Fall 2014 Marion to Mitchell Tour (last half of AOMM route)

Ever since Assault on Marion in May I have had AOMM 2015 on my mind … wondering what the rest of the ride would look like when I went up against the real thing next year. There are bits and pieces of info across the interwebs about what to expect for the ride, but I decided the best way to get a look at it was – to get a look at it.

A few times this summer I had planned to ride from Marion to Mitchell, but finally the stars aligned and I met up with a couple buds for the last weekend in September to make the climb. At the same time, I decided to do my best to chronicle the route and “de-mystify it” for anyone wondering the same thing.

Strava link to the total ride

An early morning start from home got us to Tom Johnson Campground a little before 9. The nice folks at the Café let us park there and use the restrooms before we hit the road. The Campground is in a beautiful setting and the bathroom facilities are super clean. Definitely a worthy spot for anyone looking to come to the area and RV camp. I know it’s on our list for a visit to the area.

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Getting our bikes ready to go …

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The first part of Hwy 80 starts out flat and when you reach the shoreline of Lake Tahoma there are a few rollers . Nice to see some “Share the Road” signs out here.

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Then what looked like a building out in the middle of the lake?  This would be the “Casino” building.  More history here…

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The route soon gives you hints of what’s to come on the Parkway, with rock faces and the like alongside the road.

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We took a break at the church (forgot to get the name – still trying to figure that out), which is traditionally Rest Stop #6 on AOM.   Very picturesque and a small creek running by. Say a prayer here because the real climbing starts soon!

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One more straight and semi-flat stretch and then…

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The climbing starts. The good news is that it is generally a constant grade, about 6% from what I saw by looking at elevation charts. (Example from Strava here).  The bad news is that it keeps going and going. That will be a theme for this trip – going and going.

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Lots of twists and turns on the way up, including the famous switchbacks as well.

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Finally the Parkway is in sight. I was still feeling good at this point. When I examined this route a few nights before, I estimated that the 80 climb was roughly the same as repeating Paris Mountain three or four times. So that much felt within reach, and the ride confirmed it for me. However … the most I’d ever repeated Paris was five times, so after this was certainly a question mark!

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We took a break again at the traditional site of Rest Stop #7, the overlook on 80 just before the Parkway.

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Setting our sights on the next hurdle, the Parkway to NC 128.

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Usually when you see a sign for your goal being only 16 miles away, it doesn’t seem that far. For most mere mortal cyclists, that would be about an hour ride, give or take. But you’re in the time / space warp of climbing to Mitchell and everything is on a much different scale up here!

The grades on the Parkway are very similar to 80, about 6% once again – with some “breaks.”  (Here’s one example of the Parkway segment). One bit of good advice I was given was to use the Parkway for recovery, as NC 128 will force you to work for that final push.

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Tunnels up ahead. Make sure you have lights!

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Absolutely stupendous views up here. As we took a quick break I realized I hadn’t been up on the Parkway in at least a year, and that I had never been on my bike up here. Ever. The experience started to bring back memories of when busywife and I motorcycle toured the area many, many times together.   The weather was perfect, with morning fog on the mountains clearing up and sunshine lighting up the peaks and valleys. Very thankful that I had the ability to ride this route and was in enough shape to enjoy it at the same time.

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Somewhere in here was a short descent. It makes you happy that you get a break, but then makes you a bit perturbed that you have to climb back out of it!

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Getting closer, Mt. Mitchell in sight.

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Lots of busy bees on these flowers!

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Corvette sighting, one of many sports cars and motorcycles out enjoying the Saturday and taste of Fall weather.

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This is how I spent most of the time climbing. HR just below threshold and trying to stay above 6mph. Not very fast! At this point I had slowly dropped behind the two guys I had been keeping up with, which I figured would happen. I was able to hang with them up Hwy 80 but my HR was much higher than theirs for the same effort … eventually I knew the elevation would get me.

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Then a welcome sight that the turn for the park was ahead.

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And then the last section, up NC 128 to the park.

