By P. L. Thomas, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
My journey to becoming a cyclist began in the early 1980s when I bought my wife and me two Schwinn bicycles from the Great Escape in Spartanburg when the store was housed in what we called then “the old Sears building” across from the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.
At the time, as we walked out of the shop with a Schwinn Sport and Schwinn Super Sport, I had no idea that a Spartanburg cycling community existed—or could exist—and no idea that the Spartanburg Freewheelers’ annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell lined up each spring or early summer in the road right in front of the auditorium. (Once again in 2014, the Assaults will launch here on May 19.)
That road is now flanked by the original Krispy Kreme on one side and the new Krispy Kreme on the other—pillars marking the past and present of cycling that begins in and passes through Spartanburg.
Being a cyclist is an activity of place; lining up each year for the start of the Assault is a sort of ritual, triggering memories of the many years and people who have done the same. Attempting and completing the Assault—over the course of between five and 12 hours—represent for many cyclists thousands of miles on the roads surrounding Spartanburg and hundreds of hours among the cycling community that I could not envision almost three decades ago.
In many ways, the start of the Assault is a mirror of the evolution of the Spartanburg cycling community. Each year, I line up to see if I can achieve my personal best time; therefore, my training schedule is intense and then the ride itself is nearly a blur of my best effort. But the range of fellow cyclists there on the morning of the event is as varied as the cyclists who join us nearly every day of the week and every week throughout the year.
For most cyclists, myself included, a commitment to riding a bicycle seriously is a solitary effort. But today Spartanburg cycling thrives because it has become more than an opportunity to exercise; it is a social event—in part due to the eRide email list that announces five to six rides a week, a brainchild of local cyclists Richard White, Greg Kyzer, and Donnie Hyder.
The journey to becoming a regular participant in the Assaults for me began by accident: Dave Proctor and I met more than 25 years ago at the SpartanGreen industrial park near Duncan. We both had seen a practice criterium in the Freewheelers newsletter (a printed newsletter!) at the Great Escape.
Only Dave and I showed up for this posted ride so we rode laps around SpartanGreen and talked cycling, noting that we both rode alone on the west side of town. That day began for me what would become almost three decades among the Spartanburg cycling community.
While cycling today is organized, and rides tend to be designed to keep the group together, in those early years it wasn’t unusual to roll out of the Great Escape, get dropped from the group in under ten miles, and then never see the other riders until the next ride. I have arrived back at my car many times with no one there and hardly a word having been spoken among us.
Like our cycling community, the Assault route from Spartanburg to the top of Mt. Mitchell has changed during the years, but the essential elements remain, creating both a new and eerily similar experience each time I attempt the event: the frantic start, dreading Pea Ridge, cresting Bill’s Mountain, recharging at Tom Johnson Campground in Marion, N.C., struggling up Highway 80, enduring the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then scaling the brutal final five miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell. All of these constitute a rite of passage that we replicate in small and large ways throughout the year on our group rides.
On the day of the Assault, as about 1,000 cyclists blast or meander past Wofford College and work their way through Boiling Springs, the first light of morning blurs with the noises of large group cycling—loud breathing, brakes humming and squealing, shouts of “Slowing” and “On your right!”
The Assault route also is a reminder of the reason cycling thrives in Spartanburg—it is a matter of topography. Cyclists by our nature are constantly at battle with ourselves; the rolling terrain around Spartanburg and the proximity to the foothills and mountains of western North Carolina have combined over the years to provide cyclists with not only ideal routes but also challenging opportunities to train.
In order to benefit from that topography, rides start all around the city and county—the Thomas E Hannah Family YMCA, Boiling Springs First Baptist Church, Ingles grocery store in Duncan, and near bicycle shops that serve our community—the Great Escape, BikeStreet USA, BikeWorx, Bicycle Time. Our routes take us through Pacolet, Cowpens, Green Pond and Woodruff, extending the Spartanburg cycling community throughout the Upstate.
Over the years, the Assaults have remained a constant while the cycling community has evolved. It now includes the annual Spartanburg Regional Classic as a part of USA CRITS Speed Week series held in downtown Spartanburg on the first Friday in May in conjunction with Spring Fling. This annual celebration of food, cycling, and community captures the new and growing spirit that represents Spartanburg.
Finally, along with the bicycle, place, and community—possibly a reflection of all of these together—cycling Spartanburg is also about food—not just eating while cycling, but gathering to socialize and eat after the rides.
About ten years ago, Paul LeFrancois, president of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, and I had a brainstorm and initiated a Wednesday evening ride starting in Converse Plaza at the former Terry’s Taproom. The idea was to join cycling with after-ride socializing. Now, most organized rides around Spartanburg involve local restaurants, such as downtown’s Delaney’s and an assortment of Mexican restaurants—Bronco restaurants on Blackstock and Union streets, El Mexicano in the Rocky Branch Plaza, Boiling Springs, and Compadre’s on Highway 29.
The cycling community also is connected to growing downtown Spartanburg, finding support from R.J. Rockers Brewery and a charitable organization, globalbike. Casual cyclists now can explore the downtown area now because Partners for Active Living have brought B-Cycle rentals to Spartanburg. There are two stations downtown and one each at Wofford and Converse colleges.
Cycling Spartanburg, then, is many things involving bicycles—a variety of places, a rich assortment in the local geography, and an ever-growing selection of places to meet, eat, and socialize after a tough day on the bicycle. But above all, cycling Spartanburg is, like the yearly ritual found in the Assaults, a community.
Photos by Karl Johnson and Rob Hrubala.
P. L. Thomas, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Dr. P.L. Thomas teaches in the education department at Furman University and has written commentaries for the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian and Education Week, among other journals. He is the 2013 winner of the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language by the National Council of Teachers of English.