1997 Assault on Mt. Mitchell
Doug Meade
17 May 1997

The 22nd Assault on Mount Mitchell was held this past Saturday. This
102 mile ride with ~11,000 feet of climbing begins in Spartanburg, SC
and concludes at the 6,684 summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point
in the continental US east of the Mississippi River. Paved access to
Mt. Mitchell is by way of a 5 mile climb off of the Blue Ridge Parkway,
just east of Asheville, North Carolina.

In addition to many of the usual local racers, this year's field
included George Hincapie, now riding for the United States Postal
Service team. Needless to say, Hincapie was the first finisher (~5:07).
This was considerably faster than last year's winning time (5:28)
and is the fastest time since the route was changed a few years ago.
My time was 6:10. While I had hoped to finish in under 6 hours, this
time was not bad considering the leisurely pace during some of the
early parts of the ride.

Official results will be posted to the Mt. Mitchell web page. While
this page is unavailable as I type, the last URL that I have is:

For a more detailed account of my personal experience, read on. I'm
sure others will have very different accounts of this ride. I look
forward to reading about your experiences.


The Mitchell routine begins at 3:30am when I roll out of bed, eat

breakfast, and leave the house at 4:00 to meet Brad Poindexter and
Mike Wendt, the other two who will be a part of our group for this
long day of chills, thrills, hills, and (hopefully) no spills.

The early morning sky is perfectly clear, which means all of the heat
from the previous day (which was not all that warm) has dissipated. We
all bring a full range of clothing, but hope that none of it will be
necessary when the ride starts at 6:30.

The first stop in Spartanburg is to meet our sag drivers (Paul and Mike)
and crew (Steven, Paul's 8-year old son). Unlike 1996, everyone arrives
on time and there are no last minute mechanical problems with the sag
vehicle. We arrive at the start at 6:00 - a full 30 minutes before the

The air temperatures are cold, probably in the high 30's or low 40's
-- definitely nowhere near the forecast low of 55. I don't know if it
is the cold temperatures, or unfounded optimism, but I convince myself
that the temperatures will rise quickly as the sun rises. Besides, it's
not cold enough to see our breath, so it must not really be that cold.
I leave the van wearing the bare essentials - shorts and a short-sleeved
jersey. A thin jacket is in a pocket, in case it is needed on the mountain.

It's now 6:15, so there is plenty of time to make a last minute bathroom
stop and to try to loosen the legs. I quickly decide to forego the warm
up; it feel much warmer to stand still.


The start is (thankfully) uneventful. In fact, compared to previous years,

I actually enjoy the ride out of Spartanburg. It is not necessary to sprint
past erratic riders at 30-35 mph just to stay in the lead pack.

As we leave Spartanburg, the pack organizes quickly. I find a comfortable
place about 150 riders back, but well within sight of the front of the
pack. A few acquaintances from previous years are renewed. George Hincapie's
USPS jacket is easily recognizable about 50 feet ahead of me. When I move
forward to talk with Brad, I see that he's been sitting on George's wheel.
There probably isn't a safer place in the pack, so I'm not surprised to
find Brad here.

The pace is a little quicker than previous years, but also more consistent.
While the 24-25mph pace feels almost effortless, I soon realize just how
cold it really is. The water vapor in our breath is now condensing. My legs,
toes, arms, torso, and head are all comfortable, but within 15 minutes my
fingers start to hurt from the cold. The sky remains clear and the sun rises
quickly, but the (effective) temperature is surprisingly low. The first
miles are mostly in the shade and generally downhill. Before long I feel
as if my hands are frozen in place. I'm OK as long as I stay on the brake
hoods; moving to the drops or tops and attempts to reach a water bottle are
not easy.

The most dangerous part of the ride is (in my opinion) a downhill hairpin
near the end of a fast descent about 40 miles into the ride. Combine the
fact that I am not a good descender with my cold hands and I get dropped
from the lead pack. I am not the only one to be dropped. A sizeable gap
opens quickly as the pace of the lead pack increases in anticipation of
Bill's Mountain, the first real climb. Between the climbing and the extra
effort devoted to trying to rejoin the lead pack, my hands finally begin
to warm.

After 30 minutes of chasing we rejoin the lead pack. I later learn that
the pack pushed the pace fairly hard over Bill's Mountain and the bumps
that follow. But now that things have come back together, the pace slows
considerably. Approximately 10 miles from Marion, Brad pulls off the road
with (as I learn later) a nasty puncture. Otherwise, with the exception
of a few sprints out of the corners and down the short descents, the ride
into Marion is quite relaxed and uneventful. The pack, which seems much
smaller than in past years, passes the 73 mile mark, the end of the Assault
on Marion, in 3:25. (This is almost a full mile per hour slower than last


While I feel good, I'm concerned that I've eaten only one banana and
emptied only one bottle in almost 3:30. There are only 27 miles to the
finish, but our current elevation is only slightly higher than 1000 feet.
The finish is more than a mile higher; the total of more than 7000 feet
of climbing remains.

