LIVE BLOG: Cheaha Challenge 2019

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Cheaha Challenge 2018

Hundreds of cyclists take on the 26th annual Cheaha Challenge, a gran fondo that travels from Jacksonville State University to the top of Cheaha Mountain. Kirsten Fiscus/ The Anniston Star

Hundreds gather today for a grueling bicycle ride up and down Mt. Cheaha, Alabama's highest peak.

The Cheaha Challenge isn't technically a bike "race." To long-distance biking aficionados, it's what's known as a gran fondo, which translates to English as "big ride."

How big? Some riders, in the extra-long run known as the Ultra, will pedal 126 miles today. 

Finishing at all is an accomplishment for many riders, and finishing first does matter to serious competitors, some of whom have traveled from overseas to compete here. 

Organizer Brooke Nelson said a record number of riders are expected to show up. On Friday afternoon, 989 riders were registered, and Nelson said she expected 1,000 by today. The previous record, in 2018, was 879 riders.

"We're the largest bike ride not just in Alabama, but probably in the Southeast," Nelson said. 

The Star has reporters along the route and will provide updates from start to finish. 

2:15 p.m. This concludes our coverage of the 2019 Cheaha Challenge. We'll be back next year!

2:10 p.m.

Dan Netzer, 46, of Norfolk, Va., is the fastest male rider of the day on the Century course with a time of 4 hours 41 minutes and 13 seconds. 

Netzer said he was “a little surprised” he had the fastest time of the day. He thought someone from one of the younger categories would’ve beat him. 

Going up the mountain, he said the group had shrunk to include one rider from each age group. 

“At that time, the older group, the 45-plus riders had caught the younger who started three minutes before us,” he said.  

He said his ride went great and that weather was “perfect” for the event. 

This is Netzer’s third year riding in the Challenge, which he said he likes because it’s so different from the terrain of his home area. 

“We have no hills, no mountains, no nothing,” he said. “It’s very very flat. So any time I can get onto a good quality race with terrain like this I jump at it.” 

Kat Sweatt, 33 from Birmingham was the fastest female rider of the day on the Century course with a time of 4 hours 58 minutes and 13 seconds. 

Sweatt described the ride as hard but said the win felt "great,” adding that per her past experiences with the challenge helped prepare her. 

“I’ve done this a few other times and you know what to expect,” she said. “So you try to make sure that I ride at my limit and don’t go past it.” 

Sweatt said she went in the ride with the goal of getting onto the podium but was still surprised by her win. 

“Climbing the Cheaha Mountian the first time, I was with a group of guys and I think I was the only girl," she said. "I knew if I could kind of hang with the guys a little longer the deal sealed.” 

-- Serena Bailey


2:05 p.m.

2 p.m.

1:45 p.m.

Kat Sweatt of Birmingham is the top female finisher, with a time of 4 hours, 58 minutes and 13 seconds. Sweatt was top overall finisher two years ago but this year Netzer will take that slot. 

1:40 p.m. 

Dan Netzer, 46, of Norfolk, Va. is the top male finisher with a time of 4 hours, 41 minutes, 31 seconds. Awaiting word on the top female finisher. 

1:15 p.m.

We're now hearing that the awards ceremony is perhaps another 15 minutes away. Meanwhile, plenty of riders are still racing back to Jacksonville. 

12:45 p.m.

The first Century riders have crossed the finish line. We expect to have the name of the top finisher, and ideally an interview, after the awards ceremony.

12:40 p.m.

Awaiting first finisher in the Century ride. Organizers have opened a race-results hut to keep track of times. 

12:30 p.m.

Home stretch.

12:20 p.m.

We're now past the cutoff time for riders to arrive at the top of Cheaha. Organizers decided that no one would be allowed to continue on the ride if they reached Cheaha later than noon. That keeps the slower Ultra and Century riders from arriving back in Jacksonville in the dark, something that's happened in past years. 

Remember, the Ultra is a full 126 miles of bicycling. 

Mechanic Patrick Wigley said there were fewer mechanical problems than usual this year. 

12:10 p.m.

Activity is winding down on the mountain, and the crowd at the start/finish line is growing. If past rides are any indication, we can expect the first century-ride finisher to arrive within the hour. 


