Cheaha Challenge good for Jacksonville, area economy

Brooke Nelson at the Jacksonville Exchange Club.

Ride director of the popular Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo & ULTRA shared with Exchange Club members her excitement over the 2018 event set for May 20. The annual event and other biking events in Calhoun County are estimated to have had a $2 million impact last year. Seventy-seven percent of the more than 800 registrants came from outside the county. Those figures are expected to climb this year.

Cheaha Challenge is a 100-mile ride that starts in Jacksonville and extends to Mt. Cheaha in Cleburne County, but the event offers shorter routes of 24, 44, 62, and 84 miles. The ULTRA is a more difficult route of 124 miles.

“People come into Calhoun County and seek places to run and bike,” Nelson said. “The Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association (NEABA) has a large volunteer workforce and a great board.”

She has been a member of NEABA for the past 19 years, and her husband, Tom, is this year’s president. The Cheaha Challenge started 26 years ago.

Nelson said key factors in the success of the Cheaha Challenge are the local volunteers and leadership, the accommodating venue at Jacksonville State University, and the variety of options attracting all levels of riders. However, Nelson attributes the most significant growth to Union Cycliste Internationale choosing the Cheaha Challenge as the qualifier for both the 2017 and 2018 World Championships held in Europe each summer. The Cheaha Challenge is the only qualifier in the United States.

Nelson expressed appreciation for the City of Jacksonville’s willingness to host the event and said Jacksonville State University plays a big part in welcoming cyclists, and the university also houses many of those who cannot find hotel rooms during the Cheaha Challenge.

Other events that have begun attracting tourists to Calhoun County are the Chief Ladiga Cruise, a family biking event, and the Fat Tire Fest, a mountain-biking event.

Calhoun County is on the verge of being named an International Mountain Biking Association Gold Level Ride Center because it has more than 100 miles of trails. Included are trails at Henry Farm, McClellan, Coldwater Mountain, Black Creek Trails, Cheaha Mountain and Coleman Lake. The county is ripe for more tourism opportunities, such as a gravel bike event and a triathlon. •

“People who come here want to spend,” Nelson said and added that tourism in Calhoun County is up by 11 percent compared to the state’s statistic, which increased last year by 5.4 percent.

Her enthusiasm for sports started in childhood when her father encouraged her and her brother, Barry Nichols, to stay active. His motto, presented to her when she was sad because she was teased for being skinny, was “Do the best you can with what God gave you.” She said her father’s motto has kept her motivated to highlight the advantages that Calhoun County offers. The ever-increasing number of trails in and around the mountains are some of the county’s best features.

Nelson ended by answering questions from the membership.

The Exchange Club welcomed new member Katie Exum who was presented by her husband Scott. Members recognized outstanding students. Nominations are now open for the Golden Deed banquet in March.