The Assault On Mt. Mitchell (AOMM) actually started several months ago when Eric, a co-worker and fellow cyclist suggested that I join him and another co-worker/cyclist, Tim Prand, for the 2012 Assault. The Freewheelers of Spartanburg, the organization that hosts the AOMM, has to limit the number of riders because the ride ends at Mt. Mitchell State Park and the park administrators don’t want to create so much traffic that ordinary visitors can’t enjoy the park, too. I’m sure they’re probably close to having as many riders as would ever want to ride any way. But, we had to buy our AOMM bib number in February. The ride costs $135 to enter. For that, you get the right to punish your body for 102.5 miles wherein you climb 10,357 vertical feet. You also get a patch upon completion that you can then sew to your cycling kit as a badge of honor. The other ‘perks’ of the ride price include a bus ride down the mountain, and a meal at Tom’s Camping World.
Eric, our ride-idea-originator, decided to have surgery on his torn meniscus. Lucky for him, he made this decision far enough in advance that he was able to sell/transfer his bib to another rider. Meanwhile, I continued to train hard in anticipation of the most difficult ride on this side of the Mississippi. Tim, our other ride participant struggled to get in training miles as he had suffered a torn rotator cuff when he did the Andes to the Amazon ride to benefit Unicef back in November. Two weeks before the ride, Tim and I decided to try to sell/transfer out bib numbers and bail out of the ride. It just didn’t seem like it was going to be as fun if we couldn’t participate at the same level. Unfortunately, there were several people trying to sell their bib numbers by that point. And, with only 2 weeks before the ride, nobody had time to train to the level required to successfully summit the mountain. In the end, we weren’t able to sell our bibs, obviously.
As I mentioned before, the ride ends at a state park and they don’t want to disrupt the normal park activity, so they hold this event on a Monday. This meant driving down to Spartanburg on Saturday, staying 3 nights in hotels and missing two days of work. By the time we packed our bikes into the back of Tim’s Acura MDX, I had 1400 training miles in for the year… so far. Tim had 850 miles. Saturday, I rolled up to Tim’s house around 12:30. We packed the bikes and our luggage, which all fit nicely in the back with only putting down the 60 of the 60/40 split back seat. We probably could have gotten away with just putting down the 40, in reality. The ride down was uneventful. Tim is an awesome driver. I’ve heard tales of how fast he drives and I was, prior to this trip, a little nervous about riding with him. Not any more. He’s attentive and always in control. Never once did I feel even a little nervous while we buzzed along and set the pace of traffic for those who wished to follow along. The same cannot be said of my driving skills or Tim & Michelle’s confidence in my driving. I didn’t crash or spin out or anything, but I did make them nervous when I got close to the K-rail at one point. But, enough about that.
Our first stop was Wendy’s for a late lunch/early dinner where we had to weave between fire trucks, ambulances and some volunteer fire vehicles just to get into the driveway. We ordered and pulled back out into traffic as Michelle took inventory of the contents of the bags of food. Of course, there were things missing. Not food… we would have gone back for food. We were missing straws for our drinks and spoons for our chili. Since we still needed gas before we continued down the highway, we grabbed sraws and spoons at the BP. One more pit-stop for gas and before we knew it we were in Knoxville where we had a late dinner at Texas Roadhouse. Yummy food. We finally stopped at a Best Western for the night in Waynesville, NC after backtracking for about 10 miles to find a chain hotel/motel. We loved the view of the mountains when we woke up Sunday morning.
Sunday morning, we got up at 8:30 so that we could make our way the rest of the way to Spartanburg and have some time to drive the course. As we walked to Tim’s SUV, I said jokingly, “Well, there’s no glass on the ground by your car. That means the bikes are still inside and we still have to do this damn ride.” Tim quipped, “And all four tires are still inflated.” They were, too. Then, we pulled out of the parking spot and made our way toward the hotel’s office. Tim noted that something didn’t feel right with the car and I said that it sounded like we were dragging something. When we got to the office door, Tim rolled to a stop and I hopped out to see what was going on. The passenger side rear tire was flat. It hadn’t been just moments before, but it sure was now. Michelle went inside to return our room keys and check out and Tim and I pulled over to a parking spot where we could put on the spare tire. Tim dug out the jack and loosened the lugs while I lowered the spare from where it hangs beneath the car. The spare seemed a little soft, but it was holding air when we lowered the Jack. Michelle had inquired about a repair shop when she was in the office and we started on our way to the Walmart just down the road.
