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.
One of my passions related to cycling is sharing with other people how great Alabama is for cycling. Even though Alabama recently got ranked DFL (dead last) in the country for states friendly to cycling, there is beauty to be found everywhere in the state if you are willing to brave the messiness. So as I’ve been structuring my really long training rides, I’ve been intentional in trying to explore new roads and new portions of the state. One way to keep track of that is by the number of different counties I’ve ridden in. The first map below shows all of my 2015 training rides and races.
It’s a bit much to claim to be an ambassador of the entire state of Alabama when I race the Race Across America, but I think it is fairly safe to say that I’ve biked in more parts of the state than most people! Keep in mind this is just my 2015 rides – not quite four and a half months of riding. As far as lifetime riding goes, I’ve ridden in every county in the state except for the following counties – Washington, Choctaw, and Clarke in southwestern Alabama as well as Barbour, Dale, Russell, and Henry in southeastern Alabama.
I’m at nearly 11,000 miles of training and racing this year almost entirely within the state of Alabama. Those rides have covered 42 of the 67 counties in Alabama. Nearly all of these rides have started and ended at my house in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham. The exceptions are two rides in western Alabama I did during the annual meeting of the Alabama Academy of Science, one ride in Huntsville I did in conjunction with my first race of the year – the Union Grove time trial, and one ride I did in conjunction with the first training race of the year at Camp Sumatanga near Gadsden.
Additionally, one misconception about Alabama that a lot of people from other parts of the country have is that Alabama is flat. Dispelling that notion, I’ve climbed well over 1,100,000 feet of hills and mountains since January 1st of this year with a goal to reach 3,000,000 feet by the end of the year. This elevation total doesn’t include two “everestings” where you ride the same hill over and over again in the same ride until you have accumulated 29,030 feet of climbing (i.e., the height of Mount Everest). This has to be done all in one ride, preferably within 24 hours. I everested a popular local climb here in Birmingham called Karl Daly as well as the west side of Mount Cheaha. Both of these everestings were at the end of 2014 so they aren’t included in the 1,100,000 foot total.
This next map shows four individual rides to reach Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Alabama via long 250-315 mile loops. The minimal one-way distance for me to reach Florida is 193 miles, which means a round trip of well over 400 miles if I try to make some sort of loop out of it. I still might try to do that, but I’m running out of time to work that in before RAAM.
I’ve posted tons of instagram pictures from these rides, but I’ve narrowed it down to my top 4 below (one from each of the four rides). What an amazing journey this has been as I’ve been discovering new places throughout this great state!
1. Monday, May 11th – South Alabama – 14 counties, 313.5 miles, 15,184 feet of climbing. The caption speaks for itself, but to emphasize the two things that I almost immediately think of when I think of riding in South Alabama is rolling hills and Spanish moss.
2. Thursday, May 7th – Tennessee loop – 8 counties, 294.5 miles, 18,373 feet of climbing. I stumbled upon this Alabama road near the border of Tennessee when I was planning out my route. I wanted to go by the state road race course and work my way north from there. As I was scanning the satellite imagery near the border, I saw a label that said “Toone Rd” and knew that I needed to include it on my route.
3. Sunday, April 26th – Mississippi Fun – 9 counties, 263 miles, 20,164 feet of climbing. Rural western Alabama.
4. Tuesday, April 21st – (Georgia) the walking dead – 7 counties, 244 miles, 21,499 feet of climbing. I named this one the Walking Dead because I rode to western Georgia within 50 miles of where they are filming the TV series of the same name. Randolph County was an awesome discovery with sweeping views of the surrounding area and lots of farmland that reminded me of Wisconsin. I’ve chosen the pic below as my favorite in order to put the distance of the ride into perspective. I started out so far west of Cheaha that it is not visible. Then I rode for an hour or so until you can see Cheaha. Then I rode all the way over Cheaha to about the same distance away on the east side of the mountain. Then I turned around and rode all the way back home.
If you’d like to wear the #TeamToone colors, this is your chance! Brian’s jersey for RAAM will look like this:
Jerseys will be $100, and shipping is included in that. I’ll confirm your order by email and send out a PayPal invoice. Let me know if you have any questions!
The longer I ride bikes, the more fascinated I am with the history of the places that I ride. The Old Howard 100 has fun personal history for me as I was fortunate to start teaching at Samford University in the Spring of 2005 when the Howard College of Arts and Sciences at Samford put on the inaugural Old Howard ride. Living the dream for me means that I got to start my position mid-year as an assistant professor at probably the only university in the country that happened to be launching a 100 mile bike ride at the same time I was graduating with my PhD.
