After several days of reflection, Welcome to the official RAM Cycling review of our most recent ride: Hincapie Gran Fondo in Traveler’s Rest, SC, just north of pro cycling legend George Hincapie’s hometown of Greenville. Well let’s get right to it. I’ve got some good news, bad news, and indifferent news to report, so what’ll it be first? Okay, as always the case …
The Bad News
We showed up at Greenville on the Hincapie Sportswear property on Friday around 3:30 pm to pick up our pre-registration packets, and found a pretty lengthy line formed, so like everyone else, we got in place and waited. And waited. And waited … at one point, in talking to others in line around us, we wondered if the line was actually moving or if we were just bunching up closer together. Finally, after over an hour in line, upon making it up to the table, we learned that one guy was checking in everyone, one at a time and filling their packet on the spot. Felt sorry for the folks just arriving to get in the line that had more than doubled as we walked off with packets in hand. I hope for their sake, it got smoother.
The parking for the event was about three miles from the ride start point and finish festival at La Bastide, a French country inn and vineyard that is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I understand as a road cyclist, it is my responsibility to be seen by vehicles, however, with a designated start time of 8am, I had only brought my flashing tail light with me and the commute along Highway 11 in the pitch dark was a little scary to say the least. I nearly ran over another cyclist that didn’t have any light on his bike or person at all. If you expect close to a thousand cyclists to commute 3 miles in the dark to the start point, I wish the road would have been closed to vehicles. We were very fortunate that there were no pre-ride incidents on the road.
Upon arriving at La Bastide, there was little direction or assistance on what to do, where to drop off our bags or back packs for after the ride, where to line up, etc. In fact, I was initially told by one volunteer to head one way for the start, when actually the start ended up being in the exact opposite direction. Eventually, someone finally manned the PA system and began to give instructions aloud. This gesture lead to the end of the bad news.
The Good News
At around 8:25 AM the ride began to roll, and the unorganized chaos that had been the introduction to this event was now gone forever because this was the most organized group ride I have ever been on. Starting temps were in the upper 6os and would climb to a warm mid 70s with gentle breezes on parts of the route. I rode the “Gran” (80 mile route), while Tim, aka the Renaissance Man, rode the “Medio” (50 miler).
Every turn was marked with a by sign with arrow as you approached the intersection, then there were color coded arrows placed on the road at the actual point of turn. There was also a traffic marshal, or uniform police officer at every major intersection or turn. SAG (support and gear) vehicles, along with route marshals on motorcycle were ever present performing regular roaming. If anyone missed a turn or got lost, do yourself a favor, don’t tell anyone about it, because there was no reasonable reason for it.
The scenery was explicit! The roads were winding, passing several lakes, rivers, or streams. The views were breathtaking as autumn colors were in full force. Also taking our breath were the numerous climbs. My route boasted a 4.5 miles climb at an average of 8.7% grade around mile 22, followed by a very tough 11.4% average grade climb over 1.4 miles at around mile 35, then another starting on mile 63 for 2.5 miles at 7.5%, while finishing with one last climb up to the finish line. Tim’s route offered some leg burners too with the first climb at 4 miles on average grade of 5.2% around mile 24, then a short but very steep 27.2% quarter mile at mile 29, then later a 7% climb for about a mile at the 41 mile mark, while finishing with the same ending climb into La Bastide! Needless to say, the legs are getting some much needed R & R.
For the competitive cyclist there was an actual race with prizes awarded to top male and top female finishers, as well as an official “King Of The Mountain” contest that awarded top 3 prizes. This segment took place on my first mountain climb. The event advertised some top name celebrity pro road cyclist, and they delivered. 2012 Tour de France “Young Rider Winner” Tejay VanGarderen, 2011 Tour de France “Overall Winner” Cadel Evans, Chris Carmichael, and others joined the ride host, newly retired George Hincapie. At one point on the Medio Course, Renaissance Man said a moto-marshal flew by him and he noticed a lot of riders starting to pull off to the side of the road, so he followed suit. Upon stopping, he says he could feel something coming that sounded similar to a train with no horn. He turned back to find the lead group that consisted of all the pros lead by Cadel and surrounded by a motorcade of security vehicles. Don’t see that on your average group ride.
The Indifferent News
For the first time in my cycling life, I had to stop on a climb. I even had to walk a short portion up to get in a spot where I could safely re-mount and continue climbing. This was very disappointing for me, but after summiting the first climb, a category 1 just miles prior, the grade on the second mountain was too much for my lower back and the legs just couldn’t do it alone. Oh well. As Renaissance says “welcome to the club!”
