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My Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Road Bike 5 1918

My GPS data for the end of the AOMM

This blog is focused on bikes and cycling products, so I don’t really write about my rides very often. Yesterday though, I finally had the chance to do a ride that I have wanted to do for a long time, so I will take a break from design content to discuss my first Assault on Mt. Mitchell.

The Assault starts in nearby Spartanburg, SC and ends at the summit of Mt. Mitchell, which at 6,578 feet is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The ride covers 102.7 miles with a cumulative elevation gain of around 12,000 feet. That sounds tough, but what makes it more difficult than other centuries with similar elevation gain is the fact that almost all of the hard climbing is in the last 20 miles (see the elevation chart below, which I borrowed from Scott Simmerman’s excellent account of his first Assault). The first 80 miles, from Spartanburg (elev. 781 ft.) to just beyond Marion, NC (elev. 1,289 ft.), are relatively easy. There are a few small climbs but mostly just steady rolling hills. On the north side of Marion though, you pass Lake Tahoma and start gaining elevation as you approach the Blue Ridge Parkway. The grades gradually start to increase and at about 3 miles from the Parkway, the really tough climbing starts with a series of extremely steep switchbacks. At mile 85 (the number six rest stop), you have gained elevation, but are still at only 2,308 feet. Turning onto the Parkway at mile 86.7 though, you are suddenly up to 3,365 feet. That’s over 1,000 feet of elevation gain in less than two miles! Crazy steep roads like that and relentless climbing are pretty much what you get for the rest of the ride. It levels off a bit on the Parkway…even going down for a couple of very fast sections, but any elevation that you lose has to be made up in the final few miles. I was actually sort of relieved when my GPS battery died on the Parkway at around mile 90. I was tired of looking down to see that I was still below 4,000 feet, knowing that I would have to climb another 2,500+ feet in the last few miles. At nearly 98 miles, you turn off the Parkway toward Mount Mitchell Park, and those last 5 miles are brutal. Like the other riders around me at that point, I felt like I was barely moving forward, swerving a bit, and just trying to will myself to the finish line at the top.

Each year, the fastest finishers complete the Assault on Mount Mitchell in just over 5 hours…a time that just amazes me. I went into the ride this year without a time goal in mind; simply finishing at the summit was my only goal. When I signed up to do the AOMM in February, I planned to train for it and make a strong showing…but other things came up. Between work and family responsibilities, I never got in those long training rides that I had planned to do. As it turned out, May 24th crept up on me and I found myself in worse shape than I had been in previous years at this time. Prior to yesterday, my longest ride of the year was around 35 miles and I hadn’t done any real training for the climbs. Suffice it to say, I felt extremely unprepared to take on a ride like the Assault. I was already registered though, so I wasn’t about to back out. I knew it would hurt, but I planned to just take it slow, ignore the pain, and finish no matter what. Instead of looking at my watch and pacing myself, as I would normally do on a ride like this, I decided to just ride at whatever pace felt comfortable. I slowed down to chat with people early on and I stopped at all the rest stops to eat a snack, refill my bottles, and thank the volunteers (it is a very well supported ride with many SAG stops staffed by very nice volunteers). Taking it easy was the right approach. Even though the final climbs were difficult, and at times I felt like I was barely turning the pedals, I actually felt pretty good at the finish. After the bus ride down from the mountaintop, I even rode a few more miles on the flat roads of Marion to loosen up my legs.

I would definitely recommend this century to anyone looking for a challenge, but it is also worth doing just to experience the natural beauty of the area. As I was riding (slowly at times) on the Blue Ridge Parkway yesterday, I was reminded of why I love the southern Appalachians so much. The weather was not perfect… it was a bit foggy with rain off and on. Even though the views of the surrounding mountains were not as good as they could have been, everything was lush, green, and beautiful. That smell of the forest in bloom after the light rain was something I really appreciated too. At one point on the Parkway, I rode out of one of the dark tunnels to see the rays of sunlight filtering though the trees and fog. I stopped to move a black snake from the middle of the lane and took the opportunity to just look around for a minute at the light rays and the trees and the mountains. At that moment, it really hit me how lucky I am to live in an area with such incredibly beautiful riding. It also made me think about why I love cycling so much in the first place. It really is a great feeling to get far away on a bicycle and just enjoy the world under your own power. I guess moments like those are a good contrast to the times yesterday when my legs were hurting, I was barely moving, and I felt like I would start rolling backward if I stopped pedaling for a second. In retrospect though, even those parts of the ride were good. Overall, it was a great day and I am REALLY glad that I finally did it. I hope to ride the Assault on Mt. Mitchell again next year too. Who knows…I might even actually try to get in shape for it.

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  1. Preston May 27, 2010 at 9:33 pm -  Reply

    Great write up, I have always wanted to do it, say I am every year…..and well…never do. Next year…next year

  2. FrancisChu June 1, 2010 at 6:25 pm -  Reply

    “At that moment, it really hit me how lucky I am to live in an area with such incredibly beautiful riding. It also made me think about why I love cycling so much in the first place.”
    Every morning as I ride to work, taking mostly small roads and back streets to avoid traffics, that’s the exact feeling I have: “How lucky I am to be able to enjoy the beautiful morning ride everyday?” – Francis/ Singapore

  3. Paul June 2, 2010 at 3:51 pm -  Reply

    What a great ride. Glad you didn’t bonk. I’ve ridden 60 miles but never a century. Climbing is tough but I enjoy the challenge. What is your lowest gear? 34X28?

    • James T June 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm -  Reply

      No, but I could have used a 34 x 28. I switched to a compact crankset right before the ride, but my lowest gear was still a 34 x 25. Probably should have changed cassettes as well.

  4. Luther June 4, 2010 at 1:26 am -  Reply

    nice writing. I lived in NC for a winter a while ago and the very last thing I did on the drive home was to ride up Mt. Mitchell. It stands out as one of the best rides I have ever done anywere, either on a road or mountain bike. Your story made me wish I was still there. There aren’t too many rides that like that in the west.

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