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Three times, I can't believe I've done this three times now

by Pamela Blalock

 

This was the ninteenth annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell. The first year I did it, I swore I would only do it once. Rumour has it, each time you do this ride, you kill off half your remaining functioning brain cells. There is no hope for me now. After my first assault, I put a few notes in my log book, like "Don't ever do this again". It took me a week after the ride, before I could even think about getting back on the bike, and when I did my joints were so rusty, I barely made it a mile. But four years later, despite still having the log book as evidence, I signed up to do the ride on a tandem. Steve and I had a successful, albeit eventful ride up the great mountain. We rode a Burley Rock n Roll with an aftermarket Allsop that creaked and creaked all the way to the top. A week later, while on a three day tour, we snapped a bolt holding the beam on. A custom clamp solved that problem, but a new custom bike really solved it.

Armed with a new bike and a fresh riding partner, who didn't really know what he was getting into, but loves climbing, I signed up once again. I had joked with John that this ride was to be payback for my his spring activities, which included a month of just riding in Texas, followed by the RAAM qualifier there, for which I crewed. To thank me for crewing, I would graciously allow him to haul me up to the highest point east of the Mississippi. We planned to fly into Asheville Thursday night, ride from Asheville up the Blue Ridge Parkway onto the route and follow the route in reverse to Spartanburg on Friday, do the ride on Saturday, followed by a ride back to Asheville that afternoon. After some sightseeing and riding around Asheville, we'd fly home on Sunday. This would give us a chance to get acclimated to the heat and do a couple of long rides on good roads. The plan seemed perfect, except I didn't count on John injuring his knee.

The Sunday before we were to fly down, John started complaining of a sore knee during our club's spring century. We stopped for a couple of long breaks and John began inhaling Advil. On the way home we stopped at the market for a few packs of frozen peas, so he could start icing those tender knees. Icing and Advil continued throughout the week, until Wednesday when we had to make a decision. Either John and I would go, and maybe make it through the ride, or I could possibly get another riding partner to go, still taking the tandem, or we could take singles, or I could go alone on my single. After some soul-searching, we finally made the decision to go with the original plan, except we would take an easier route from Asheville to Spartanburg.

I had rented a Bike Pro tandem case from a local shop, and took great pleasure in squeezing our long bike into the case. I had been a bit worried about whether or not the new bike would fit, since it was 6 inches longer than the old bike. So it came as a great relief when we only had to turn the fork around to get it in.

We wrapped the bike in foam pipe insulation, removed the wheels, handlebars, seats, and rear derailleur. All this packed neatly inside little bags and soon we zipped the whole case up. The case has a solid floor and casters for easy maneuvering through busy airports. It is a softsided case, but I considered it sturdy enough to carry my pride and joy.

An hour and a half delay in Charlotte put our arrival in Asheville pretty close to midnight. I asked one of the US Air ticket agents if we could store the bike bag in their baggage claims office, and he said no problem. We tried to reassemble the bike as quickly as possible, since our flight was the last one of the evening. We had quite an audience for this. Lots of people asked if we had done the Tour Dupont !

Anyway, we managed to get the bike together, stowed the bag, and a few clothes, and rode 1/2 mile to our motel for the evening. The next morning, we rode back to the airport and retrieved our frame pump from the bike bag. After watching and trusting the weatherliars, we also ditched our heavier rain gear. The temps were predicted to be cool, so we kept arm and legwarmers, shoe covers, fingered gloves, andf light jackets, but with absolutely no rain predicted, we left the GoreTex pants and jackets. (I bet you know what happened!)

With a short 70 mile mostly downhill ride on tap for the day, we took our time getting on the road. First we stopped at a Waffle House for a couple of pecan waffles a piece. I love New England, but I sure do miss Waffle House waffles, so whenever I'm back home, I try to get my fill.

I had called around to a couple of local shops and clubs, trying to get a recommendation for a route down, and finally settled on taking 176 from Hendersonville down to 11 to 9 into town. Our choice of routes into Hendersonville could have been better, but the rest of the route was great, especially the 4 miles of twisty decent on 176. We took things pretty easy, hoping John's knees would hold out. The easier route and warm weather probably helped a lot.

We reached the checkin center pretty early in the afternoon, and picked up our registration packets. I was quite surprised to discover the patch was already in the pouch. I called out to John that since we already had the patch, we could just skip the ride. But we still had to get back to Asheville, so we might as well go via the mountain !

We chatted with a few other folks, including another tandem couple from Maryland. We answered the inevitable questions that the Rodriguez draws. A reporter from a local paper was quite interested in the softride beam, and it's advantages. He asked how we trained for the event, and I confessed that John trained by doing a RAAM qualifier, and I was just tagging along. Actually, I really had trained pretty hard for this ride, and was in far better shape than I had been in my previous attempts, but compared to what John has done this year, I felt like I'd barely prepared.

