Monday 20 April 2009

Day 3 of the Tour de Appalachians: Mount Mitchell Calls

On the Blue Ridge Parkway

As a keen amateur cyclist in North America, you will not find all that many rides similar to the legendary parcours of Europe: anyone who wants to ride stretches of the Tour DuPont, a well-regarded pro stage race run in the Mid-Altantic Region of the United States from 1991 to 1996, will have to do their own organization and route-finding. Nothing with the flavour of the amateur versions of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix or l’Etape du Tour exists on this side of the Atlantic. The lack of pro routes does not mean there are not some legendary rides. Living in Washington, DC, as I did, meant access to some terrific amateur rides that, over the years, have become well-known as well. I am referring to rides such as the Blue Ridge Extreme, Cheat Mountain Challenge, Mountain Mama and, the hardest of them all, the Mountains of Misery–all of which I have actually ridden. In other parts of the United States you will find the California Death Ride or RAGBRAI or, best of all, the 50 mile Iron Horse Classic in Colorado, which pits cyclists against the Durango-to-Silverton narrow gauge steam train!

Just out of reach from me in Washington are two such rides, both in the Carolinas: Blood, Sweat and Gears, which actually begins in Valle Crucis and circles around Boone, climbing some 13,000 feet. The other ride is the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, which started with some Spartanburg, South Carolina bike club members who decided to ride from the home town to the top of Mt. Mitchell, some 100 miles/160 kms away, and the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. From those small beginnings in 1975, the Assault has become a must-do for hard-core cyclists but numbers are very limited (750 riders only) and it always sells out: the best way to get a place is to have ridden the course the previous year. The altitude gain is 3425 m (11,237 feet), which is a good ride indeed. The ride is held in May, and it actually is a sort-of-race since transponder chips are used and times taken. You can plot the course for yourself by going here.

With the chance of participating in the Assault pretty well nil for me, I was delighted to discover that Sugar Mountain is not all that far away from Mt. Mitchell. Before coming down for the camp, I persuaded my fellow Lost Boys that we simply had to somehow ride up to the top of Mt. Mitchell since we were so close by. The original plan had been to ride on the morning of Sunday, April 5th and then pack up and leave after lunch. We had planned to do an organized ride put on by the YM/YWCA in a town not far away on Saturday but the weather forecast looked so good for Saturday we opted to ditch the Y ride and go for Mt. Mitchell instead. This turned out to be a very wise idea.

After our usual hearty breakfast, we had some discussion about where to ride from as we would have to drive closer to Mt. Mitchell. We discovered that a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was actually closed due to a bridge collapse, meaning a 100 mile detour, but it turned out that the road closure was on the other side of the Mt. Mitchell park entrance, on the Asheville side, so we were home-free. Now all we had to do was ride that mountain!

We took two cars and our usual tons of gear and headed off in bright sunshine, taking some smaller highways until we eventually met up with the Blue Ridge Parkway again, following it until we reached Little Switzerland. There was a hotel there, and some small shops still closed for the season. We parked in the big empty lot and got our stuff together for the ride, amid the usual merriment.

Almost ready to leave
photo by Duck

After the obligatory group photo, we headed out into the bright but cold sunshine. There was virtually no traffic on the Parkway and I enjoyed, once again, riding on one of my favourite roads in the world. Fine smooth pavement, little traffic, matchless views that constantly changed, coupled with the feeling that Spring was coming and riding with a really terrific bunch in the clear morning light–what more do you need to justify a training camp like this?

One of three tunnels (except this was a double one) photo by Duck

As we discovered on our first ride on Skyline Drive in Virginia, the Blue Ridge is not flat on top. This means that the road is constantly rising and falling and that a fair amount of the climb to the top of Mt. Mitchell is actually climbing done on the Parkway. We all set a good pace and rolled through the quiet countryside in a great mood–no sign of fog today! There are sections of the Parkway that have barriers that are closed earlier in the year due to the prevalence of fog but there was none of the misty stuff to impede our progress today.

