Riding Into The Clouds

Written by Joe 

Short Story for ADD folks:  
I went to SC to ride a bicycle up a big mountain in NC.  The End.  
Details below.

5/16/2011. 4AM.  I woke up in Spartanburg, SC.  The alarm clock was set for 5AM.  Sleep had abandoned me, yet I remained motionless for as long as possible.  Almost 2 decades ago when I was new to cycling I read about the “Assault on Mount Mitchell” bicycle ride.  It sounded like a good, fun challenge.  And, if you are going to make a special trip to ride your bike in the Appalachians, you might as well make it up the largest peak possible. In December 2010, I decided that this year was the year to go, and signed up.
My mantra for the day was “Take it easy.  Enjoy the day.”

6:20AM.  Wearing my RAIN jersey (Ride Across INdiana is a bicycle ride I’ve done 3X, riding the width of the state in one day, 165 miles), I made my way to what I thought was in between the 2nd and 3rd flags of the start line (1st flags were for pros and real hardcore riders. i.e. Real athletes, not the ‘pretend to be an athlete’ that I am), and up next to me pulls Jeff, a guy wearing the exact same RAIN jersey.  He was also from IN, and had done both rides multiple times.  Which is worse, I asked.  He tells me that Mitchell is 10X worse than RAIN, because it messes with your mind. Great, I thought, I shouldn’t have asked.  It was the only other RAIN jersey I saw all day.

6:30 AM.  I probably started closer to the front of the 1,000 riders than what I should have, but I didn’t see the flags.  I ended up at the tail end of the first group, let that one go, then picked up the 2nd group, let that go, and then the 3rd big group swallowed me up, and I stayed with them for a while, but I was a little fatigued from the speeds at which the first two groups were going, I knew I needed to take it easy to survive.  I was in survival mode from the start.  Starting temp: 53F, slight breeze from the north.

Pack riding is fun. 100 riders; 200 riders in a group, and you being in the middle is very exciting, but scary.  A tire explodes.  That makes everyone cautious.  Someone drops their chain in the middle of peloton, right at the start of a climb.  No one likes that as the riders goes around you like water in a stream rushing around a large protruding stone.  Another tire blows.  People’s nerves start to show.

I was nervous to start with, because of my crash. 

My kids thought it was cool that there was a crash.  They kept talking about the guy whom they had talked to who was involved in one.  Thankfully, I didn’t see it or get in one during today’s ride.  My minor accident happened 2 weeks earlier, leaving me with a sore shoulder and some torn cartilage in the rib cage at best, a cracked rib or two at worst. (I don’t think any are cracked, because I’ve done that before also, but it still hurts to breath, is uncomfortable to sleep, and coughing and sneezing are the worst…feels like a knife in the back & chest.)  My front wheel touched the wheel with a rider in front of me at mile 70 of my first century of the year, I went down, got back up and finished the ride. The funny thing is that I intentionally wanted to hurt myself that day (blow up my legs, heart and lungs) in some pretty hefty headwinds, so I would be more prepared for Mitchell, but I ended up hurting my ribs and shoulder too!  So, anyways, I was nervous about crashing again.  It made me ride conservatively.

Spectators sitting in lawn chairs along the route would cheer us on, none of whom I knew, but were nevertheless an encouragement.  They really do lift your spirit as you ride.

The first 75 miles of this ride can be compared to the opening rounds of a heavyweight boxing match.  The rolling hills try to soften you up, make you feel just a little tired, but they hold back the big punches for later.  On the elevation charts, it looks flat.  It was not flat.  Up, down, up, down, up, down, seemingly the whole way.  How do you train for riding in the hills when you live where there are no hills. My friend Devon left me a voice mail the day prior to the ride.  He said “Ride hard. Stay stable.”  I took that to mean “be consistent, take it easy, finish strong.”  Several times during the ride I thought of that message.  He was my Yoda.

Fragrant honeysuckles and other flowers growing in the area really overpowered me several times on the early rolling hills.  While some folks complained of not being able to smell them, I was carried up the slopes by their fragrances.

One thing of note: There was police support at every intersection!  No matter how small of an intersection, they stopped the cars and let the bikes through.  That was very cool.

