26th Assault on
From a Moto's Point of View
By Howard D. Johnson (Hojo)
Twenty-six years ago John Bryan of Spartanburg, South Carolina,
took on as a personal challenge riding his bicycle up the tallest
mountain east of the Mississippi. Although darkness and fatigue set in
too early for him to complete his mission that year, his hopes of
conquering Mt. Mitchell never wavered. The following year Bryan returned
with five other riders; this time, two of the six were able to finish.
Twenty-six years later, a group of bicyclists still gathers every year
for an attempt to complete The Assault on Mt. Mitchell.
Mt. Mitchell is located in the Black Mountain Range of Western North Carolina, rising up between the cities of Asheville and Marion. Access to the summit is a five-mile drive (or ride) up from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The summit rises to 6,684 feet above sea level with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountain ranges. Mt. Mitchell is named for Reverend Elisha Mitchell, who fell to his death in June 1857 while exploring the mountain. Mitchell is buried on the summit next to the lookout tower.
Weather on top of the mountain can change quickly and drastically. It is not unheard of to deal with heavy rain, sleet, hail, and even snow in May.
Riding a bicycle 30 miles from “ground zero” in Marion, North Carolina, to the top of Mt. Mitchell is difficult enough. Then ride another 72 miles for a total mileage of 102. Because of the distance and degree of difficulty, The Assault on Mt. Mitchell has earned a spot in Bicycling Magazine as one of the top ten most difficult rides in the United States. As most parents find, babies grow very quickly. With the help of Bryan and the Freewheelers of Spartanburg (a local bicycle club), the Assault on Mt. Mitchell quickly started to burst at the seams. Although the event is officially listed as a tour, many riders come to race against the clock and each other. Riders receive a water bottle, tee shirt and, if they finish, a commemorative patch they can proudly display.
When attendance surpassed 2,000 riders, technical problems quickly became apparent. With limited room for parking at the summit for spectators, everyday visitors (the park does not close to the public during the ride) and the riders themselves, park officials found it necessary to limit the number of riders allowed to ride to the summit. The limit is 750, but since not everyone will finish, Bryan registers from 950 to 1000. Nevertheless, Bryan still has had to turn away hundreds of riders, so in 1993, he decided to help fill this gap by starting the Assault on Marion (72 miles of riding). While the second ride has no limit on the number of riders, they must stop in Marion where the climb to Mt. Mitchell begins.
Starting in Spartanburg, South Carolina, both the Assaults (on Marion and on Mt. Mitchell) begin at the same time. The riders travel the hilly terrain of South Carolina and into North Carolina. After pedaling for 72 miles, the bicyclists find themselves passing through the outskirts of Marion. This is where The Assault on Marion ends, whereas the Assault on Mt. Mitchell has just begun. From here the Mt. Mitchell riders begin a 15-mile climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. There they head south on the Parkway for 10 miles (still climbing), then turn in at the entrance of Mt. Mitchell State Park, where they moan and groan for another five miles. As they approach the final turn towards the summit, the riders begin to see the crowd of spectators lined up and hear the roar of cheering as they finally cross under the finish line banners. When they reach the top, these stalwarts will have traveled 102 miles with 11,000 feet of cumulative climbing, finishing with a big sigh of relief or a gasp for air.
Like many others, I heard about the Assault on Mt. Mitchell and thought I was capable of conquering the ride. I bought a bike, trained, and set out for the top. After eight hours of pedaling, the summit was finally under my feet. With a little help from my wife I was able to accomplish the next difficult task, picking up my leg and lifting it over the bike’s frame.
Walking would have to wait!
Many years have passed since my first trek up Mt. Mitchell, all successful and in improved time except for one. The year I did not finish, I found myself in Marion with more winter clothes on than most, but still unable to tolerate the extreme cold (there was snow on the summit that year). I sat in our car for a full 45 minutes with the heater on high before my uncontrolled shivering finally stopped. Since I was not getting paid to ride my bike up that frozen tundra, I had packed it in, and started focusing on another mountain ride, one up Grandfather Mountain held in September when it’s warmer.
