The Retreat From and Assault on Mt. Mitchell
It all started so innocently. Last fall, I told Steve that I
had a tandem, and asked if he wanted to try it out some day. Next
thing I knew we were doing monthly centuries on it, and contemplating
crazy stuff like BMB and a 24-hour ride. But then the subject
of Mt. Mitchell came up and my eyes glazed over. I thought back
to 1988, when I crossed the finish line at the top and vowed never
to come back as I was handed a patch. I wrote in my log book not
to ever consider the ride again. A week later when I finally convinced
my body to go near the bike, I turned back after 8/10 mile. I
put this ride in my log book too. I even told this story to Steve,
but somehow, I managed to ignore my own memories and sent off
a letter to the Spartanburg Freewheelers requesting info on the
I had my chance when they wrote back saying the ride was full,
but with a waiting list. But I sent a check in anyway with a brief
appeal that they make room for a tandem. And they did. The sadists
that have been running this annual ride from Spartanburg, SC (elev.
~800 ft) to the top of Mt. Mitchell - the highest peak on the
east coast at 6684 ft, for 17 years now, always love to see a
little more suffering, so of course they found a spot for a tandem!
Registration was limited to 700 riders this year at the insistence
of the park service. At first I was disappointed that there would
not be 2000 other sufferers out there with us, but it really was
safer than past rides, thanks to the limited registration. In
1988 there were over 1700 riders and I believe every one of them
had a support car which made the roads (especially the road through
the park) incredibly congested. Also support cars were either
not supposed to, or strongly discouraged from going to the summit.
Bus service was offered from Marion (30 miles from the top - and
where the climbing starts) to the top for support crews, and from
the top back to Marion and/or Spartanburg for riders.
Fortunately, we've been preparing for the insanity all year,
having already logged 8 centuries and 1 double prior to making
the trip to NC. But doing the Assault on Mt. Mitchell wasn't enough.
Doing it on a tandem wasn't enough. We wanted to do The Retreat
from Mt. Mitchell the day before as a warm up. Several years
ago, some folks in my old club in NC came up with the idea of
parking on top and riding down on Saturday, and then returning
on Sunday. We decided this would be fun.
As I mentioned, the route starts in Spartanburg SC at around
800'. It then rolls up and down for 70ish miles to Marion NC at
around 1300'. This is no easy 70 mile ride. Those with granny
gears may find several occasions to use them long before the climb
out of Marion. To quote David Brill from the brochure, "In
the 32 miles from Marion to the finish line near the mountains
summit, the route gains 5200 feet - gradually at first, then relentlessly.
At its worst, the grade tops 20 percent, and with the exception
of a 500-foot descent at mile 90, every wretched foot of it tracks
The first 10 miles out of Marion are gentle and deceiving. The
final 4 miles to the parkway are steep harrowing switchbacks.
The elevation at the intersection of the parkway and route 80
is around 3300'. From here it is 16 miles to the summit, with
all but 2 of them uphill at around 7%. Cyclists pass through three
shady cool (thank goodness) tunnels and are treated to two screaming
descents, one 1/2 mile and another 1.5 miles long. The summit
is 5 miles from the parkway on route 128, with the first 2 being
the hardest. Upon entering the park, the road flattens out for
a few feet, but then starts climbing around corners and seems
never ending until that final sharp right hand turn into the parking
area, where cheering crowd and a patch awaits finishers as their
reward for the days fun!
We drove down from Massachusetts on Friday, watching the season
turn from early spring to late as we drove further south. Fortunately
spring arrived back home while we were away, so it wasn't such
a shock to return. Finally the dogwoods are blooming!
We reached the parking lot by van Saturday morning and set about
with our usual routine of filling up water bottles and loading
up the bike for the days journey. In addition to our usual supplies
and rain jackets, we carried a couple of small panniers with extra
clothes for the evening and cycling apparel for Sunday, and two
days worth of Ultra Energy, our liquid diet. The ride organizers
would carry a small bag for each participant to the top, so we
would be able to send these back up on Sunday. We took a few pictures
in front of elevation signs and snow. (Oh yeah-there was 3 feet
of snow on Mitchell the week before, and there were still a few
traces in the ditches and the parking lot) Finally around 11:00
am, we began our descent to Marion. The switchbacks and 2 miles
of climbing slowed us a little, but the first 30 miles was certainly
the easiest that we had ever done! But now the real work would
begin ... following a 4 year old map backwards to Spartanburg.
