Even after five years of participating in the grueling, 102-mile hill-laden Cheaha Challenge, Jimmie Wetzel still sometimes wonders why he comes back for more.
“Maybe I just like to suffer,” he said with a laugh.
Hundreds of cyclists from across the country once again converged in Piedmont Sunday for the 19th annual Cheaha Challenge, while hundreds more gathered there to participate in the second Foothills Classic Road Race.
While both races start in the same place in front of the Piedmont Community Center, they follow different courses. In addition, while both races are timed, the Foothills Classic is a professional race complete with prize money.
Both courses had neon green, blue and or yellow-clad cyclists traveling up and down steep hills through Piedmont and the Talladega National Forest.
Wetzel, a Hokes Bluff resident who works as a computer engineer, said the toughness of the Cheaha Challenge can vary for him from year-to-year.
“This is a wonderful ride when I’m in shape and a miserable one when I’m not,” he said, adding that he was not in great shape this year. “I have not had a lot of chances to ride this year, but I still wanted to do something to stay in shape.”
Wetzel said several knee surgeries were what pushed him into the world of cycling around 18 years ago.
“I tore ACLs in both legs – I was a big runner, but the injuries actually occurred while I was playing basketball,” he said. “I started riding bikes as part of the recovery.”
Lisa Wilson of Atlanta also got into cycling due to a knee injury.
“Actually, I’m a runner with a bum knee,” she said. “I was told to buy a bike, and it was the best thing I ever did.”
Though Wilson has been cycling for 10 years, Sunday was just her second time to participate in the Cheaha Challenge.
“It’s the camaraderie, being able to be tortured with friends,” said Wilson, who was part of a 20-member Atlanta-based cycling team.
Jeff Krivo of Kennesaw, Ga., was not part of a team, but was riding with a friend Sunday. Like Wilson, it was his second time to participate in the Cheaha Challenge.
“I love the ride and the hills are awesome,” he said.
Krivo said his friend told him about the event and got him into road biking about three years ago. Krivo had already been a proficient mountain biker for years, he said, adding that his first time in the race was tough, but he expected to do better this year.
“I’ll go longer – I’m in better shape,” he said.
Before the cyclists started slathering on sunscreen and lining up for the race, Lance Gilliand of Gadsden State Community College was out at the first rest stop of the Cheaha Challenge making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“I got here around 7:30 a.m., and I’ve made at least 50 sandwiches so far, and I’ll be out here all day,” he said.
Gilliand had some of his students volunteer at the rest stop to get some observation hours. He teaches in the college’s pre-athletic program, which is in its first year.
“We teach students to help athletes recover from injury and learn injury prevention,” Gilliand said.
Maggie Burn Owens, director of operations at the YMCA of Calhoun County said she and her volunteers had been at the rest stop since 6 a.m. and would be there until the race was over. Owens said the YMCA had sponsored a tent at the rest stop for the last five years.
“We’ve been making sandwiches, cutting fruit and cheering them on,” she said.
Owens said the cyclists are what keep her volunteering year after year.
“It’s great; you meet so many people – there’s even somebody here from Hawaii,” she said. “It’s a great community event for Calhoun County.”
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.