While the Grandfather Mountain ride is a few feet shorter, it is still a difficult ride. The last two miles are similar to roads found in the Alps. My best finish on Grandfather Mountain was when I was 38. Busy with a full-time job, my four children, and a (wonderful) wife, I found training for the event both time-consuming and difficult. Having recently had an anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery made it even more of a challenge. Then, as if to make things more challenging, George Hincapie appeared at the start line. Hincapie is a sprinter and classic racer for the United States Postal Service professional team. He has been racing in the United States as well as Europe for several years as the team sprinter, as well as working as a pacer, enabling his teammate Lance Armstrong to win the Tour de France three times. The Grandfather Mountain ride was a fast pace from the start, and I was extremely pleased to finish in thirty-sixth place.
Maybe my motto should be “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” because that is exactly what I have done. I had tired of the long training hours, getting up and going to work tired, sore, dehydrated, and cranky if rain was in the forecast for my training ride that evening. While I love to watch bicycle racing on television, I realized I was spending just as much time looking at the motorcycles (motos) that are helping with the race as I was watching the bicycle racers themselves. I wondered what else does it take besides learning the language to be able to be a moto official over in Europe? (I am still waiting for the phone to ring with my call to move up into the “big leagues.”)
Having been an amateur radio operator (ham) and helping out at the water stops for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell several times, I signed up to help as a moto-ham when I bought my 1997 Aspencade (new) in the fall of 1999. The year 2000 was the Assault on Mt. Mitchell’s silver anniversary. I was able to ride my Wing along with the Assault and watch as the events unfolded. I could finally smile while the riders were wincing in agony, for I had “Been there, done that.”
When I signed up as a moto official for the Assault in the year 2000, I was told that a Gold Wing was too big and would have to be put further back in the field of riders to be clear of the fast pace. However, when the right hand man of the Chief Moto Official was not able to make it, I was moved up to drive directly behind the lead riders. Knowing that I had ridden this event competitively on my bicycle several times gave the Chief Moto Official more confidence in my ability to know what to expect from the riders at every hill and every corner. He hoped that I would keep my big Wing out of trouble, as the motos frequently drive directly beside the bicycles, shoulder to shoulder.
The 26th Assault on Mt. Mitchell was monumental for me. As fate would have it, I would be in the right place at the right time. While several types of motos work the event, and many times there’s at least one Gold Wing helping (in 2000 there were three), this would be the first time a Gold Wing Rider would take the helm as the (Interim) Chief Moto Official.
Work on organizing moto support begins several months prior, contacting motorcyclists that have helped in the past, as well as putting out feelers for new ones that might be interested. With an event this large it would be nice to have fifteen motos on the course, and all the more ideal if all were amateur radio operators who could communicate among each other over long distances. Fortunately for me, the usual Chief Moto Official had kept excellent details about all motorcyclists, their addresses, a detailed map, cover letters, envelope labels, etc. All I had to do was load his CD-ROM into my computer and hit the print button.
On the morning of the Assault, the motos gather at 5:45 a.m. for a last minute meeting and preparations. Each motorcyclist receives a Mt. Mitchell Moto Pass to place on their machine so police and Blue Ridge Parkway officers can identify them as volunteers helping with the event. While a dozen motorcyclists had signed up, two had to back out, and the night before the event, three more had conflicts and were unable to attend. This left us with seven motorcyclists to watch after the entire field.
The Riders were given the ham radio frequencies that would be used throughout the day. For VHF communication we frequently use a repeater. A repeater receives communication from a ham operator on one frequency and re-transmits the communication on another frequency, usually with more power. The radios are programmed so that when the microphone is keyed, it sends out the communication to the repeater on the appropriate transmit frequency, and once the microphone is released, the radio goes back to the appropriate receive frequency. An advantage of using a repeater is its large area of communication coverage. A CB radio on a Gold Wing has coverage of only one to two miles (line of sight), while a ham radio repeater allows much further coverage, anywhere from twenty to several hundred miles, depending on the location (height) of the repeater.
With the large number of bicyclists that need to be looked after, along with the large distance that the Assault travels (several counties and two states), communication between all the volunteers is a must. Particulars that must be looked after include: progress of the leaders on the bicycles, warning intersection personnel prior to our arrival, status of supplies at the water stops, lost riders, broken bicycles, as well as status of bus transportation for the riders, spectators, and bicycles. While the hilly terrain adds to the difficulty for the bicyclists, it also adds difficulty for communications as the mountains tend to block radio waves.