Heart rate monitoring is a must for this ride for me.  If you aren’t sure how you feel, look at your BPM.  It doesn’t lie.  “Are you OK?”  I asked a stopped rider going up one of the middle of the day hills.  She said she was, and as I continued upwards I thought to myself if she was truly doing ok she wouldn’t have stopped.  It was not easy.

Margaret and the kids were waiting for me at the Marion NC SAG.  Oh yeah, we had made this a family trip.  We drove down Saturday, spent most of Sunday at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, then set up camp in Marion. They dropped me and my bike off in Spartanburg SC before heading back to the camp to spend the night.  They were all waving and smiling as I rode forward to the pit stop.  My ride mileage now was at 75 miles, and Elevation 1,300 feet.  It was soooooo good to talk to them, get hugs & kisses, and relax a bit before the hard part of the ride began!  Temp now was in the 60’s, with a bit of a stiffer headwind.

We left the campground and headed up Hwy 80.  This section is a 10 mile climb with no flat spots or descents.  We all were warned it was hard.  “Take it easy, enjoy the day” I told myself. Switchbacks, average grades of 8-10% were in this segment.  No place to coast.  I was going so slow that several times it was quiet enough to hear the water trickling down the rock face next to the road.  Listening to the chirping birds, and seeing the stream and water falls were a blessing during the first major climb of the day.  It was almost fun.

HW80 Elevation 2,300 feet.  Now the big punches began to fly.

Adrenaline makes you forget some things.  One thing it made me totally forget up until this point was my knee.  I had injured my knee/right quad in a skiing accident in February.  I could barely walk on it for a couple weeks, but somehow managed to ride an indoor trainer while I was recovering.  It still doesn’t feel quite normal yet, but it doesn’t hurt like it did.  Anyway, I realized around now that my knee didn’t ‘pop’ for the entire ride so far (one of the few rides it did not ‘pop’ since February), and it made me start to think it is getting close to being an injury of the past, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

Park rangers greeted us at the entry of the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), and we were blessed with about 5 minutes of sun for the first time of the day.  Elevation 3,365 feet.

We traveled through two tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway which were very dark.  Very dark.  I couldn’t see anything.  My front tire hit something in the first tunnel, maybe a piece of wood.  It was enough to scare me.  All was ok as I exited out the other end.

A sense of accomplishment arrived as I spun up the BRP.  It was overcast, but it was still clear enough to see for many, many  miles to the south, down the valley and across to peaks that seemed to be as high as I was.  It was very beautiful, and encouraging knowing that I had gone as high as I did.  I noticed that most people were not looking at the mountain views as I was.  Since I was taking my time, I began to wonder if they were not able to enjoy the view.  I thought that was sad.  Elevation 4,500 feet.

At some rest stop on the BRP, one of the volunteers said the top of the mountain had light mist, 42 degree temps, and 10MPH headwind.  What we didn’t know was how far down from the top did that weather start.

At the 93 mile SAG, there was a volunteer I have nicknamed “The Yeller.” He was barking the whole 5 minutes or so I was there, encouraging people, telling them to get back on the road, that there was still work to be done, etc.,etc.,  He asked each person their name as they left the SAG, and then yelled some sort of brief encouragement with your name as loud as he could.  “Go get ‘em Joe!  You can do it!” was something he may have said, although I don’t remember exactly what he yelled.  Crazy guy, I thought, not thinking that he could be thinking the same thing about me.
From that SAG, you get a 2 mile downhill rest.  Now the temps were in the 40’s… I was glad I put on my cycling cap under my helmet at the last SAG.  The change of pace was crazy…going 6-8MPH for many miles and then changing to 40+MPH is a strange feeling, but I was glad for the rest even if it was a ‘tense’ rest.  My hands were numb at the bottom from the cold wind.

Eating is a tricky thing.  Like many riders, I have to force food into my stomach when riding long distances.  I had a very bad experience last year during RAIN, not eating or drinking enough, becoming downright delirious at one point, feeling like time was coming to a crawl, talking to myself and seeing things that weren’t real.  I didn’t want to do that again, so I kept eating and drinking, again, taking it easy.  I never cramped up the entire Mitchell ride, so I know I did something right.

Somewhere in here I started thinking about what I needed to do after the ride…meet Margaret and the kids at the top, get changed, get my bike packed, and drive to Knoxville for the night.  That made me feel more tired.