The ride is called the Old Howard because Samford University used to be named Howard College and located in Marion, Alabama in Perry County in the middle of the Black Belt – a geological feature consisting of very rich black topsoil extending from Tupelo, Mississippi all the way across to Montgomery, Alabama as annotated in the satellite picture below:
I decided to ride down to the start, ride the century, and then ride back home for a grand total of 303 miles. My friend Michael Staley decided to ride from Tuscaloosa and meet me halfway to join me on the rest of the ride down to the start and then the century before heading our separate ways back to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. We rendezvoused in Woodstock in the dark in the rain and rode a cool route that included Crystal Lake Rd and Haysap Church Rd (a 5 mile dirt road that goes by a 185 year old church I found on a 2013 adventure).
I was honored to be the ride leader leaving Judson College, and it was great to be in a large group visiting Greensboro, Alabama first. Then, as we came back through some hills towards Marion, our group shrank in size until it was about 10-15 of us taking the long flat road along the Cahaba River down to Selma. Along the way, there was beautiful farmland, rivers, and forests culminating in a ride underneath huge Live Oak trees covered in Spanish Moss in Selma.
Thankfully, we had a nice tail crosswind for the last stretch back to Marion and our group flew the rest of the way averaging 22.1 mph for the entire century. After some great hot dogs and lemonade, Michael and I needed to get on the road so that we could try to make it back before the storms. We rode together for a couple blocks until he turned right to go north, and I turned left to go south to hit the corner of Autauga county before turning due north to make it back to Birmingham just ahead of the storms.
In addition to everything else that was great about the Old Howard ride and my adventure getting down there and back, I added two new counties to the list of counties I’ve ridden in this year – Hale and Autauga. That brings my total up to 35 counties in 6 states since the beginning of the year. Also, from the beginning of the year I’ve increased the number of long rides that I’ve been doing. This has led to 41 rides that qualify for the Strava gran fondo distance of 130 km (81 miles) or longer. These rides together have totaled 6,596 miles with 721,000 feet of climbing for an average distance of 161 miles with 17,585 feet of climbing per ride.
I called this post the Old Howard 1,000,000 because the ride took me up to 991,000 feet of climbing for the year, and today on my commute to and from work I took that total up and over 1,000,000 feet. Including all my rides this year (not just the ones over 81 miles), I’ve ridden 8,511 miles and climbed 1,000,348 feet. Since we are only 110 days into the year, that works out to an average of 77 miles and 9,100 feet of climbing per day. But since I have been taking more days off this year to recover from some crazy epic rides, I’ve only ridden 90 times this year which takes that average up to 95 miles and 11,114 feet of climbing per ride.
The topocreator map shows my long rides (81 miles or longer) for Alabama. Missing are the Rouge Roubaix race in Louisiana and Mississippi as well as back-to-back epic days in San Francisco back in January when we were out there for the RAAM crewing seminar.
The Skyway Epic 100 men’s podium – left to right – me, David Potter, and Eric Nelson.
The Skyway Epic 100 mountain bike race definitely lived up to its name on Saturday. I was happy to be racing again this year for the inaugural 100 mile (107.5 miles) version of the race having missed last year after crashing into the side of a car. Being in the final stages of training for the Race Across America, I need to make the most of every minute of bike-related activities. Therefore, I decided to ride my mountain bike down to the start of the race, do the race, and then ride home. This made for a very long 185 mile day on the bike that ended with Kristine driving down to Chelsea to rescue me at the base of the double oak climbs. Overall, it was excellent training for Race Across America, and the race itself was nothing short of epic and awesome.
One of the things that makes the Heart of the South 500 mile race one of the most difficult 500 mile races in the country is the enormous amount of climbing over the course of the race. The major topographical features include the three main climbs – Lookout Mountain, Fort Mountain, and Mount Cheaha – as well as four crossings of the Coosa River. I’ve annotated a topocreator.com map of the course below. Click to enlarge and then click again to zoom in on your web browser to see maximum detail.
I especially like that the entire course fits on the raised relief maps I have mounted on the wall next to my home office. This is the pic and overlay I made for last year’s race.
Back to Back Weekends
Back to back race weekends last weekend and this weekend. I won Friday’s Heart of the South 515 mile race just missing the course record only five days after placing 25th in a strong Pro/1/2 field at the inaugural Fort McClellan road race last weekend with lots of strong teams visiting Alabama from around the country as part of the national criterium calendar kickoff event (Sunny King) in Anniston. I raced that race RAAM-style meaning I left my house at 3AM and rode the 80 miles to the start of the race, raced the race, and then afterwards rode home a longer way going up and over Mount Cheaha for a grand total of 255 miles of racing and riding. There is so many great things I could say about that race — primarily getting to see a lot of friends from the racing community that I haven’t seen much this year because of my RAAM (Race Across America) training, but in the interest of time I’m going to skip straight to how the Heart of the South race went down this weekend.