The elevation of Spartanburg is approximately 850 feet. All motos start off talking on a repeater that is approximately 30 miles away, located on a small mountain with an elevation of 2,400 feet. Meanwhile, the amateur radio operators located at the water stops and on top of Mt. Mitchell use a separate repeater, located near the summit of Mt. Mitchell itself (6,684 feet). The motos use their own repeater to avoid heavy radio communication that would interfere with their objectives during the Assault.
After the group travels 46 miles, the terrain breaks up the communication and the motos that were on the repeater situated at 2,400 feet are no longer able to access that particular repeater. While the repeater on top of Mt. Mitchell should be easy to make contact with, there are still several “dead zones” due to the hilly terrain. These dead zones are apparent only for the motos that use hand-held radios (typically with only five watts of power and a small “rubber duck” antenna).
However, since I enjoy ham radio and help with several bicycle races a year, I have installed a regular amateur mobile radio (50 watts) with a regular mobile antenna. In addition, I have an extra antenna, so I am able to use a hand-held radio to help monitor several frequencies at one time.
Once the motos get to the 46-mile radio “dead zone,” the lead motorcycles switch to a “simplex” frequency (not a repeater). At this point, communication now is pretty much just line of sight (similar to CB radios). But with 50 watts of power, I am able to communicate further than those using only five watts. Not all the motos are within line-of-sight range, so the “tailing” motos lose radio contact with the lead motos. The “tail” motos switch over to the Mt. Mitchell repeater and are able to give any emergency traffic to them as long as they are on top of a hill. Having my regular mobile radio, I am still able to monitor the “tail” motos, something that hasn’t been accomplished before. During this “radio dead zone,” I communicate with the lead motos via my hand-held radio (we are all in line of sight) to control the traffic while the Assault rolls along.
With my regular radio, I am still in contact with Marion and with the top of Mt. Mitchell, keeping them updated on our progress as well as listening for the tail motos.
During this event several types of motorcycles come to assist, so consideration must be given to conditions the motorcycles will be subjected to: slow speeds and possibly high ambient temperatures. The lead group of riders typically travels at an average speed of 25 mph. Once the mountain climb begins, the average speeds of the good climbers average anywhere from 12-15 mph. Combine high ambient temperatures and slow speeds on a motorcycle that is air-cooled, and over-heating will most likely occur. As expected, we have had some motorcycles have to turn around and go back home due to overheating, so an engine with water cooling is highly recommended. I am anxious to see if the new GL1800 Gold Wings can handle the slow-speed, high-heat conditions.
The level of noise from a motorcycle is certainly another issue that must be dealt with. A friend was astonished to learn that I am able to carry on a conversation with a bicyclist while driving my Gold Wing. He had forgotten how quiet Gold Wings are. On the other hand, my air horns can get all the bicycle riders’ attention. For the sanity of the riders, I pull the fuse on the air horns prior to most races. The horns are used when overtaking riders; just a little tap to let them know that you are passing is a nice friendly gesture. Since I would be riding in front of the bicycles the entire time during this event, however, I kept the air horns “fused” to wake up all oncoming traffic if needed.
One of the first of many safety factors during an event this large is the proximity of the motorcycles to the bicycles. Riding with several hundred bicycles around you can be nerve wracking. Sometimes I feel more tired after working as a moto official than if I had been riding my own bicycle.
Working as a moto official certainly tests your reflexes. Slow-speed balancing and slow-speed turning are done frequently. Many times I must drive a straight line while glancing back at the bicycle riders to make sure they don’t break any of the rules. It is not uncommon for the bicycle riders to bump into each other without anything happening to them. On a motorcycle, however, you sure don’t want to bump into one of them! Bicyclists may not hear a moto that is passing them, so a good rule of thumb is to not pass a bicycle more than 10 mph faster than what they are traveling.