We got about 100 feet before the spare tire went flat. Out of options, we drove on the spare all the way to Walmart. Fuah-LUMP… Fuah-LUIP… Fuah-LUMP… along the sholder we went for about 1/2 a mile. We approached the Walmart from the left side where the Garden Center was busy with local buying annuals and gardening tools. Across the main driveway, on the parking-lot side, a woman walked her dog.
As we rolled past, she said, “Oh, that can’t be gooood.”
Then, a male’s voice called out from the driver’s side, “That ain’t gooood.”
We continued past the front of the Walmart Super Center knowing that the automotive center must be on the right side of the building since the garden center was on the left. As we rolled past the front right corner, we realized that there was no automotive center on that side, either. Tim parked and I hopped out to go see what I could find out from inside the store. Perhaps it was around back? As I approached the door, I stopped a local gentleman who was meandering around in front of the store. I say meandering because I couldn’t tell if he had any direction or purpose. I couldn’t tell if he was going into the store, or just coming out of the store. He had no bags in his hands, so it was a toss up. I asked, “Does this Walmart have an automotive service center?”
He paused for what seemed like three minutes contemplating the possibility that he might be able to understand this fast talking yankee who posed an early morning brain teaser. Then, he uttered, “Nope. I don’t recon it does.”
I asked, “Do you know of any place nearby that could fix a flat tire for us on a Sunday morning?”
Again, another long pause while he dug for the answer… “Nope, I don’t recon I do.”
“Damn,” I said, “we just need to have a tire plugged.”
Without missing a beat and taking no time to think about it, the man said, “Oh, they gots tire plug in the Walmart. You could fix it yourself.”
Sure… he knows all of the contents of the Super Walmart and is able to help us when I don’t pose it as a question, but when he has to identify whether or not the store has an automotive center or if there’s any place in town that could fix a tire, those answers take an eternity.
Armed with the knowledge that we were but a small purchase away from being able to fix our flat tire (we had already identified the concrete screw that has punctured the tire in the middle of the tread,) we were re-energized. Tim and I went in and purchased a tire plug kit and a can of green slime fix-a-flat. Then, the stubborn guy with the bad shoulder did all the lifting and got the full sized, fixed tire back on the car. Michelle and I went back in and bought a tire pressure guage, another can of green-slime, and one of those tire pumps that runs off of your cigarette lighter. Just in case… you know.
Luckily, that was our only tire-related problem all weekend!
We finally hit the road around 11:15 after filling up the gas tank one more time. We headed toward Spartanbug until we got close to Mt. Mitchell. Then, we found the spot where Route 80 splits off to the north toward the summit. We decided to drive up to see the finish line, just in case we didn’t make it there on the bikes on Monday. We stopped once on the way up so that I could pee and I snapped a couple of pictures of the slope. We also noticed a really pretty dam and lake that we wanted pictures of, but there was no place to park. I vowed that I’d snap a picture on Monday since I planned to take my camera on the ride.
Here’s a panoramic video from the parking lot — DSCN1301
We also walked up to the very top of the mountain where there’s an observation deck…
We spent a few minutes at the top and enjoyed the view before heading back down the road a short distance to have lunch with an equally magnificent view. The food was good and the prices were fair but the company was good. Tim & Michelle are awesome and I am glad I got to spend this time with them.
After lunch, we drove back down the mountain and then drove the remainder of the 102.5 mile course backwards. As we went up/down (mostly down) the hills, we commented on just how difficult this ride was going to be. It’s really hard to imagine unless/until you’ve done it. I was glad that we got to see the whole course and know some landmarks before we had to do it on the bikes. Tim, on the other hand, was of the school of thought that ignorance is bliss and he wished we hadn’t seen it.
At the end of the 102.5 mile backwards trip through the ride course, we ended at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. We got there at 6pm and checked in so that we could pick up our goodie bag which contained our bib numbers, a book on Spartanburg attractions, a pack of Freedent gum, and the AOMM jerseys that we’d both purchased. Tim also took this opportunity to buy some energy gels. I waited outside while Tim was in line. As I stood there, the race director walked past and I thanked her for her time, her dedication, and her hard work. You could already tell that this was quite a production and that it had been rehearsed many times – this being the 37th time the AOMM has been put on. She appreciated the recognition and lamented that so few people had thanked her that day. When Tim & Michelle came out we parepared our bag of dry clothes that would be taken by truck to the top of the mountain ahead of the race, and we walked it over to the truck which was parked near the entrance to the auditorium.
