Pedaling the Parkway: WCU dean completes ninth fundraising ride to Mount Mitchell
Brian Railsback learned a valuable lesson when he missed a September meeting of the Western Carolina University Honors College Student Board of Directors: skip a meeting, and you just might wind up volunteered to do a century bike ride through the mountains. As Railsback, Honors College dean and English professor, found out later, the meeting concluded with a decision that he should pedal 118 miles to the top of Mount Mitchell to raise scholarship money for the college.
“What happened was I missed that meeting, and they voted unanimously to move forward with it,” Railsback said.
Not that he protested too much, because Railsback loves to bike. The California native first took up the sport when he moved to Cullowhee in 1990 and found that none of the West Coast sports he had been into – surfing, deep sea fishing – boasted too many opportunities in the mountains. Casting around for a new hobby, he threw the question out to his students.
“One of them fortunately said, ‘Well, you really need to get into mountain biking,’” Railsback recalled, “so I bought a mountain bike and that’s how I got started.”
Balancing act biking
Fast forward a decade and a half, and Railsback was pushing off from Cullowhee in pursuit of Mount Mitchell, just in time for a string of perfect autumn days. However, the Oct. 19 start date was just in time for a couple of other things as well: leaf-looker traffic, WCU’s Homecoming and prep time for a November class he was slated to teach in Cuba.
“This time it was a real balancing act, but it all worked out well,” Railsback said. “It worked out better than I could have hoped.”
To make his work responsibilities fit in with the 118-mile ride, Railsback did it piecemeal, getting rides from students and from his wife to and from the route and back to Cullowhee. One day, he drove himself and doubled back to get to his car at the end of the leg.
He started off the trek with a 24-mile ride to the intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway at Balsam and then resumed two days later with a 12-mile ride to an overlook near Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Parkway. The next day, Oct. 22, his route took in 50 Parkway miles, battling strong winds and a freezing fog to end at the Folk Art Center near Asheville. On Thursday he did the next 18 miles to Craggy Gardens, and on Sunday, Oct. 26, Honors College students joined him for the final 14 miles of the ride.
“I was very concerned, having not trained properly for it, that it was going to be a lot more difficult than it was, but it turned out to be OK,” Railsback said.
That first stretch from Cullowhee to Richland Balsam is probably the most difficult of the entire endeavor, Railsback said. He’s done this fundraising ride before, but this time he attempted it on pretty short notice and while in the thick of a bunch of other professional obligations, so he didn’t really train as much as he should have. But he got through those first miles and by the end of the trip felt great.
Though, of course, the hills weren’t the only part he had to worry about.
“With the leaf season it’s really busy,” he said. “This year in particular because it was so beautiful, there were some parts that it was really pretty crowded. Especially those RVs go by pretty close when you’re up there.”
But with the hills and the traffic and the scenery from either side comes a rhythm that Railsback finds intoxicating, drawing him back into the bicycle seat whenever he has a spare minute.
“When you think about the typical American lifestyle where we’re busy, we’re really rushed, there aren’t many times when you can focus and maybe for two or three hours just think,” Railsback said. “That’s one thing I’ve always really enjoyed. Even if you’re climbing and it’s hard, it’s mentally really relaxing.”
And then there are those downhills, moments when you’re speeding down the mountain at 40 miles per hour, fully aware that you’re alive.
“It’s just fun,” he said.
Welcome to Mount Mitchell
This year’s ride to Mount Mitchell wasn’t Railsback’s first time scaling the mountain on two wheels. In fact, it’s the ninth time Railsback’s changed his suit and bowtie for shorts and a polo to make the fundraising ride to Mount Mitchell.
The ride originated back in 1997, when the Honors College started with Railsback as the founding dean. He met with Western’s former fundraising director to get some ideas about how to fund the new college, but the meeting turned out to be less a source of ideas and more a list of things he should refrain from doing, so as to avoid stepping on other organizations’ toes.
“After talking to her, I thought, ‘Man there aren’t many options,’” Railsback said.
But then the light bulb came on. Railsback mapped out a scheme to ride 100-plus miles from his home in Cullowhee to the top of Mount Mitchell, which at 6,684 feet is the highest-elevation point east of the Rockies.
