Cheaha Challenge 2014
Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star/File

On May 17, hundreds of cyclists will gather at Pete Mathews Coliseum on the campus of Jacksonville State University, at the starting line for the annual Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo bike ride.

Ride director Brooke Nelson (who helped turned Anniston’s Woodstock 5K into a Really Big Deal) has introduced several new twists to this year’s Cheaha Challenge, including an easy Cruise ride for kids and families, a daylong kids festival and some special Cheaha Challenge libations.

For complete details, visit www.cheahachallenge.com.

1. Just how tough is this "toughest ride in the South?"

In past years, it’s been tough enough, featuring a 100-mile bike ride that climbs up to the top of Mount Cheaha and back again. Sections of the course have nicknames like "Oh Shift" and "Not Again."

This year, the ride is even tougher with the addition of an Ultra option ­— 124 miles (200K) — that sends cyclists up all the major mountains in our area, for a total of 11,733 feet of climbing.

Cyclists can also opt for shorter distances of 24, 44, 62, 84 or 100 miles.

2. Good grief, whose idea was this?

A guy named Mike Vickers, a past president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club, got the idea back in 1992 to host a 100-mile bike ride up Mount Cheaha and back. In 23 years, the Cheaha Challenge has grown to be the largest century ride in the Alabama, according to race organizers.

3. Who’s crazy enough to ride a bike for 100 miles or more up a mountain?

Lots of folks! Last year, 499 cyclists registered for the Cheaha Challenge, and more than 170 of them rode the 100-mile route. Only 11 percent of the riders are from the Calhoun County area. The rest come mainly from the Southeast, but some come from as far away as Alaska and Canada.

The rider who brings the most crazy may be Brian Toone of Birmingham, who is the official ambassador for this year’s Ultra ride. Toone considers the 124-mile Ultra to be a good "warm up" for the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile bike race from California to Maryland that he will ride in June.

If you happen to be this kind of crazy, you can still register to ride in this year’s Cheaha Challenge. Registration is $65 through May 16, or $70 on May 17. Online registration is available at www.cheahachallenge.com.

4. I’m not that tough. Is there something for me?

Certainly! The Chief Ladiga Cruise ride is a kinder, gentler ride of 24 miles on the paved Ladiga Trail bike path. There will be three rest stops available along the route. And you don’t have to do the whole 24 miles if you don’t want to. Grab your kids, grab your bikes, the Chief Ladiga Cruise starts at 8 a.m. May 17 at Pete Mathews Coliseum at JSU. It’s free for kids 10 and under, $25 for everybody else, online registration is available at www.cheahachallenge.com.

5. Where is the best place to see the Cheaha Challenge cyclists?

At the starting line at 7:30 a.m. May 17 at Pete Mathews Coliseum at JSU. It will be an ocean of spandex, as far as the eye can see.

There will be bleachers set up for spectators, and JSU band members will play the national anthem.

6. Is there anything for kids to do?

Yes there is! New this year is KidFest, a family festival that will include wildlife presentations, casting contests for young anglers, rock painting, face painting, geocaching, a mountain bike skills mini-workshop and a soccer skills mini-workshop. Vendors will have food and drinks available. KidFest is from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. May 17 at the JSU soccer field. It’s free and open to anyone.

7. What does "Gran Fondo" mean anyway?

It’s Italian for "big … um… fondo." It’s a type of long-distance bike ride started in Italy in the 1970s.

8. Wait, is this anything like the Tour de France?

Well, the Cheaha Challenge is shorter, and not in France, but there are a few similarities. There is a King/Queen of the Mountain contest for the fastest male and female rider up the three-mile climb to the highest point in Alabama. Winners receive a red polka-dotted jersey, just like they do at the Tour de France.

There are seven rest stops along the Cheaha Challenge route, staffed by an army of volunteers. One of them features a Tour de France theme and — just like in France — will feature a guy in a devil suit brandishing a pitchfork to "encourage" the cyclists as they climb the mountain.

9. How does one recover from a 124-mile bike ride?

Might we suggest a pint of Cheaha Challenge Nut Brown Ale, a custom beer created by Cheaha Brewing Company in Anniston? Online reviews have praised its "deep, toasted malt flavor."

10. I’m tired just reading all of this. Can I get a cup of coffee?

Not just any coffee. You need a cup of Cheaha Challenge Grind, specially created by Southern Girl Coffee, a local roaster in Oxford. It’s a full-medium roast with hints of sweet milk chocolate. It will be for sale on ride day at Pete Mathews Coliseum, and the rest of the time at Southern Girl Coffee, 31 Choccolocco St., Oxford, or at the Oxford and Anniston farmers markets.

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.