Another concern is maneuverability in tight situations. While traveling at 25 mph with the bicyclists, when they come upon a hill, their speed often slows to 12 mph. Meanwhile, riders at the back of the pack are still going 25 mph as they approach the hill. When they catch up to the lead riders that have slowed down to 12 mph, suddenly all of the bicyclists are bunched together like a school of piranhas, fighting for position and trying to reach the top of the hill first. When this occurs, the riders abruptly find the lane they are in is no longer wide enough to hold them all. Some bicyclists find themselves forced over the centerline on the road, and must now be concerned with oncoming traffic, not to mention concentrating on the work still involved with climbing the hill.
As an escort motorcyclist, your best defense is a good offense. It pays to anticipate when bunch-ups most likely will happen and either move further in front of the group or lag further back. You certainly don’t want to get caught beside them and end up over the centerline yourself, especially when going over a blind hill!
When the bicyclists cross the center line, not only are they breaking the rules of the event, they are also creating a dangerous situation for themselves as well as for the riders around them. The centerline rule in bicycle racing means that the bicyclist must never cross the centerline. The motos must also obey the solid yellow line rule, and will come up alongside a bicyclist and remind him to obey the centerline rule. Fortunately, radio communication gives the ability for the lead motos to call back to a moto right in front of the main group of bicyclists to inform them of any oncoming traffic to make sure everyone knows to be extra careful of the centerline. Of course, there is still a potential for traffic to come from previously clear driveways, so caution must always be used.
Another area of concern for the motos is to avoid interference with the bicyclists. Once a group of bicyclists has reached the top of a hill and is heading back down, a new situation develops. Instead of having to worry about bikes spreading over the centerline, now the motorcyclists must make sure they are able to speed up and stay clear of the downhill demons. One must be able to maneuver a big, bulky Gold Wing at high speeds through the twisty turns. Sure, many of us love to drive through the twisties, but try to do it with a pack of lightweight bicycles that corner much faster and more aggressively!
While acting as the interim Chief Moto Official this year, it was my duty to lead the group of bicycles, driving just in front of them to make sure a clear path for their lane would be maintained. Along with me would be at least two other motorcycles just further up the road. They would have the responsibility to give initial warning to oncoming vehicles of any hazard that they were about to face down the road. Unfortunately, one of the three lead bikes ran into engine trouble after 12 miles and had to pull off to the side of the road.
Directly behind me were all of the bicyclists. The next moto would pull in about 45 seconds after the Assault began. His objective is to remain behind the main group of riders once the split in the field of bicyclists has formed (the racers versus the tourists). This motorcyclist’s duty is to help keep an eye on the end of the main field of riders, as well as to watch for any problems encountered with vehicles. Any problems with vehicles would prompt me to radio for the police at the major intersections to come to our assistance.
The lead group was our “core” responsibility. The lead motos, the moto directly behind the main group, and I would make certain that this group had a clear path through every stop sign, every red light, and all other intersections. No other vehicles were to be allowed to pass through any intersection while the main group of riders was passing through. All the bicyclists not in the lead group would have to make sure to obey all traffic laws. We had two other motorcycles mixed in with them, mainly to have a rolling set of eyes on those that might need help. At the very end of all the riders, a sweep van follows to pick up any rider that is not able to continue, due either to fatigue or mechanical break down. Two bike shop trucks were on the course to offer minor assistance.
The ride began at 6:30 a.m. sharp, sort of. The riders actually jumped the gun, but with 1,500 bicyclists starting, there wasn’t going to be a restart. With sirens blaring and blue lights flashing, police cars led the bicyclists to the outskirts of town at sunrise.
I must stay alert for the numerous different turns, along with the many, many intersections that we cross over. I must know what awaits us at the next intersection, if it is going to have a stop sign, stop light, yield sign, left turn, right turn, straight through, blind hill, and/or a median. An obvious hazard is hitting a median, either from being forced into it, or by not seeing it in time. Another problem is when some of the bicycles go to the right and some to the left of a median, all meeting again down the road, hopefully before they run into oncoming cars. Turns/intersections are especially dangerous when such a large group has to get through without stopping. Ham radio operators and police officers are stationed at the majority of these locations. The ham radio operators provide the communication link to the police at each location.
