The Assault on Mount Mitchell 2022 – A Baby Seal was I
July 30, 2022 § 2 Comments
When Terry Downs sent me the registration link, this seemed like a great idea. I was going to sign up for Ride the Rockies again, and having this activity in May would force me to get out there and train, because this beast is a monster. In case you aren’t aware, Mount Mitchell is the highest point East of the Mississippi. The term highest has to be understood. The Appalachian Trail does NOT traverse Mount Mitchell and so Clingman’s Dome (soon to be renamed thus ridding us of another Confederate traitor) is the highest point on the AT. Mount Mitchell Highlands NJ is the highest coastal point South of Maine (Cadillac Mtn though is on an island). Mount Mitchell in NC is the highest thing around for man miles. This ride begins all the way South in Spartanburg South Carolina and generally winds it’s way North and West until it ascends to the Blue Ridge, and then its South to the final climb to the summit. One hundred two miles and more than 10K feet of elevation gain.
So, that is the background, and for a while there I was on schedule to be ready for this. I had two solid weeks of training in San Francisco February into March, but then something happened. I returned to New Jersey where the weather wasn’t always ideal, and when my alarm did go off, there was just enough hesitation getting out of bed that when I did, I shivered, peed and then jumped back into bed. I rode my rollers some, but not enough, and as May approached, my condition deteriorated. To add insult to injury, when I transported my Portofino home, I lost integrity in the rear brake, and never got the bike into the shop to get it bled properly, and so that put me on my old Czar which just didn’t have the gearing I knew I would need to finish the day.
The ride was on a Monday, so after work Friday, I drove down to Centerville, Va where I spent the night with my friend Ali and his lovely family. I was welcomed into their home and we sat up and chatted while Ali and I knocked back a few IPAs. I believe it was too wet to sit out on his porch. The next morning, after coffee and breakfast I said my farewells, and then drove the scenic route to Terry’s place on Smith Lake. It took a little under 4 hours, and wasn’t any faster than driving out to 81, but it did save mileage. Laurie was sitting their grandchild(ren?) so it was just Terry and me. After a quick snack, we put on our kits, and hit the road for a little training. Not a long ride, but just something to let the legs know that I was going to need them on Monday, and this is what it will feel like.
The next day we took our time, and eventually got started with the drive to Spartanburg, first stopping off to see Laurie on the way. She wished us luck, and we acknowledged the signs that she and the grandchild(ren?) left along the road out from their place. We saw some, but not all of the notes :). We arrived in Spartanburg before the HQ shutdown, and we picked up our packets, and looked around at the sponsor tables etc but there wasn’t really much to do, so we went and checked into our cabin. Maybe it was more like a hut. The bed wasn’t big enough for a small adult, and the doorway was not cut for 6’4″, but it would do. We weren’t the only Mount Mitchell cyclist in this camp and we traded intel on the upcoming route.
We were up before dawn, bikes loaded, our end-of-ride bags assembled, and we left for the ride. Fortunately the building was open, so access to the bathrooms, as all the porto-johns outside were locked. Maybe they were for something else. No one was allowed to leave early, as this ride begins with a police escort through Spartanburg until we get out of town, and then we are basically on our own. The organizers asked us to voluntarily sort ourselves into 3 groups: A+ group riders who were definitely wanting to knock this out quickly, A group riders who are competitive and still want to get the ride done, and then finally B+, the riders who will be happy if they finish. Now let me say something about this rating system, because group rides are rated down to D, so what they are saying here is they don’t believe that anyone less than B+ can finish this ride, and I can tell you right now, that I wasn’t B+ at the start. Ha!
The escort was much appreciated. No traffic lights to stop at, just pedal nicely, stay in our group, and eventually we were out of town, and on the country roads. Now, if you look at the ride profile, when compared to Mount Mitchel itself, the ride looks pretty damn flat, and I was caught by this misrepresentation. This ride was not flat. It had some flattish segments, but in general, the route was a lot of consecutive down and ups, or up and downs. Kind of depends what came first. The downs were long downs, and the ups were long ups, and sometimes they were pretty steep. Always down to some creek/stream/river crossing, and then back up to a high plateau. At one point it stayed high for a while, and at another point it stayed low for a while, but with each down and up, the miles and the aid stations ticked by until eventually we rode into the Marion HQ, which for riders that were simply assaulting Marion, was the end of their ride. For the rest of us though, it was rest, and then go.
