By Paul LeFrancois
It all began some 270 million years ago when tectonic plates making up the earth's crust crashed together to give rise to what we now know as the Appalachian Mountains. Over many millennia, the ongoing forces of erosion, the vertically-challenged cyclist's friend, have been slowly shrinking the mountains. Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina has been most resistant remaining the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
By 1974, John Bryan, although not a geologist, concluded that erosion had worked its will long enough. He came up with the idea of pedaling a bicycle from his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina to the top of Mt. Mitchell some 102 miles away with over 10,000 cumulative feet of climbing in between. John made up for his lack of geology credentials with powerful persuasive skills convincing a few of his friends to join him. The Assault on Mt. Mitchell was born. John never tired of helping cyclists climb mountains, directing the ride for many years until his passing in 2009.
Over the years the ritual has changed little: up at 4:30, food in the belly, last minute check of equipment, then the roll down the driveway in the dark and the short spin to Memorial Auditorium for the 6:30 AM start. Twenty-seven previous Assaults do little to calm pre-ride jitters. But it's good to see some familiar faces among the 900 plus riders in a rainbow-colored assortment of jerseys who have travelled from more than 30 states and several foreign countries.
The marquee in front of the auditorium ticks down the final seconds 3, 2, 1, 0 and the crowd erupts as hundreds of legs start spinning towards their goal 102 miles and 10,357 feet of climbing away. The start is a scary time: riders of many abilities mixed together fueled by adrenalin and dreams of a mountain top finish. Stay calm, don't overlap wheels, hold your line, hold your line, hold your line!
The start is fast - not my strength being blessed with few fast twitch muscle fibers and an aging engine. Through early rolling hills out of town I'm able to stay attached to the back of the lead pack. The terrain levels out providing some relief but a glance down at my Garmin shows 24.1 miles in the first hour, something I don't often see. We begin hitting moderate grades in the second hour increasing the effort required to stay attached. At 44 miles we descend through the ominous hairpin turn that has been known to swallow cyclists who are never seen nor heard from again. Today all survive its clutches.
Joining other dispatched riders we continue up and down grunts and grinds for the next 24 miles before reaching Marion at the 74 mile mark. We've been in the saddle three and a half hours, accumulated 4,500 feet of climbing, yet Marion's 1,400 foot elevation is a mere 600 feet above our starting point in Spartanburg. Mt. Mitchell's peak at 6,684 feet is 28 miles away. The warmup is over.
Highway 80 takes us out of Marion and its last three miles leading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway are the steepest of the ride. The 70 degree temperature at the start has risen considerably and the heavy foliage traps moisture to provide steam heat during the climb. All semblances of the peloton and its early morning pace are gone. Only the mountain remains. Perhaps Assault is the wrong word. There's a strange partnership between mountain and rider. The mountain challenges, the rider's body and spirit responds. As I slowly gain elevation one pedal stroke after another, the "Approaching the Blue Ridge Parkway" sign is a welcome sight. Downing two Dixie cup shots of Coke at the Parkway entrance rest stop helps quell the rebellion brewing in my legs. Seventeen miles to go.
At 98 miles I turn off the Parkway onto the entrance road leading to Mt. Mitchell State Park. The first two miles are a deja-vu flashback with grades similar to Highway 80 all over again. I'm hovering between 4 and 5 mph alternately sitting, standing, sitting, standing to keep the pedals turning. My spirit lifts at the sight of the entrance gate into the park because it also signals a flattening of the road and the opportunity to shift into my long forgotten big chain ring.
Paul LeFrancois serves on the board of the Freewheelers Cycling Association, the 501(c)(3) organization that founded and hosts The Assaults on Mt. Mitchell & Marion. For more information about The Assaults, please visit www.theassaults.com.