This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Assault on the Carolinas, the largest fundraising event for the Pisgah Forest Rotary Club. Volunteers expect to surpass the half-a-million-dollar mark for funds generated for charity this year, but it hasn’t been easy to coordinate the event, which draws cyclists from across the country and Canada. In years past, cyclists have come from as far away as Europe to tackle the course.
It’s quite a sight to see a thousand or more riders line up on Main Street in downtown Brevard as they head out into the county. Some riders sign up for the 100k leg of the ride, which sends riders down the hill to South Carolina and back up over Caesars Head State Park, one of the hardest and longest climbs in the southeastern part of the U.S. There is a shorter 50k option with far less climbing, which takes riders on the country roads surrounding Brevard and Rosman in the French Broad River valley.
For the 20th anniversary, Oskar Blues is brewing a special beer just for the event, and the brew
ery will again host the after party with live music, food and more. In addition to funds raised for charities, the Assault on the Carolinas (AOTC) has generated untold benefits for local vendors, hotels and merchants. The 2017 AOTC alone generated more than $35,000 in grants to support community needs in three areas: children and youth, education and health. More than 15 local organizations received grants, ranging from the local Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club to the homeless shelter to student scholarships.
The Pisgah Forest Rotary Club has donated funds to charitable organizations all over the world and has helped communities in Africa with their clean water needs, bought wheelchairs for people in Central America, and helped schools in India and in Africa.
Tom Whitsel, the man who started the AOTC 20 years ago, has been on the road with his wife in an RV touring the country, but plans to make it back this year to help out with the 20th anniversary.
“They’ll probably have me parking cars or something to keep me out of trouble,” he joked. “But to watch this thing grow from 48 riders the first year to what it is now is remarkable.”
The growth really took off when Whitesel and the other volunteers moved the event from Brevard High School to Main Street, where he said it wasn’t welcomed at first.
“At first the merchants in town looked at it as a bother, then they wound up supporting it, then they saw the benefits in it for them when they saw the bikers coming in and filling up the motels and restaurants,” said Whitsel. “Saturday after the ride you’ll see nothing but cars with bike racks on them. It’s been a boon for the local economy.”
The stories that come from the AOTC over the years range from scary to comical. Jay Coan, owner of Brevard Insurance and one of the long-time volunteers for the ride, shared some of those memories, but said, all in all, everything has gone really smoothly.
“Everyone has heard about the horses that broke th
rough the fence from Camp Keystone,” he laughed. “They broke out and ran alongside the peloton for about six miles, like they were running with the herd. They ran alongside them all the way to the top of Walnut Hollow.”
He said another year there was a guy in a big truck following the riders down N.C. 178, the road that takes riders down to South Carolina. The driver was agitated and honking his horn because he was frustrated being caught behind them.
“One of the riders grew frustrated with how close he was following and made a gesture at him when he tried to pass, and the guy tried to throw his truck in reverse and his drive shaft fell off his truck! Another year, Brian Spotts and I were working a rest stop for the event in South Carolina when a motorist threw his flip flop at the riders. I’ve got so many funny stories over the years,” he said.
Jay said it’s just been crazy putting on such an event, and the weather each year can be snowing, raining, wind blowing sideways, or just nice and sunny.
He said that the Oskar Blues AOTC party has always been huge on Friday and Saturday night, with so many people hanging out.
“It’s such a cool scene with a ton of out-of-town people hanging out and chilling, OB has done a really good job capturing that market,” he said.
Jay said the event has become a lot smoother over the years, in particular working with all the different law enforcement agencies. The club works with the Brevard Police Department, Transylvania County Sheriff’s Department, Greenville County Sheriff’s Department, N.C. and S.C. Highway Patrol and local first responders.
“I used to have to spend days trying to find someone to talk to me or I would have to get in the car to go find one particular guy at a fire department in Greenville County, but now those guys are all on board. Now it’s so easy,” he said.
Jay said watching the attendance of more and more female riders has been great to see as well. He said this year he thinks there might be three or four hundred female riders and each year it continues to grow. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I don’t ride my bike as much as I want to, but it’s really cool to see how the culture has changed,” he said. John Buford, a professor of Wilderness Leadership at Brevard College and longtime Rotary Club member, said he thinks the real draw for the event is sticking to the core competencies — a beautiful and challenging route, great traffic control and safety, a welcoming community and family-friendly atmosphere, a hot meal after the ride, all at a reasonable price.
“That’s what keeps them coming back,” he said. John has been involved for 11 years and said the event wouldn’t be possible without dedicated people willing to put in the work. The members of the Rotary Club of Pisgah Forest have put thousands of volunteer hours into the AOTC. Planning starts in May, a few weeks after the ride, and continues all year. Preparation begins in earnest after the open registration in October, and then from Christmas until the ride in April they really get busy. “We’ve never delayed or canceled the AOTC due to weather. One year we had violent lightning storms and we picked up dozens of riders in South Carolina to give them a lift back to town,” he said.
John said the community has generally become more accustomed and accepting of cyclists over the years. There is certainly great community support of the AOTC riders as they wind their way out of town and as they cross the finish line. The sidewalks are lined with spectators as the ride leaves town in the morning and they stick around to welcome them back into town. The ride isn’t a race, and John said they don’t chip time the event or record winners and that riders appreciate the non-competitive nature of the ride.
“That said, there’s always a group of riders who are very competitive. Believe me, they know who ‘wins,’” he said. John spends a good bit of time riding himself. If it’s wet out, he opts for the road bike, and if there’s too much traffic, he goes for his mountain bike.
“That’s the beauty of living here. There are lots of good options. My friends motivate me to ride more. It’s hard to say no to a group text that says, ‘Meet at Lake Imaging parking lot at 7 a.m.’ or ‘Let’s ride up to the Pisgah Inn for coffee.’”
To learn more about the Pisgah Forest Rotary Club and their charity ride, visit www.pisgahforestrotary.org. For more information about the AOTC, visit www.assaultonthecarolinas.com.