By some coincidence, I left my bike lying in the sun, right next to the mechanics tent, and as we were getting ready to go, we watched my rear tire blow. It was very weird. The mechanic wasn’t doing anything just then, so a quick change out, and I was on my way again wondering whether I should have just sent Terry ahead and stayed in Marion. The more my bike moved forward, the further behind me that option faded until we reached the beginning of the climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even after all those miles, the climb was following a creek and so the grade was quite manageable. Terry was handling it better than I but I was doing okay. Even made it to the next aid station. That was where everything changed. That was where the creek we had been following turned away from the road, and with that constraint now withdrawn, the percentage grade increased by just a few turns of the screw if you were on the rack. Immediately the gearing became my main issue as all I could do was just grind it out. I couldn’t stand on the pedals very long, and I just couldn’t go very fast. Terry got smaller and smaller until I could no longer see him. Every turn revealed more road, but I could at least see where the junction with the Blue Ridge was. Eventually I reached the Aid station up there, and really, at that point I was done. We rested, watered up, ate some snacks, drank some pickle juice, and then set out.
When you look at that profile again, at the end, Mount Mitchell is reached in three main ascents. That first ascent is just to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway, then this is a little loss of elevation followed by another long ascent. The Blue Ridge is limited in the gradient, however the damage to me had been done, and even this gradient was more than I could handle without frequent stops. Terry, bless his oversized heart, was very patient with me, and he was waiting for me at the next to the last aid station when I told him I was not going to make it and that he should leave me for dead and finish this ride himself. It took a lot of persuasion, because it is not usually I who give in. Terry doesn’t give in often either, but it was my turn to fail, and I sent him off and then I followed. To understand the title, I was the baby seal. I was the one who approached this ride with cute little eyes, and a brandy new baby harp seal fur coat. I was the innocent laying on the beach, and Mount Mitchel was represented by the baby seal hunters who clubbed in the baby seal skulls. It was my baby seal brain bits spread along the Blue Ridge Parkway marred by my baby seal blood. The slaughter that went on there was merciless and the harvest was high.
I made it as far as the final aid station where I missed the cut-off (fortunately!) and had to be sagged up to the top where my gear was. 100 miles in and I couldn’t even think about riding another mile. In the sag vehicle driving up, we passed many people with broken spirits simply walking it up, and others standing on the pedals almost going backwards. If I had any doubt about my decision, it was verified time and time again as the grade of the road increased again and again. Eventually we passed Terry, and he was riding strong. Terry was ready for this ride, and he rode a smart ride. Maybe if I had gotten my Portofino fixed, and had the proper gearing, I would have made it, but today was Terry’s day.
At the top I found my gear, and learned that when preparing an end-of-ride bag, one should have a waterproof bag, as a passing shower had given me the pleasure of cold damp clothing. Fortunately they were just damp and not saturated with water. I found some water and hydrated. There was supposed to be food up there, but I didn’t see any. Terry arrived to great cheer, as all the riders who crossed the finish line were greeted with cheers. His clothing was mixed with mine, and damp as well, but at least it was clean. We turned our bikes over to the transport folks, and found that it was a good thing I didn’t stay in Marion, as we could get on a bus that went directly back to Spartanburg. Sweet!
It was a long journey, because there really isn’t an easy way back, and it took more than a couple of hours to get there. Which I guess in hind sight was okay, because the bus got back before the bike truck did, so we would have had to wait anyway. Again, luck held, and our bikes were the first ones off the truck, and we were soon back at our camp getting showered and cleaned up. We simply repeated our Olive Garden dinner of the previous night, and that was it for us.
My original plans were to stay with Terry and Laurie all week and work from there, but I needed to get home. When my Dad passed away in January, we had him cremated, but it was too cold to do anything at the family plot, so we said “We’ll do it in the Spring”, and that date was the following Saturday, so when we pulled back into the Smith Lake Downs driveway, I loaded up my car, and then drove another five hours to get home.
It wasn’t the ride I thought it would be, but it was the ride I needed. Ride the Rockies was a month away, and this was definitely a jump start in getting my legs back to the condition needed for that ride. When I was done with this ride, I said I was done with this ride, but now that some time has passed, I am thinking that I need to go back and successfully complete this ride, so I think will sign up again, and Terry has promised to suffer with me again and this time I won’t be the baby harp seal.