“Something like that just catches people’s attention,” said Colin Townsend, Honors College advisor. “It’s not your average sort of fundraising type thing.”
Railsback enlisted students in the Honors College to help him with logistics, secured pledges and then took off up N.C. 107, onto U.S. 74 and then to the Parkway, eventually reaching the state road that winds 5 miles between the Parkway and Mount Mitchell.
Conditions that first year weren’t exactly optimal.
“I was alone and it was dark and I had never been to the top of Mount Mitchell before, so I didn’t know where it was going to end,” Railsback recalled.
Then the snow started.
“I just remember pedaling to the sign that said something along the lines of ‘Welcome to Mount Mitchell, home of the worst weather in the United States,’” Railsback said, “which I thought was really perfect.”
It was perfectly quiet, too. The student group that was supposed to meet him up there was MIA, which Railsback would later find out was because the state road that accesses the site had been closed. Finally, Bill Studenc, then assistant director and now director of communications for WCU, showed up in a four-wheel drive pickup. That was the last car out of the Mount Mitchell area that night.
The experience didn’t deter Railsback from attempting Mount Mitchell again, but it did cement his love of the mountain bike as opposed to the road bike.
“It’s like driving a tank,” he said of his trusty old Trek mountain bike, but “by the end of that ride I ran into a snowstorm, and I was really grateful that I had a mountain bike, because the conditions on that little state road, which is about 5 miles from the Parkway up to the peak itself, were really bad.”
“I’ve even bought a few road bikes and given them away,” he said. He just likes the greater versatility of the mountain bike, even if those wide tires make it harder to climb the steep uphills rampant in Western North Carolina. Besides his mountain bike, the only other bicycle he owns is a “really old” tandem that’s so heavy it’s hard to brake. He uses that to ride with his daughter when she comes into town.
Railsback’s rides gained popularity among the students, who have always been involved with making them happen, and the second year a bunch of them decided that they wanted to ride with him not just to Mount Mitchell, but all the way to Raleigh.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards that time, because the crew started riding just ahead of what Railsback recalls as an “almost historic heavy rain” with “horrific wind.”
“We finally did something we’d never done before and said, ‘We can’t go any further. We gotta pull the plug,’” Railsback said.
In a later year, though, they did go further, successfully navigating both the mountains and the potholes and heavy traffic of downtown Raleigh.
Though Railsback has traversed that route to Mount Mitchell plenty of times, it’s never been routine. Some years he makes the trip, some he doesn’t. He’s done it with students, and he’s done it solo. He’s done it in lovely weather and, more often, in the chill and the rain.
This year’s route, he said, set the record as far as weather goes.
“It was maybe only the second time I got to the top of Mount Mitchell and it was clear, you could actually see the view,” Railsback said. “This last time it was just incredible.”
Which was a grand finale, because Railsback said his wife has informed him that this should be his last fundraising ride to Mount Mitchell.
“She really is like, ‘You’re 55. What are you doing? You have a desk job. This is kind of crazy,’” Railsback said.
Railsback says he probably agrees with that assessment — it’s not easy to get in shape for, and execute, the ride while still fulfilling all the duties of a college dean — but he doesn’t intend to put up his mountain bike anytime soon. There are plenty of trails around that he’ll still frequent in his free time.
And he hasn’t necessarily given up on long-distance rides.
“What I really want to do some day is I’d really love to take that old mountain bike and ride across the country,” he said. “I still haven’t gotten rid of that notion.”
He’s pretty sure he could get his wife on board with it, too, provided he took the time to train and found a worthy cause to ride for.
Not that this one isn’t. If it wasn’t, he wouldn’t have done it for so many years.
“Honestly, it’s a good opportunity to help raise money for the scholarship program that the student board runs,” he said. “That’ s a good motivation.”
At first, he took pledges for his miles. Now, the donations come in after the ride is complete, usually reaching somewhere around $3,000. That’s enough to supply three honors students with $1,000 scholarships.
Which is a great service to give, especially when its delivery involves spending sunny days pedaling along some of the highest ridgeline on the East Coast.
“When you hit the weather right — the incredible beauty of especially that ride from the Folk Art Center up to the top of Mount Mitchell — what’s not to like about that?” he said. “It was just perfect.”
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