The skateboarder/snowboarder in me made me snap this picture.
All done at the auditorium, we made our way to the Spartanburg Mariott which was less than 1/4 mile from the auditorium. That was nice because the auditorium is where the race would start in the morning. Tim went to check in only to find out that our room wasn’t ready yet. It was 7pm and our room wasn’t ready. What the hell? We had planned on going to Olive Garden to eat after we checked in so it wasn’t such a huge deal, but it was weird that they wouldn’t have cleaned all the rooms by 7pm. Tim said they were doing an all you can eat pasta buffet in the hotel restaurant and he was cool with eating there if we were. I certainly didn’t have any problem with that. So, we ate lots of pasta and enjoyed some more conversation about all sorts of nothing until we had had our fill. When we were done, Tim went and got our room key and Michelle and I got some coffee, which I drank very little of, it being nearly 10pm and all.
Once in the room, we settled in quickly and fell asleep by 10:45 or so. The plan was to get up at 5:15 so we’d be ready and in place for the race start at 6:30am. That plan was thwarted by the guys in the room next to us who were up and banging around at 4:10am. I never did fall back to sleep after their racket. My mind started racing with all the things that I wanted in place for the ride and preparing myself mentally for the pain that I was about to experience. Once my alarm finally sounded at 5:15, we got up and got ready for the ride. Bibs and my Prague jersey were the outfit I’d wear that day. Tim wore bibs and his TAB jersey.
Dressed and getting excited, Tim and I went down to the car. To get there, we had to take an elevator to the lobby, cross through the lobby, and get on a second elevator to get to the underground parking garage. I was in awe at the number of bikes leaning against every vertical surface in the lobby area. There must have been 200 bikes. Once in the garage, we assembled our bikes and put a couple more pounds of air in our tires before riding up to the starting line. When we got there, the sign in front of the auditorium said 15 minutes until race start.
There were already hundreds of bikes in front of us and the longer we stood there, the more and more bikes that lined up behind us. A group of 3 riders asked me to snap a picture of them. The girl, whose bib number was 0070 returned the favor and snapped a pic of Tim and me. We talked to that threesome for a bit and told them where we were from. They were locals in South Carolina and I think they’d all said they’d done this ride before. They assured us that we’d be fine given the number of training miles we had in. Tim and I joked as the clock wound down about how we wished Eric were there so that we could punish him for getting us into this ride.
Nerves. Excitement. Anticipation. Ten. Nine… Two. One. Go!
The first three or four miles before first turn were incredible. I’ve never seen 2000 bikes own a road the way we did. There were police blocking every side street. People lined the streets ringing cow-bells and cheering us on. There was no real peloton; rather, it was just a mass of people of mixed ability levels, mixed destinations (some people only rode 76 miles to Marion) and different quality of equipment. At the first turn, there was a water bottle on the road just after the turn and as we approached it, everyone called out, “Water bottle!” and pointed at it so that nobody would run it over and crash. There was one other water bottle on the road within the first 10 miles and we all successfully avoided it. By the time we got to the second turn which would be the road that took us out of town, we had settled into a peloton of about 60-80 bikes. With that many bikes, it’s like free miles. You don’t have to work very hard to keep up with the group and we rolled along at 24-27 MPH. We were still in that peloton as we reached the first rest-stop at mile 22 of the ride. I was pulling at that point *pulling means I was the first bike in line and I was “pulling” everyone else by breaking the wind and providing the draft* and Tim was toward the back. Unfortunately, he was on the outside line of the two-line peloton and had difficulty getting over. We stopped for that first rest-stop because we both knew that it was going to be an all-day event and that we needed to eat plenty in order to avoid the bonk. I would have liked to have kept going and stayed with that glorious 60-80 bike peloton. Tim, however, was glad for the stop.
