Sixteen-time rider tells what keeps him coming back to Mt. Mitchell

For the Herald-Journal
Published: Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 3:15 a.m.

Paul Thomas' kaleidoscope of T-shirts from the Assault on Mount Mitchell are colorful cotton trophies earned with sweat, blood and grime from 20 years of riding in what is known as the Southeast's most challenging century.

Paul Thomas, a professor at Furman University, thinks this year's Assault on Mount Mitchell ride will be his 16th time at the event.

TODAY: Kids and their families are invited for an Assault on Morgan Square Kid's Ride at 2 p.m. in celebration of the Assault on Mount Mitchell and Marion. Helmets are required; there will be giveaways.

MONDAY: The 37th annual Assault on Mount Mitchell and Marion begin at 6:30 a.m. at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.
The 51-year-old Furman University professor has lost count of the actual number of times he's completed the 102.7-mile event since the late 1980s.

“I gathered up all my race shirts, and I have 15, so I think this year is my 16th time,” Thomas said. “I've been riding for 28 years, and I usually average about 10,000 miles a year, so I lose track sometimes.”

For many competitors, simply completing the Assault once is an accomplishment of a lifetime. For Thomas, it's more a way of life.

“Riding is not something I dread or have to talk myself into,” Thomas said. “I ride four to five days a week year round and for me, not riding is harder than riding.”

After getting hit by a drunk driver while riding, it wasn't the broken ankle or the experience that haunted him as much as the 10-week recovery period during which he couldn't ride.

“I rode 300 miles the week I was cleared to get back on my bike,” Thomas said. “Longer rides seem to suit me — I've completed around 15 centuries (100-mile rides) this year already.”

Thomas said he participated in team sports and activities in high school and college, but something clicked for him when he began riding.

“Cycling gave me a little something I was decent at,” Thomas said. “I don't know why it clicked. I've tried running marathons and hated it; it just seems to suit me.”

Thomas has finished in the top 10 percent in previous Assaults, no small feat given the 1,000 or so competitors that line the streets each May.

“The thing about cycling is it allows me to be competitive with myself,” Thomas said. “I try to break six hours every race, and I finally did that at age 46.”

Thomas said he isn't sure he'll do that again, but he hopes to stay in the top 100. In the past, he has placed anywhere between 62nd and 80th.

“The thing about riding in an event like this is that it isn't just about how you ride,” Thomas said. “I just wrote a blog post to remind competitors that when you make a decision, you are making it for the 1,000 riders around you as much as for yourself.”

The domino effect cliche becomes relevant in road ride events. If one rider falls, it is almost a guarantee that others will also crash.

“The beginning of all mass-start large fields is always a key moment for riders,” Thomas advised in his blog. “The front 200-300 riders will start fast, and riders not capable of or interested in finishing within the five- to six-hour range can either get burned out keeping up (in 2010, the front pack completed the first 50 miles in two hours, averaging 25 mph over a challenging course) or create dangerous situations by riding more slowly than the front pack.”

Thomas described how the first few miles of the Assault are especially dangerous because of the rolling terrain that creates an accordion effect.

“The middle and back of the large pack quickly collapses toward the front, which slows on a climb while the other riders are still descending or just reaching the shift from a descent to an ascent,” Thomas said.

“There is a notoriously dangerous bridge on Highway 9 crossing over I-85 where rough bridge crossings with gaps and holes create flats, overlapped wheels and sudden movements by riders trying to avoid road dangers.”

Ensuring a safe ride

Thomas said road cycling is an inherently dangerous sport, and his goals for each Assault include safe completion and no crashing.

“We ride at a really high intensity, and the truth is that everyone crashes, sadly,” Thomas said. “I've been hit by cars twice but have been relatively lucky.”

Keenan Mullen, race organizer and co-owner of public relations firm MullenHalstead, said a crew of 300 volunteers works tirelessly to try to ensure a safe and fun Assault.

“We have multiple stations for technical support, refreshments and also have vehicles driving alongside the riders for support and emergency assistance,” Mullen said. “We have 1,000 riders at the starting line for the Assault, but with attrition, only 750 typically finish.”

This is the first year the Freewheelers Association has used a third-party contractor to organize the event.

Mullen said she has been impressed with the eagerness of people and organizations to support what has become an iconic Spartanburg event.