The map is a work of art - in fact, I had mine from 1988 framed.
The problem is it really is a work of art and is not to scale
and incomplete in places. This is not a problem for Assaulters,
since the route is so well marked, and there are so many riders
that all you have to do is follow, but Retreaters may have
more difficulty ... and we did, but we only added 10 miles to
the route with our wandering!
I'm really glad we rode on Saturday, since it gave us a chance
to get more acclimated to the heat and humidity (which we haven't
seen in Massachusetts in quite some time!) and to get all our
mechanical problems out of the way. I had finally picked up a
couple of tandem derailleur cables the week before and I guess
we had been tempting fate, because while we were on one of our
detours, and unfortunately while we were climbing, we snapped
a cable. But fortunately we had the spares, so we were able to
make a relatively quick roadside repair. Amazingly it was at this
point that the heat was really getting to me and I was ready for
a break anyway.
Shortly afterwards we found the route again, but not for long,
and we ended up taking Rt 9 all the way into Spartanburg. Somewhere
along this section the Softride seat beam that we have on the
back of the tandem started to work loose again. We have had a
little trouble with the clamp on the Softride, because it is designed
for round tubes and the top tube on my Burley Rock 'n' Roll is
ovalized. While trying to tighten the clamp, I managed the strip
the 3mm head on the bolt. We decided to continue on, listening
to the squeals as the paint was being scraped off the frame by
the motion of the Softride until we reached the registration point
where hopefully we could find a mechanic with some needed tools
and some new bolts! We arrived at the auditorium just after checkin
closed, but were able to retrieve our ride packets containing
a T-shirt, water bottle, route sheet, power bars, breakfast cereal
and other assorted pamphlets. We missed the exhibition unfortunately,
but we were able to get the number of a local bike shop owner
who might be able to help us. And he was of great help, making
a house call to our hotel and providing us with tools and shims
to fix the bike. Scott Hoffman made our return trip on Sunday
and absolute pleasure (no movement or squeaking from the beam).
Scott was one of the original founders of the ride, and was quite
willing to help a tandem make it to the top.
Sunday morning's wakeup call came earlier than I wanted, especially
after staying up so late fidgeting with the bike. We arrived at
the start in time to make several crucial bathroom stops, adjust
clothing, and chat with a few friends who came for the ride. We
spotted a couple of other tandems while lining up, and a few familiar
faces, and before I knew it we were off and rolling, and in our
case honking too. We provided a great deal of entertainment for
riders and spectators alike with our duck horn, clown horn and
missile launching system. The racers blew out of the start and
must have been in Marion before we hit the outskirts of town,
since the winner finished in 5 hours and 1 second!
The string of cyclists spread out along the route quickly, and
we just rode along talking with everyone. Lots of friendly southern
accents. Steve tells me mine returns more when I'm speaking
with another native! We passed a tandem with a father and daughter,
with the daughter using a child-back setup, and then were joined
by a third two seater occupied by two men from Missouri, who we
saw regularly throughout the day.
As we rolled through rural SC and NC we saw lots of enthusiastic
cheering spectators; some crew, some residents along the route,
some who just came out to watch the lunacy. Each and every cheer
was rewarded with a quack or honk from our duck horn and clown
horn. We had one drafter for a while, who didn't want to feel
left out, so he added his own verbal honk honk to go with
We passed the first few water stops, being well prepared with
a Camelbak full of water and two bottle of UE each, and didn't
take our first break until around 55 miles. The food and water
stops were well stocked with water, sports drink, bananas and
cookies and such.
We discovered that our detour from the day before, while it missed
some of the flat stuff at the start, missed some of the real steep
and dangerous roads in the middle. Fortunately the organizers
had the dangerous areas well marked and even manned in some cases
and there seemed to be many fewer accidents than in the past.