When we left that rest-stop, we were working a lot harder because there were only 4 or 5 of us riding together. Eventually, we picked up some more riders and were enveloped by another larger peloton. The ride, up to that point, was rolling hills and not as difficult as it would get between the second and third rest-stop. Rest-stop 2 had three port-a-potties and there was a line of about 15 people waiting to use them. I had to pee, but I decided I could hold it for five more miles when we’d reach pit-stop number three. Between those two pit-stops, we’d have to climb Bill’s Hill. That was the first real incline that we’d have to battle. As we approached that hill, Tim said, “I’m going to lose you on these hills. I’ll see you at the top.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant the top of Bill’s Hill, or the top of the mountain. Turned out that both were true. I stopped at the third rest-stop because I still had to pee and there was no line at this rest-stop. As I stood there eating my third banana and a couple of cookies, Tim rolled past without stopping. I took care of my business and caught up to Tim about a mile later as we descended the far side of Bill’s hill. That’s when I got a free adrenaline rush. As we were free-wheeling (not pedaling) down Bill’s Hill in a group of about 5 or 6 riders, I took my eye off the curving road for just a moment to look down at my shoe after I felt something hit it. That was just long enough to change my direction enough to send me off the road and into the grass at 35 MPH. The grass was tall. It was tall like my back yard last week. Wait… that probably doesn’t help you. It was about 8 inch tall grass. I couldn’t see what was under it. I couldn’t tell how soft the ground was. I couldn’t tell if there were rocks or bottles or anything else in the grass. I was scared, very scared. Tim was yelling, “Lift! Keep your front wheel in front of you!” That may seem obvious, but it was good to hear because lifting up on my handlebars was what I was doing by instinct. I don’t know how long I was in the grass, but it was far too long. I did get back onto the road without crashing and I only lost about 5MPH in the process. Adrenaline… get some.
Tim talked me down from my adrenaline dump and we rode together until the next big hill. That was the last I saw of Tim until he crossed the finish line. At some point along this stretch, I caught up to number 00070. As I got close, I said, “So, number seventy, we meet again.” She responded with, “That you Ohio?” Then we introduced ourselves properly as Karen and Pete instead of “Number 70” and “Number 461”. I skipped the rest-stop at mile 64.5 and didn’t stay long at Tom’s Camping World (mile 74.2) because I was there an hour before Michelle was supposed to arrive. Tim apparently rolled in about 5 minutes after I left. So, the first 74 miles took me 4 hours and 3 minutes (elapsed time) to complete. Not bad. I had a 19.8 average at that point. My goal – given that there was 5K feet of elevation change in those 74 miles – was an 18MPH average. I felt like super man! Ha… little did I know. I remembered that I had my camera while I was at Tom’s.
When I left Tom’s Camping World, I rode solo for quite some time. I figured I’d catch up to the others that I’d seen leaving ahead of me. I’d done it all day long – catching up to groups, riding through them and moving on to the next group. Not this time. From Tom’s Camping World, there’s a nice stretch of Route 80 that’s pretty flat. The hills don’t really start until you get to the dam. Oh… the dam. It is really pretty.
The rest of the ride is brutal. As I mentioned above, it took me 4 hours to get to the 74 mile mark. It took me an additional 4 hours to get to the top of Mt. Mitchell – the last 28 miles. One thing I learned along the route up the mountain is that people lie to you. Each time I felt like it was going to be impossible to continue, someone would utter the words, “The worst is behind us. It get easier just up ahead.”
At the rest-stop before we turned onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, I rolled up to the curb and unclipped my right foot intending to put my foot on the curb and then dismount. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the road was sloped from right to left. As such, gravity dictated that I should have unclipped my left foot. I promptly fell to my left – the foot still clipped in. I got a bit of road-rash on my left knee and I suffered a charlie-horse just above my left knee. It was painful the rest of the 22 miles up the mountain. I skipped one of the rest-stops on the Blue Ridge Parkway portion of the mountain and I paid for that later. I had to stop 4 times on the road and take a breath and rest for just 3 or 4 minutes before clipping back in and pedaling some more. Other riders were doing the same thing and we kept leap-frogging each other as we climbed the mountain. Each time I passed someone resting I stuck out my hand and said, “Gimme some!” Each rider gave me a high-five without fail.
It’s funny. You stop at rest-stops and see people there that passed you earlier. Then you pass people that you’ll see at the next rest-stop. The whole day long, you’re leap-frogging each other. You recoginze the bib number, the bike, the jersey or the shoes or the combination of all of them. If I ran into any of these people today, I’d recognize none of them – unless they were in the same gear they wore on the assault. One person I might recognize is Karen. I passed her one more time on the Blue Ridge Parkway and I called out, “Karen!”
“Who’s that back there?” She replied
“Pete from Ohio.”
As I rolled ahead of her, she said, “Keep up that pace and you may break the eight-hour mark!”
When I got to the penultimate stop – the last rest-stop – they were offering baby-wipes and glasses of Coke. Apparently the Coke is a good sugar boost to get you over the top. I didn’t need it. We were two miles from the summit and I was already pumped up. I did take them up on the offer of the baby wipe, though. My arms and legs were covered by gnats. It was disgusting.
