A Mountain to Climb
History followed by the actual climb

Cycling's Miracle Man training for Assault on Mount Mitchell


Staff Writer
As published in the
Spartanburg Herald Journal
Sunday April 9, 1997
All photos scanned direct from the paper.

Van Epps Training for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell
Van is riding his Hand Cranked Freedom Ryder.

Union, South Carolina
Sunday April 9, 1997

Van Epps lost part of his right leg and severely injured his left leg in a bicycle accident seven years ago. He now walks with a cane and an artificial leg.

But on May 17, - with special permission from the Assault on Mt. Mitchell staff - Epps will ride out from Spartanburg before dawn for one of the toughest bicycle events in America, the 102-mile climb to the top of Mount Mitchell.

Epps, a 33-year-old Union High School science teacher, will use the strength of his arms to propel himself up the mountain in a specially designed tricycle known as the Freedom Rider.

He will be the first person with these disabilities to attempt the Assault on Mount Mitchell.

"I don't have enough strength to do much of anything with my legs," Epps said, "so I have to find another way to do it."

"You can do anything you want to do," Epps said as he prepared for a recent training ride. "Using a handicap or disability as an excuse not to do something is whimpering out.

The annual trip from Spartanburg to Mount Mitchell is rated by Bicycle Magazine as one of the 10 most difficult rides in America. Cyclists climb more than 11,000 cumulative feet to the mountain summit at 6,684 feet elevation.

John Bryan, ride director for the Assault on Mount Mitchell, is helping Epps and a group of other cyclists train for the ride. Bryan, 62, founded the event 22 years ago.

After last year's ride, Bryan and members of the Spartanburg Freewheelers Bicycle Club - who dedicated the 1991 Assault to Epps - voted to purchase the $3,000 Freedom Rider for their friend.

Epps can ride a two-wheel bicycle, but has to have help getting on and off. If he stops, he falls. The Freedom Rider makes it easier for him to stop, and it uses the strength that he has built up in his arms.

"Personally, I can't describe what it is like seeing Van do this," Bryan said. "It's a good feeling; I know that. I've told Van I'll be waiting for him at the top, no matter how long it takes him to get there."

Bryan said people at the top of Caesar's Head in Greenville County applauded recently when Epps made it to the summit on a training ride.

Van Epps uses his cane for stability
as he mounts his Freedom Ryder
for an afternoon ride.


This year's trek to reach the top of Mount Mitchell will be the second time Epps has tried it. He made the journey from Spartanburg to the summit in 1990 before he was disabled.

"The first time I did it, my bike computer showed six and a half hours when I rolled into the parking lot up there," Epps said. "I don't expect to do that, but I don't expect to take 14 hours or anything either."

While riding with another cyclist near Inman in July 1990, Epps was struck by a car and dragged 656 feet. He has the distinction of being one of the most severely injured patients to pass through the trauma unit at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center and live.

"When they called me from the hospital, they said I probably didn't have 45 minutes to get up there," said Epps' mother, Millie Epps of Union. "The first thing the doctor said was, 'He lost his leg, and that's not the bad part."

Epps suffered a closed head injury, a broken collar bone, 18 broken ribs, one fully collapsed lung and a partially collapsed lung, a broken back, a crushed hip, two breaks in his sternum, the loss of his right leg below the knee and an injury to his right leg that removed skin down to the bone.


Van Epps


The injured cyclist spent two months in Spartanburg Regional Medical Center and another month at Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC.

Nathan Loftis was one of the paramedics who responded to the crash scene.

"I thought he was going to die on me before we reached Regional," Loftis said. "All the way to the hospital, I kept telling him, 'Hang in there, man, concentrate on breathing. That night, we all prayed for him."

Denise Shelly was a member of the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center trauma team that treated Epps in the emergency room.

"He was extremely critical when he got here," Selly said. "The first thing I thought was, 'This boy will never get out of surgery.' His leg was barely hanging on. When you work with a patient like that, it touches a part of you that's hard to explain."

Epps' girlfriend, Brenda Wieland of Inman, will accompany him on the tide. They will leave the starting line at Spartanburg's Memorial Auditorium at 4:30 a.m., two hours ahead of the 1,500 cyclists expected for the day long event.

Weiland, 36, rode to the summit in 1995 after a failed effort the year before. She said she and Epps will spend the hours on the trail to Mount Mitchell talking and encouraging one another.