Approaching the entrance of the park, I could see a peek higher than any other, and thought it must be Mitchell.  With 6 miles to go, I knew I would make it, but man, that last 1,400 feet in elevation sure looked huge, and knowing my average speed was dropping, I guessed it would take at least an hour to do it.  That sense of accomplishment I felt on the BRP came a few thousand feet to early.  Elevation 5,160 feet.

Slogging…I didn’t think that would mean 4MPH!!!  That was slow. A few people resorted to walking up the steepest parts of the park, and the sad thing was they weren’t going too much slower than me riding.

It was around mile 98 when we hit a cloud of mist.  The weather wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  At least it wasn’t raining.

I was very glad of one thing about my performance; I was not passed by anyone on the BRP or in the Mt Mitchell Park.  The few riders who did pass me on the HW 80 climb I eventually caught at some point or another. I attribute that to me taking it really easy in the first half of the ride, and that everyone else was going really slow at that point in the day…everyone else who was fast had already finished. (The first riders finished almost 4 hours before me!)

Mile 101 was flat enough to put my sunglasses into my helmet.  I chatted with a fellow rider from Charlotte.  It was his first Mitchell ride also.  We laughed about how we would ‘for sure’ finish now, and how this relatively flat and smooth piece of road was our new favorite stretch of tarmac in the whole world.  We congratulated each other, and then the road kicked up again and he drifted backwards.  I saw him at the top again so I know he made it.

The finish of the ride was anti-climactic…

I ‘sprinted’ past two final riders, if you can call 7mph a sprint!  Volunteers tried to hand me my finishing patch, ask me where my bike should be transported to, and I felt one of them remove the timing chip from my ankle.  But my hands remained on my hoods as I straddled my bike dazed.  Where was Margaret?  Where were the kids?  I was about ½ hour late from my estimate, so they should have been here already.  I was tired, and confused.  I finally unhooked my hands from my bike, dismounted and answered their questions and starting walking toward the buses not knowing what to do next.  102.7 miles, total elevation climbed 11,000+ feet, 7.8 hours in saddle, 1 hour at SAGs.  I was done, but where were Margaret and the kids?  Did I miss them coming in?  Did their bus fall off a cliff somewhere?  Elevation 6,575 feet.

I failed to contact Margaret by phone, so I was left stranded on top of the mountain.  Maybe they were here and left already.  That wouldn’t be good.  They had my warm change of clothes.  So in somewhat of a daze, I just stood around for the next 20 minutes.

The happiest part of my day:  Margaret and kids arrive!  I was so relieved.  She said later I looked pale grey, standing there with a cup of warm tomato soup and piece of bread (which, by the way, I hate tomato soup…but it was the only warm thing for free at the top of the mountain, and I was cold.)  We kissed and hugged, I got some dry clothes on, and we all got hot chocolates.  We walked up the final stone walkway to the observation deck.  This was THE FINISH!  Hot chocolates in hand, we yelled out Whoops and Hurrahs as we stood on the observation deck; and took turns being the ‘Tallest person east of the Mississippi.’  These 10 minutes were the perfect culmination to a mission accomplished!  They were there to share in the finish, and I was so happy!

The next 1.5 hours were spent in the bus going down to the park.  (Thankfully the bus driver stopped about ½ way down to give the cyclists a much needed nature break.)  Stories of the day flew back and forth and smiles were easy.  It was a good ride.

I finished #574 out of the 880 that started the ride destined for Mitchell.  (Several hundred others started with us, but they were only destined to the campground.)  130 did not make it to the mountain-top finish.  120 of the 1000 that had purchased event tickets didn’t even start for one reason or another.  (They now limit the Mitchell Participants to 1,000.)
Back at the campground I gathered my bike, and packed the car.  In the bathroom one guy was saying he had done 8 Ironman triathlons, and this one single ride was worse than any of the Ironmans he had done before.  I find that hard to believe as those Ironmans look crazy hard, but that is what he said.  Maybe it was the endorphins that were talking.

We drove the 2+ hours to Knoxville, TN, and finally crawled into bed around 11PM.

In retrospect, it is amazing how things worked out over the past several months, and in all I give glory to God who gives strength to those who ask, and who taught me a few important lessons as I prepared for this adventure.  

And I’m very thankful that my family came along for the ride.

Would I do it again?  You betcha!  The mountain is already beckoning me back.