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The Retreat From and Assault on Mt. Mitchell

by Pamela Blalock


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 ride.

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 uphill."

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 ours.

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 next year!!

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?