Buckle in folks. This one is going to be long. Some quick background first: Kim Murrell is a well respected mastermind behind a number of bikepacking routes all over the southeast. She coordinates the grand depart for the Three Rivers Way bikepacking race each May. A lot of times this conflicts with the Cheaha Challenge, but this year she bumped up the starting time to Thursday at 6:30am. With the Cheaha Challenge not starting until Sunday at 7:30am, I calculated I could do both!
The Cheaha Challenge is a steadfast pillar of cycling in Alabama. Brooke Nelson and her husband Tom do a phenomenal job putting on this event every year. As long as I’m physically able to ride a bike, I will be doing the Cheaha Challenge. This year, since it was going to be on the back-end of a long bikepacking trip, I didn’t have any high expectations for the race other than to finish. Instead, I felt amazing and ended up in 10th place in the ultra!
Here is the map of my 928 mile route with 85,000 feet of climbing!
Day 1 – GREEN – Tuesday @ 9:42pm – Wednesday @ 7:30pm Hoover, AL to Delano, TN (Fireside Outpost) – 225 miles
Days 2 and 3 – YELLOW – Thursday @ 6:30am – Friday @ 7:00pm Three Rivers Way – Vista 320 – 1st place, Fastest Known Time (FKT) 36:30, 325 miles
Day 4 – ORANGE – Saturday @ 7:30am – Saturday @ 8:00pm Delano, TN to Jacksonville, AL – 168 miles
Day 5 – RED – Sunday @ 7:30am – Sunday @ 9:45pm Jacksonville, AL to Hoover, AL via the Cheaha Challenge Ultra (10th place!) 208 miles
DAY 1 – GREEN – I FOUGHT THE RAIN AND THE RAIN WON
I had planned to leave Wednesday morning around midnight after a good 4-6 hours of sleep early Tuesday evening. BUT, it was absolutely beautiful weather Tuesday evening with the radar showing a veritable wall of rain approaching from Mississippi. It just seemed dumb to me to sleep through beautiful weather to wake up and ride in the rain. Still, with nearly 1000 miles ahead of me, I thought I should probably not start the whole thing on zero sleep. So I slept for an hour, woke up, and enjoyed a good solid 3 hours of riding until the rain hit. And it was a wall of rain. It wasn’t very hard, but it was the dense small sized rain drops that just completely soaks you. I rode in this for 2 hours as the temperature also plummeted down into the lower 50s.
I stopped outside of Gadsden for coffee and to try to purchase some sort of clothing at a truck stop. But the stuff they had was very expensive and settled on a $3 bandana to add an extra layer to my head under my helmet. I was also going to slowly sip hot coffee to try to warm up on the inside before heading back out into the rain. But when I went to leave I noticed there was a booth I could sit in to enjoy my coffee. And as I sipped, I looked at the radar and noticed the trailing edge of the storm was already halfway through Alabama … moving slowly … but still not very far away. So I decided to just sleep/doze/rest in the booth and wait it out.
I ended up writing up about the skyway epic just on Strava, so here is a belated copy and paste of the race report … plus a few pics. Enjoy!
Where to even begin … this was such a great race as always. Super honored to race against the man who started it all – Brent Marshall – along with eventual winner Mat Stephens (DK champion) and a host of other really fast riders – last year’s winner Jack White, Scott Kuppersmith, Eric Nelson – speaking of which it was definitely the closest race ever with 1st (Mat) and 2nd (Eric) less than 30 seconds apart! Also, southern Alabama and Mississippi had quite the showing this year. It is so great to see so many people discovering or rediscovering this jewel of a race. It was quite the stacked field this year!
All of that being said, this ended up being my worst placing ever and first time off the podium in 10 years except for the year the race was the day after I came home from a week in the hospital (hit by car). Yet, I couldn’t be happier, to see this race continuing to grow under Jason and Wendi Shearer’s leadership means that as I get older and slower and more and more fast people continue to find this race, I may never see that podium again. And that’s ok!
The race itself was quite dynamic. Scott Kuppersmith had the lead up Bull’s Gap and the top 3 were still together after the turnaround on the way down Cheaha as we were just starting our climb up it! I don’t know when Scott came off, but Mat and Eric were together all the way to the finish with Mat edging out Eric in the closing 12 miles of singletrack. Scott held on a for a solid 3rd. Back behind all that in positions 4th – 7th, there was quite a bit of changing and riding and racing and awesomeness. I had a solid 4th for a while, but Blake Waggoner (from Huntsville) caught up to me as I had to pick and choose my way across the skyway on a rigid gravel bike, whereas he had a hard tail mountain bike he could crush the chunkier descents I had to be quite careful on.
Still, it wasn’t just the descents b/c after he caught up to me on Skyway 2, I had a hard time keeping up with him on the climbs, too. It was great to have someone to ride with through here as it is a normally a lonely section of the race where I’m pushing as hard as possible to either stay in the lead or catch up to the lead. This year I was aiming for a top 5 and was happy with Blake that even though we were having a good time chatting about TNGA it was still pushing me harder than I would have been going if I were by myself b/c of the way I was feeling on the edge of cramping. Then right as we hit the pavement of the Adams Gap descent, Austin Sullivan and Jack White caught up to us on their gravel bikes. This made for a super fast descent and since I had been on the edge of cramping for a while and knew I couldn’t go much faster, I had already resigned myself to a 7th place finish at the back of that group, but wanting to stay with them long enough to make sure if I had real trouble later that I could keep a top 10 finish.
