Earlier this year, I completed what some call “the toughest ride in the southeast’ when I rode Assault On Mt. Mitchell. I was first inspired to attempt it by friend Jim Simes who has ridden it multiple times and told me what a challenge it was, then I made the decision to do it after a trip to the Blue Ridge foothills last October to ride in Gran Fondo Hincapie. That ride had epic climbs and world class descents. Sounds crazy but I enjoyed the climbing much more than the descending, and have since, found my new passion in cycling: endurance climbs.
My first thoughts about riding up Black Mountain, the highest elevation in my home bluegrass state of Kentucky, came after another friend, Aaron West, told me about his quest to cycle to the highest point in each of the 48 continental states, and asked if I’d be interested in joining him in my state. I very vaguely remember visiting Black Mountain in rural southeastern “coal country” KY as a youngster when my family traveled to see my sister play a basketball tournament in Harlan, KY. All I could recall, was that the view at the top was in the clouds and stunningly beautiful. Those recollections proved accurate.
I recently became more serious about doing this ride myself when I made the decision with the current season winding down and I’ve already decided I’m going back to Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, and attempting my second Assault in 2014. I want to be better prepared for such a grueling climb next time, and going up Black Mtn seemed like good training to me. I have invited numerous friends to join me at AOMM next year and I hope to offer them tips and help prep them for the toughest ride I’ve ever completed.
Initially, I thought I would first ride Black Mountain alone, as a recon mission, before taking my friends back on a training ride, but at the recommendation from my wife, I decided not to go it alone first time. Pretty smart idea actually, considering I would be 2-3 hours from home, maybe no phone service, and on roads I’ve never ridden. So I asked the first person that had mentioned interest in riding up Mt. Mitchell next year, my friend and local strava nemesis, Chuck Allran. It worked out good because we are pretty evenly matched in skill level and climbing ability. So we decided a Sunday would be our best chance of wasting a day on the bike and hoped there would be less traffic and no coal trucks to deal with. The weather could have been an issue, considering the mountain experienced it’s first snow of the season last Friday, but it proved not to be, other than becoming numb from the freezing cold descent after breaking a good sweat on the way up.
Our plan was to depart from Harlan towards Cumberland, then through the base town of Lynch on our way to the top. Upon reaching the summit, we hoped to ride a challenging road across the ridge and then back down into Harlan on a state highway. The road to Lynch was awesome! It was basically the old road that ran along side a railroad track, a river, and on the side of a hill, just above the newer, more busy highway. Lined along both sides about every five miles were freshly placed high visibility yellow “Share The Road” signs with bicycles. We instantly knew we weren’t the first crazies to have this idea. We were only passed on few occasions by vehicles, and when we were, they did so in a very safe manner, moving their vehicle completely to the other side of the double yellow line and never speeding or passing in a blind spot. Southern hospitality at it’s best!
We cruised through Cumberland, crossed the river twice, then rolled through the streets of Lynch, where we were greeted by a pleasant gentleman as the climbing began: “don’t get a speeding ticket,” he said laughing as he smoked a cigarette on his front porch. About two miles up, I was gaining some separation from Chuck when he called out he was getting hot. We both stopped for a moment to open our jackets and shed our head covers, to keep from overheating. Then we continued the grind. I felt strong at this point and quickly found myself in a good rhythm, as I would occasionally come out of the saddle briefly, and kept on mashing at a comfortable pace. The road wound around the side and turned back against itself sometimes, giving us that spectacular view of the portion we had already conquered. The colors of the reds, oranges, and tons of yellow maples out over the edge of the mountain were simply prettier than I could have imagined possible. I was passed only twice by vehicles going up and four times by drivers coming down. I continued to look over the edge and up the road, sitting and standing, feeling the challenge of the climb, but never a thought of stopping due to suffering. I noticed a large road sign up ahead that was pointed the wrong way and as I pulled up to it and looked back, it was a “Welcome To Kentucky” sign, and immediately I reached the summit crossing and pulled up along side the “Welcome To Virginia” sign and stopped to enjoy the view, and wait on Chuck. He arrived moments later and we took a few minutes to rest and snap some pictures.
The Black Mtn Ridge Rd. turned out to be a rugged path, mostly of broken pavement, dirt and gravel. After about a mile of slipping and sliding at a snail’s pace in anticipation of any form of solid pavement, we changed to plan from a loop to an out & back ride. Still holding moisture from the work we did to get to the top, we buttoned back up, and headed back down. Cautious of loose leaves and twigs, and losing feeling in our extremities and face, we barreled down the mountain, at speeds from 20 to 35 mph, navigating the twists and turns all the way to the bottom. It felt good to be able to spin freely again and attempt to regain some warmth in our frozen bodies as we headed back into Lynch and then Cumberland. Stopped briefly at a gas station, in hopes of a cup of coffee, but found none, so continued back down the road that brought us there.
Nearly 70 miles and five hours after departing Harlan, in search of the highest peak in the state of Kentucky, we arrived back at our vehicle parked outside at Huff Park youth league baseball complex. The sun shone brightly as we transformed from our cycling gear and loaded up to head back home. All the way back, conversation was about how blown away we were by the beauty and bike friendliness of the area we had just visited, plans to bring others back with us again soon, more prep plans for AOMM 2014, and how we wished Black Mountain was a lot closer to home. It was a twelve hour trip, that was well worth the time!
Cheers & Safe Cycling! . . .