1996 Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Doug Meade
20 May 1996

Clear skies, high temperatures, and large packs were the order of the
day for this year's Assault on Mount Mitchell. The weather conditions
made the climb a little more interesting than in past years. Each rise
saw the pack separate only to have most of the dropped riders use the
left lane to surge back towards the front of the pack. In the end, the
first finisher, George Meyer (5:28), was about 10-15 minutes slower than
last year but my time (6:08) was an 8 minute improvement over 1995.

Now for the details.


After a few false starts, our entire caravan finally assembles at a

Hardee's in Spartanburg. It's a quick hop down to the start. The 10
minutes before the scheduled 6:30am start leaves plenty of time to
load pockets, water bottles, and get to the starting line.

For some still unexplained reason, this year's ride started before 6:25.
At this point I had my shoes on, and was attempting to stuff a light
jacket into a seat pack. All of my food and water was still in the van
and I didn't have my helmet. Thus, the first sprint of the day was to
locate three full large water bottles and enough food to last for the
almost 4 hours before I hoped to stop for refills.

By the time I finally got on the road I was fairly far back in the pack.
Cruising through Spartanburg at speeds between 30 and 35mph quickly
brought me to within sight of the front of the pack. At about this
point I found a few other riders from Columbia: Joel, Paul Palmer,
Tommy McBride. Together we casually maneuver a little close to the


The pace is remarkably moderate, but rather uneven. Each rise seems to

be the straw that breaks the camel's back for a few riders. As these
riders stop -- not slow, STOP! -- this creates a few crashes and many
more close calls. In fact, on the second roller, just over 30 minutes
into the ride, the rider immediately in front of me does come to a
complete halt. I don't think he threw a chain, I heard no verbal warning
of his actions (or lack thereof), so had to make a quick decision on
how to best avoid this rider. I chose to go to his right, which turned
out to be the same foot that he chose to unclip. My second evasive
maneuver took me directly into the shoulder of another rider. With the
help of this rider, I managed to stay upright and on course.

The next 1.5 hours were much less eventful. The pattern of riders
surging forward in the left lane only to be forced back to the right
for oncoming traffic and then flushed out the back at the slightest
incline quickly became routine. As a result, I wasted a fair amount
of energy due to the speed variations. I really should ride closer
to the front to avoid some of this.

Bill's Mountain, at about 43 miles, put an end to a lot of the jockeying.
Even though the pace was a moderate 22mph, this first extended climb
(between 1 and 2 miles) was too much for quite a few of the riders who
were struggling to stay with the lead pack. The amplitude and frequency
of the hills increased in the third hour. On a roller near mile 70 I
dropped the chain during a chain-ring shift and was unable to save it
without stopping. I used the last of my momentum to get to off the road.
The back of the lead pack was still visible at the top of the hill when
I was back on the road. I was amazed that there were no groups chasing
back to the front, just a few isolated riders.

I trailed the lead pack by less than two minutes when I passed the
finish of the Assault on Marion. The first 73 miles were completed in
about 3:20 (21.9mph). Even though there were only 29 miles remaining,
it would have to have a good climb (for me) to break the six hour mark.

The turn onto NC-80 (the road Frank Andreu crashed on while descending
in Tour DuPont a few (2?) years ago) is a popular place for riders to
re-stock the food and water before the real climbing begins. (This was
also a feed zone for the 1995 TdP.) I roll through this section knowing
that my time in the big chain-ring is limited. While there are only 25
miles to the finish, the finish, at 6800'+, is almost one mile higher
than the current altitude (1600').

My third water bottle is almost empty when I come across the rest stop
at mile 80. I drink one bottle, while refilling the other two, grab a
couple bananas, and resume my upward trek. The last three miles before
the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the steepest sections of the ride.
Still adjusting to the climbing cadence, I quickly find myself in the
39x26, my smallest gear. It is rather rare for me to actually use my
lowest gear, particularly this early in a ride. If I don't have the
energy that I expect, the last 20 miles will be a long and unpleasant

It is about this time that I also begin to notice the heat. In year's
past the air temperatures have steadily dropped as the altitude increases.
In fact, I've seen snow or other frozen precipitation two of the previous
three times I've come to this ride. Not this year. The remaining Newton's
in my pocket have become rather sticky -- no problem provided I am able to
grab them without digging my fingers into the filling -- and the PowerBar
was nicely steamed. (Someday I have to learn a technique to open a PowerBar
when on the bike.) The banana that I grabbed at the stop was just what
I needed -- I intended to pack 2 in my pockets at the start, but ....


A few riders catch, pass, and drop me as I make my way to the Parkway.

