By David Haynes
Each April hundreds of bicyclists from throughout the Southeast and beyond converge on the Calhoun County cities of Anniston and Piedmont to celebrate their sport with a weekend of bicycle-themed festivals, races and the 102-mile Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo ride.
The events are organized and coordinated by the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association (NEABA) and include the Noble Street Festival in Anniston on Saturday, professional bicycle racing in Anniston’s streets Saturday evening, then conclude on Sunday with the Foothills Road Race and the Cheaha Challenge, each of which begin and finish at the Piedmont Civic Center. This year’s events will be April 5 and 6.
Mike Poe, president of the NEABA, said that for most of its 21-year history the Sunday ride from Piedmont to the highest point in Alabama at Mount Cheaha and back was known simply as the “Cheaha Challenge.” Last year they adopted the “Gran Fondo” title. He explained that a Gran Fondo – which is a long bicycle ride with other enhancements like meals and t-shirts added – have been popular in Europe for years. “We realized that the Cheaha Challenge was already being run like a Gran Fondo, so we added the designation,” he says.
The 2013 events were among the best attended ever, Poe says, noting that Sunday morning nearly 900 riders from 26 states pedaled out of Piedmont as participants in either the 72-mile Foothills Road Race or the Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo.
The 565 riders in the Cheaha Challenge ranged in skill level and experience from beginning bicyclists to seasoned experts and the format and course for the event was styled accordingly. Poe explained there are five turn-around points at staffed rest stops along the course so cyclists could tailor the ride to their skill and endurance level. Turning around at the first stop made it a 26-mile ride.
Other turn-around points were for total ride lengths of 47, 66, 88 and 102 miles.
Beginning at Piedmont, which is about 700 feet above sea level, the course follows Alabama Highway 9 south to U.S. Highway 78, then to the Skyway Motorway for the long climb to the highest point in Alabama at Mount Cheaha State Park at over 2,400 feet. Those turning around there make a total ride of 88 miles.
For those riding the entire 102-mile course from Piedmont, past Cheaha State Park, to Adams Gap and back, the challenging course had climbs totaling 7,600 feet!
For more details or to register for the Gran Fondo race, visit neabc.org.