The Assault on Mount Mitchell is hard. Insanely hard. I had forgotten how hard it was. If you want evidence, just check the results. Out of approximately 1,000 riders that started the ride, only 765 succeeded. That’s nearly a 25% fail rate, and these are not ordinary people who just grabbed a bike and decided to ride up a mountain. These are people that trained for months, focused on this one goal.
I bumped into a first-time rider at the hotel and he asked me for any tips. I said that you shouldn’t think of it as impossible. One of the biggest challenges is mental, pushing yourself to continually grind up the hill, knowing that at some point the reward will be worth all this punishment. That was good advice, but I reflected on it as those last miles slowly ticked by, as I noticed every passing tenth of a mile, reassuring myself that the end was getting closer. Hopefully I didn’t tell this guy the ride was easy, because it definitely is not. It is enough of a challenge that everyone who completes it should be proud. This is something that not everyone can do.
I was confident for this year’s Assault. I had my plan. I had put in the work. This would be my day.
The most stressful part of the ride is in the first 20 miles. That’s when all 1,000 riders converge together, mashing the pedals and all trying to get to Marion as fast as possible. Mistakes are made. People get sloppy. There will be plenty of ‘jerks,’ as Paul puts it. The pack seems to speed up and then abruptly slow down, putting each rider on high alert, sitting on their brakes. “SLOWING” is heard every minute or so. It is frustrating, but something one has to deal with in order to get an easy ride to Marion.
At mile 10, I fell victim to someone’s poor preparation. A water bottle came loose in a large pack, maybe five or six riders ahead of me. Everyone immediately slowed, swerved, and did everything possible to keep their bikes upright. The guy immediately in front of me swerved to the left of me, and then onto me. THWACK! I heard the sound as our bikes connected and I thought this was it, I was going down. Miraculously I stayed on the bike. All of us did and the pack kept going.
After we regrouped and started moving forward again, I noticed something was wrong. My left handlebar was crooked, pointing to the right and sitting a little lower. At first it seemed awkward and difficult to ride. The steering was fine. The brakes and shifters worked. I just had to keep my hand crooked to the right and lean a little differently to keep it balanced. I was able to ride through it with only minor discomfort. I chugged along.
I was feeling great early. I had missed the lead pack, but settled into one that was keeping a good enough pace. We were at 22 mph when we reached Bill’s Hill. This would be the first big challenge. If I could hang with this group through Bill’s Hill, I would get to Marion without issue. To my surprise, it didn’t seem too difficult this time. I climbed up comfortably either with or ahead of most of my pack.
I arrived in Marion at around 3:35. That was perfect, right where I wanted to be. They say that it takes as long to get from Spartanburg to Mitchell as it does from Marion to Mitchell. Last year I had made up time on the climbs, so at this point it looked like a good bet for me to break seven hours.
Unfortunately I made a crucial error at Marion. I had left some Gatorade with my wife and forgot to refill my bottles. All they had at the rest stop was water. I filled part of a bottle, figuring that would be enough to get me up Highway 80 to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Highway 80 starts out flat with some easy rollers. It’s a gorgeous ride along Lake Tahoma, but seems like forever until the climb begins. I was still feeling fine and skipped the rest stop just before the climb. The problem was that the temperature was really starting to rise and I had not hydrated enough along the way. I was getting thirsty. Soon enough, that meant I was getting tired.
I tried to conserve water, knowing it probably wouldn’t be enough to take me through the climb. I got slower and slower. The riders that I had been with before all passed me. People behind them passed me. I was bonking. The road has markings for every half a mile remaining. At 2 miles, I began to wonder if I could continue. I had nothing. An eternity later it said 1.5 miles to go. Are you kidding me? I ran out of water with a mile to go. It was a long mile. Finally I reached the top and guzzled as much water, Gatorade and Coke as I could, while filling both bottles all the way.
