The Assault on Mt. Mitchell is considered one of the hardest century bike rides in America. This unique point-to-point race takes you from Spartanburg, S.C., to the top of Mt. Mitchell (just north of Ashville, N.C.) climbing nearly 11,000 feet over the course of 104 miles. Of course, the real killer is the fact that the road rises exponentially as you go… meaning the first 75 miles took us 4.5 hours and the last 30 miles took us another 3.5 hours due to the unending elevation gain.
As it happened, neither Karen nor I ever really considered doing this ride until three months ago when a friend mentioned it. Given that both of us had just finished racing two marathons in the space of two months (hitting our Boston times in both), our legs were already pretty strong. We started cycling like crazy to bump up our endurance as we were warned this race would take all day.
It is surprising how quickly your legs can transition from the run to the bike. We both went from riding around 50-100 miles a week to reaching 250-300 miles a week in the space of two months. Granted, our running volume went down and our swimming became non-existent (you do only have 24 hours in a day), but the rides were fantastic. We explored all over north Florida from the beach to the Alabama state line – and climbed every hill we could find, repeatedly.
Race day dawned perfect. Not too cool, hardly any wind, sunshine… the first 75 miles were a cyclists dream. We passed beautiful towns, mountain vistas, lakes and waterfalls. It was gorgeous.
The last 30 miles were tough to say the least. At mile 80 of the ride we hit a 5 mile section of switchbacks up a mountain with an average grade of 8-11% with no relief. It was grueling. Beyond that, the ride continued skyward with average grades of 7-9% until the end. We both geared down until we ran out of gears (which took about two seconds) and then slowed our cadence to help control our power output and heart rate.
We had trained watching our power on climbs and into headwinds, noting that when we hit power outputs close to 80% or more of our FTP, we really drained ourselves. Our goal, therefore, was to keep our power closer to 75% on the climbs. It was a good strategy. Although both of us were pretty tired by the end, we never ended up walking and we stayed strong until we crossed the finish line.
The result: we finished together in the top half of all the riders (of which 80% is male) and in the top 20% of all women. We were happy, tired and ready to celebrate.
We both loved the ride and strongly recommend it to anyone – even if you live in pancake flat Florida. It just goes to show you that the right training plan – thanks to Coach Karen – and a will to get to the top will take you anywhere.