This was my first ever mass start for a ride of this size, and I must say, it’s a little tricky. Luckily for me, I was not competing for time, so I started in about the middle of an estimated 1300 rider field, and rode very cautiously for the first five miles until it sorted out a bit, then I settled in with a nice group about my same pace (around 15-16 mph overall).
The ride was followed with a finish festival in which numerous of George’s friends and family joined in his retirement celebration. The festival offered a live band, lots of food, snacks, drinks, wine & beer, children’s games, and more! I didn’t get a chance to interview anyone directly after the ride like I try to do usually, but the few comments I got most were: “Very tough and challenging course,” “Very beautiful scenery and awesome weather for late October,” “Toughest non century ride I’ve ever competed!”
Tim and I came up with a wild calculation that there was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.3 million in bicycles that attended the event. Give or take a little, that’s insane. I’m sure George raised a decent amount to donate to the “Meals On Wheels” program, and that’s pretty cool. The custom cycling jersey that came standard with the Gran route registration is awesome, maybe the most comfortable cycling jersey I’ve ever worn. It is made by Hincapie Sportswear, of coarse.
In closing, I do have to recommend this ride to you. Anytime you can get a ride in late October in the 70 degree temps and not have to travel to Florida, it’s a bonus. The mountain top overlooks were absolutely worth the trip up them, even if it meant a little walking. The colors of the trees and leaves rival what you expect to find on an expensive painting. The route security and marking was top notch. Unfortunately the pre-ride chaos was about a D, but the ride and post ride was definitely an A+. Therefore, I will give this overall ride event a B! And I plan to return next year.
For more information regarding this ride or to view info for next year’s Hincapie Gran Fondo, please visit:
Thanks for reading my Review!
*KP the Masher
During this time of reflection in the early off season, I’ve decided to return to Spartanburg next May and attempt my second Assault On Mt. Mitchell! Next time, I intend to bring friends, and the following will include some of my two cents on how to prepare for such a grueling century ride. I know for sure, the 4 guys planning to go with me are capable of making it to the top, assuming they take the proper preparation necessary. Tim, Chuck, Linn, Adam, and I will hopefully receive the official patch that is given to riders upon reaching the summit.
Masher’s five primary principles to success at AOMM are training, nutrition, weight management, mental toughness, gameplan! Training is necessary to complete any century, and definitely a must complete any climb of this magnitude. Some things I will focus on in my training this time around that will be different than my first try: distance, resistance riding, and longer climbs. I rode some steep roads and climbed the toughest hills out my back door but there’s only a few miles that find a grade that hurts on the Mt. Mitchell climb. The toughest part is how long the climb is and how many miles are on your legs when you reach the hard part (not to mention, the ride comes early in the cycling season). My top two recommendations are ride as much resistance on a trainer or stationary bike as possible and complete as many real climbs as you can. No one wants to ride indoors for 3 to 4 hours straight, but unless you live near real mountains, the trainer is the next best way to get a steady resistance spin for the same time frame that you’ll spend climbing Mitchell. I also plan to ride an 85 mile loop that ends climbing Black Mountain (about a 9 mile climb) in southeastern KY in early spring along with a trip to the Smokies to complete a 70 mile ride including a trip to the top of Clingman’s Dome (25 mile climb).
Nutrition and weight management go hand in hand. Obviously, completing a serious climb is much easier the lighter you can be, but it’s important to not lose too much, too quick. For best results, determine what your ideal weight would be and try to establish an eating plan that enables you to lose only a pound or two per week until you get there. Trading fat loss for muscle gain is the best method. I know, muscle weighs more than fat, but lean muscle growth is also the best way to burn fat not needed by your body. Somewhere around mile 98, you’ll need to dig deep and hope you’ve got the strength to get you home. Nutrition on training rides and on the bike on AOMM is very important. Eating healthy meals is only half the plan, if you don’t give your engine the proper fuel on gameday, it can be the difference in stopping at the top or short of it.
Assault On Mt. Mitchell is the most physically challenging ride I’ve ever completed, but if not for a true mental toughness, I have serious doubts that I would have made it. When I rode my first attempt, I had made great strides in my physical fitness level, but I was not at my ideal weight or strength. I often found myself in scenarios where I could have easily stopped and said “enough.” It wears on you when you’re tired and you look down at your bike computer hoping to see speed and distance gains, but find your mph around 4 and tiny distance movement over an hour or so. It’s also very demoralizing to witness others stopped on the side of the road, not sure if they can continue. Or even worse, the cyclists that turn around and head back down the mountain (especially near the top). I never had a doubt in my mind that I would finish, and it was because I mentally prepared for a war, and took on each battle, one revolution at a time. There are many things that can help or hinder your ability to reach the top, and attitude is probably the most important. Stay positive, focus on happy thoughts … this mentality is best learned by training in difficult weather, on difficult roads, and when feeling tired and worn out.