When approaching an intersection, I radio ahead to the ham radio operator at the intersection and let him or her know that we are two miles away and give our estimated time of arrival. This gives the police time to get their car(s) situated in the road for visibility as needed. When we are within a mile of the intersection, I send the lead motorcycles (motos) up to verify everyone is ready and things are in place to close the intersection. The more dangerous the intersection is, the more time needed to close the intersection.
Once the call is given from me to close the intersection, the lead motos each take a section of the intersection to assist the police, one to the right, and one to the left. As I approach the beginning of the intersection, the lead motos pull away one at a time, depending on which way the road turns. We play a version of leapfrog; I cover the vacated position while the lead moto “jumps” up the road. The lead moto warns oncoming vehicles of approaching bicycle riders ahead, as well as other stopped vehicles ahead. I then depart the intersection and hurry up the road as the bicyclists approach my position. I must be aware of how fast the bicyclists are riding and get my gap back in front of them without them hitting me from behind, or letting them draft my machine. It is perfectly legal for the riders to draft off of one another, but not behind a motorized vehicle.
At the 40-mile point, the bicyclists are warned of an up-coming hairpin turn at the bottom of a steep hill. They must go slowly or they will quickly find themselves in the shrubbery at the bottom. To give the riders extra warning (besides my verbal warning), several warning signs are located before and on the descent. Near the bottom of the hill and curve, a ham radio operator has set up a series of yellow flashing warning lights. If they don’t heed the yellow warning lights, the next set of lights they see will be the red ones from the ambulance that is on standby. Fortunately, that day we had no incidents and they all made it clear of the curve. In the meantime, the lead motos and I had already taken our position ahead of the bicyclists and the dangerous hill and curve. Just as quickly as we saw them clear it, the next intersection was closed down. At this point, the terrain makes a drastic change that may shake up the status of the riders.
After passing through this intersection, the bicyclists can grab for a drink or snack before the first real test hits them. At 44 miles, the route makes a right turn, and directly in front of them rises in the first major climb. For those not used to riding with “the big dogs,” this is where it gets tough trying to hang onto the leash!
The lead motos slowly make their way to the top of the climb and wait, warning vehicles of the bicycles coming up the hill. Extra care must be taken during this climb, as riders tend to drift all over the road. Once the lead motos reach the top of this hill, everyone makes a radio frequency change over to the simplex frequency. Meanwhile, I inform the “tail” motos to switch to the Mt. Mitchell repeater where I will listen for them on that frequency if they need anything. From this point on, I do not have any ham radio operators at the remaining intersections to help communicate with the police, so I must now rely solely on the lead motos to get to each intersection with enough time to help coordinate with the police.
After the riders reached the summit of this climb, surprisingly, there were still a large number of riders together. We roll along with them for the next 25 miles. Nearing the town of Marion, the turns on the course start to become more frequent.
This is the area about which I lost most of my sleep in the nights preceding the event. In one particular section, there are three turns in less than a half-mile. This means getting the lead motos away from the approaching group of bicyclists sooner than normal in order to allow enough time to get the very next intersection closed down. It wouldn’t normally be a problem, except, so far, many riders had been able to hang with the “big dogs.” To add insult to injury, the third quick turn was right at the start of a fast downhill section. All the lead motos (myself included) would need to get to that stop sign, secure it, and then as quickly as possible get down the hill and out of the way. Fortunately, traffic was minimal and no problems were encountered.
At the bottom of the steep hill is a run past the last water stop just before the start of the second part of the Assault. This is where the Assault on Marion riders stop, while those doing the Assault on Mt. Mitchell start a grueling 30-mile climb—nearly 6,000 feet of almost steady uphill pedaling. Judging by the pace of this group, these guys and gals were determined to go to the top; they all wanted to win. At no time would these riders stop for water, for stopping would mean that they would lose contact with the lead group of riders. In order to take on extra drinks and food, they must either have carried enough supplies to make it past Marion (72 miles), or had someone by the side of the road at designated feed zones to hand them supplies.
The weather was wonderful. By the time we reached Marion, the temperatures were well into the upper 70s and climbing into the low 80s.
The riders started making their way upwards towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. They would climb nearly 15 miles before turning onto the Parkway. The pace slowed, as expected, and seemed to be a little slower than the year before. Part way up the climb a large group of riders was still hanging together; the prior year, it was just a handful. Traffic behind the riders was now backed up farther than the eye could see. Cars of people out sightseeing are unfortunately right in the middle of a big traffic jam, and now must wait patiently before it is clear to pass such a convoy of bicycles.
