‘Rising’ to the challenge

Published 9:31 am Monday, May 16, 2016

James Whitaker breezes along a local back road on April 30, cycling from his current home in Durham to his homeplace in the Hertford County community of Union. He used that ride as a tune-up for a May 16 event that covers nearly 103 miles. | Contributed Photos

James Whitaker breezes along a local back road on April 30, cycling from his current home in Durham to his homeplace in the Hertford County community of Union. He used that ride as a tune-up for a May 16 event that covers nearly 103 miles. | Contributed Photos

DURHAM – James “Boozie” Whitaker spent his childhood days like most youngsters….using a bicycle to scoot around the neighborhood.

For Whitaker, a native of the Union community in Hertford County now living and working in Durham, that juvenile mode of transportation has become an adult passion and he plans to scale the highest peak east of the Mississippi River to prove it.

On Monday (May 16) – bright and early at 6:30 a.m. – Whitaker will join approximately 1,500 other biking enthusiasts for the annual Assault on Mount Mitchell. The starting point is the parking lot at the Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, SC and the bikers will make their way along a 102.7-mile route. The finish line is positioned at the top of Mt. Mitchell State Park, a 6,684-foot climb on two wheels.

For the 54-year-old Whitaker, this “Assault” will mark his 28th year of participating in this grueling test of endurance and equipment.

“This is not a race, it’s a challenge,” said Whitaker on Thursday of this week. “There are some racers in the event that use it for training purposes; some of the members of the U.S. National Team use it to help prepare them for the Tour de France in July.”

As he nears the start of his annual quest, Whitaker said his mind, body and spirit are focused on the task at hand.

“I’m feeling good about this ride,” he said. “I’m doing something a bit different this year by taking a few days off work before the event….and I have a good excuse to do so as I’ll be in Atlanta on Saturday to see my daughter graduate from Spellman College and I’ll leave on Sunday for the trip to Spartanburg.

“That time off also helps me prepare in advance from a nutritional and hydration standpoint. As you can imagine, the ride, with all those vertical ascents, takes a toll on your body, especially if the weather is hot,” he added.

The self-paced ride is along back roads and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit of Mt. Mitchell – a total vertical ascent of more than 10,000 feet. There are 10 rest stops along the way where riders can refill, refuel, and make mechanical adjustments to their bikes as needed.

Whitaker said the pace of the ride is fast for the first 70-plus miles.

“The last 30 miles are brutal,” he stressed. “You are basically riding at a walking pace, about 1.5 to 2.5 mph. This is one of 10 hardest rides in nation and attracts racers, endurance riders and basic cyclists, representing a mixed level of ability. Some will finish in five hours; others may take up to 12 hours to complete the ride.”

Whitaker said he typically finishes in five and one-half hours. His fastest time on the “Assault” is five hours and seven minutes, which represented a top-10 finish.

Now entering his 28th “Assault”, Whitaker said he didn’t feel that his age was a factor.

“I keep myself in top shape,” he admitted. “I find that cycling is very therapeutic for me, it relieves the stress and challenge of my job. Plus I look at the health benefits of cycling at my age from a cardio vascular perspective.”

As a tune up, Whitaker cycled from Durham on April 30 to his homeplace in Union, a 140-mile ride completed in seven hours.

“I’ve done that at least once a year for the past 15 years,” he stated. “There was one year I rode home on seven occasions. This last one on April 30 was my fastest time as I averaged 20 miles per hour. In cycling, that time is above what’s referred to as an ‘A’ pace which is 18 miles per hour.”

Whitaker grew up in Union, the son of William and Virginia Whitaker. He graduated in 1980 from Ahoskie High School where he competed athletically as a member of the school’s football and track teams. He and his teammates on coach Daryl Allen’s 1979 football team made it to the state championship game.

He continued his education, using his skills in football to land an athletic scholarship to attend North Carolina Central University in Durham. He competed at the collegiate level for three years….taking off the final year due to an injury and to focus on completing the requirements for graduation. He holds a BA degree in Business Management, with a minor in Marketing, from NC Central.

He remained in Durham following graduation, initially working in Fitness Retail management before taking a position at the Duke University Medical Center where he has worked for the past 21 years. He is currently the interim Director of Sterile Processing at the Medical Center.

“My first taste of bicycling, since my days growing up in Union, was using one for fitness training while I was playing football at Central,” Whitaker recalled. “From there I developed a passion for cycling while managing several bicycle shops.”

He became involved in the sport of bicycle racing.

“That was highly competitive,” Whitaker said of those types of events that could cover as much as 55 miles in one race. “I was able to win two state championships in bicycle racing between 1985 and 1990.

“However, racing bicycles is a lot like NASCAR racing as people come to see the wrecks,” he continued. “That made me stop and re-evaluate things. I had two young children at that time and a job; I didn’t want an accident to ruin that life so I stopped racing.”

But he didn’t stop riding.

“I love it,” he said. “There’s a lot of cycling that goes on here in the Raleigh-Durham area; a lot of groups to go out and ride with.”

And with his passion to ride, Whitaker owns a wide assortment of bicycles to suit his needs. The one he’ll use for the “Assault” is specially made for such a ride….a titanium model weighing less than 15 pounds and using a low gear ratio due to all the climbs he’ll face.

“It’s a very lightweight and durable bike,” he said. “I tinker with it, making adjustments here and there as the technology improves.”

As Whitaker looks to the future, his ultimate cycling quest is to complete 50 times on the Assault on Mount Mitchell.”

“I know that sounds like a wild idea, but I feel I can reach that goal,” he said. “My family is noted for its longevity…my grandfather, Lincoln Whitaker, lived to the age of 106 and was self-sufficient until his mid-90’s.

“I’ve seen some competitors in their 70’s and 80’s complete this ride. I want to do it 50 times before I throw in the towel. That will put me in my mid to late 70’s but I can reach that goal if I stay in shape,” Whitaker concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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