All the training, nutrition, strength training, weight loss, mental and physical prep are vital to your gameplan. Your gameplan is your road map to where you want to be. Want to complete the Assault? You can possibly get there by just taking off and often stopping and asking for directions, but you stand a much better chance of reaching the summit and getting there much more efficiently by following a Game Plan! Design a gameplan for you. Everyone must climb at their own pace in order to be successful, so decide how that road map best suits your needs to get you there, and most importantly: write it down. Make it visual, read it often. I also recommend following the training blog posted on The Assaults webpage by the Spartanburg Freewheelers Cycling Club. I was honored to contribute a few pieces to the page last season, and learned a ton from the info I read by others there.
I’m excited to make the return trip next year … and I’m already way ahead of where I was when I started training for my first attempt. I’m also very excited to take some friends to share in the fun (agony) with me next time. I know how awesome it’ll be to take a group picture at the top! I will be returning with a new challenge at hand. I will either be a climbing coach to Renaissance Man and be by his side as he makes his first attempt, or I’ll be pushing myself to test my limits as I strive to finish the ride in under seven hours overall. My time this year was around 9:20 total. The choice is yet to be determined, but one thing’s for sure: I will reach the top. Again!
Find us on Strava, Twitter, and Facebook … and especially on the road …
Laying on the ground above the parking lot at Mt. Mitchell State Park, too tired to eat the complimentary tomato soup and bread that is offered to riders who complete the century ride “Assault on Mt. Mitchell,” I said to my friend Tim (the Renaissance Man), “if I ever mention coming back to do this ride again, please stop me!” He listens very well (sarcasm). In a matter of days, I will return to Spartanburg, SC to endure the painful fun agony of once again riding in the “Assault on Mt. Mitchell” which finishes atop the highest elevation in the United States, east of the Mississippi River. This time, I’m not the only sucker. Not only did Tim neglect to hold me accountable for MY statement, he’s part of the reason I’m returning! It was a very challenging ride for me a year ago doing my first extended mountain climb of 20+ miles and the finish was an emotional experience. I was honored that he was able to take off work and ride the bus to the top of the mountain to see my finish, and this year, I’ll break my legs to beat him to the top, so I can see the look on his face when he pulls into the finish shoot and rolls past the completion clock.
We aren’t representing the Bluegrass Cycling Club at AOMM alone, we know of at least 7 (BCC) riders total that plan to ride with the Freewheelers of Spartanburg this year. I’m somewhat flattered that many of the riders we know going to do AOMM said they were inspired by the story of my experience last year, and want to endure the challenge themselves. No doubt, they will know they have chosen a challenge about 90 miles into it when you realize it just keeps going up. It’s also a nice feeling to be able to share my ride experience from last year with the cyclists I know going this year … I feel as though I’m helping them be better prepared than I was.
There have been a few rides in my lifetime that I would have said immediately following the finish, “this was the toughest ride I’ve ever done.” However, after having time to recover and reflect on those rides, I believe AOMM is the champion of challenges for me. Some of the runners up were more difficult than should have been, do to my lack of physical fitness at the time or simply poor preparation in the days prior to each ride. Truth is, I was in good shape and had ideal weather last year, and doubt I would have finished otherwise.
I’m methodical, structured, and I’m always setting goals. Whether it’s a club ride, solo training ride, century ride … doesn’t matter, I like to have a plan in place and not stop short of achievement. Last year’s goal for AOMM was to finish. Actually, I hoped to finish with “gas left in the tank.” I achieved that, and have set my 2014 goal a little more lofty. The ride is beautiful enough (and I don’t get the fortune to ride in awesome mountains very often) that I refuse to set a goal of a race style pace that will not allow me to enjoy the ride, the scenery, the cyclists, and the wonderful volunteers. I have set a goal to shave off nearly an hour of time on the mountain climb segment from what I achieved last year. This simply means I intend to push myself harder on the climb and not take as long at the refuel stops. From the training I’ve done, I anticipate some friendly help on achieving this goal from Linn and Gene who will help me push my pace. I also hope to get further along the route before I make my first stop this year. Last year, I pulled out of the pack around mile forty for a restroom break, I’d love to stay in that pack as long as possible this time around.