An interesting sidelight: After the Assault is finished, riders that ride back down from the top of the mountain in their personal vehicle will be barred from the ride the following year. This is done in an attempt to discourage personal cars along the route. There just isn’t enough room at the summit for hundreds of cars; everyone must take a bus back down, spectators as well as riders. (Spectators must take a bus to the top to watch their loved ones finish the Assault).
As the Blue Ridge Parkway Entrance sign comes into sight, a surge by the lead riders begins to separate them from the remaining group. As we turn onto the Parkway, three riders separate themselves from the rest of the pack. I relate this information about the three break-away riders over the race radio and immediately hear some folks declaring who they think will win. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I have the best photo, for I can see the “three photos” in front of me. But after less than half a mile, the third rider drops back, unable to maintain this faster pace. Now it is predictable which rider will win. My bet is on George Hincapie of the United States Postal Service cycling team (European Squad Member).
While this is not a race (no prize money is awarded), many riders come out to see if they can be the first to the top, or at least improve on their previous times. In the last few years the event has drawn a few professional racers. If a pro does win, the first place amateur is still listed as the first place amateur. Hincapie, previously from Charlotte, North Carolina, moved to Upstate South Carolina. Hincapie competes in several races in Europe in the spring, then starts training to help his teammate Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France. Having a little downtime in May, Hincapie returns to the States to do some of his training at his home and then comes to Spartanburg for this ride. In 2000, Hincapie rode to first place on the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. He hoped for a repeat and perhaps better his previous time.
As the two lead riders passed a vehicle handing out water bottles, Hincapie grabbed one, turned around and gave it to the rider behind him, not taking one for himself. I thought this was a fine display of good sportsmanship (the second rider was not a teammate). The next time a water bottle became available, the second place rider grabbed one for himself, took a drink, then tried to re-group and get back onto the wheel of Hincapie. In the meantime, Hincapie could see that he had developed a lead beyond the other rider. Instead of capitalizing on this gap, Hincapie slowed and waited for the other rider to catch up! Hincapie was either being a true gentleman or, with 10 miles of climbing left, maybe figured “misery loves company.”
Backed-up vehicle traffic continued to be a problem. With the help of a lead moto, I was told via radio when the path was clear for vehicles to pass. In years past, this was a tremendous problem, what with the buses going up and down the same road. It took the buses a lot of time to pass the bicyclists, and, when they did, they had to downshift, which often left the riders in a cloud of diesel smoke. As if the riders weren’t short of breath already, every bus that went by left them coughing. In the last few years, however, buses have taken an alternate route, a longer route, but slightly faster without all of the bicycle traffic to contend with.
Approaching the turn into the Mt. Mitchell State Park, the two riders had five miles remaining to the summit, the first three miles being exceptionally difficult. Later on in the day you could practically walk those three miles to the summit without having your feet touch the ground, just by walking on all the riders that are lying on the ground resting! I tried to offer words of encouragement to some of the riders: “It is better to look good than to feel good.”
This is where Hincapie made his final move, leaving the second place rider to fend for himself. Looking as fresh as ever, he continued to climb those three miles without any difficulty. With two miles to the finish, the climb levels off to a more tolerable level. As if realizing he was not going to set a course record, Hincapie sat up and spoke to me, mentioning how beautiful the view is. I don’t know who was more excited, Hincapie or me. Hincapie was happy to know that first place was again his; I was thrilled this famous racer was talking to me! I had raced against him before (although he didn’t know me in that race), and I had also listened to him at a local speaking engagement. (I even got his autograph, for the kids, of course.)
Seizing upon the opportunity, I began to explain the area to him. Many of the trees are bare on top of Mt. Mitchell. Some scientists believe this has been caused by acid rain formed further northwest. Yet they are perplexed as to why Grandfather Mountain, located just east of Mt. Mitchell, does not have the same problem. They theorize that Mt. Mitchell gets the brunt of the acid-rain effect by being both higher and slightly to the west.
