About 1,000 cyclists from around the world are set to descend on Calhoun County to take part in the Cheaha Challenge cycling competition this Saturday and Sunday, and it takes an army of volunteers to help keep everyone safe, organized and pedaling.
The Cheaha Challenge might be on track to record participation, with 700 riders registered so far. The Challenge will be held May 18-19.
With much of the course — from Jacksonville to Mount Cheaha and back — devoid of cell phone service, organizers turn to another form of communication: ham radio.
“Over the course of the two days, we’ll have 100 volunteer operators,” said Buddy Lique, who oversees the radio efforts for the cycling challenge. “Cell service is non-existent out there, so we are the only real way to provide real-time communication.”
Brooke Nelson, ride director for the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, said the service of the ham radio operators is essential to keeping the large groups of cyclists safe.
“When you put that many cyclists on roads, something is just going to happen,” Nelson said. “They are vital to our safety protocols. To have them be able to get in contact with emergency services immediately allows me to sleep at night. I often say I wouldn’t do this without them.”
According to the website of the National Association for Amateur Radio, ham radio is a nickname for amateur radio. Operators receive a license from the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast on frequencies known as “amateur bands” to communicate with other operators.
To explain the role of ham radio in the Cheaha Challenge, Lique cited an emergency in last year’s event that saw operators spring into action.
“We had one of our roving operators see an accident,” Lique recalled. “He was able to immediately contact emergency services, and we had the cyclist in an ambulance within three minutes.”
Lique said ham radio operators also coordinated an airlift of one cyclist who had a heat-related medical emergency in 2018’s event.
“There is not a year goes by that there’s not something we need to help with,” Lique said.
Lique is a member of the Calhoun County Amateur Radio Association, which he says has been volunteering its services to the Cheaha Challenge throughout the event’s entire 27-year history.
Lique himself became interested in ham radio after the April 27, 2011, tornadoes in Alabama wiped out more modern means of connection.
“I saw a need for communication then,” Lique said. “I started looking for other ways that we could rely on to communicate, and found ham radio.”
Lique now serves as the emergency communications coordinator for Calhoun County’s Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, which helps provide communication in the event of natural disasters that render normal forms of communication to fail.
As the cycling competition has expanded, now offering a time trial competition on the first day of the event, Lique said, efforts from ham radio operators have had to grow along with it.
“We’ll have 25-30 additional volunteers out there for the time trial,” Lique said.
Nelson said that the professionalism of Lique and the rest of the radio operators has always been a great help as she deals with planning the event every year.
“I never have to worry about them showing up or being organized,” Nelson said. “Buddy puts them in their positions, and they’ve got it down to a science.”
For Lique and the other ham radio operators, volunteering for the Cheaha Challenge comes from a love of what they do.
“Everything that we provide is all volunteer,” Lique said. “They all give their valuable time and effort, and we can’t thank everyone enough.”
Nelson echoed Lique’s sentiments.
“I’m forever in their debt,” Nelson said. “They’re a godsend.”