This section actually seems less severe than in other climbs. The
first section of the Parkway is a gentle climb that passes through two
tunnels. The temperature differential between the tunnel and the direct
sun is quite noticeable. The only other reprieve from the heat is a
gentle, cool mountain breeze -- it hardly matters that it seems to be
a slight headwind.

The final climb to the penultimate summit, at mile 91, is somewhat
steeper. The mountain beauty is hard to miss; the only interference
is my need to stay on a reasonably predictable path. All remnants of
packs disappeared more than an hour ago. Numerous riders have been
halted by cramps -- a definite reminder that I need to keep drinking!
Even at the blazing pace of a mile every 8 minutes, no more than a
handful of riders pass me, but not as many as I have caught (or so
it seems).

I feel quite good at the beginning of the 1.5 mile descent. One last
chance to use the big ring and to stretch my legs before the final
push to the finish. Just as I reach a comfortable cruising speed, the
traffic slows to 30mph. Three cars are backed up behind the rider
immediately in front of me. The road has just enough curves that the
cars can't safely pass. As much as it frustrates me to ride the brakes
on this section, I can't justify the energy or risk required to pass
the cars and rider. The cars and I all pass the rider at the bottom
of the descent. From here there is a relatively short climb to the
turn to Mt. Mitchell State Park.


I leave the Parkway having covered approximately 97 miles in 5:22.

The first two miles, the climb to the park entrance to Mt. Mitchell,
will be the toughest. The first time I rode the Assault, in 1992, I
didn't understand why everyone talked so much about the climb from
the Parkway. I had conserved so much energy that this didn't seem
so bad. As I rode harder in subsequent years I have become much more
enlightened. This year it was much steeper and longer than I remembered.
The park gates mark the end of this climb. I get a banana from a
volunteer at the last aid station, then watch my speeds return to
double digits. The rode rises a little steeper as the parking area
comes into view. More people are cheering me on and counting down the
distance to the finish. The mileage estimates are amazingly accurate.
The finish line is in sight as I round the last sweeping curve. Just
a few more turns of the crank and the finish line is behind me. 6:08.

The sag vehicle is parked right at the finish line. After a quick spin
around the parking log I clip out of the pedals and dismount. Within
5 minutes, the bike is on the roof and I have found the food that I
had intended to carry at the start.


Brad Poindexter was waiting, as expected, for me to finish. He finished

in 5:43, in the top 20. I estimate that my finishing time of 6:08 put
me at about the 70th finisher.

(If anyone has any more definite placing's, would you please pass this
information along to me?)

As it turns out, the fact that I did not have the frame number visible
at the finish might mean that will not be considered an official finisher.
If they really enforce this, then there will be quite a few riders who
are DQed!

Before long a more of my riding partners from Columbia begin to finish.
Paul Palmer and Joel, each in under 7 hours. Tommy McBride, in a little
over 7 hours; while Tommy is an experienced racer, his longest previous
ride had been only 80 miles -- 2 years ago. Brad's friends from Greenville
finished within the next hour.

The rider density increased as we made our way back down the mountain.
These people have already been on the road for more than 8 hours. And,
even though they were within 5 miles of the finish, most had at least
another hour -- not counting rest stops -- before they finished.

The ride back down the Parkway found even more riders. Many of these
people were just stopped at the side of the road. All available shade
at the rest stops seemed to be occupied. We pass a pick-up truck full
of bikes, and exhausted riders, making its way to the finish.

Another friend, and an experienced Assault rider, Ralph (sorry, I don't
remember his last name), must have been somewhere in the multitudes we
passed. I later learned that he did finish, in 10:44 -- much slower than
in previous years.

We are surprisingly close to the turn from the Parkway down to Marion
when we pass Woody Graham, the most experience ultra-marathoner that I
know. I later learn that he overslept; he left Columbia after 5:30am,
so I doubt he started to ride much before 7:30. In all the rush to get
on the road and to make up as much time as possible, he didn't drink
enough. Severe cramps put a premature end to his day, but I know he will
be back next year -- with a new alarm clock!

I have heard been told, by reputable sources (Joel), that computers
equipped with thermometers were recording temperatures above 90 degrees
on the Parkway. (The temperature in Columbia was close to, if not above,
100 degrees on both Saturday and Sunday.)

Summer has now officially begun! Except for a few weeks off for
business-related travel, I hope to maintain my general condition
until the Bridge-to-Bridge, my traditional end-of-summer event.

Douglas B. Meade Phone: (803) 777-6183 FAX: (803) 777-6527
Department of Mathematics E-mail: meade@math.sc.edu
USC, Columbia, SC 29208 URL: http://www.math.sc.edu/~meade/