Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Not the typical "High" for 4/20

When most people think of getting high on 4/20, the end result is not to think about a bicycle ride.  No water purifiers or rolling paper was utilized as a part of the experience!  That said, this year I was invited on a ride to scout the final 30 miles of the Assault on Mount Mitchell, which is where it all starts to become uphill.  

As a recap, the Assault on Mount Mitchell is a cycling event out of Spartanburg, SC.  After riding approximately 75 miles, you reach the base of the Blue Ride Mountains, and start climbing up to the top of Mt Mitchell.  Mitchell happens to be the highest point in the eastern United States, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The goal is not just to conquer the Beast of the East, but to do it after riding through the foothills for several hours.  

For the sake of this ride, I got to experience the trip starting with semi-fresh legs.  I say semi-fresh, because I had gone out Thursday during lunchtime and worked on some climbing on Paris Mountain outside of Greenville, SC, not intending to do any serious climbing for the weekend.  Originally I wanted to do repeats after work, but when the weather looked transitional, I squeezed as much of a ride as possible into my lunch.  Thus I pushed hard up the mountain.  I was then invited by a few folks I had met during the AOMM training series to ride up Mitchell to get a feel for what I'd need for effort after making it to Marion.  

We set out early Saturday morning, and parked just off of Highway 80 in Marion, NC.  After getting the bikes set up, we started up highway 80 towards the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This ended up being a good warm up section, and we kept the pace reasonable.  The obvious goals today for me were to keep my efforts in check, and to get an idea for the pacing and total effort required to enter the chute during the actual event.  I wasn't out to set any personal records at max efforts.

The final 5 miles of Highway 80 contain a decent amount of climbing to them.  Strava rates this segment as a Category 2 level climb, similar in effort to Ceaser's Head.  The overall grade was reasonable, and I didn't really notice any major double digit gradings on my bike computer as we climbed to the top.  There are 2 switchbacks to deal near the end of the climb, but they were very manageable.  The views at this point were pretty, I noticed a really awesome dam as well as a reservoir and fishing communities on the way up.  

At the top is the junction with the BRP, and we took a real short break.  We made the turn onto the parkway, which to me marked the second segment of the ride.  You spend approximately 11 miles riding along the majestic roadway.  I was captivated by the constant view of the surrounding area.  It made the climb go by quickly.   This section has 3 segments of climbing, and 2 small descents.  Again there were no double digit grades to deal with, and here there were no switchbacks.  There are also plenty of pulloffs to stop at to admire the scenery or just catch your breath if needed.

Fantastic views, and a couple of tunnels to ride through

More fantastic views
At last we reached the first major sign of the goal:  The turn off from the parkway to the Mount Mitchell State Park.  

Turning off the Parkway

To me, this is really when the ride started to take a toll.  The hardest part was keeping the goal in mind mentally, and not getting ahead of myself or my intended pace.  Also, at this point I wasn't thinking about the efforts needed at higher altitudes, and we were almost a mile up from sea level.  Strava states that it is approximately 3 miles from the turn off of the parkway to the actual front gate of the state park.  The climb is considered category 3 by Strava, which is similar in effort to Paris Mountain.  The average grade is slightly steeper than the previous efforts, but again no major double digit grunts to deal with.

Are we there yet?
As we entered the gates, the temperature difference from the bottom was getting to be noticeable.  Several folks that we rode past asked "aren't you cold?", to which we shruged and said "not really."  By this point I had unintentionally created a gap between myself and my riding companions, as I was just attempting to keep a steady pace going.  The downside to this was the mental aspect of not quite knowing how much further I had to go, and what efforts I was going to need.  I made the decision to just keep on the main road to the end, as there were no additional markers stating that the summit was on any of the turn offs.  I also decided to not surge or try to push myself as I climbed.  This definitely was a wise choice.

The Summit was in view!
During the trip up, I had noticed that we had seen ice in the shady parts of the parkway, and that the temperatures were definitely chilly.  It wasn't until about halfway up the summit road that I really took notice of the conditions, though.  The smells and sights climbing the summit were outstanding.  The smell of fresh pine, the crisp  air, being able to see out for hundreds of miles, the sky that was so blue that you'd swear God was using PhotoShop that day.  It absolutely took my breath away.  The pine trees also looked different, to which I noticed that they were dusted with frost/snow on the tips.   The difference in climate was definitely something to take note of, as I would have to accommodate for that as a part of my packing for the trip.

I reached the top with no major incidents, although I did end up having a gentleman have words to me.  He attempted to pass me in a blind curve (on the road to the summit, 6700' above sea level) and was unhappy that I wasn't all the way over hugging the shoulder stripe.  I apologized for being in his way, and offered that passing someone in a blind curve is not the best concept on a mountain road.  Shortly after reaching the top the others in my group arrived, and we took a few minutes to admire the scenery and take some pictures.

I wish we could have spent more time up at the Summit, but we were not prepared for the chilly conditions that we encountered.  I quickly pulled the wind vest out of my back pocket that I brought for the descent, and we headed back to the car.  

The trip down was mostly uneventful, and very speedy.  I did learn a few valuable lessons on the way back, though.  The few places where we had small descents on the way up became small climbs on the way back.  After resting on the descents (we were already going speeds fast enough to need to ride our breaks on the way down, so there was absolutely no reason to pedal), putting effort into the climbs was a little tricky.  My stomach wasn't ready to go from zero effort to climbing like that, especially after a long duration climb that I had gone through previously.  The rapid change in altitude I'm sure didn't help that much, either.   Luckily I was keeping this in mind as we went, and I made sure to continue to eat and drink along the way, and take stops every so often.  Likewise I learned that the 3.5 hour grind to the top was near the limit of what my knee was willing to take, and that I need to be careful with it on the actual Assault.  The last thing I want is tendinitis now, or a flare up during the actual event.  I also had to ride my brakes a bit more than I probably should have along the way down as well, and as such I need to spend more time working on my slow descent skills for future events.  This part isn't going to be as big of a deal for the Assault on Mount Mitchell, as once we get to the Summit they truck us and our bikes down separately.  

I'm glad that I got to opportunity to take on Mitchell before heading up there on the Assault.  Knowing what level of effort is going to be required, and keeping that in mind as I'm keeping pace on the way to Marion will be critical during the event.  I don't think we could have picked a better day to do the run, either.  With or without the Assault, Mt Mitchell is on my "must ride" list for anyone that is serious about riding picturesque landscapes.  The efforts are not as demanding as some of the other hard climbs I've done in the past year, but the long term demand of climbing for over 3 hours will definitely take it's toll.  The view was totally worth the effort.

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