As we turn onto NC 80, I stop just long enough to get one full water
bottle. I'm back on the road in less than 10 seconds, but the pack is
about 50 yards ahead of me. If I wanted to take a few chances, I could
have passed the cars that were between me and the trailing the riders
who were being dropped off the back of the pack. Instead, I play it safe
and resign myself to riding the last 25 miles on my own. (Even if I did
work to rejoin the pack, I'd be dropped like a rock within a few minutes.
I prefer to avoid the confrontations with oncoming cars, conserve a little
energy and pick off some of these stragglers later in the climb.)

As it turns out, my decision was very wise. Within a couple miles I
see that a section of the right edge of the road is washed away. Less
then 50 feet further down the road a rider is sitting on the guardrail
and two motorcycle escorts are stopped. I don't see the bicycle. I can
only assume that he was unable to avoid the crater and went down. He
looked a little dazed, but not visibly injured. Surprisingly, this is
the only mishap that I saw, or heard, during the ride.

I complete the 12 mile section of NC 80 in an hour. This is the first
time I have reached the Parkway before Brad. I have no idea how long
his repairs have taken, but fully expected him to pass me before now.

The first few miles of the Parkway are easier than I expect. I had
forgotten about the short (and slight) descent. Once we pass through
the Twin Tunnels, however, the climb seems harder than I recall. The
strong headwinds coming over the ridge don't help.

I now begin to play leapfrog with our sag. Since Brad has supplied the
van, and has done all of the work to organize the crew, he is their
primary focus. As the frequencies of these encounters increases, it is
clear that Brad is not far behind. Around mile 90 I discard an empty
water bottle. I'm still concerned about the lack of fluids that I have
consumed, but I feel as good as can be expected. As I hand the bottle
to Steven, I see that Mike and Paul are helping a rider whose cranks
have loosened. The next time the van passes me they tell me that Brad
is only a minute behind me. There is not much I can do about this now.
While I feel comfortable, I don't have the legs to significantly increase
my 7.5mph pace for a prolonged period. Within 10 minutes Brad passes
with ease - he's probably riding 8.5-9 mph.

I'm ready for this part of the climb to end. I know that there is a
2 mile descent before the final push to the turnoff to Mt. Mitchell.
When I finally reach the descent I don't really have the energy to
push a big enough gear to take full advantage of the descent. I expect
that my maximum speed of 43.3 mph occurred during one of the downhill
surges much earlier in the ride. I finish the 12 miles on the Parkway
in approximately 1:15 (a full 15 minutes slower than in 1996). In
hindsight, I think the winds were stronger than I realized.

At this point I've ridden 97 miles in 5:35. While I only have to average
12mph to finish in exactly 6 hours, I've long given up on this goal. In
fact, based on my 1996 performance, when I needed almost 50 minutes to
complete the last 5 miles of the ride, I was expecting a time closer to 6:30.

The first two miles after the Parkway are surprisingly difficult. The
road does not appear to be all that steep but I know better than to be
deceived by this. The ride profile (see the web page) indicates that we
climb more than 500 feet per mile here. The wind is now more variable
and much colder. Most of the time it is a headwind, but there are a few
stretches where I'd swear it was a tailwind (how else can a explain the
jump from 6 mph to 6.5 mph? we all know that cyclocomputers are exempt
from roundoff) The next mile and a half is much easier. My odometer turns
to 100 just 10 seconds after the clock passes the 6 hour mark. All that
remains is one more steep section and then a few final turns to the finish.
The rest of my group is congregated about 100 yards before the finish. As
soon as I pass them, I can see the finish. The clock is just turning to 6:10.


Brad finished in 6:02. Mike was the only one of us who broke the six

hour mark (5:57). The estimate is that Mike was about the 30th finisher,
Brad about 50, and I was around 70th (out of more than 900 registered
for the ride). Official results have not yet been posted to the web
(or mailed to the participants).

While I didn't improve upon last year's overall time, I did cut almost
15 minutes off of my time for the final 5 miles. I guess I'll have to
come back next year and make another attempt to break the six hour barrier.

We begin the descent back to Marion (in the van) a little more than 30
minutes after I finish. Many riders are stopped along the road. Some are
walking, some are stretching out cramps, a few are taking a nap. Even more
riders are at the rest stops. These people have been riding for more than
seven hours, and still have about 15 miles to go. Those that continue will
probably need 3 hours of riding time to finish.

This ride is my unofficial end of spring. After a couple months of focused
training for this ride, it's time to settle into a more relaxed routine.
I expect my next bicycling trip to NC will be for the Fabulous 4th Metric
Century in Tryon, NC. Then, all attention will turn to the Bridge to Bridge
Incredible Challenge.

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/