Peter Baum’s bike broke seven miles into the ride, an experience he called “frustrating” since he had come here from Arizona.

“A $1,000 trip to get here to have the bike break in the first 20 minutes,” he said.

He and his nephew rode together in Georgia on Thursday with no problems, so the setback was unexpected.

He’d never done the Cheaha Challenge before but was looking forward to it. He had heard from other riders that it was well organized.

“Very few rides give you breakfast,” he said. This one does.”

A part that helps the bike shift gears, the derailleur, is what broke. Cheaha Challenge volunteers picked him up and brought him back to the starting line.

His nephew, who lives north of Atlanta, was still on the trail and had the car keys so Baum waited for him in the shade of the lunch tent near the finish line.

“I technically was the first one to finish,” Baum said.

-- Serena Bailey

11:55 a.m.

Steven Bryant is doing the 44-mile route today on his hand cycle because of a spinal injuries. While that means he goes slower than other riders up the hill, he said, coming down is a different story. 

“We usually play cat-and-mouse with some of the able-bodied riders,” he said. “We’ll lose them going up the hill. They’ll pass us but usually we can kind of catch them going down. We can draft off of each other better.” 

Sue Davis from Greenville, S.C., is a friend of Bryant’s who came out to ride with him and her husband,who is paralyzed and also uses a hand cycle. Davis uses a regular bike. 

“We just want to show people what can be done,” she said. “Anyone can ride.” 

Davis said her favorite part about cycling was the freedom. 

“You get out on the road and you’re free,” she said. “It’s like being a little kid again.” 

She also said she loved the camaraderie with other riders and the feeling of accomplishment at the end of a ride. 

-- Serena Bailey

11:45 a.m.

The wind is working in the riders' favor.

Bike mechanic Patrick Wigley is following a group of six or so riders going 19 mph uphill.

"That's pretty remarkable at this point in the ride," Wigley said.

He said riders can ride in lines to "trade off the wind resistance and conserve energy" on the way back.

Some riders are starting to get tired between Horseblock and Cheaha. "Got a long way to go," Wigley said. "But they've got all day to get there."

-- Tori Bedsole

11:35 a.m.

Michelle Kennedy, a Huntsville native, is enjoying the “spectacular scenery” during her first time riding the Cheaha Challenge.

She acknowledges the ride’s difficulty but is having fun... even on the climbs.

“Its a true test, but there is great scenery and tremendous pavements," she said. 

This is not Kennedy’s first ride, but she is proud of her stamina so far. The most difficult part of this particular ride was her mentality toward the long climbs.

“I didn’t think I could do a three-mile climb but I did it,” Kennedy said at the highest point in Alabama

Brad Cross, 32, took a short break at the top of Cheaha to cheer on other riders. 

“I’m just out here enjoying the ride and enjoying the day,” said Cross, a returning cyclist from Ocean Springs, Miss. “It’s a great, supported ride.”

-- Elizabeth Pritchett

11:20 a.m.

Confirmed: there were indeed more than 1,100 riders this year. 

11:15 a.m.

The first riders have passed Horseblock Mountain on their way down to the finish line. 

11 a.m.

Back at Pete Mathews Coliseum, some folks are just now crossing the finish line,likely people who registered for the shorter rides -- and by shorter, we mean rides of less than 100 miles. 

This might be a good time to note an unusual Cheaha Challenge tradition. People who finish the ride they've committed to will get a T-shirt. Those who don't will get an envelope full of ashes in the mail. The burning of the shirts is an annual ritual for Cheaha organizers. 

10:50 a.m.

As the fastest riders speed down the mountain, here's a look at some of the folks whose physical endurance lasted longer than their luck. A mechanical issue can slow down the best of riders. 

10:40 a.m.

Buddies Tom Sturm and Tom Fischbach came from Nashville for the Challenge. They stopped together at the top of Cheaha to talk to a reporter.

Even through Sturm rode this trail in 2015, he said it’s nicer this time around.

“The hill was nice. Steady. You can stay in the saddle.”

Fischbach agreed, rating the difficulty a seven.

“The roads are immaculate,” Fischbach said. Pretty solid but it is a little hot.”

Today's forecast high is 88 degrees.

