Lymphoma claims giant in Spartanburg cycling
John Bryan Passes at 74 years old

Published: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 3:15 a.m.

The patriarch of Spartanburg's cycling community has died. Founder of Assault on Mt. Mitchell stayed humble, helped others reach goals

John Bryan brought thousands of people to Spartanburg by organizing and promoting the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. John Bryan, founder of the annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell, died Saturday after a seven year bout with lymphoma. He was 74.

"He was a gentle man and cared about all cyclists and all aspects of cycling," said Marly Divver, a cyclist and friend of Bryan's family.

Thousands of people have come to Spartanburg over the past 30 years to ride what cycling magazines consider one of the 10 toughest rides in the United States. People from the Philippines, Great Britain and locations around the globe have ridden 102 miles en route to, at 6,684 feet, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

"He's probably not known by a lot of people outside of bicycling, but he made a huge contribution to this community," Mayor Bill Barnet said.

Last month's ride had 1,400 riders. Registration was done online, and the ride was filled in less than 40 minutes. The ride is a fundraiser for the Freewheelers of Spartanburg.

Bryan came up with the idea for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell on a September day in 1974 while having a picnic with his wife, Helen, at the state park. A few weeks later, he left home before sunrise and spent the day cycling up the mountain. He was 39 at the time and the father of two teenagers. He was alone and would stop to drink water flowing along the Blue Ridge Parkway's rocks.

He, however, never considered himself the first person to complete the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. The park's gates were closed as he approached the top, which placed him a quarter-mile from reaching his goal. Helen was waiting on him at the gates and drove him home.

"I tell people I'm a damn fool because I could have been the first winner," said Bryan, with a sense of humor, in a 2006 Herald-Journal interview.

Bryan, one of four founding members of the Freewheelers of Spartanburg, rode to the top of Mitchell in 1975 with five other club members, including his son, Greg. The ride received its name that year, and the men celebrated by having a few friends meet them at the top with beer, and they grilled 10 pounds of ground beef.

Bryan grew up in Athens, Ala. He bought a Schwinn bicycle when many of his high school peers were getting cars.

His family moved to Spartanburg in 1969, and he started cycling a 60-mile round trip to work in Greenville during the gasoline crisis of the 1970s. Bryan, a mechanical engineer, pedaled along Highway 29, rain or shine, for 13 years to four different employers. He'd sometimes arrive at work with ice in his beard.

In 1983, Bryan became the first person in the state to complete Paris-Brest-Paris, a 750-mile ride in France. He was an accomplished cyclist, but he remained humble. He returned from Paris, helped others train for the ride and often helped beginning cyclists, such as Divver.

Divver said she started cycling in the late 1980s and met Bryan at a Freewheelers of Spartanburg ride.

"If it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't have got back on a bike," Divver said.

Divver said Bryan taught her to enjoy the sounds of babbling creeks and chirping birds. He wasn't interested in racing.

Bryan also organized a cross-state ride and often led training trips, helping those preparing for rides.

"He was a good person to know," said Paul LeFrancois, president of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition. "As much as he enjoyed riding, he enjoyed helping others reach their goals."

Laura Lambrecht, Bryan's daughter, remembers cycling to Florida from Spartanburg with her father and late brother in the early 1970s. They would camp in state parks.

Last month's Assault on Mt. Mitchell was the 34th year of the ride, and it was Bryan's first year not being involved with organizing it. Divver was a member of a five-person committee that organized the ride this year.

"We tried to run the ride as John would have done it," she said. "We worked closely with him the past several years and knew a lot of what's necessary, but I don't know how he did it by himself."

In 2005, Bryan had completed 95 percent of planning for the ride when he was admitted to the hospital to undergo chemotherapy. It was his first time missing the annual event, but he still received phone calls throughout the day.

Bryan received recognition for his dedication to cycling the past couple of years. He was recognized in December 2007 during a celebration of the city's Bike Town designation. Last year, a plaque and bicycle sculpture honoring him were placed in front of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, the starting place for the Assaults on Mt. Mitchell and Marion.

"It was wonderful to see him get the recognition," Divver said. "I think he was proud, but because he was the kind of guy who likes to be behind the scenes, I think it embarrassed him a little bit. But, no one deserved it more than he did."

Bryan and Helen would have celebrated their 56th anniversary in August. The couple's son, Greg, died in a motorcycle accident. Their daughter and her husband live in Greer.

The Bryans have eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family is planning a small, private event to honor Bryan. They ask that people make donations to the Spartanburg Humane Society in lieu of flowers.