I stopped briefly at the intersection of Hwy 80 and Blue Ridge Parkway along the eastern continental divide, and refilled both water bottles, adding Skratch Labs hydration mix to one. I then saddled back up and thanked the park rangers as I pedaled up onto the beautiful BRP. Thoughts running through my mind include hopes that the grade lightens up from the hard work I had just put in on Hwy 80 leaving Marion, NC headed to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. I pass through two spectacular rock wall tunnels and catch a quick breather on a short descent. As the pavement once again turns up, I witness two female cyclists up ahead, and hear two males coming up from behind. There are no quick passes on this part of the ride. Eventually, the guys catch me about the same time I catch the gals, and we all leap frog each other. I offer greetings to all, and soon we are all separated again.
On down the road, after many more climbing miles, I find another descent, this one much longer and extremely fast and frigid cold. Shortly after beginning to climb again I was passed by a female who softly said “only 8 more miles.” Last year my goal was simply to finish and I preached to myself, “if I don’t mind, it don’t matter.” This year my goal was to ride the mountain segment in at least an hour less time than last year, a goal that may seem unrealistic to some, but one that I took full aim at to conquer. I held her wheel after she pulled in front of me for a mile or so and she finally managed to pull away. This year was not about mind or matter, it was about truly testing myself, and when you find yourself pedaling a low cadence with no gears left for miles at a time, you come across some testy moments.
Why do we feel the need to do this to ourselves? I’m not built to be a climber, why don’t I stick to rides that favor my strong suits? Why drive six hours from home to put myself through this agony when I have a hometown century ride later in the week? Why, why, why …? And as simple as the questions arise, so too is the answer simple: because I can! And with that answer, I continue to push the pedals forward, with no stopping. I would enter the Mt. Mitchell State Park in under seven hours total time and had an emotional feeling hit me as I finally endured the first 3 miles of the park entrance road, the toughest section of pavement on this 103 mile trek from Spartanburg, SC to the top of Mt. Mitchell. As the grade became less, I shifted the chain onto the big ring and stood out of the saddle, and took off as if I was in a county line sprint. Soon, I made the final turn, and was all smiles as I crossed the finish line, and I was more than ready to get off my bike.
I hung out at the finish line area waiting to see my Bluegrass Cycling Club friends, who made the journey from Lexington and Georgetown, KY to the Assaults. I looked out over the mountain in every direction in awesome wonder at the beauty beneath us. I wondered what it must be like to be a bird and be able to fly over this immaculate area and witness the art of God’s canvas we call mother nature. It is simply stunning, only an experience you can truly appreciate by seeing for yourself in person.
Not long after I finished, I saw Jack Daniel from South Carolina come across the line (I had met him here last year when I started the ride with Aaron West, a local cyclist and excellent blogger). The finish was emotional for him too, and I could see he was also glad to be off the bike. It was nice to see him and converse for a few moments until my guys started coming in, one at a time.
I was very calm and not anxious at all leading up to the ride this year. I came along with 8 other cyclists from the central Kentucky area, and I was the only one who had done the ride before. We picked up our packets on Sunday and fueled up for the ride at Mellow Mushroom in Spartanburg. I had salad, a calzone, and water, with a Michelob Ultra later at the hotel. We all met around 5:45 am and rode our bikes 3 miles to the start point. The first part of the ride was again nerve-racking as I maneuvered my way through the pack and settled into a nice group riding along around 22 mph average until the climbing began with mileage in the forties. Finally, climbing up Bill’s Hill, our pack was split up. I continued to ride strong into Marion and felt fresh and energized as the real climbing began with about twenty miles to go.
I felt pretty good about my training plan for the event after my rookie year, and I think it paid off as I took nearly two hours time off my ride from last year. My stats last year were 9:20 total time for the event, with around 8 hours riding time and 3 hours, 57 minutes on the mountain segment. This year I had 7:35 total time, 7:07 riding time and rode the mountain segment in 2:49, achieving my goal. Again, at the top, I told my friends I was not interested in doing this ride ever again and most of them agreed. Having said that, my goal for next year will be to break seven hours total time. I’ve got a year to talk myself out of it, but I’ll probably spend that time training for it instead!
KP the masher