The Assault on Marion and the Assault on Mt. Mitchell challenge cyclists by both the distance of the events and the routes themselves. Along with training for fitness and cycling skills, participants in these events can benefit from knowing the courses and preparing specifically for key points along the routes.
Assaults @ Strava http://app.strava.com/segments/632878
The Start: The beginning of all mass-start large fields is always a key moment for riders. First, all riders should position themselves appropriately. The front 200-300 riders will start fast, and riders not capable of or interested in finishing within the 5 to 6 hour range can either get burned out keeping up (in 2010, the front pack completed the first 50 miles in 2 hours, averaging 25 mph over a challenging course) or create dangerous situations by riding more slowly than the front pack. At the start as well, all riders should be skilled at starting smoothly—holding your line, clipping into your pedals quickly (without looking down).
The first few miles of the Assaults include rollers, creating the accordion effect (the middle and back of the large pack quickly collapses toward the front, which slows on a climb while the other riders are still descending or just reaching the shift from a descent to an ascent), and a notoriously dangerous bridge on Hwy 9 crossing over I-85 (rough bridge crossings with gaps and holes create flats, overlapped wheels, and sudden movements by riders trying to avoid road dangers).
Pea Ridge ("chain-drop hill" on Big Level Rd.): From about mile 35 through mile 50, the Assaults course offers cyclists a variety of challenges, including what AOMM veterans call "Pea Ridge" (includes Pea Ridge Rd., Big Level Rd., and Rock Spring Rd.) from about mile 37 through 42. Here, riders face a couple of significant rollers coming after fast downhill sections. The ridges, especially the second, is often called "chain-drop hill" because riders transition so quickly from fast section to difficult grunt hills. The key, of course, is to know the sections and to shift gears early (and to have your equipment well tuned, including installing a mechanism to help prevent chain-drop on your front derailleur). Pea Ridge is often one of the first places cyclists will experience separations by ability; this section is hard and riders often need to make a decision here about managing their effort for a 102-mile challenging event.
Dangerous Curve: After Pea Ridge, many cyclists try to catch up or reconnect with other riders after the carnage that comes with "chain-drop hill." One of the most dangerous aspects of any ride comes from over-extended riders and cyclists moving at different speeds (riders behind coming up on a group they are chasing, for example). To add danger, just before the course comes to Hwys 64/74 (where we turn left and head to Bills Mt.), you will be warned on a fast downhill section of an abrupt right hand curve. This is not an exaggeration—especially for a large pack of riders. Riders need to slow well before the curve and maintain a consistent line through the curve. Just after the curve and right before the stop sign, riders come across another bridge that has been rough in the past, resulting in water bottles being ejected and jeopardizing everyone around.
(NOTE: Water bottles are really a dangerous aspect of the Assaults. Many riders carry extra bottles in order to avoid stopping, but water bottles carried in the triathlon-style holders behind the saddle are rarely effective and often dangerous. Riders should carry extra bottles in their jersey pockets instead. As well, all cyclists should have good bottle cages—tighten cage screws as well—and should take care over rough sections of road, such as bridge transitions.)
Bills Mt.: After turning off Hwys 64/74, Bills Mt. punishes riders from about mile 45 through 47. Bills Mt. is a sustained climb but only about a mile of effort; again, like Pea Ridge, this breaks apart the group and can over-extend many riders trying to stay with a pack. After the climb, riders are also tempted to chase, another key moment for safety. From Bills Mt. to Marion includes a series of challenging rollers and even grunts (steep but short hills, maybe as steep as 15-20% but usually only hundreds of yards long); in my opinion, this ignored section is one of the most physically and mentally challenging stretches. Many riders would do well to do the course from Bills Mt. to Marion, at least by car, to know what is ahead.
Tom Johnson Campground/ Marion: About 74 miles in, riders either finish at Tom Johnson Campground or transition into the climbing sections of the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. The campground is key because of the added traffic and the likelihood that cyclists choose to pause here for more food and water/drinks—often meeting a SAG or family member. Everyone should be careful about stopping, letting other riders know your intentions, and watching for spectators stepping into or across the road. For me, as a side note, I tend to make this my psychological transition. From Spartanburg to Marion, I am a pack cyclists; from Marion to the top, I ride alone (or pretend I am alone).
Hwy 80: Once cyclists pass through Marion, they take a quick left then right (Hwy 70) onto Hwy 80 and head toward the grueling ten miles of the 80-90 mile marks, about miles 82 through 87 include strenuous climbing with three miles of that are truly taxing with switchbacks and grades of 10% and more. Hwy 80 is a different kind of climbing than the Blue Ridge Parkway, so riders will do well not to become too excited if riding well or too discouraged if struggling. I have had dramatically different "rides" on the Hwy 80 segment from the parkway segment and have come to believe that the parkway segment, since it is much longer, is way more likely to define the day you have. The top of Hwy 80 rewards riders with a rest stop.
Blue Ridge Parkway: OK, the rest stop is nice (I choose not to stop), but the small grunt hill leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway is just cruel. Once on the parkway, cyclists have nearly 15 miles of riding, about 12 to 13 of which is steady 4%-7% climbing with a neat 2-mile respite at about mile 92. Climbing here is psychologically challenging because the sections are long and your site range is extended. Yes, it looks daunting. Rhythm climbing is key here, and most riders would benefit from finding some areas in which to practice extended climbing, which is much different than switchback climbing.
Mt. Mitchell State Parkway: Just before the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Parkway, riders get a brief downhill, but once riders enter the park, the next two miles are steep and unrelenting. The first two miles are often 10%-plus grades with long segments and a few switchbacks. Near the top, you'll see some split-rail fencing on your right, and the crest is close. This is the entrance to the Mt. Mitchell State Park and a rest stop.
The End: After the brutal lead-in to the park, riders get a nice flat section before a pretty hard kick at the end. The final sweeping turn at the end comes with a widening parking area that lets you know it is over.