So, how’s my hype? Well, honestly, I’m not really hype at all this year. I definitely had some anxiety and excitement leading up to last year’s event, but this year I feel pretty calm. I am a stronger climber and much more confident cyclist now, than I’ve ever been in my life and I certainly attribute much of that success to my AOMM 2013 achievement. I have been pushing myself to become the cyclist I now am because of that summit a year ago, and I’m more thrilled and excited for the experience that my friends are about to have. One thing I am hyped about (because I love ice cream) is that when I tried to lure Gene into a racing bet, and he graciously stated “if I get to the top, I’ll buy everyone (in our group) dessert!” Trust me folks, he’s going to the top. So is Linn, Tim, myself and all the other Bluegrass Cycling Club riders I know going.
Stay tuned for our group photo near 7000 feet up. And as always, you will be able to see the details of the route and our ride on our RAM Cycling Strava activities section.
Okay, so I’m not a seasoned Assault vet, but I managed to achieve success in my first attempt at Assault on Mt. Mitchell, and here’s a few ideas that I believe contributed to my triumph and can hopefully be helpful to you, as well. Good luck to all the riders this year and have a safe, fun, and successful trip up!
10. Set up your bike and equipment early on Sunday. Check your bike over thoroughly, ensure everything is situated from the transport to Spartanburg. Lay out your kit, gloves, helmet, any nutrition/energy you plan to carry and anything else that will be on you or the bike. It’s much easier to rest knowing you won’t worry about forgetting something first thing in the morning.
9. Get proper rest. It’s a long day that starts early and ends late by the time you complete the century ride to the top, then wait to be transported back down the mountain and by the time you retrieve your bike and return to Spartanburg, you will need all the rest you can get.
8. Eat properly before and during the event. It’s very important to eat healthy before the ride and avoid junk food. Your performance will be a genuine reflection of how well you properly fuel up before the ride. It’s also very important to ensure you replenish the calories you are burning along the way, especially since your hardest effort will be the last 25 miles. It is very hard to compensate for bonking during this section of the ride.
7. Thank the volunteers early and often. This event takes a lot of planning and logistics to provide us, the riders an awesome experience and wonderful challenge. The support of the volunteers is great, so please tell them thank you, when you can.
6. Be mentally tough! By this time, you cannot do much, if anything to improve your physical preparedness, but it is very important to focus your mind on the task at hand. Some say this event is more mentally than physically challenging, set your mind to stop nowhere short of the top and it shall take you there.
5. Have a goal and push hard to achieve it. Whether you’re goal is to simply make it to the top, or make it in less than 5 hours, stay focused and push yourself to accomplish the goal you set.
4. Ride within yourself. The ride has a mass start for both Marion and Mt. Mitchell riders, so it’s easy to find a pack or group that fits your pace and ride with them, taking turns pulling and drafting to save energy. However, don’t get caught up trying to ride with or pull a group that is faster than you, it will only hurt you later in the day and remember that everyone climbs at their own pace. Don’t attempt to go too hard too early, or you may find yourself walking or worse, getting picked up.
3. Be very cautious at the start of this ride! The first 5-10 miles is total chaos. You will see dropped chains, flat tires, crashes, loose water bottles in the road, and you will get tired of hearing “slowing.” But it is very important to be very alert and communicate to others riding around you during this start segment. Also, there will be traffic, as it is Monday and some folks are on their way to work. The first ten miles won’t make you’re day, but it can break it.
2. Have fun and be safe. This may sound redundant, but safety is paramount, not only in the start, but throughout. There will be some traffic on the climb as well. Remember to keep a positive attitude if you have to deal with a mechanical issue or personal issue such as cramping, tired-ness, bonking, etc. and if you don’t mind, it won’t matter. Keep moving forward, it’s the only way to the top.
1. Masher’s #1 tip has to be respect the mountain. This is a lesson I’ve learned more than once, the hard way. Most recently, on a training ride up Clingmans Dome in Tennessee with a few friends. If you ignore any one of the previous nine tips, you can still over-compensate another area and be effective, however, if you choose to not respect the mountain, it will be a mistake. Be prepared for anything once the climbing begins! The weather difference from Marion to the top of Mitchell can potentially be daylight and dark in contrast. Don’t take the mountain for granted and don’t underestimate the challenge it will present for you.
I hope some of you can find these tips useful to help you focus and achieve success at the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. Obviously, the main points are stay focused, stay positive, stay on your bike moving forward, and believe you will see the summit. When you do reach the top, be proud of your success, it is one of the toughest rides in the eastern and southeastern United States, not too many cyclists will ever even try it! Tweet us a picture of you at the top of Mt. Mitchell and tag @RAMCycling with #AOMMSummit and we’ll retweet it! Good luck, have fun, be safe, and enjoy the view at the top!
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