The elevation on the Parkway didn’t help the temperature much. It was still warm and sunny. I could feel the heat intensely. I tried to push at a good pace and simply couldn’t keep it. More people passed me. Around midway through the parkway, after having sufficiently hydrated and fueled myself, I started to get the magic back. My pace picked up and I started passing people again.
I was thrilled to find the short, 2-mile descent. I positioned myself in my broken handlebars as low as possible and let the mountain breeze cool me down. I felt amazing when I started climbing again, like a new man. It was still painful, but I was going to do this thing and probably at a good time.
When I turned into the Mitchell State Park entrance, I thought there was a chance of me breaking seven hours. Reality struck as I noticed my speed during the steeper sections. It was in the 4-5 mph range, not fast. I grunted my way up, slowly and surely to the finish line.
I looked down to find myself covered in bugs. It looked like I was wearing black arm warmers. They were everywhere. I continued to climb, going by the restaurant and then to the final summit, just a few hundred feet.
Mitchell accomplished, again! My final time was 7:07. While I didn’t break my goal of seven hours, I beat last year’s time by nearly an hour. I’ll take that. And I’ll wait awhile before I start thinking about next year. Who am I kidding? I’m going for 6:30 next year.
May 22nd, 2012 at 9:00 pm
That is actually a little crazy, so congrats on finishing and improving your time. This prairie dweller wouldn’t have made it.
May 22nd, 2012 at 9:59 pm
Crazy is an understatement. I wouldn’t blame them for locking the whole lot of us up. But it is fun in a brutal, demented sort of way.
May 22nd, 2012 at 9:08 pm
Good to see you at the start line. I’m very glad you didn’t crash during the bottle incident. Congrats on finishing so much faster than last year! You earned that badge and soup.
That was the most mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done. Hwy 80 really took a toll on me. Having done the event I now know how to better train for next year.
May 22nd, 2012 at 9:56 pm
I passed on the soup this year. Too many bugs, and I had probably already eaten my share on the way up. You did great and I’m sure you’ll improve next year.
May 23rd, 2012 at 2:38 am
Excellent account of an epic day, Aaron! It almost makes want to come ride in North America 😉 Shaving an hour off of last year is amazing, too, and good luck with the 6:30 in ’13.
May 23rd, 2012 at 5:55 am
You would be surprised by how nice the riding is out here. The Blue Ridge Parkway especially is a cyclist’s paradise. Let me know if you ever make the trip and I’ll hook you up.
May 23rd, 2012 at 2:01 pm
I will. I have a growing ‘collection’ of cycling friends in your area now, so there WILL be a visit one day, you can be sure.
May 23rd, 2012 at 9:31 am
Excellent recap Aaron! Congratulations on a great ride and for accomplishing your goal. I had a great ride too…shaved 1hr and 20mins from last year first assault…hope to shave another half hour next year. Lets keep that fitness level up…Hope to see you next year.
May 23rd, 2012 at 10:22 pm
I saw your time and was impressed! You killed it! Hopefully we’ll be able to meet on two wheels soon enough.
May 24th, 2012 at 1:09 pm
Great ride and I enjoyed the read. Good luck on you next one
May 25th, 2012 at 8:38 pm
Thanks, Gabe. Nice job on your ride as well.
February 2nd, 2015 at 4:52 pm
Hope your recovery continues to go well. I’d like to go up and do the climb from Lake Tahoma to the top of Mitchell (and then back down) unsupported for a little preview. Looks like I should plan on 25+ miles of climbing–maybe 50+ overall. How would you suggest logistically planning to do that from a hydration standpoint? Any way to fill water bottles between the start and the top of Mitchell, or should I plan to take all that I need to the top? Assuming there is a place to fill in the park. Thanks for your wisdom and help!
February 2nd, 2015 at 5:14 pm
Thanks, Ed. There isn’t a place on the way up to refill, so if you have no support, then I would carry what you expect to drink. Some people I know have driven halfway up and stashed bottles, but that’s an ordeal to avoid carrying a little extra weight. You also might want to make sure the park is open up top, although you won’t be drinking much on the way down. Enjoy the climb!