The Cheaha Challenge might be on track to record participation, with 700 riders registered so far. The Challenge will be held May 18-19.

“That’s about 20 percent over where we were last year,” said Brooke Nelson, ride director for the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association.

The Challenge is an annual cycling competition and the biggest bicycle race in Alabama. NEABA uses the opportunity to promote the organization’s goals and raise awareness for cycling as a pastime. Inaugurated in April 1993, the event has started and finished on Jacksonville State’s campus since 2014, becoming something of a local tradition there.

The Cheaha Challenge offers several distance options riders can choose from, including 24, 44, 62, 84, 100, and 126-mile courses. The 100-mile route is called the Century, and the 126-mile route is the Ultra.

In addition to the growing number of participants, many riders are coming from abroad. Nelson said she knew of one rider coming from Oman, and another from Iran. Darin Sims, NEABA’s vice president, said more than 10 foreign countries are represented this year.

The Challenge is a qualifier for the 2019 Gran Fondo World Championship, and the one qualifier for the Time Trial World Championship to be held in Poland later this summer. These are major cycling competitions, making the qualifier at Cheaha a draw that attracts riders from around the world.

Dustin Baker will be competing in the Time Trial. An Air Force veteran who lost feeling in his legs after an accident in Turkey, Baker said he was in a “dark place” for a time after losing the ability to walk. His outlook improved when he discovered handcycling, a form of cycling that lets riders pedal with their hands.

“Handcycling gives me a chance to be active and have a new mission in life,” Baker said.

Baker is hoping to achieve a time of around 21-23 minutes, which would qualify him for the U.S. Paralympic Athlete Program. The program allows competitive disabled athletes to try out for the Olympics, and Baker wants the opportunity to represent the U.S. in 2020.

“Our goal is to grow to the extent we can so more people will participate in cycling,” Sims said.

Nelson’s husband, Tom, NEABA’s president, echoed these sentiments, saying the organization’s first priority is “promoting cycling as a healthy lifestyle.”

NEABA leaders also want to show off the local area to those coming from far away.

“I love this area, and one of the reasons I moved back here is it’s so beautiful,” Brooke Nelson said. “I’m inviting all these people to come play in my backyard.” Nelson grew up in Talladega, but moved to Texas after earning her masters degree. She moved back to Alabama 20 years ago and has lived on Cheaha Mountain ever since.

Tom Nelson added that according to surveys the organization conducts each year “many people that come here come back,” due to the natural beauty and good biking terrain.

“It’s just such a great thing to share with people,” he said.

Brian Toone, an ambassador for the event, said he believes people will be excited about the 126-mile course, known as the Cheaha Ultra.

“It’s the longest and highest categorized climb in Alabama,” said Toone.

Asked what he enjoyed most about the course, Toone said, “It’s such a great way to see a scenic part of the state.”

All the courses begin at the Pete Mathews Coliseum on Jacksonville State’s campus. The Ultra and Century leads riders to the top of Cheaha Mountain before turning back and finishing back at the Coliseum. The other courses follow a similar path, but turn back at certain points along the route depending how far they’re going.

Toone also wanted to point out there are courses available for amateur cyclists who don’t feel like they can complete such a monstrous trial of endurance.

The Chief Ladiga Cruise takes place on a paved bike path and has distance options of 12, 25, and 50 miles, with rest stops scattered throughout. The point of the different trail options is to encourage people not heavily involved with cycling to give it a try and hopefully take up the hobby.

“We have something for everybody,” Tom Nelson said.

While the Challenge is a qualifier for future cycling events, he said, there is something for everyone at the event.

“I really encourage people to come and witness the the excitement of the start and finish line,” he said.

Besides the main event there will also be music, food, and a devotional on Sunday morning. Food is being provided by Effina’s and Cooter Brown’s, and musical entertainment will feature Robby & Mark and Albert Simpson & John Kulnich Duo, according to the official Cheaha Challenge website.

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