We checked into our hotel, grabbed some dinner and ice cream, and tried to get to bed early. Unfortunately, the Ramada Inn, which had signed up as one of the official hotels, had also booked a party in their non-sound insulated conference center. After a rather heated discussion with the desk clerk about whether they were a place where people could expect to sleep (i.e. a hotel) or a nightclub, we were given a new room on the other side of the hotel. So we got a good nights sleep, but unless they had earplugs, 30 or so other cyclists didn't.

We rose at 4:30, showered and dressed. It was in the 40s F, so I wore shorts, jersey, arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, earmuffs, helmet cover, light mittens and light jacket. Ah, riding in the warm sunny south ! We then headed off to Waffle House for 2 more waffles a piece. Unfortunately, no one warned the folks at this restaurant, and we and the other cyclists that arrived at 5:00AM overwhelmed the staff of 3. We did get our breakfast and then headed onto the start.

Team Pharmaceutical (John and I) took our 800mg of ibuprofen and sought out the porta-loos. A nice long line there allowed us to miss the start, which at first had me bummed, but later I realized, it probably saved our ride. We started about 5 minutes late, which meant we missed the police escort through all the red lights, and we also missed all the people crashing into each other and dropping pumps and waterbottles, but most importantly we missed the temptation to get into a paceline and hammer without warming up properly.

This way, we could simply ride our own ride, at our own pace, and warm up nicely. We also got to see a lot of friends who were also doing the ride. We came upon a group with Richard Lawrence and Lori Lear, friends who had also done PAC Tour last year. We talked with them for a while, enjoyed compliments on the paint job, and then moved on. We caught Gary and April Berg, who were also attempting the ride on their tandem. April would become the youngest rider to complete the Assault later that afternoon. She was kind of cold when we passed though. We later passed Woody Graham, who does the ride every other year, just to prove he can. Apparently, Woody has no functioning brain cells left !

One nice thing about starting late was that we did get to pass lots of folks. A few people latched on as we rode past, and we ocassionally had a nice tandem train. John seemed to think the course was great for tandems with lots and lots of tandem rollers - the kind where a tandem can cost up the next hill at 25+ mph on energy from flying down the previous one. We had a few 45+ mph descents early on, although one had a snack stop setup part way down the hill. The severe U bend at the bottom after the stop showed that this decision had been made wisely and purposefully. I remember coming upon quite a few accidents at this turn in the past.

We took a short break at the 60ish mile point, where we grabbed a few brownies and bananas from the sag vehicle. A few more folks joined us on the rollers that followed including a couple we only know as Charlotte and Charlotte's riding partner. We did find out they were from the Norfolk area, and talked and rode quite a bit together, and they did a great job hanging on going down the hills and kept us company on the climbs.

Just before the Marion stop, we passed Tom and Joel Lawrence, Richard's sons. Tom had flown out from Seattle for the ride, claiming the dubious distiction of coming from the farthest away. We chatted for a while. I had met Tom last summer when he joined his dad for the first half day of PAC Tour. I asked when we might see him on a PAC Tour, and he said he might do like his pop and wait til he's past 60.

We continued past the Marion feed stop, and eventually reached the turn onto the infamous route 80. We had another 10 miles of rolling terrain before the real climb began. Of course, by the time the real climb began, I already had 5000 feet of climbing registered on my Avocet 50. Maybe it was having an incredibly strong captain, or I was in better shape, or I had just talked about how bad it was for so long, but the climb to the parkway wasn't that bad. I spotted the "Dad" signs that I've seen every year again, with messages, like, "will you ride this again with me next year dad?", "having fun dad?", and "1/2 mile to parkway dad", the last one being a most welcome site.

We took a quick break at the stop at the entrance to the parkway, where we grabbed brownies and bananas and moved on, since we saw rain clouds approaching from the north. The temps had been rather cool, making for pleasant climbing, but rain was not as appreciated as it might have been on a hot muggy day. Once on the parkway, it got even cooler, and we eventually stopped to add arm and leg warmers. Sprinkles caught us ocassionally, but we managed to stay ahead of them. I can count on my two thumbs the number of the riders that passed us (when we weren't stopped) once we began the climb. The most common comment we heard as we passed others were, "wow, you guys climb well." See, that tandems climbs slow myth serves only to really discourage folks on singles !

With all my worries about John's knees and the severity of the grade, I had put on a 24 tooth granny ring to go with our 12-26 freewheel. As it turned out our 26 would have been fine, and actually better. With the 24, we didn't have use of the smaller cogs on our freewheel, like we do with the 26, since the chain dragged across the front derailleur. We use these cogs when we want to stand in the granny. And we never did use our two lowest gears. The 26 is back now to stay.

