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Facing the Beast: The 11,000-foot climb of The Assault on Mount Mitchell

By: Jamie Prince  February 26, 2024

The Assault on Mt. Mitchell, known as "The Beast of the East," challenges cyclists over 102.7 miles, scaling the tallest summit east of the Mississippi.

There’s a reason they call this summit “The Beast of the East” and it’s the same reason you can spot The Assault on Mount Mitchell on Gran Fondo Guide’s list of Top 10 Gran Fondos in North America. The reason is simple: this ride is a monster that refuses to let you off easy.

Over 102.7 miles, cyclists test their skill and their will in The Assault on Mt. Mitchell, scaling the tallest summit east of the Mississippi by ascending more than 11,000 feet from start to finish. Add to that hairpin turns and the potential for extreme weather as you near the top, and you begin to understand that for most of the 500+ cyclists who take on Mitchell each May, the ride (yes, ride not race) is less about being the fastest and more about finishing.

The Assault on Mt. Mitchell started in 1975 when Spartanburg, SC cyclist John Bryan, a founder of the recently formed Freewheelers Club, decided to challenge himself by riding from his hometown to the peak of Burnsville, NC’s Mt. Mitchell. He pulled a group together to join him.

The rest, as they say, is history. On May 20, 2024, the 47th Assault on Mt. Mitchell will follow the same road course Bryan took nearly five decades ago. Over the years, the event has earned numerous accolades. Bicycling Magazine named it one of its 30 Hardest Hill Climbs, Blue Ridge Outdoors readers named it the “Best Cycling Event”, and “Mitchell,” as it’s called by the faithful repeat riders, constantly finds its way into Gran Fondo lore for its challenging reputation.

For Paul LeFrancois, whose first attempt to tame the Beast in 1984 took him 11 hours from start to finish, the course is familiar but the challenge is still there.

“All the previous times I’ve ridden Mitchell do little to quell my nerves each year,” said LeFrancois, who currently serves as a board member of both the Freewheelers Club and its 501(c)(3) organization, the Freewheelers Cycling Association, which is responsible for producing the event. “But seeing the hundreds of faces—some who traveled across the world to get here and try the same thing I’m going to try again—that gives me a spark. We’re all going to take on this challenge together. There’s common ground at the starting line.”

After a brief welcome and opening ceremony, cyclists leave the starting line in downtown Spartanburg, SC at 6:30 a.m. and have until 4:30 pm to make it into the gates of Mt. Mitchell State Park with an additional hour to finish. The fastest pedalers typically push through the finish line five or six hours after they start.

Because The Assault on Mt. Mitchell is a point-to-point road course, the event’s planners use 17 trucks to transport the riders’ bikes back down the mountain, 20 buses to reunite cyclists with their bikes and families, 100+ volunteers handing out thousands of snacks and refreshments along the way, 650 meals served, and around 500 cups of traditional celebratory hot tomato soup served at the summit. The proceeds of this gargantuan charitable effort allow the Freewheelers to support local nonprofits that include the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mt. Mitchell State Park, and organizations like Partners for an Active Living (PAL) which help provide bicycles to those in need. None of this would be possible without the loyal support of the riders, who come from all 50 states and around the world, the volunteers, and the event’s sponsors including Hincapie Sports, OneSpartanburg, Piedmont Natural Gas, Kuat Racks, BMW Performance Center, Kentwool, Prisma Health, Trek Spartanburg, REI and more.

“There’s no way around it—this is an event with a lot of moving parts—and there’s no way we could do it without community support from our volunteers and our sponsors,” said Karl Johnson, current president of the Freewheelers Club. “We are more than fortunate to be able to say that we have maintained the support of our community and kept this event going now for 47 years.”

In the late 1990s, demand led the Freewheelers to offer a second course on Ride Day, one that could serve as a stepping stone to tackling the iconic Mitchell course. The less-monstrous but still rewarding Marion course runs concurrently with the Mitchell course for the first 74 miles, ending in Marion, NC (or, for Mitchell riders, Rest Stop No. 5), which is just shy of the grueling climb that is the hallmark of the Assault on Mt. Mitchell.

So, what makes all of these people come together each year to tackle the “Beast of the East?” Well, if you know, you know. And if you don’t know, then there’s a great way to find out. Register and experience what is considered a bucket list ride for serious cyclists!