I rode the last 2 miles with a guy that I’d not seen all day. He and I cruised up hills at 20mph that I would have struggled to do at 13mph an hour earlier. As we pedaled along, we discussed his prior assault on this same mountain which was not a ride, but a 40 mile run. He said this was harder. As I got close, I noticed people sitting on the guard rail along the left side of the road cheering us on. One woman was ringing a cow-bell for every rider that passed. I swung over to the left side of the road and put out my left arm and said, “Gimme some!” as I’d done several times through the day. I got about 6 high-fives as I rode past the spectators. When I looked up, I was being scolded by a volunteer to go to the right of the cones and I immediately obeyed. Then, I noticed the clock. It said 7:59:?? something. Holy crap! I really could beat that 8 hour mark! I stood and cranked harder to get past that finish line before it clicked over to 8 hours.
After you cross the finish line, they take your bike from you and put it on a truck. The instruct you to take your bike computer and water bottles off and then they put it on the truck you designate – either going back to Spartanburg or going back to Tom’s Camping World in Marion. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a plan for what to do with my computer and I lost it somewhere during the day. So, now I have to look at replacing that or upgrading to a Garmin. They had half-dozen handi-capable sized port-a-potties at the top where you could change into your dry clothes. They also had hot and tasty tomato soup with bread and cans of soda waiting for us at the top. I saw Karen one more time at the top as I was walking back toward Michelle with my soup/bread. We exchanged finish times and fist bumps of congratulations.
Michelle caught up to me shortly after I passed my bike off to the volunteers – with another big thank-you expressed – and told me that she missed me approaching the finish line and only got a picture of me after I crossed. No biggie. I can buy an official picture – and I think I might. It’s a good picture. After writing this and thinking about it, I did buy the 8X10. This one without the clock is ok, too.
As we waited for Tim to cross the finish line, the sky thickened with dark clouds and we eventually got some very refreshing rain.
I don’t know if Tim called it refreshing as he had to ride for about 15 minutes in that rain. Maybe it felt good? Tim crossed the finish line at 9:29:23. He was exhausted. He nearly fell over when he handed off his bike to the volunteer. Michelle had to catch him and give him a shoulder to hang onto. We walked with him up to the shelter area where there was some dry ground to sit on. He had some tomato soup and a can of soda before slipping into his shorts for the ride down the mountain on the bus.
The bus ride was interesting and a bit scary. It was still raining and as everyone boarded the bus they added more and more moisture to the interior atmosphere. Before that became a problem, though, we clipped mirrors with an oncoming bus as we made our way down the 2 mile stretch of narrow road between the summit and the restaurant where we at lunch the day before. We had to stop at the restaurant so that the driver could adjust the mirrors. Then, to make matters worse, the bus driver had no clue how the window defroster works. He kept switching it from hot to cold and back thinking that eventually it would solve the problem of condensation on the inside of the window. Of course, it did not. Eventually, Tim got up from his front row seat and grabbed the paper towel from the driver’s stash of paper towels and started wiping the window for the driver. Every 10 or 15 seconds, Tim would reach across the driver’s field of view and wipe away the moisture. After a minute or two of doing that, Tim noticed that the vents on the dash weren’t even pointing at the window. So, he adjusted those and gave the window a few more wipes before sitting down again – having solved the problem. It took about an hour and forty minutes to get down the mountain on the bus.
They let us out at Tom’s Camping World and we had to wade into a rain soaked field to find our bikes. My bike had been there, laying in a three inch deep puddle for over an hour. Tim’s bike hadn’t arrive yet. In fact, we had to wait about 20 mintes for the truck with Tim’s bike to make it back to Tom’s.
We drove as far as Newport, TN on Monday night. I drove from our dinner stop to the hotel. That was enough for Tim & Michell. We each got our own room on Monday rather than sharing. Initially, they tried to put us in smoking rooms. We went back and complained and got non-smoking rooms, thank god. After a good night’s sleep, Tim drove on Tuesday and we got home to his house by 3:30.
Thank you’s… I gave lots of them. Every time we passed an officer or volunteer holding traffic so that we could pass safely, I said thank you. Every rest stop that I stopped at, I thanked the volunteers who were there passing out food and water and taking our trash off our hands. The number and quality of the volunteers at this event amazed me. They were, in a word, awesome.