Thomas Smith, 18, rates the course a nine out of 10 on the difficulty scale. He said his favorite part is the finish line.

“It’s relieving after all of the hard work,” he said.

Jessica Johnson, 42, from the Munford area says she feels “good, great.”

She made a quick stop to mix protein powder in to her water because she doesn’t eat before the ride.

Johnson comes to the #CheahaChallenge for “the shear fun and challenge of it.”

“That hill was hard,” she said in between sips of water. “It was very hard.”

-- Elizabeth Pritchett

10:30 a.m.

Nobody told Brian LeBlanc he was going to have to wear a devil suit. 

LeBlanc is a volunteer with Animal Medical Clinic, which is running Rest Stop No. 3, atop Horseblock Mountain. Regular Challenge volunteers know this is the most colorful of the stops, with a pitchfork-wielding devil to spur riders on. 

This is LeBlanc's first Challenge, and he arrived not knowing what his job would be. Here he is, getting into character. 

10:15 a.m.

The first waves of riders passed by Rest Stop No. 2 without stopping. When riders did stop, many of them said they were on the trail to enjoy it.

Jonathan Pitts from Anniston said he was undertaking the challenge for fun and that he appreciates the support of the rest area staff. He briefly stopped to refill his water bottle before going up the mountain.

It’s the third Challenge for Chase Garrard from Alexandria. He said he never looks forward to the climb to the top.

“I just don’t think about it,” he said. “Just go rest stop to rest stop.”

Jeremy Cunningham, of Gadsden, said the climb to the top is “a mental game... just keep pedaling and stop frequently.”

Stephanie Conrad, of Nashville, said she was here for fun. She did the century last year and is doing the 62-mile ride this year.

“Just think happy thoughts uphill” is her strategy for the climb.

She said her advice for future riders was to train.

“Just get on the bike for hours and train,” she said. “And then have fun when you’re out there.”

-- Serena Bailey

10:10 a.m.

Going up the mountain is harder, but coming down is more dangerousl. 

Coming down Horseblock Mountain riders can hit 60 mph, said Patrick Wigley, the ride's roving mechanic. 

The biggest concern is traffic. 

"People need to chill out and stop being in such a hurry," he said. "(People driving) make it dangerous for everyone."

-- Tori Bedsole

10 a.m.

"There's a reason they call this a challenge," said Sergio Castellanos of Pensacola, one of the first riders to actually stop after reaching the top of Mt. Cheaha. 

Castellanos and other riders at this rest stop have just completed the toughest part of the Challenge, biking to Alabama's highest point. 

Castellanos was actually in the emergency room last night for gastritis, yet he’s still out here riding. “My friend made me come and he’s ahead of me,” he laughed.

Charles Polmatier of Mountain Brook said "the diffculty" is exactly why he participates in the Challenge. He didn't talk long, stopping for a quick restroom break and a shot of pickle juice -- a rider favorite - before heading down the mountain. 

-- Elizabeth Pritchett

9:41 a.m.

The first riders have reached the top of Cheaha, The Star's Elizabeth Pritchett reports. About 10 riders have passed so far -- none of whom, understandably, have stopped to talk. It's all, or mostly, downhill from here for them. 

Meanwhile, riders on Horseblock Mountain are now beginning to stop and share their stories. 

9:37 a.m.

It's slow going, as roving mechanic Patrick Wigley follows bikers up the mountain.

"This is where the riders really start to feel it, Wigley said. 

Wig's love for biking started when a friend in the military challenged him to a triathlon, where participants swim, bike and run in the same race, in 1992. When he retired from the military, he worked for another bike shop before opening his own.

-- Tori Bedsole

9:20 a.m.

Things are unfolding fast on the Challenge route. The first wave has passed Horseblock Mountain. The first wave of riders actually willing to stop and talk are now at Rest Stop. No. 2. Race organizers and reporter Elizabeth Pritchett await the first riders to reach the top of Mt. Cheaha, Alabama's highest point. 

9:16 a.m.

Here's another look at the first wave of bikers as they passed Rest Stop No. 2. They're past No. 3, Horseblock Mountain, now. 

9 a.m.

The first riders have reached the top of Horseblock Mountain. 

