The Cheaha challenge was the brainchild of Mike Vickers past president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club, now the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association.
Mike had a vision of the bike club holding a ride from Piedmont down Highway 9 up the scenic drive over Cheaha Mountain to Adam's Gap and back.
My first response when Mike told me about his grand idea was: "Who in the world would want to do that?"
We were cycling together down Highway 9 early one spring morning in 1990 when I first heard his idea.
He explained to me that he wanted to establish a challenging bicycle ride up Cheaha Mountain. When he finished his description, I thought it was a rather wild idea to say the least. To ride from Piedmont, down HWY 9 (I could understand this - this area was made for cycling - long, gentle slopes, beautiful views.), up the Scenic Parkway - all the way - to the top of Cheaha Mountain. Then, down to Adam's Gap. Then, turn around and go back. 102 miles. 8 major climbs in each direction. Over 7,000 feet of elevation gain.
But, Mike Vickers convinced me that people would want to do it.
After all, the little town of Wichita Falls, Texas had a ride called "The Hotter n' Hell Hundred," a hundred mile century ride through north Texas. What's in Wichita Falls, really? Why would people want to drive or fly all the way out there to ride 100 miles on a bicycle? In August. Well, apparently it was fun, it was challenging and everybody was doing it. This ride is now capped at 10,000 riders.
So, Mike convinced me that "if we did it" - if we established this ride to the top of the highest point in our state on a scenic drive along the world's oldest mountain chain - that people would come and ride it. We did, and, they have, ever since spring of 1993.
The Cheaha Challenge is now the largest century ride in the State of Alabama and is part of the reason our area is becoming such a destination for cyclists. First, nature blessed us with the highest mountain in Alabama, and some of the most beautiful valleys (our Alexandria and Choccolocco Valleys) and with forested mountain bike trails. We have the state's first rail-trail in our Chief Ladiga Trail. So, there are many reasons to grab your bike and come to our area.
A multitude of volunteers and sponsors have made the Cheaha Challenge ride special - it is undoubtedly one of the best-supported century rides anywhere. From the registration people to the safety folks to the smiling faces at all the different rest stops - we welcome our local cyclists and those from afar - California, France and other places. There's the friendly folks in this section of Alabama. There's all the Public Safety groups along the route - out to help if needed and to cheer on the cyclists. Then, there's the crazy rest stops - one year there was one with a Tour de France theme complete with the famous Tour devil, a small Eiffel Tower and even two pretty podium girls. And, then, there are the views along Skyline Drive as it leads to the top of Alabama.
Mike Vickers was right. The Cheaha Challenge is worth a drive.
Recorded by Barry Nicholls, 2014
Why We Do It
Mark Wiltshire, M.D. was a local family practice physician and president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club for several years. Mark was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in March of 1997 and he died in October later that year.
Dr. Wiltshire was passionate about cycling; frequently leading local road and mountain bike rides. Year after year he was very involved in organizing the Cheaha Challenge which started in 1993 - even after his diagnosis in 1997.
Mark was a big supporter of the Chief Ladiga Trail - a local Rails-to-Trails project. At the time of Mark's death, only a few broken miles of trail existed in Alabama - mainly in Piedmont. Thanks to the cooperation of the cities of Anniston, Weaver, Jacksonville, and Piedmont, and support from the Calhoun County Commission, the Cleburne County Commission, Jacksonville State University, the Chief Ladiga Rail Trail Board, and many local concerned citizens, the Chief Ladiga Trail is now complete from Anniston to the Georgia state line where it connects to Georgia's Silver Comet Trail, creating a paved greenway from Anniston to Smyrna, Georgia - a distance of approximately 100 miles. It is the longest continuous paved rail trail in the U.S.! Mark would be proud and excited about the trails continued development.
The organizers of the Cheaha Challenge work hard each year to host the ride in a fashion that would be pleasing to Mark. We also donate a portion of the ride proceeds to the Chief Ladiga Trail in his honor. Since 1998, we have donated over $22,000 to the Trail. Thank you for participating in our event so that we can continue to support this wonderful rail trail project.
Recorded by Barry Nicholls, 2014