from there back to Spartanburg. For me, there would be another 3 hours on the road back to Florence, but I didn’t mind a bit. I would do this ride three more times, but 6 hours and 50 minutes would be my best time. It was enough to do what I had done and surprise myself at the same time. I didn’t see the point of trying to kill myself improving on what I did.
So it’s been ten years and it seems like the time flew by faster than I ever flew on my bike (and some of the things I did on other rides would have you question my sanity), but I wouldn’t have traded the effort, the pain, or the aggravation for anything. Oh, and George Hincapie? He actually didn’t finish first in the ride, that was done by one of his mates. But he did finish at 5 hours and 20 minutes. Well… he had help.