It's easily the end of the first big climb and easily the most colorful of the stops. In past years it's featured a lot of Tour de France-inspired elements, including a person in a devil suit who taunts riders as they complete the climb. The Star's Michaela Hancock reports that this year's Devil has just arrived at the site. 

8:50 a.m.

The first riders have passed Rest Stop No. 2, a little later than volunteers expected. We'll try to get interviews with the first riders who stop. 

8:40 a.m.

The race has its first mechanical casualties, and instead of a flat or a broken chain, it's a transmission problem. 

Pete Baum, a retired member of the military, came from Phoenix, Ariz. for the ride. A broken derailleur ended his ride about an hour in. (A derailleur is part of the gear-shifting system on a multiple-speed bike.)

8:30 a.m. 

We are still awaiting riders at Rest Stop No. 2. and there's no sign of the Devil on Horseblock Mountain. 

This story, from 2017, ends with a short peek at the devil-suit tradition at the Horseblock stop. 

8:15 a.m.

We're still waiting for the first riders to pass Rest Stop No. 2, the last rest stop before the big climb up the mountain. 

Casey Wynn is already here with her fellow volunteers, from Buster Miles Chevrolet in Heflin. She's stacking peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for riders to grab. She says she'll make 20 loaves' worth by the end of the day. 

The rest stop has snacks and drinks for the riders including water, Gatorade, pickle juice, trail mix, and sweets in addition to sandwiches. 

The climb is where the Challenge first begins to take a toll on both riders and their bikes. Roving mechanic Patrick Wigley says flat tires and borken chains are typically the top issues. 

-- Serena Bailey and Tori Bedsole

8 a.m.

Ride organizers are also seeing off the participants of the Ladiga Cruise, a less grueling fun-ride along the Ladiga Trail. Participation in the Cruise also seems to be up this year. 

7:53 a.m.

The last wave of Ultra riders is off, and so is Patrick Wigley, owner of Wig's Wheels, who will be riding the course to provide help to bikers with mechanical problems. Star reporter Tori Bedsole is riding along with him.

7:44 a.m.

Star reporter Serena Bailey is at Rest Stop No. 2, the last stop before bikers begin their serious mountain climbs. Organizers say they expect the first riders here between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.

Rest Stop No. 2 is also a communications hub for the ride. Much of the ride is through forested mountains where there's little cell service, and ham radio operators are helping out in case there's an emergency. 

Lack of cell service isn't the only communications barrier. Twitter for some reason is flagging Bailey's tweets about Rest Stop No. 2 as "sensitive content." We're not sure what's wrong with photos of people opening coolers or operating radios, but we hope the ban will be lifted soon.

-- Tim Lockette, from reporting by Serena Bailey

7:30 a.m.

The ride begins, with the first of about 1,100 participants heading out, to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama."

7:27 a.m.

Just a few more minutes. 

7:15 a.m.

The ride begins in 15 minutes. A few minutes ago, riders gathered for a devotional.

Riders, some new to the Challenge, will be lining up shortly. Here's a look at the scene:

6:50 a.m.

The Challenge has a record number of riders again, for the fifth year in a row. According to organizer Brooke Nelson, 1,055 riders were signed up as of Saturday night, with the number expected to top 1,100 by the time the ride begins. 

That's well above last year's number. One reason Nelson said earlier this week, is a new Saturday event. Challenge organizers held time trials in Jacksonville Saturday for riders hoping to qualify for the UCI championship ride in Poland. Many of those riders are staying for the Challenge.

--reporting by Tori Bedsole

6:30 a.m.

Reporter Tori Bedsole (@ToriBedsole) will be riding along with Patrick Wigley, the Challenge's roving mechanic, to watch as he works with riders who've faced breakdowns along the course. As riders arrive, Bedsole reports that today's youngest participant is an 11-month-old riding in a basket on a bike. 

6 a.m.

The sun's not up yet, but there's plenty of pre-dawn light at Pete Mathews Coliseum, where the first of roughly 1,000 riders begin to check in for the ride. 

Riders can expect a hot day. According to the National Weather Service, the high today will be 88 degrees, with no rain in the forecast for Calhoun County or Cheaha. 

The Star has four reporters on along today's Challenge route. To stay up-to date on the ride follow @ToriBedsole, @michaela_danae, @serenabailey and @elizmichpritch.