Charlotte's friend (I'm really ashamed to admit that we never got a name) joined us for a lot of the climb along the parkway. He easily could have sped ahead but rode along for the company. It was quite a pleasant change of pace from many single riders who suck tandem wheel, until they hit a slight upgrade and sprint around, only for us to overtake them soon afterwards.

The views from the parkway were quite nice. The road runs along ridges, offering 360 degree views in most places, and is quite pleasant for riding. Grades never exceed 7%; the speed limit is 45, and there are no potholes. There are also no services for long stretches, so cyclists should come prepared with food and water, or be on an organized ride, with wonderful sag stops, complete with water, brownies, bananas, etc. The organizers of this event do a spectacular job, and here's an attaboy for all the volunteers who work so hard to make this a great experience for so many people.

We took a final very quick break at the turnoff onto route 128 for me to add a jacket, and grab another brownie. The brownie's really made great fuel, and have now been added to my list of things I prefer to Power Bars and Cliff Bars, that seem to work just as well on a ride.

When we turned, we stopped going south and soon the rain caught us. Shortly after that John decided to add his jacket. Then I started to notice that the rain was hard and cold and bounced off of John's back and helmet. John had just recently completed a RAAM qualifier in Texas, where he endured a day of rain, sleet and snow, with three inches of accumulation. I was starting to think he was jinxed. The sleet here also soon turned to snow. It fell in clumps so big, it was like getting hit with little snowballs. I just laughed and laughed.

The road surface didn't seem too bad, but Captain John has had a fair amount of experience riding in these conditions recently, so I just trusted him to keep us upright. I noticed that cars coming down off the mountain were covered in snow, and was curious how long it had been going on, and how long it would continue, and if we would be able to ride back down and into Asheville !

About two miles from the top, it started to clear. At this point we were pretty soaked, and really regretting leaving our rain gear in Ashville. It was going to be a cold ride back down. But we'd think about that later. For now we had to stand up and hammer around the corner the the cheers of thousands of spectators awaiting our arrival. Well, OK a couple of folks clapped, the official handed us our finishing cards and we rolled up to the soup line. I turned my card in for our official time at 8 hours 7 minutes and 56/57 seconds. They refused to give us the same time !!

We had sent our panniers with a change of clothes (but no rain jackets) up to the top. I changed into dry things and held my wet stuff in front of the heater in the ladies room hoping to dry them a bit. We then found our saviors, Steve and Debbie. Steve and I had ridden the event before on tandem. Debbie had crewed for him this year as he rode his single. We admired their sweatshirts and asked if they had any others along with them in her car. They then literally gave us the shirts off their backs, claiming to be quite warm. Well, they are both natives of Maine, so we accepted. The four of us hiked up to the lookout tower and took a few photos, before Steve and Debbie began the long drive back to Maine, leaving the sweatshirts behind.

John and I waited out a second storm before heading down the mountain. The descent was great, but a few cars in our lane made it slow. We reached the parkway and turned right toward Asheville and immediately began climbing. The sweatshirts came off quickly as did most of the other cold weather gear. We climbed for another 10 miles before reaching Craggy Gardens and a 30 mile well earned descent. I tucked and just held on, while we zoomed along toward warm, sunny Asheville.

After posting a plea for a warm shower on internet, Rick and Aubrin offered us a place to stay at their home. I had tried to estimate our arrival time, but hadn't really planned on spending 3 hours on top of the mountain, socializing, warming, and waiting out storms, so we arrived at the Dairy Queen in Asheville, about the time we were supposed to reach their house. After downing a couple of blizzards (very appropriate, I thought), we called to say we'd be a bit late, and then headed over.

We had a great time with our hostess, who made a delicious vegetarian pasta dinner for us, as we entertained her with stories of our trip, and tried to catch glimpses of her shy cats. The 150 mile day left us not the most lively houseguests, and we turned in early.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of Rick's special omelettes. Rick and Aubrin went out of their way to make our visit enjoyable, and I really, really appreciate all their hospitality. Of course we talked bikes for a while and eventually headed out toward the airport. After a stop at Waffle House for our two waffles a piece lunch and a short ride on some back roads near the airport, we returned to baggage claim for our case. We set the case up on the sidewalk outside away from the main foot traffic flow and began the disassembly process. As usual, we attracted an audience, but it was fun. We're getting pretty good at this and had the bike repacked and ready to go fairly quickly. We checked in and the lounged around the airport for a while until our flight departed.

Maybe it won't snow next year ! Did I say next year ???