Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mt Mitchell

The gloomiest of forecasts held true for today. We awoke to steady rain. Radar showed little hope for a dry ride in the Asheville area. As I said in yesterday's post, today was do or die for a Mt Mitchell assault. I had really hoped for an epic today, including a 2500ft dirt road climb and a loop with more climbing through a town called Little Switzerland. Brett has lower threshold to lousy weather riding than I do, so if I wanted riding company, a minimal Mt Mitchell ride would have to do.

It poured the whole drive over to Marion, a town 40 minutes east of Asheville. We parked just north of Marion at about 1200ft, which is about 1000ft lower than our hotel in Asheville. The net gain to the summit should be over 5400ft, if indeed this beast is the tallest thing this side of the Rockies.

Kitting up in pouring rain sucks. Knowing you will be out in the stuff 4+ hours sucks even more. At least the climbing starts right away. It was fairly mild too, so at least we didn't need any extra layers on. I wore a hi-viz shell to avoid getting tagged on the short bit of Rt 70 we took to start the climb.

On this Sunday morning, traffic was very light on Rt 80 heading towards the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). A car every few minutes or so was it. The climbing is very gradual for the first several miles. The road follows a trout stream. Very scenic.

Summit portion of climb.

About 10 miles into the ride, we finally get to the real climbing. Rt 80 kicks up with a vengeance, maybe 8-10% grade for the last 3.5 miles or so. Brett said he wasn't doing any intervals this ride. Guess I had to then. After yesterday's sub-5000ft recovery ride, my legs had a little spunk to them. I drilled the last 1500ft or so of Rt 80 approaching the BRP. I figure I held something like 340W for 20 minutes, less than Mt Ascutney race pace, but hard considering this was the fourth day riding in big mountains. My legs were seered by the time I hit the BRP. Going to be a short ride due to weather, so might as well go for non-dubious training value, right?

Rt 80 switchbacks up to BRP.

The rain had pretty much tapered off at this point. The sun was trying to poke through. Weather was looking positive. We had no idea if thunderstorms were back-filling this micro-hole in the gloom.

The climbing continues at a brisk pace heading south on the BRP. Eventually it tops out, rolls a bit, then you get a big descent. These kinds of descents are morally destructive. You hadn't reached the summit yet, so you know you have to earn that lost vertical back a second time. Coming back, I think this divot registered 450ft. Anyway, after this dip, it was all up to the summit, something like another 8 miles. The road was drying in places, and holes opened in the clouds to reveal that we were in between layers of clouds.

From around 3500ft on BRP looking south early in ride.

We finally see a sign that the BRP is closed in one mile. That must mean the Mt Mitchell summit road is less than one mile away. Yesterday we biked up the BRP to the closure from the other side. I stopped to eat some Clif Bloks, and Brett came hammering by. Apparently he got a second wind. I didn't know at the time he was starting an interval. Yesterday I said I would hide his PowerTap. I forgot to.

My legs were not feeling so great anymore after the threshold effort earlier. I still thought I'd catch Brett before the summit, since it was still several miles at moderately steep grade. Nope. I kept seeing tire tracks on the dry bits of pavement between wet patches. We hadn't seen another cyclist yet on this ride. As we passed 6000ft elevation, the temperature plummeted and the wind kicked up something fierce. I was still in short sleeves but barely maintaining core body heat working hard. Brett reached the summit parking area before I caught him. I hit the summit parking lot in 2:29 riding time. We soft pedaled the first 10 miles or so until the climbing got steep. The parking area is still 100-200ft shy of the summit. A paved path goes there but was clearly marked foot traffic only. I think the guy at the open-air shop told Brett we had to walk our bikes up. I did. I was not going to miss it just because I couldn't ride to it.

Twin Tunnels on BRP.

There was no view from the platform at 6684ft. Fleeting instances revealed the summit road a few hundred feet below, but that was it. It was so windy you had to hold on. Temp was probably around 50F. It felt very much like the summit of Mt Washington. Globs of cloud came whizzing by at something like 60mph. Pretty cool if it wasn't for the fact we were freezing.

The gift shop was heated. We got some hot cocoa. I picked Cathy up something special. Additional weight would help me out now, right? Glad I had a dry heavy weight jersey and wind shell to put on. Could have used full finger gloves and knee warmers too, like Brett brought along. I asked if any other cyclists had been up yet today. Nope. The woman said earlier in the morning it was pouring buckets. So I guess in a way, we really lucked out. Thus far the rain early in the ride was inconsequential, and it looked like we could begin the descent on semi-dry roads and no rain.

Brett around 4500ft on BRP.

The first 1200ft of plummet sucked. Some really dense clouds moved in. We couldn't see more than 100ft at times. On a good day, I'm sure you could rip 40+mph down the state park road. Today anything much over 30mph was fear of death. I kept thinking about the deer we saw earlier. You'd never be able to stop in time if one of these were standing in the road. Brett was totally shivering by the time we got down to the BRP. Even though I had more exposed skin, I think the dry thermal layer I hauled up paid off.


At least it was noticeably warmer already at this elevation, around 5400ft. Continuing the descent on the BRP, we were in and out of the clouds. My glasses were useless. I was blind without them and blind in the fog anyway. More heavy braking was required on what probably would be wide open bombing on a clear, dry day. We get to the divot where we dropped 450ft early. This meant we had to climb now. My legs completely forgot how to perform this function. That had to be the slowest 450ft I climbed in a while. But once over that, it was nearly all downhill back to the cars.

Fleeting instant of view below from summit.

Getting down to junction with Rt 80, we were out of the clouds for good. The first 3-4 miles down Rt 80 were going to be a real hoot. Pavement was still very wet here, maybe the rain stopped here only short while ago. There were probably over 100 turns to be navigated at 8-10% grade. Wicked fun. It would be wickedly funner if dry. Eventually Rt 80 levels out and the ride is about over. Brett had no interest in adding the Little Switzerland option, and having tenderized my legs on this ride, I had my fill of vertical for the day too.

Summit of Mt Mitchell with clouds from BRP.

So there you have it. Doubting Nor'Easterners doubt no more. My GPS said summit of Mt Mitchell was 6679ft above sea level. This is nearly 400ft higher than summit of Mt Washington. This is a remarkable climb, but so was Clingman's Dome and Roan Mountain, also both over 6000ft.

I finished the ride with 3hrs, 52min riding time. Total climbing was 7021ft. Distance was 60.1 miles, which included a tad of looping back or through scenic vista lots. Brett was quite happy with the training value of this ride, so I guess it wasn't dubious. I was happy to hit this climb even though making an epic out of it didn't work out today. So for this trip, we hit two state high points. Brasstown Bald will have to wait for another trip. We fly back Monday. Hope to get short ride in early before boxing the bikes up, but only if it is not raining. More heavy squalls have moved through this afternoon since finishing our ride. They really need the rain here, so not all bad. Brett is taking his coach, Andy Applegate, out for dinner tonight. Ought to be interesting.

Spooky looking entrance to Twin Tunnels on way back down.

For Thom P.


Dave said...

Sweet...if the weather had been better I might have made the road trip there. If next weekend works there is a little 6.75mile-2500+ foot ride a guy named Jeremy Bishop just did in 32 min I wanna try. I knew there had to be something harder to ride in VA then Skyline Drive.

rick is! said...

Little switzerland is a nice little place. I went to a wedding there before my riding days. I look back on it now and realize how sweet the riding must be.

Big Bikes said...

It does exist!
And you are hardcore man.