Heart of the South – Start to Camp Comer
Tailwinds and thunderstorms
Friday was a beautiful day – I rode my bike to and from Samford to teach my Friday classes as usual (16.6 miles round trip). Later in the day, my awesome crew of Michael Staley and Payne Griffin drove over to my house so we could pack up everything for the race.
Side note – huge shout-out to my rookie crew of Michael and Payne. Those two guys did an amazing job of anticipating my needs for food, drink, and bike supplies. Plus, they did a good job of staying awake for a really long time as well as keeping me awake late in the race when I hit my sleep wall. Thanks guys!!!!
Side, side note – huge shout-out to my sponsors as well. Raymond James has been behind me financially and helping to get the word out to other companies and individuals who might be interested in joining our team. My Martindale wheelset was amazing again this year. I’m excited for the new Carbon Clincher wheels Philip will be getting me for RAAM – easily shave hours (if not at least half a day) off my total time!
No matter how the Race Across America turns out this summer, I will have gotten a chance to explore some absolutely amazing parts of Alabama. Since January, I’ve ridden 24 rides of at least 100 miles (23 Alabama ones shown in the map below). I wanted to create this map because of my ride on Tuesday where I found myself unexpectedly riding in a new county – Coosa County – for the first time. These rides have been in three different states and 29 different counties.
Here’s a quick recap of my three most recent epics.
The Baseball to Baseball Ride
Last Friday, I rode to the start of my son’s baseball game, watched the game, and then rode all the way out to Cheaha and back (218 miles and 17,000 feet of climbing) to make it back just in time for the start of my son’s Saturday morning baseball game, watched the game, and then rode 10 more miles to practice having to start riding again after a long break. Along the way I broke my speedplay pedal and had to be rescued by my lovely wife Kristine. I swapped out the pedal and finished the ride.
It’s no secret that I think Alabama is the most beautiful place on earth. Other places are nice to visit, but when it comes to sheer diversity, variety, and accessibility Alabama is the perfect compromise between the ruggedness of western states (i.e., inaccessible) and busy-ness of the eastern states (i.e., roads everywhere) and a climate with four very distinct seasons that still allows for year-round riding. Everywhere you look in Alabama there is some hidden beauty to be found – and riding a bicycle is the perfect way to find it. Birmingham itself is a microcosm with steep ridges covered with roads where one can easily ride 100 miles within a 10 mile radius of your house only reusing one or two roads on the entire route.
The history of Alabama, though, isn’t quite as pretty. The city I live in (Hoover) was founded as white people left Birmingham in droves during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s fleeing “over the mountain” and founding the suburbs of Homewood, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, and Hoover. Today I’m happy to report that Hoover itself has become more diversified with my kids’ school consisting of 50% white, 37% black, and 13% hispanic (source – AL dept of education 2014-2015 school year).
The people of Selma, Alabama played a key role in the Civil Rights movement, but it is one of the few cities in Alabama I had never been to — that is until Tuesday when I decided to do a 310 mile (500 KM) loop that included Selma at its southernmost point. Along the way, I routed myself through several personal history spots key to racing RAAM this year – including one spot two summers ago where I laid down on the stoop of a 185 year old church severely dehydrated and out of water and thought that it wouldn’t be a bad place to die even though I knew I wasn’t quite that bad off … yet. Here’s a pic collage from the church and a video of me begging water off of strangers a couple miles later after I got moving again.
Every year I look forward to Rouge Roubaix and coming down to this unique corner of Louisiana and Southwestern Mississippi. The race itself has everything you’d imagine in a spring classic like Paris-Roubaix or Ronde van Vlaanderen (Flanders) – from strung out fields barreling down dirt roads at 30mph to tactics of making a break, chasing a break, or figuring out the run-in to a tricky sprint at the end of the race. No matter how experienced you are, it’s impossible to come away from this race without having learned something new about bike racing and/or yourself. Each category (even beginner) races the full distance of 100+ miles covering about 15 miles of gravel/dirt roads and some paved roads that are significantly harder to find a good line than the dirt roads.
The unique topography of the river bluffs above the Missisippi River delta is just fascinating with two Category 4 climbs rising up from essentially sea level to 400 feet. Plus, everything is so wet that the dirt roads sink down under the trees. See the annotated topocreator.com map above and the elevation profile and instagram photo below:
How the race played out (P/1/2)
After the neutral section, there were a couple short-lived breaks. I was working my way to the front when I saw an opening and a rider about to attack. I hopped right on his wheel and we quickly got a gap. Three more riders bridged up to us, and our break of five quickly got a gap on the rest of the peloton. I thought this break had a good chance to survive all the way to (and possibly through) the first dirt section – but alas, we were chased down a few miles later after making the right-hand turn off of LA-66.