"It is a great challenge, but I know Van will make it," Weiland said. "I love to see him out riding again. He will slow me down, but riding is slower when you do it without legs."

Epps lives in Spartanburg but trains for Mount Mitchell after school in his hometown of Union. He has become a familiar figure as he cruises around the streets and roads of Union County on his 21-speed cycle, which weighs 43 pounds.

Epps rides 10 to 13 miles per day. Blisters and calluses - evidence of the long hours he already has spent getting ready for the ride - dot the palms of his hands.

Recently, as Epps got on his cycle for one of his daily training rides, he talked about how his determination is being tested, and he acknowledged that he is facing the biggest physical challenge of his life.

"A lot of people get hurt like that and never ride again. This is something I want to do before I die. I'd have to be in an awful lot of pain before I'd quit," Epps said.

But stopping short of the summit is not something Van Epps is likely to do. His support system and motivation start with his family and extend deep into the Upstate cycling community. And Epps says that's what will make the difference for him.

"It's easier to get out and do things when you have support," he said. "Sometimes, what it takes is a little kick in the butt." Epps' mother said her son is proof that miracles happen.

"Oh, I believe he will make it," said Mrs. Epps, who plans to drive ahead and wait on Mount Mitchell's summit for her son's arrival. "I want him to make it safely."

King of the Mountain
The Ride

Van on the Blue Ridge Parkway in route to the Top of Mt. Mitchell


Mt. Mitchell, NC
Sunday, May 18, 1997

Van Epps rolled across the finish line and into the hearts of hundreds who cheered his 102-mile trek to the summit of the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

Epps, the first disabled person to attempt the Assault on Mount Mitchell, crossed the finish line on the mountain summit Saturday at 6 p.m., 15 hours after he left downtown Spartanburg.

The 33-year-old made the historic journey using an arm-powered Freedom Ryder - a tricycle designed for people with disabilities. As he rolled across the finish line, the sounds of blaring car horns and cheering spectators lifted up and rolled across the mountain top.

Epps and his girlfriend, Brenda Weiland of Inman - who was riding a regular bicycle - left downtown Spartanburg at 3 a.m. Saturday with friends leading and following them in cars to light the way.

About an hour before Epps and Weiland arrived at the finish line, word was radioed to the mountain top that the pair had turned off the Blue Ridge Parkway and was on their way up to the top. Other cyclists who had completed the ride hours earlier rode down to meet Epps and escort him to the finish.

"I would have been here earlier, but I had a little wreck," Epps said as a crowd pressed around him. "But I never had any doubts that I wouldn't make it, I came here to do this."

Epps had crashed his Freedom Ryder in a 45 mph descent near the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park. He was not seriously injured but was treated by first-aid workers for road rash and cuts.

Epps continued on the trek with the help of George Meyer, a Spartanburg man who had finished the ride in third place and saw the accident as he drove home. Meyer stopped and replaced Epps' broken chain with the one of his own.

Epps was severely injured seven years ago while on a bicycle ride with friends near Inman, just a few months after he had completed the Assault as an able-bodied rider.

Epps was struck bv a car that ran a Stop sign. He was dragged more than 600 feet before the car stopped. His right leg was severed just below his knee.

Epps' father, Hainesworth "Sonny" Epps, kept an anxious watch for his son Saturday at the mountain summit from a lawn chair near the finish line.

"I've been worried about this since 3 o'clock this morning," the 72 year-old said as he watched the crowd gather around his son. "I don't care who you are, it takes guts to do something like this. And that's my boy."

John Bryan, the 62-year-old who started the Assault on Mount Mitchell 22 years ago, spent the late winter and early spring months training Epps on the road to Caesar's Head.

Bryan, who coached Epps through more that 1,000 miles of training, waited quietly at the finish line as he approached.

"I knew he'd do it," Bryan said, unable to hold back the tears.

After Epps arrived at the summit, he sat on his Freedom Ryder in the Mount Mitchell parking lot and savored the moment.

Epps had conquered the mountain.

"I could not have done this without John's help," Epps said. "He never gave up on me. He had faith in me and made me believe in myself".


Reprints for personal use only, ok, otherwise, copyright by the Spartanburg Harold Journal.
All photos scanned from the Spartanburg Harold Journal newspaper.

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