Mount Mitchell trek has grown from humble origins into major cycling event 

John Bryan talks about the past 30 years of the Assault on Mount Mitchell
while sitting on the porch of his home in Campobello.

Staff Writer, SHJ
Published: Thursday, May 18, 2006 at 3:15 a.m.

John Bryan and his wife, Helen, scooted up Mount Mitchell in their Volkswagen Beetle on a September day in 1974 to hike and picnic when an idea came to Bryan.

While eating at the state park, Bryan decided that he'd like to ride a bicycle up the mountain. His wife thought he was talking about riding part of the Blue Ridge Parkway and said it was a nice idea.

Bryan, however, had something more challenging in mind. He wanted to ride 100 miles from Spartanburg to the mountaintop, which is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, at 6,684 feet.

"I didn't think that Volkswagen would make it up that last climb, and that's what fascinated me about riding the bicycle," said Bryan, one of the four original members of the Freewheelers of Spartanburg bicycle club that began in 1973.

Helen, on the other hand, had a different perspective.

"I thought he was a little nuts," she said. "If you're walking up there, you have to lean forward like you're walking in a hurricane."

A few weeks later, Bryan left their home on Spartanburg's west side to ascend Mount Mitchell. He was 39 at the time and the father of two teenagers. He'd ride alone, and Helen would pick him up at the top of Mount Mitchell.

"It took all day," he said. "I left before daylight, so that was probably four or five in the morning. I just rode all day by myself."

Helen was worried about him throughout the day.

"I didn't know how safe he was," she said.

When he ran out of water, he'd stop and drink from streams flowing over the parkway's rocks.

"I spent most of the day enjoying the beauty of it and thinking about how I wanted to do it again," Bryan said. "But I had no idea it'd become what it is now."

The Assault on Mount Mitchell has attracted people from the Philippines and Great Britain this year. Cycling magazines have considered the ride one of the 10 toughest in the United States.

The 31st Assault on Mt. Mitchell takes place Saturday, and its toughness is matched by its exclusivity -- its 1,000 entrants were registered in an hour and 53 minutes in the first year of online registration.

Bryan, 71, is a retired mechanical engineer who still can't believe the enormity of what he started. Evidence lies in the shoddy records kept over the years.

Who was the first woman to complete the ride? Who is the youngest cyclist to reach Mt. Mitchell? What countries have cyclists come from?

"If we had any sense and saw what it was turning into, we'd have kept those records," Bryan said.

The ride received its name on a June day in 1975 when Bryan and five others from the Freewheelers, including his late son, Greg, rode up to Mitchell from Spartanburg. They were six men who had a couple of friends come up in a van with 10 pounds of hamburger meat and beer, so they could celebrate once they reached the top.

Even though Bryan made his solo trip to Mitchell in 1974, he doesn't consider himself the first person to complete the ride. He said the park's gates were closed, which placed him a quarter mile from completing what he set out to do. Bill Carlisle, a former teacher at the Spartanburg Day School, was in that group of six in 1975, and Bryan says that Carlisle was the first to finish.

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

Bryan was cycling long before magazines were devoted to the sport or cities, like Spartanburg, were on a mission to be designated cycling friendly.

When many of his high school peers in Athens, Ala., were getting cars, he saved up enough money to buy his first Schwinn bicycle.

For 13 years, with four different employers, he did a 60-mile roundtrip to work in Greenville on his bike. It was during the gas crisis of the 1970s, and he'd ride on Highway 29 rain or shine. He logged 300 miles a week doing the commute.

"I can remember walking into the office with a rain slicker on, and there would be ice on it and my beard always had ice on it," Bryan said. "They probably thought I was crazy."

A few of his co-workers at J.E. Sirrine Co., including Bob Cutler, began to follow his lead when he started telling colleagues from Spartanburg how much money he was saving.

"John was my inspiration," said Cutler, who began cycling after talking to Bryan.

Cutler lived in Spartanburg, too, and he started riding to work three days a week when it fit in his schedule. He's still riding today. Cutler remembers seeing Bryan walk into work on mornings after his 30-mile bicycle ride.

"He looked very refreshed," Cutler said. "He knew how to pace himself. On a warm day, he'd ride slower and he was not all sweaty."

Cutler began riding the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in the 1980s.

In the first few years, it was an event for the Freewheelers members. It grew into an organized ride to raise money for the cycling club, and word spread and cycling magazines wrote about it.

Cutler remembers no more than 100 folks riding in his first Assault. It grew tremendously during the 1980s, and park officials required Bryan to place a limit on the ride.

"It just started growing," Bryan said. "It reached almost 2,000 in the late '80s. You couldn't get a car in or out, and the park officials had a fit."

One thousand cyclists are allowed to register for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. Bryan said 750 usually finish.

The weather was nice during the first couple of years, but there have been times when cyclists reached Mitchell and it was snowing and temperatures were below freezing.

Bryan has looked forward to this year's Assault more than any other. He was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and missed his first Assault last year while dealing with his second bout with lymphoma.

He awakened to the thunder and rain that riders would start in and received phone calls from those who stepped up to organize for him.

"It broke my heart because he really wanted to be there," said Marly Divver, one of the Freewheelers. "Those of us who pulled off Mitchell know he orchestrated it from his bed."

Bryan said he was able to get information from morning and evening newscasts on how the ride was going and the occasional phone call from club members. He was glad to hear the ride had another year without any accidents, but it was difficult being away from it.

"It was depressing," Bryan said. "It was the first time in 30 years I hadn't been there."

Many of the ride's longtime participants missed seeing him.

"I was covered up with cards a couple of months after that from people saying they missed me," he said.

Bryan saw a doctor earlier that May because of an intestinal infection. Once the infection was cleared, a specialist wanted him to undergo more tests. He said he had planned 95 percent of the ride before he was admitted to the hospital.

Bryan hasn't regularly cycled and trained in the last eight years, and as the Assault grew, he had more organizing responsibilities and didn't get to ride with the field of cyclists much.

"I'm just thankful I'll be able to be there," he said. "I've never enjoyed standing at the start and not being in the crowd, but this year I'm just thankful I'll be there to see it."

He's familiarized himself again with all of the responsibilities involved with organizing the ride. He admits he has a problem with delegating responsibilities, but claims to be getting better. He does a good bit of organizing from his Campobello home, where computer software has made keeping track of riders easier than past years.

"It wasn't the same without him," Divver said of the 2005 ride. "He is Mr. Mount Mitchell. I don't know any one person who could do what he does."

Bryan is quick to recognize the Freewheelers' role in organizing the Assault and likes the future of the ride he started.

"I have a feeling it'll be like it is now," he said. "I know it'll never get any bigger because it couldn't be managed, but I seriously doubt it'll fade away."

---- John Bryan


Note:  This newspaper article from the Spartanburg Harold Journal of
Spartanburg SC was provided by John Bryan for inclusion in his pages.