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Stay below 25mph. I’ll try. (Coming back down was a different story)

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Still with these guys…

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And then not so much. Steep winding road – I would redo the sign and say STEEP ROAD (which does some winding)

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From the beginning of NC 128 to the park gate (Strava example) you’re hit with more grade than you’d seen on either Hwy 80 or on the Parkway leading up to this point.  Right before the gate you get into double digits!  In addition to all that you have to deal with the elevation. I found myself having to drop my cadence to keep my HR in check, and to be very careful and smooth with my pedal stroke to keep my HR from spiking as well. Still – remember the 11-32 cassette I went to a few weeks ago? I refused to drop into that last gear and keep it up in 34/28 all the way. I needed to know that when I came up here again for the real deal that I would have some reserve.

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Another sign – another time/space warp. How many miles!?

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The gate is in sight, and some relief. After the gate you get a break of a false flat before the final turns to the summit parking lot.

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One more push to the summit. This guy on a mountain bike passed us on the way up – apparently he had taken the “toll road” (dirt trails) from Montreat up to the Parkway just a short distance away. Big thumbs up to fat tire guy for making the climb!

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Two miles to the summit. Just two miles. (Mind games – two miles of steep? How much longer is this flat?)

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The restaurant is on the right. Some soup would be great really soon. Must – keep – going …

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What’s after this turn?

I’ll tell you. More climbing starts with more turns. Anywhere else off the mountain this would just be a blip over the course of a long ride through the country. Here, it’s tough.  About a mile of more 6% grades.  You know it’s not far, but my gosh, when will I see the parking lot?

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Finally … you see it. One final turn…

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And the site of the AOM finish. For the main event, this is where the “chute” is along with the big clock and the nice friendly people ready to take your bike and point you to the Tomato Soup. Don’t forget your dry bag. You’ll find a change of clothes very handy after the work you’ve just accomplished!

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Finally I catch up to the rest of the guys at the elevation sign in the parking lot. Made it over a mile up!

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Our hardy group at the top:

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A quick rest, bottle fill up, enjoying the view a bit – and down the mountain we go. An extended climb makes for one magnificent descent. Except there was about 2 miles where you had to climb a bit (remember the 2 mile descent on the way to the mountain?)

Notable fun descents:

The drop from the summit back to the Parkway

Blasting down the twisty section of 80 from the Parkway

I’m nowhere near anyone on climbing but nice to see that I have some skillz for the descents 🙂

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We caught up with some trucks on the way back to 80. Always pretty cool to catch up with people on nothing more than a bicycle.

Before you know it, you’re at Hwy 80 ready for the last descent. This was my absolute favorite part of the whole ride. Smooth pavement, no traffic and lots of turns. Totally reminded me of the motorcycle days, except now gravity was my throttle and the only noise was the wind.

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Past the church and Lake Tahoma and we formed a paceline on the straight before reaching US 70

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A weak sprint for the stoplight…

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And we finally make it back to Tom Johnson Café.

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Very tired, dead legs but what an invigorating ride!

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Perfect weather for a great ride!  Many thanks for a safe ride and to my buddies for sticking with me.

Psalms 100:4-5 KJV

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

I learned quite a few things about myself and the route today. I have a better understanding of what you’re up against and can now visualize AOM in bite size sections. I also have confidence that while I could complete the ride with my current level of fitness, after some thought I’ve come up with 3 goals before the ride next year:

1) Drop 10 lbs of fat. Stretch goal: 20 lbs. The trick to losing weight is to drop off the fat and keep the muscle. I’ve got a good program for that, more later. You really feel your excess holding you back on climbs and this makes me want to work on this over the winter. Remember, there are two parts to the power/weight equation.

2) Strengthen my core. My back complains on climbs, and it was giving me a little trouble on Marion this past may. It would be terrible to DNF next year because my back has had enough. This is a must do and will be helped with the fat loss.

3) Ride a climbing century in the Spring well before AOM. I’ve never been beyond 100 miles. I should see that before AOM and to see if my game plan is working.

Otherwise, for AOM training in 2015 I’ll follow a similar plan to Chris Carmichael’s Time Crunched Cyclist training that I successfully used pre-Marion this year.

More to come!

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