One relaxed kind of rider

It began to get warmer as we kept riding southwards and we pulled over at a scenic overlook to take off armwarmers and have a drink. There we met a bike tourist, riding a Bianchi Volpe triple, and heading northwards. He was a young man who seemed pretty footloose; he had started in Asheville and was just riding northwards. He would eventually stay with some friends in Washington, DC, and then head up the C&O Canal towpath before turning westwards at Cumberland, Maryland and riding the Great Allegheny Passage Trail to Pittsburgh. He wasn’t wearing any cycling-specific clothing, but he didn’t seem to be riding to any kind of timetable either. We wished each other a good ride and the Lost Boys headed back south.

Blue Ridge Scenery, and manly cyclists

We continued to admire the wonderful scenery and the beautiful weather and, before we knew it, the 21 miles or so (34 km) from Little Switzerland to the Mt. Mitchell State Park entrance had passed. The Badger and I let the others go on ahead as we stopped to take some photos. Once we started to ride again, the Badger said a discouraging word and pulled over–he had had his first flat tire of the trip.

While we were doing the mechanical, another rider in a yellow jersey passed by on his way to the summit. The Badger was quite excited because the stranger was riding a Cannondale of similar vintage to his. Tire fixed, we caught up with him pretty quickly and chatted for a while. He had come from Charlotte, North Carolina, and was riding with some friends but they had left this part of the ride for him alone. The Badger and I were feeling pretty good and climbing at a relaxed pace we soon left our friend behind, and passed the ranger headquarters at the park. The initial climb from the Parkway had been moderately steep but now it levelled off a little and we were able to make good time to the top, where the others pretended to have been waiting for hours.

The view from Mt. Mitchell

Mt. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet (2.037 m) is the highest peak in the Appalachians, and the highest mountain in Eastern North America. Until Texas became a state in 1847, Mt. Mitchell was the highest point in the United States. In addition to the State Park, there is Pisgah National Forest protecting the scenic beauty of the area. Unfortunately, the high elevation exposes the plant life to acid rain and the effects of this are quite noticeable.

The Badger attempting to steal the sign...

The mountain was named after a professor from the University of North Carolina who measured it in 1835. Prof. Elisha Mitchell returned 22 years later to verify his figures and tragically fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls. Apparently his tomb is at the top of Mt. Mitchell but I did not see any directions to it.

The Lost Boys triumphant
photo by Duck

There is a large parking lot at the top of Mt. Mitchell, but there were only a few cars and some motorcycles, not surprising for this time of the year. We looked around–there is a small natural history museum–and of course had to have pictures taken next to the altitude marker. Then it was a rapid downhill, stopping at the ranger station to refill our water bottles (there is absolutely nowhere to do this all the way from Little Switzerland) and then we zipped back down to the Parkway, thankful for all the heavier clothing that we had brought with us.

Duck and Sprocketboy

The ride back on the Parkway was less easy since we were definitely getting tired. The Badger said at one point: “Well, at least this is the last hill,” which turned out to be quite untrue. On one flying downhill we rocketed past Mr. Volpe, who was chilling out on the grass. But our spirits were good even if our legs were sore and we rolled back into Little Switzerland with a real sense of accomplishment. We had conquered Mt. Mitchell! And it felt like it: 2,259 m (7,411 feet) of climbing over 85.2 kms (53 miles), with a riding time of 4:10. I had a max speed of 68.2 km/h (42.4 mph), which was probably due to tired legs more than the potential of the road!

Today's daunting profile

After the drive back to Sugar Mountain, we quickly got cleaned up and celebrated our last full day of training camp with an Italian dinner at Bella’s, an Italian restaurant just down the mountain (we drove). There was beer a-plenty and I found that I was pretty dehydrated after the ride so I made pretty short work of my first two beers. None of us chose the lasagne as three nights in a row was a bit much but everybody ordered the same thing: a Mediterranean pasta made with black olives and artichokes. Very tasty, and with lots of bread we were well-fortified.

Our well-earned dinner at Bella's

Back at the condo, we watched some historical race DVDs but nobody could really stay awake. Ah, the excitement of training camp!


Pedalman said...

Nothing better than climbing a fantastic mountain with good friends followed by a great meal.

Will said...

A pretty epic day.

Great videos, so sorry I wasn't there to help the Badger change tubes.