By Brad Wright, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
When it came to cycling, John Bryan was simply a Southern pioneer. In the 1970s, when the idea of a bicycle as a legitimate means of transportation was an afterthought at best, laughable at worst, he used his on his daily commute. It should be mentioned, however, that this was a commute between Spartanburg and Greenville.
He was a founding member of the Freewheelers of Spartanburg cycling club. In 1983 he became one of the first American cyclists to participate in the prestigious Paris- Brest-Paris in France. This 750-mile trek between the cities of Paris and Brest is one of the world’s oldest and most venerated cycling events, a 90-hour challenge only the most accomplished cyclists can undertake. But his greatest achievement came in 1974, when he got a crazy idea and for the first time set out from his Spartanburg doorstep to conquer Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.
The next year he was joined by a small group of friends from the Freewheelers of Spartanburg. When they began, their only incentive was the challenge of conquering the 102-mile journey (and, legend has it, a hidden six-pack of beer somewhere along the route). There were no finishers that first year, but with their appetites whetted, the allure of reaching the mountaintop cemented itself in their imaginations and became an annual trial.
From such humble and unassuming beginnings the Assault on Mount Mitchell has grown into a world-renowned event that regularly features over 1,000 participants from all across America and the world. The year 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the ride, and it shows no signs of slowing down, even inspiring similar endurance events across the region; from the Blood, Sweat & Gears ride in Valle Crucis, N.C., to the 6 Gap Century out of Dahlonega, GA.
Although Bicycling magazine routinely lauds the course as one of the 10 toughest in America, John was never one to let it go to his head. Content to remain quietly in the background, he was dedicated to ensuring that each year’s ride was better than the last.
In the beginning, it was commonly accepted that whoever was serving as the president of the Freewheelers club would be responsible for handling the responsibilities of that year’s ride. Despite not necessarily being in the leadership position, John was still a ubiquitous presence. Constantly working to ensure that riders’ safety was paramount, he had a hand in designing the course to ensure minimal interaction with motorists and other hazards. A few minor changes notwithstanding, his course design is still in use today, and remains as challenging to riders as ever.
John would shepherd the event for years, and eventually took over the myriad challenges of implementing each ride. After several years at the helm, the event outgrew a volunteer’s capacity, and with an annual budget approaching $200,000, the club decided to hire directors to take on the massive load. John, a native of Athens, Al., died at age 74 in 2009 after a long bout with lymphoma.
John Bryan’s vision was not exclusive to creating a world-class test of endurance. In addition to bringing exceptional visibility to the Spartanburg community, his efforts to create a thriving bicycle culture in our city have paid dividends. He was also a champion of the Biketown initiative that was instrumental in securing Spartanburg’s place as South Carolina’s first nationally recognized Bicycle Friendly Community.
The evidence that his love of cycling has influenced our town is everywhere. You can see it at the start of every Assault on the steps of the Memorial Auditorium, the annual Spartanburg Regional Criterium, and from any of the five B-Cycle stations Partners for Active living has installed to make cycling a simple, fun, and effective way to get around.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Assault on Mt. Mitchell is a continuing tribute to the legacy of a man who made cycling a defining feature of not only his life, but of Spartanburg as well. As the ride continues to grow in stature and be a leader in the larger cycling community, we can be sure that the legend of John Bryan will be riding alongside all the way to the top.
Brad Wright, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Brad Wright is a Spartanburg native and freelance dilettante, recently returned to the Hub City after an extended tour of the Southeast. When he’s not entertaining his lab Rex Banner you can find him volunteering at Hub City Bookshop and the County History Museum. He loves to discuss pop culture ephemera, the Appalachian Trail and his recent appearance on Jeopardy!