I went on to explain how Mt. Mitchell got its name (the explorer that fell to his death). I reminded him of the ride at Grandfather Mt., and that I had attended his speaking engagement nearby.
Suddenly, a deer popped up and darted across the road. No sooner had the deer passed directly in front of us, than a second one darted up over the steep embankment and crossed the road. At that point I cautioned him to slow down and wait to see if a third one might be out there. Sure enough, up came deer number three! Hincapie seemed astonished with this and was grateful that I had him wait that moment, having avoided being hit by the third deer. With that I suggested he slow down a bit while I put my motorcycle between him and the path the deer were taking, offering him a bit of shelter.
For this gesture he seemed very appreciative.
With the finish line in sight, I used my air horns to help announce the arrival of the lead rider. I pulled over to the side in order to avoid blocking Hincapie’s finish line photo. He crossed under the banner in five hours and eight minutes, looking as if he was rested and ready to ride his bike back home. Instead, he waited for the second place rider and the two of them shared a van back home. (Oh, no, they didn’t take the bus back down!) Prior to leaving the summit, Hincapie was gracious enough to pose for a photo with me—for my kids, of course!
While the ride had ended for the first-place finishers, it did not for the hundreds of other bicyclists, nor for me. After rehydrating with water, the lead motos and I rode back down to Marion where lunch was waiting for us.
After lunch all the escort motorcyclists were done and were able to head back home. On the other hand, I had to wait until 3:30 p.m., as the second part of my responsibility was just beginning. I filled the Wing’s gas tank and started back toward the top. Hearing a report of light rain coming in, I put on my rain gear and hoped for the best.
Another of my duties as Chief Moto Official was to drive the route back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Parkway officials had set a cut off of 4:00 p.m.; if any rider did not make it to the Parkway by that time, they would be turned around and required to ride back down to Marion. After reaching the Parkway, I was then to start doing a count of all the riders on the route, as well as all resting at the water stops. The rider count would be used to gauge if any more supplies might be needed at the water stops, as well as how many buses were still needed. Unfortunately, the weather had different plans for me that afternoon.
Part way back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, heavy rain and lightning developed. I took cover in the only safe spot, a small church located seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I parked my Wing in the parking lot and sat under a porch awning away from the rain, sort of. While I was able to avoid the downpour, the strong winds still caused rain to blow all over me. Although I had my handy walkie talkie with me and was able to hear all the communications, because of the steep terrain and the walkie talkie’s five watts of power, I could not be heard by them. Still, I wasn’t about to go out in the downpour to sit on the Wing and use my 50-watt radio due to the lightning. Ham radio operators at the water stops and at the summit started to wonder what had happened to me; the last report was that I was on the way up but had not checked in at the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The weather started to get worse. The seasoned hams knew the only place for cover along the route and correctly guessed I might be at the church. Later, I overheard one ham’s transmission saying now that his job was done, he was on his way down the mountain in his car. Part way down, he mentioned over his radio that he had just seen a bus heading up towards the top. (The top of the mountain always wants to know where the buses are). Knowing that a bus had just passed by my location, I knew that the next car I could hear driving down had to be that particular ham radio operator. I waved him down and informed him of my dilemma. He alerted the ham radio operators that I would be able to listen to all their information, but I wouldn’t be able to respond until I was back on my motorcycle once the weather had cleared.
I continued to sit and wait for the lightning to stop. Then came hail, lots of hail. It was difficult sitting there seeing my Wing completely exposed to such harsh elements. Should I run and try to shield it with my body? I decided to use the extra clothes in my saddlebags to help cover what I could, hoping to help cushion the impact of the hail. Reports came in that the hail was so heavy that ice was forming on the Parkway in two particular places, and that I should forget about coming up to make a head count; someone in a car would do it for me.
After waiting ninety minutes for the storm to clear, I finally was able to get back on the road and head for home. Other than the late afternoon storm, there had been no reports of any major problems; the Assault had had another successful year. Many of the riders that had been caught in the hail jumped into buses heading up the mountain, surrendering their chances to conquer the Assault. Those who continued pedaling on up, submitting to the abuse from the weather as well as from the mountain, earned the bragging rights to their patch. For those that did not finish, well, there is always next year—the 27th riding of the Assault on Mt. Mitchell.