bicycle-racer friend once told me that the best cyclists are the ones
who can endure the most pain. Last spring, while pedaling up a seemingly
endless stretch of mountain road, as steep as a respectable intermediate
ski run, I began to understand what he meant. I slumped over the
handlebars. My thighs burned. My lungs ached. The muscles in my neck and
back knotted into a painful spasm.
cycling computer mounted on the handlebars -- which registers speed,
elapsed time and distance - told me I had covered 85 miles of the
102-mile ride. Under most circumstances, that would have been welcome
news, but this was no normal ride. This was the Assault on Mt. Mitchell,
named by Bicycling magazine as
one of the 10 toughest centuries (rides of 100 miles) in the United
States, and at mile 85, things had just begun to get interesting.
Mitchell, a 6,684-foot peak near the western border of North Carolina,
is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. The Assault leads
cyclists from Spartanburg, SC., through 70 miles of rolling countryside
to Marion, NC., where the real test of endurance begins. In the 32 miles
from Marion to the finish line near the mountain's summit, the route
gains 5,200 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.
(Note: the total rider up hill climb is 10,895 feet of
the first 70 miles I had hung back, conserving energy for the uphill
grade.. Where possible, I had latched on to pacelines -- single-file
packs of riders -- and pedaled in the slipstream of the cyclists in
front of me to reduce my wind resistance. This had obliged me to take my
pulls at the front, but I knew that riding in the pack improved a
cyclist's efficiency by as much as 30 percent. Whenever the pacelines
broke away from me, I eased back and took time to enjoy the rural
scenery, wave to overall-clad farmers sitting roadside in lawn chairs
and talk with other riders from states as far away as California. The
conversation seemed always to drift back to the cumulative effects of
a grueling event and the challenge of the final 30 miles.
people claim this is a race
against the clock," said a 50-ish ride veteran from South Carolina,
who pedaled beside me for a few miles. "But in my opinion, it's more of
a race against death."
Ironman Triathlete Victor Selenow, who placed in the top 10 in 1981, had
told me that in some ways the Assault was harder than the Ironman, which
includes a 2 1/2-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26-mile
marathon. "The Assault is relentless, and you're forced to work the same
set of muscles all the way to the top," he said. "The Ironman is more
diversifted, and you're not constantly taxing the same muscle groups."
participant had offered this encouragement: "The last five miles look
like a battlefield after a major skirmish. There are cyclists strewn
along the road everywhere, grimacing and moaning."
my own reckoning, I probably would be one of them.
am not a fanatical endurance athlete. When I set out for the summit of
Mt. Mitchell, it had been just a year since I traded in my cast-iron
college 10-speed for a sleek racing bicycle and soon began logging
anywhere from 75 to 150 miles a week. After five months of training, I
completed my first century ride -- a relatively gentle route that
explored the valleys of east Tennessee -- in less than six hours. The
accomplishment sent mood-altering endorphins coursing through my
bloodstream. Come spring, I was ready for another fix, and that's when
Mitchell reared its spruce-covered head.
realized that it was one thing to cover 100 miles along the flats; it
was another thing to cover the distance while scaling 6,000 feet. Yet I
was determined to try. My goal was simple: I wanted to cross the finish
line inside the 12-hour period organizers had established for the ride.
six cyclists who attempted the first Assault in 1975 had a similar goat
in mind. The idea was born during a Friday-night bull session at the
Bicycle Gallery, a Spartanburg bike shop. Scott Hoffmann - shop co-owner
and later a president of the Spartanburg Freewheelers, the group that
sponsors the ride -- and six of his buddies were sitting around drinking
beers when Bill Carlisle posed the outrageous notion that it might be
possible to pedal the 102 miles from Spartanburg to the summit of Mt.
Mitchell in one day.
the chortles and guffaws died down, the boys bet Carlisle he couldn't do
it. Nonetheless, they then started mapping out a route along the
two-lane highways that stretched between the town and the mountain. And
a few weeks later, Hoffmann, Cartisle and four fellow cyclists departed
from Spartanburg bound for the top. Some 11 hours later, Carlisle and
Tony Ferrara straggled into the parking area beneath Mitchell's summit.
The others had crashed and burned along the way. Word of the feat
spread, and the Following year there were a dozen riders. The next, two
dozen. By the mid- '80s, the race was drawing contestants from
throughout the United States and even Europe. Swedish National Team
rider Bjorn Bachman set the surviving Assault record of five hours, 50
seconds in 1985.
event now ranks as one of the most popular century rides in the East.
