Cheaha Challenge Ultra

Toughest organized century ride in the south, probably the whole country – the new Cheaha Challenge Ultra 200 km ride showcases some of the best terrain Alabama has to offer, which in my opinion is some of the best on the planet. I decided to make it “extra” ultra by riding to the start and then back home for a grand total of 293 miles and over 20,000 feet of climbing. Absolutely amazing day despite the occasional rain. I left the house at 2:30AM and rode over to meet Chris Shelton at the back of Liberty Park while Pete Foret, one of my RAAM crew followed behind to get more practice as a driver for RAAM.

After a fast ride over, we made it there about 30 minutes before the start. It was great hanging out with people and chatting before the start. Here’s one of me and my friend Jan Kolar before the start –

The ride started out FAST from the moment we left the parking lot to the initial climb up White’s Gap. I worked my way through the carnage and ended up chasing back onto the leaders across the top on AL-9. But when we hit the first sustained climb up to the Skyway Motorway (AL-281), I knew I was not going to be able to keep up with the leaders … too many miles in my legs to sustain that kind of intensity.

I ended up with a great group of guys and one lady who was killing it and we stuck mostly together until the timed climb up to the top of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. I had come off our group at the top of Horseblock b/c my rear derailleur Di2 cable had pulled loose. I think it may have been a combination of all the rain getting in there and loosening things up combined with shifting a ton to try to keep up with the group I was with, but when I pulled over to the side all I had to do was plug the cable back into the derailleur and everything was fine.

I started the timed climb on my own and ended up catching and passing just about everyone in our group to finish with a time of just over 20 minutes, good enough for the 5th fastest climb of the day and a new PR for me. My fellow climbing addicted friend from Birmingham, Mark Fisher, took the climb nearly 5 minutes faster than me with Huntsville’s Justin Prior in second a couple minutes back of Mark in second place. Micaiah Rockwell was another couple minutes back of that in third followed by Paul Haanschoten in fourth and then me in fifth just barely ahead of Justin Bynum, Jan Kolar, Randy Kerr, and Justin Lowe.

After the climb, it was a smaller group of guys that banded together all the way until the steep climbs up Bain’s Gap towards the end of the ride. Tony Esposito, Jamie Dorroh, David Sumerlin, Paul Haanschoten, and I spent a lot of time together just crushing the descents. I hit a max speed of 56 mph coming back down Horseblock, which was one of just seven different spots in the entire course exceeding 50 mph and three additional spots in the upper 40s. That’s also a pretty good way of ranking how tough and steep the climbs were!

Bain’s Gap was my undoing from this group. Having ridden to the start, I was already at 165 miles for the day when we hit Bain’s Gap for the first time. I had originally planned on riding the gravel climbs at the gap all the way up to the top to make it two additional cat 2 climbs, but I was moving so slow by this point I just opted to do the normal climbs on pavement where I nearly had to walk on both sides. Trying to tackle the gravel sections which are even steeper would have meant quite a bit of walking and extra time to complete the ride. Maybe next year!

I think my favorite picture from the day was pausing for a break with the Blue Goose mascot for the national wildlife refuge at the top of Bain’s Gap –

The final climb of the day was up Mountain Street to the Chimney Peak observatory. This cat 2 climb (if you start from the university itself) is super steep with grades above 20% in a couple different places. Plus, by this time in the day the rain had long stopped and the sun was out in full force making for a very hot climb. Check out the view from the top, though!

And here is one looking towards the top on my way up –

I hit 200 miles for the day, but it was an easy couple miles downhill back to the start where I took a shower and changed into a clean kit for my ride back home. The irony of taking a shower in order to change into a clean bike kit was not lost on me. It felt great, though, and I was looking forward to the ride home. During the ride, I had already decided on taking a more direct route home rather than trying to climb Cheaha a third time on the day given how tired I was feeling and the threat of more storms in the afternoon. I checked with Tony and Jan, and they gave me a great route to get from Jacksonville down through Anniston to Oxford. From there I worked my way over to the Talladega Superspeedway and took the Hwy 78 bridge across the Coosa for the first time since one of the Birmingham Bicycle Club centuries when I was still in high school.

What’s great about this route, too, is that during the 2010 Pro/1/2 Tour of Atlanta, Jan looked over at me and attacked saying “shake and bake” which became a calling card for trying to get away together during races over the past five years [shake and bake comes from the movie Talladega Nights]. That’s the only downside right now of all the training for RAAM I have been doing – I miss racing with all these guys from the southeast. Fun times!!!

Before the ride home, though, I enjoyed some really good pasta, a bunch of dinner rolls, and cookies and recapping the ride with everyone including fellow RAAM racer Erik Newsholme from Atlanta who is going to be racing RAAM this summer as well. Great chatting with him about the upcoming race, which is going to be here 4 weeks from today!

Here’s my heartrate data and stats for the entire day –

Annotated heartrate/power data from the 2015 Cheaha Challenge Ultra (click to enlarge)Annotated heartrate/power data from the 2015 Cheaha Challenge Ultra (click to enlarge)

Also, if you’ve ever wondered about how many shifts you do during a 293 mile ride, it was 4,716 for me or roughly one shift every 12.9 seconds. Click on the image below to view the complete data –

Cheaha challenge shifting data (click to view details on challenge shifting data (click to view details on

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