We passed one very early on, with paramedics already on-site,
and did not see any others. A ride with this many participants
traveling at the speeds of those in the front and with the varied
levels of experience will have accidents, but I feel the organizers
have done an excellent job in helping to reduce the risk.
There really are two (or more) rides taking place; one is the
race, and the other is for people who just want to complete the
ride. The reward is the same, bragging rights, a patch, and sore
muscles. There are riders who come back year after year. Woody,
an ultra-marathoning friend from SC says he does it every other
year just to prove he still can. There are many more who are too
smart to do it more than once. The times vary from 5 hours to
a maximum of 14. A mechanic with a box full of widely spaced freewheels
or triple cranks could make a lot of money in the middle of this
ride. In addition to sore muscles, there will also be an awful
lot of worn-out look cleats from walking up the mountain.
Then there is the race. I have to say that I find it absolutely
unbelievable that any rider can complete this course in 5 hours,
but they do, and in fact the new record would have been less than
5 had the front pack not been run off the road by a church bus
near the end! And they have the tiniest little freewheels!
We rode past the last flush toilets on the route in Marion and
began our climb. Of course, just a few miles into the climb, we
ended up making a brief stop for a hike into the woods! The route
sheet indicated that there were three food and water stops before
the parkway. The descriptions and mileage's seemed really off,
but we decided to skip the first stop and go for the second, completely
unaware that the next stop was at the parkway. We attracted lots
of attention as we went honking past the first stop, but were
definitely ready for the break when we reached the rangers directing
traffic on the parkway. One of the problems of searching for a
bathroom in this area is the steep dropoffs on one side and the
rock faces on the other. I really wish they would rent some portable
toilets for the water stops in the future. (Other than having
to climb that darn mountain, this would be my only complaint -
the organizers of this ride do a great job!)
During this break we started talking with Mike, an engineer from
Atlanta, who had participated in PAC Tour this past summer. He
claimed this ride was harder. I'm trying to use that to convince
Steve to cross the country that way next year! Mike had been having
stomach troubles all day, but we convinced him to push on for
a while. The next stop would be 6 miles (5.5 up) away. We talked
for a while, but he probably found our honking and quacking through
the tunnels a little silly and dropped back after a while. We
passed and were passed and leapfrogged around riders for the next
16 miles. We got full use out of our horns as we announced our
arrival at each water stop, with the additional comment that we
still had a sense of humor! We caught the tandem from Missouri
just before the 1.5 mile descent at a water stop. There we also
saw another tandem that apparently was dropping out, as we saw
it pass us in the back of a pickup later.
We stopped very briefly at the turn off of the parkway to tighten
the Softride bracket and then began the final 5 miles to the summit.
We passed many riders on foot and were occasionally passed by
others. We saw a few riders coming back down and a few rangers
telling us we were close. Just after entering the Park, we passed
a group of riders and crews waiting for the buses to take them
back down, who offered a small cheer, but after hearing our horns
and a plea of "C'mon you can do better than that", the
cheers increased as we continued on with 3 more miles to the summit,
each turn promising to be the last, but not really, until finally
we saw the observation tower ahead and knew we just had one more
turn to make. We rolled across the finish line honking and quacking
of course and received our patches in just over 9 hours and just
in time for the massage I had scheduled earlier in the day.
The temps were quite a bit cooler on top and we were thankful
to have warm clothes to change into. After the best massage of
my life, we picked up our post ride meal of soup and sandwiches
and walked up to the observation tower for some pictures and a
view of more riders coming in!
On the way down, I told Steve that I should write them a letter
asking them to please reject any future registration forms from
me, but we both felt so good, we actually started talking about
This ride is held annually by the Spartanburg Freewheelers. For
info on next years ride, send an SASE to them at Box 6171, Spartanburg,
SC, 29304. See you there!!
By the way, we found out in Spartanburg that we were not supposed
to park overnight on top or anywhere on the parkway. We were thrilled
to reach the summit and find that our van had not been towed away,
but was only the recipient of a $55 ticket. Next year, we will
get a campsite for the van. Oops, did I say next year?