23rd Assault on Mt. Mitchell
By Rick Offerman

May 16,1998 was the 23rd annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell. This is considered the toughest century ride in the eastern United States. The ride begins in Spartanburg, SC and finishes at the summit of Mt. Mitchell, NC at 6680 feet. The ride is 102 miles but the difficult aspect of the ride is that there are 11,000 feet of vertical climb in the ride.

This year was a tough year to train for Mt. Mitchell. There was a lot of wet weather in April which canceled much of the mountain training that is needed for doing well at Mitchell. Nonetheless, 1296 riders were on hand at the mass start at 6:30 a.m. The skies were hazy and the temperature was in the mid-60's. Perfect weather as no jackets, winter gloves or tights were needed. The weather would prove to be too much for some as the heat took its toll on riders on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The pace was very fast and I found myself off the back of the main peloton at 35 miles. I caught up with the big group at the base of Bill’s Hill at 40 miles but got dropped again and had to make do with small groups for the rest of the day. I finished out the rest of the ride with a rider from Maryland named Glen. He and I played catch-up all day and made the rest stop in Marion, NC in 3:24, only 10-15 minutes behind the main group.

After Bill’s Hill there was a break by about 40 riders who got away from the main peloton of 200 or so riders. A motorcycle led the smaller pack but the large peloton had to rely on road markings. At 66 miles the course makes a left turn. The lead pack of 40 made the turn but the main peloton missed it completely!! They rode several miles down the road before turning back. Hal Range of Jonesborough made the turn and suddenly found himself and about 20 others riding alone. Thinking the main peloton was ahead of them they began to chase even faster thinking they were losing ground. Suddenly from behind them, the main peloton appeared and engulfed their group. So much for a breakaway win. I imagine it was quite a sight seeing 200 bicyclists frantically scrambling to turn around in the middle of the road when they realized that they had missed a turn.

 How fast was the race? The winning time was 5 hours and 11 minutes by Chris Harkey. George Hincapie of the US Postal Service professional team finished 13th! Of the 900 riders who headed for the top, only 715 finished.

Local riders included Hal Range of Jonesborough who finished in a time of 6:04 at 79th place. Rick Offerman tallied a 6:21 finish time (122nd) while Paul Hayes of Johnson City completed the distance in 6:32 (157th). David Sutton finished in 6:52 for 208th place. Larry Peck rode a 6:57 for 221st place, Dwayne Letterman rode a 7:04 for 237th and Tom McCurry rode an 8:21 for 414th place. Michelle Caveness of Kingsport finished at 8:30 (434th) in her first ride of Mt. Mitchell.

The most often heard line of the day: "Hey anybody wanna buy a bike?"

The best line of the day: "There are no atheists on Mt. Mitchell."

Most noticeable high-end equipment: Mavic’s Helium wheels. Red hubs and straight-pull spokes abounded. If you didn’t have trick wheels you might as well have not shown up.

Most amazing rider: A lone rider on a tandem riding the entire course. Two rumors abounded. One was that his stoker had not materialized and he decided to go it alone. The other is that the guy is training for RAAM and he rode without a partner because he needed the extra work! Either way, he got a thunderous ovation at the finish for a ride time in the 7:30 range. My hat’s off to you Clark Kent.

As always, the Assault on Mt. Mitchell provided a challenge for even the strongest riders. My advice if you want to ride Mitchell is to train hard and borrow Marco Pantani’s legs and lungs on race day.