The biggest bike ride in Alabama!
Brooke Nelson has been the ride director of the Cheaha Challenge (www.cheahachallange.com) since shortly after the 2014 ride and in the past 5 years, ride participation has increased 188%. Since 2017 when it became the only UCI Qualifier, Alabama’s biggest ride has become known nationally and internationally. The 2019 ride had participants from 31 states and 13 countries. So, who is Brooke Nelson, who took a very good ride and made it great?
Brooke and her husband Tom (who so happens to be the president of NEABA – Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association www.neaba.net) are the proud parents of 3 young men ranging in age from 24-33. They returned from Texas to the Anniston area, where Brooke grew up, about 20 years ago. At that time Tom and Brooke’s brother, Barry Nicholls went into business together and expanded the well known Animal Medical Center on Quintard Avenue. And, the Nelson family actually has a cabin in Cheaha, with their backyard abutting a national forest. As Brooke says, given a few long weekends, she can walk out her back door and hike all the way to Canada.
Brooke has been involved in sports all her life. She has fond memories of her father, who served in the Navy, waking Brooke and Barry up early in the morning for calisthenics. Brooke’s first bike was a Huffy with a banana seat. She graduated from that to a Schwinn and she continued to keep at it, eventually getting into triathlons about 28 years ago. Brooke is an accomplished triathlete and believes in the concept of better living through fitness.
So, when she was approached by her brother and Mike Poe, who previously had directed the Cheaha Challenge, she agreed to use her marketing skills and combine that with her passion for fitness to take on the role of race director for the Cheaha Challenge. And, as they say, the rest is history.
The ride’s start was moved from Piedmont to Jacksonville. And, the ride, which had been held in conjunction with the Sunny King Criterium and the Noble Street Festival, split off so that it could be conducted on the same day year after year (the 3rd Sunday in May). Brooke was instrumental in adding the Ultra – a grueling double metric century (this year’s course was 126 miles long with just over 13,500 of climbing) as well as a fun family styled cruise event on the Chief Ladiga Trail (www.silvercometga.com) where riders can do an out and back of 50 miles. The Ride still offers distances of 24, 44, 62, 84 and 100 miles (with just shy of 10,000 feet of climbing) in addition to the Ultra. And, in 2019, another event was added – the day before the Challenge, a time trial of 12 miles from Piedmont to Jacksonville, all on the Ladiga trail, was offered. 88 people participated in this inaugural event which also is a UCI World Championship qualifier.
Soon thereafter Cheaha was recognized as one of the top 10 Gran Fondos in the United States as well as a UCI Qualifier. Brooke credits the success of the ride to the army of volunteers who work – this year it was slightly over 500. The Ride gives back to the community in many ways and one of these is by its support of NICA teams (www.alabamamtb.org) . About a half dozen local high school mountain biking teams are supported by the Challenge and in turn, these teams provide scores of volunteers. The economic impact of the Ride to the local community is now right at a million dollars, all of which is accomplished on a budget of less than $140,000, made up primarily of Ride entry fees and sponsorships.
Just a few more words about the Ultra – the ride is so difficult that fewer than 50% of people who sign up and attempt it complete it within the time deadlines – this year 274 tried/131 did it. There is a 22% grade climb at mile 124 so there’s that. All participants who finish are given a finisher’s shirt which sport a different motto each year (SHIRTS). However, all people who try and fail are sent the ashes of their shirts. Brooke came up with this idea, she says, from her own “evil mind.” And, while sending ashes initially caused a pretty good bit of controversy, Brooke tells many stories of people finishing the Ultra with the ashes of last year’s failed attempt taped to their bicycle.
In addition to the Challenge, Brooke is extremely excited about several other things going on in the northeast Alabama cycling world. Coldwater Mountain, which is a mountain biking trail of 38 miles (runners are able to run in the opposite direction) is poised to move from its Bronze status to silver status (www.imba.com/project/coldwater-mointain).This upgrade is based in large part on the proximity of other well maintained and well used mountain bike trails in the area – 130 miles of trails within a 25 mile radius of downtown Anniston (www.pinbike.com/news/local-flavors-the-complete-mountain-bike-guide-to-calhoun-county-alabama.html). Other nearby trails include Coleman Lake (40 miles-horse and mountain bike), Kentuck ORV (23 miles – ORV and mountain bike/gravel) and Henry Farm (6.5 miles – mountain bike and hike). NEABA hosts a 3 day fat tire festival in mid-October which has been adopted by SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association) as its southeast regional festival http://cwmfattirefest.com/index.html).
NEABA, after 2 years of all volunteer work, recently completed the transformation of its new headquarters building located at 26 West 10th Street in Anniston. The building also is used by the running club (Brooke still is an avid triathlete meaning that she runs and swims in addition to cycles) and it already has served as a meeting place for some pretty prestigious events. Recently the executive board of IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association – www.imba.com) met in Anniston at NEABA headquarters. And, the Alabama Backroad Series (www.alabama-backroads-cycling.com) award dinner and banquet will be held there in January 2020.
So, whether it’s riding to the State’s highest point during the Cheaha Challenge, riding some of the best single track in the State at Coldwater Mountain or having a good place to meet, then it seems like the northeast Alabama area is a pretty good place to go. And, having Brooke (and Tom) Nelson advocating for cyclists isn’t too bad either.