This year, Jacksonville, Ala. and Jacksonville State University will host a new start/finish for the Cheaha Challenge on the university’s campus. The changes make the first time since 1993 “The Toughest Ride in the South” is based outside Piedmont.
Mark Jones, Director of Recreational Sports at Jacksonville State University, believes the great working relationship between the university and city will have a positive impact on the event.
"Jacksonville State University and the City of Jacksonville are very excited about hosting the upcoming Cheaha Challenge," Jones said. " Several departments from both the city and university will be taking part in making sure this is a successful event. We want the riders and spectators to experience why we are the ‘friendliest campus in the South’ and enjoy the city’s location in the ‘gem of the hills.’ University President Bill Meehan and Mayor Johnny Smith are thrilled to host the ride, see it grow from year to year, and build a good relationship with the Southern Bicycle League.”
The Southern Bicycle League and the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association have partnered to produce the 2014 Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo, sponsored by Wells Fargo Advisors. The 22nd Annual Cheaha Challenge on Sunday, April 6 is the largest bicycle century ride in Alabama, with five cycling routes offered, ranging from 23, 44, 62, 84, to 104 miles. Named after the scenic Cheaha State Park, the three longest cycling routes will roll north and traverse through the park.
All riders will be provided timing chips. The times will be posted on the event website. There will be an exclusive time recorded for riders on the famous three-mile climb at Cheaha State Park, with special jerseys awarded to the fastest male and female cyclist. The man and woman with the fastest times on the climb will be designated King of the Mountain and Queen of the Mountain.
Tony Myers, Cheaha Challenge Ride Director, is pleased to have the ride hosted by Jacksonville State University.
“Along with the new start and finish line in Jacksonville, Alabama, we are pleased to offer new scenery, fantastic facilities for adequate parking and post-ride showers, and expanded lodging options. We will be able to accommodate more riders and offer more conveniences for our out-of-town visitors,” Myers said. “The Cheaha Challenge is for everyone. With the different route options, people of all ages and skill levels can enjoy a memorable day of cycling.”
Between 700-1,000 cyclists from more than 25 states are expected to participate in the Gran Fondo. Among them one can find Bart Bell, a Jacksonville State University graduate student and former national track cyclist champion.
Bell’s cycling career started after the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Over the next eight years, he was part of various championship teams, became the national champion, and set several qualifying records.
Bell’s promising career took a U-turn on June 28, 1992, in Blaine, Minn. during the Olympic Trials for the Barcelona games. While pedaling a tandem bike in the first of the best-of-three 1,5000-meter sprint championship races, only 40 meters from the finish line, he crashed. Bell hit his head and blacked out. He was comatose for nearly two weeks and in a state of semi-consciousness for three more. When he woke, he was suffering from temporary amnesia.
Even though Bell’s dream of becoming an Olympic athlete ended in Blaine, his passion for cycling is still strong.
“I am excited to see the event hosted here at my alma mater. The riders and spectators will be able to learn about the university and see why we love it so much,” Bell said. “I will probably not ride the longest route, but I certainly look forward to being one of many cycling enthusiasts.”
The ride is scheduled to begin April 6 at the Pete Mathews Coliseum with a mass start for all cyclists at 7:30 a.m. Until March 31, registration will be $45 per person for SBL members and $55 for non-SBL members. From April 1 to April 6, registration will increase by $5 per rider. Online registration is open for everyone and available at the event website. Included in the registration fee are a light breakfast before the ride, fully-equipped rest stops, deluxe post-ride meal, and 100% cotton, commemorative t-shirt.