Last May, a record 1,753 riders massed at the starting line. This year's
race is scheduled for May 20.
arrived at the Spartanburg town square at 6:20 a.m., as the first rays
of dawn filtered through the trees. Temperatures hovered in the 60s,
though they would climb into the 80s by midday. A storm front a few
miles to the west had stalled, ensuring sunny skies.
lined both sides of Church Street. A column of cyclists wearing brightly
colored Lycra shorts and shirts spanned the width of the street and
stretched for 200 yards behind the phalanx of police cruisers that would
escort us out of town. Immediately behind the cruisers the
more-competitive contestants -- men and women with beer-keg thighs and
$1,500 Italian bicycles -- clipped into their pedals.
settled toward the back of the pack, hoping to avoid the breakneck pace
of the leaders. Around me, hundreds of other recreational riders --
spindly-legged teen-agers, muscular middle-aged men, rock-hard women in
their 30s -- straddled their bicycles. There were touring bicycles with
food-laden panniers. There were shimmering, ultralight racing frames
mounted with nothing more than a pump and water bottle. There were
grit-caked mountain bikes with lugged tires. There were even a few
vintage tanks -- similar to the one I had sold the year before
-- which at 35 pounds
exceed the weight of most racing bicycles by 10 pounds or more.
6:30 a.m., the police cars, with their lights flashing, began to roll,
and the 14th annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell was under way.
the first five miles out of town, the crush of bicycles packed the road
from side to side. Elbows rubbed elbows, brakes shrieked, tires brushed
tires, and occasionally, a cyclist would topple after colliding with the
rider in front of him. There were frequently yelling for riders to "hold
their line," meaning that they should maintain a straight course and
avoid veering into the paths of approaching cyclists.
mile 19, as the pack began to thin, the route approached a stone bridge
at the bottom of a long, steep hill, the site of the Assault's first
casualty. As we streamed by, I spotted a rider sprawled on the pavement,
howling incoherently. Blood drenched his face, and the area from his
forehead to his chin was bloated from the impact. Three dismounted
cyclists administered first-aid while they waited for an ambulance. I
learned later from Hoffmann that the man had lost control when his bike,
hit the lip at the entrance to the bridge, and he had fractured his
skull when his head hit the bridge wall He wore no helmet.
mile beyond, we arrived at the first of the 13 water-and-refreshment
stops along the route. Several tables brimmed with bananas, cookies and
apples, and plastic garbage cans outfitted with spigots dispensed fresh
water. I snatched a handful of oatmeal cookies and a cluster of bananas,
shoved them into the rear pockets of my cycling jersey and pushed on.
had learned during my first century that keeping the body stoked with
food is as essential as maintaining pressure in the tires. After a
couple of hours of intense exertion, the body exhausts its store of
fuel, and if it's not replenished constantly, you
"bonk", cycling parlance for
the condition that leaves a rider trembling and seeing spots, with
barely enough strength to tumble into the grass, kick away his bicycle
and lie gasping.
the other hand, a steady regimen of carbohydrates -- both quick-burn
simple carbs in fruit juice and slow-burn complex carbs found in
cookies, breads and bananas -- will keep the wheels turning. During the
Assault, I ate constantly, consuming 18 bananas, four apples, two dozen
oatmeal cookies, four high-energy bars (220 calories each), and
one-and-one-half gallons of water spiked with a high-carbohydrate drink
11:30, I rolled into Marion, a small crossroads town of fast food
eat-aries, gas stations and convenience stores. A few dozen cyclists had
connected with support teams there, and they lolled in the shade eating
picnic lunches. Several riders napped briefly under the trees. A steady
stream of riders disappeared into a burger joint and emerged with sacks
of fat-laden hamburgers and fries -- reputedly the
worst fuel for the task. I
contented myself with another bunch of bananas and 16 ounces of water
and soon began pedaling toward the Appalachian spine looming in the
I pulled away from the water stop at mile 68, Jeremy Corm, an
18-year-old racer from Greensboro, NC., had already triggered the
checkered flag. Corm finished the ride in five hours and eight minutes.
terms of mileage, Marion marks completion of two-thirds of the Assault.
But in terms of difficulty, it's barely the halfway point. "It takes
most riders as long to complete the last 30 miles as it does to finish
the first 70," Scott Hoffmann had told me. "Because of the climb, the
Assault is actually more like a 140-mile ride than a century." If
Hoffmann's estimate were correct, and if I had the stamina to make it to
the top, I would cross the finish line at 4:30, after 10 hours in the
out of Marion, I cruised easily up a gentle grade past tranquil Lake
Tahoma at mile 79. Just beyond, I encountered the first tortuous uphill
stretch, a three-mile grunt known as Haines Eyebrow. I immediately felt
the drag of the slope, dropped into my lowest gear and hoped for the
smell of smoking brakes rose from automobiles fighting the downhill drag
along State Route 80 as we struggled uphill, and the easy banter among
cyclists that had filled the first 70 miles had been replaced by the
sounds of grunting and gnashing gears. The only verbal exchanges, in
fact, came when cyclists announced their position as they overtook
slower riders. A few of the 400 cyclists who eventually would drop out
of the ride had already accepted defeat. Some limped beside their
bicycles. Others sat at roadside, rubbing cramping thighs.