But they were happy to take the climb up Cheaha at a very reasonable pace and chat about all kinds of bike packing adventures with Austin and Blake. Jack, who had flatted in the opening singletrack, came off through here b/c he had chased hard for so long to catch back up. Still we had a nice long water-fill food restock where I exchanged a gas station poptart package I still hadn’t opened (but was quite crushed to pieces in my back pocket and prior to that my top tube bag) for a nice fresh 8 pack of oreos.
Kristine called right as we were leaving. It is a long-standing tradition (probably more than 50 times now on 200+ mile adventures which I usually route up and over Cheaha!) that whenever I’m on an adventure that takes me up and over Cheaha that I call her from Cheaha (b/c there is cellphone reception there). Well b/c I was with a group and b/c I had broken my phone mount coming off Skyway 3 of all places – the tamest of the skyways – I hadn’t called her and since she could follow me on tracking she called me! Great to talk to her for a few seconds before divebombing Cheaha [see pics of the skyway knolls in the distance] back to the skyway portion of the skyway (Cheaha technically is part of the Skyway ridge line, too, but b/c you have to descend down off of the skyway and then climb back up to Cheaha, it feels like its own thing).
So in the pic coming down Cheaha, you can see Blake, Jack, and Austin ahead of me as well as road riders training for the Cheaha Challenge Ultra and since Jack had come off on the descent I was starting to feel better about not getting last in the group. I still wasn’t sure how long I could make it without cramping, but I surprisingly made it all the way across Skyway-1 as we really weren’t pushing the pace that hard. Then I stuck to Austin’s wheel like glue up the short Skyway-2 climb b/c I knew I would be slowwww on the descent. Blake put a lot of time into us on the descent on his mountain bike while Austin and I were very carefully trying to keep the bikes from shattering to pieces on any of the many, many, many ruts or rocks.
We caught up to Blake towards the bottom of the Skyway-1 climb and saw that he was with another rider. This was past the 60 mile turnaround so our only conclusion was that it was one of the top three riders. All of a sudden (we thought) that we were racing for third place! We would find out later that it was actually a 60 miler who had missed the turnaround. This rejuvenated me quite a bit so as Austin turned up the screws I did everything I could to stay on his wheel. But it was definitely too much for me as the cramps that had been at bay were coming back with twinges that I knew I just couldn’t ignore. So I backed off the slightest bit and he pulled away. I kept it steady until I came the closest so far of the day to a full lock up. In fact, it may have actually been a very short lived cramp where I happened to relax the muscle at just the right time. That made me back down several more notches. I was still holding onto 5th (what I thought was 4th at the time) in front of Blake who had not followed our accelerations all the way until about halfway down the Skyway-1 descent where he flew past me on the mountain bike while I picked a careful line down much slower on the gravel bike.
We both stopped at the final aid station given how hot it was getting and took off together. I followed him on the descent and the first couple rollers but I had to back off again on the latter rollers as I could feel my legs right on the edge of cramping. Sorry for talking so much about cramping, but it was pretty much all I could think about for the second half of the race … and it worked b/c I never did end up with a full leg locked cramp! I steadily caught 60 milers the whole way back and kept the pace on as much as I could not knowing how far behind me Jack might be. Every sound in the woods behind me I thought for sure was 7th place catching me in the single track. But I held on for 6th. Up ahead, I’m not sure as I just assumed Austin held on for 4th, but it looks like in the results that Blake may have actually caught up to him and passed him in the single track which would have been quite tricky for Austin given the sporadic muddy conditions on the cyclocross tires he was running … maybe 45mm?
Speaking of conditions, it was quite surprising. The Lake Howard singletrack was the muddiest I had ever seen it, but only a few spots … maybe 8-10 short sections and 2-3 longer (but still short) sections. So much of the rest of the trail dries fast b/c of the slope and nature of the dirt/granite rocks. What really surprised me was Skyway 1 and Skyway 2. Skyway 1 was much wetter and muddier on the opening climb, but it was actually better everywhere else. Somebody had gone in and cleared the trees/bushes on the edge of some of the frog pools that frequently stretch edge to edge across the skyway (called such b/c you can hear and sometimes see large frogs jumping in them). I fell into one of those last year being indecisive about whether to one leg scoot across the side or just ride it. And then I couldn’t unclip the other leg when I ended up getting stuck and fell over on that side straight into the deep pool. It was comically sad and dumb, I’d rank it up there in the top 10 dumbest things I’ve done on the bike. But this year you could ride around all of them. Also, skyway-2 has one pool at the end that can be quite bad if it’s edge to edge, but you could also ride around it this year. One year we had to hike-a-bike through the woods b/c of how nasty it was. Not this year! Skyway-3 dries incredibly fast given how much gravel and sand are on it. I wasn’t worried about it at all, and it was dry and fast as usual. In fact, I’ve ridden that in the pouring rain and it still doesn’t get muddy. Very unusual soil.
Back to the race, well, actually, I guess that’s it. I, just like everyone who races the skyway, was so happy to finish and see everyone. One of those people was winner Mat Stephens who mentioned that we had raced on the road together back in the Mississippi Gran Prix, Tour de Louisanne days. That seems like a whole lifetime ago now. It was great looking back at some of my old race reports – https://toonecycling.com/…/16/mississippi-gran-prix-2013/ and https://toonecycling.com/…/mississippi-gran-prix-day-3…/ and a whole bunch more … and it was also a little sad too as I saw the name of one rider who passed away a few years ago who I had only met at the MS Gran Prix race in 2013 but it was still sad then and even now, six years later. On a much happier note, it was great to see Mat and it was great to be alive and racing the skyway.