mile 82, two miles up Haines Eyebrow, I engaged in my first mental
battle. All the minor aches that had accompanied me for the first 70
miles suddenly seemed insufferable. My hands had gone numb from gripping
the handlebars, and my butt had been chafed raw. My thighs and lungs
began to burn. And it seemed that around every bend, the hill grew
longer and steeper.
those woes would have been tolerable; together, they became
debilitating. And I suspected that they'd only get worse over the next
20 miles. I began to think about - actually to dwell on -- the pain, and
I realized that all I had to do to make it stop was climb off the bike
you start to climb you'll regret every cigarette you've ever smoked and
every beer you've ever drunk," Don Kirby, a Bicycle Gallery employee who
completed the ride in 1985, had told me. And he was right. I even felt a
twinge of remorse for all the days I'd gone without training during the
decided to remain in the saddle for a half-hour more, no matter how
much it hurts, yet I was moments from surrendering when something
remarkable happened. During the last mile up Haines Eyebrow to where the
route joins the Blue Ridge Parkway and the grades soften for a time to
an average 6 percent, the pain, or my perception of it, began to dull.
heard about the trance-like state that settles over endurance athletes
as they complete the last few miles of their events, yet I had never
pushed myself far enough to experience it firsthand. But it was
happening now. A detached feeling slowly replaced my fixation on the
pain. There was my body, on autopilot, turning the cranks and fighting
gravity. And there was my mind, off somewhere, watching.
the end of the ride you get into that mental state where you move up
into your head and you find your own rhythm," Victor Selenow had told
me. "It's almost like being hypnotized. You settle into this spaced-out
focused on the cadence of spinning pedals, the steady buzz of the chain
passing over the gears, the rhythm of my breathing, the woodlands
sliding by. I noticed on my cycling computer that my speed had actually
increased from 5 to 7 mph, and I began
passing other cyclists. I
overtook one rider, a man in his mid-20s who had left me in the dust
earlier in the day. "You animal !" he grunted after me. Under the
circumstances, I couldn't have imagined a more gracious compliment.
12 miles along the parkway whirred by. I don't remember many specifics,
except that I passed through some wonderfully cool, dark tunnels carved
through the rock, and that there were several beautiful views of the far
away valleys and surrounding peaks. The smell of balsam filled the air.
I remember glimpsing the observation tower perched on the summit of
Mitchell and realizing at that moment that I would reach it.
I recall the first mass cheering section at the entrance to Mt. Mitchell
State Park at mile 97, where several hundred people stood urging us on.
They applauded just as enthusiastically for the dozens of cyclists who
now hobbled beside their bicycles and the legions of riders who, as
predicted, lay crumpled beside the road. Many of them would advance no
remaining five miles ranked as the steepest of the ride, and as I
cranked uphill, I reached into my pocket and drew out my last banana.
Though two water stops remained, I feared that if I stopped I'd be
unable to regain my concentration and would risk cramping, so I cranked
2:50 p.m., I reached the Mt. Mitchell parking area in a daze, and when a group of spectators shouted that the finish line lay just
around the bend, I
redoubled my effort and tried to sprint, but my legs splayed outward and
I nearly toppled.
later I rolled across the finish line, and a woman wedged an official
race patch into my hand. I had completed the ride in eight hours, 21
minutes. I had logged the final 30 miles from Marion in 3 1/2 hours, 90
minutes less than Hoffmann's estimate, and placed 745th among 1,353
followed was an hour of sheer bliss, while my mood surged under the
influence of endorphins and before the onset of the paralysis and
fatigue that would plague me
for the next four days. I dropped my bicycle among dozens of others,
limped to a refreshment table where ride organizers proffered giant meat
boggles and cans of cold soda, and found a seat on a sunny hillside. I
cheered the riders who continued to straggle across the finish line and
swapped war stories with other riders seated around me. I spoke with a
young mother who had finished the fide an hour earlier.
know, this race is a lot like childbirth," she said, laughing. "It's the
most agonizing pain you'll ever go through, but when it's over, all you
remember are the good parts."
was right. An hour later, I piled into a Greyhound with 35 other riders
for the long ride back to Spartanburg. It had been a scant four hours
since I had confronted Haines Eyebrow, where I wanted to roll into the
grass and die, but that already seemed like a distant memory.
Now, as the
bus swayed through the hairpin bends, zipping downhill, I turned to the
cyclist beside me. "When I come back next year ..." I began. But almost
before I finished the sentence, I dropped off to sleep. It was the first
sensible thing I'd done all day.