Mike Skiles makes his living selling bicycles. His Suck Creek Cycle shop in North Chattanooga is one of the South's finest for the serious rider. Now 49, Skiles has been such a cycling nut for so long that he won the first BMX race ever held for his age group in the Scenic City in 1974. He was 9 years old.
But comfortable as Skiles is on two wheels, he remains in slap-dab, wide-eyed wonder of the pro pedalers who have taken over our city this weekend for the USA Cycling National Championships.
"What's so impressive is how much beyond the mortal level they can push their bodies," he said. "It's really kind of demoralizing how fast they are."
In a neat and tidy nutshell, that's the truth of all pro athletes. They're both awe-inspiring and demoralizing, because no matter how much you think your best tennis serve, lob wedge or weekend soccer goal could turn a play-for-pay guy green with envy, the reality is that you're still using training wheels.
"It's like Lookout Mountain," Skiles said of the climb of 1,150 feet that covers 2.75 miles. "I could go up it twice, maybe three times in one day, but those guys are going up and down it four times in a short period of time at really impressive speeds."
It impressed enough people last year during the event's inaugural run around our town that the city expects 25,000 or more -- at least half of those arriving from out of town -- to take in Monday's big finales for both the women (during the morning) and the men. Three giant video boards along the 16.5-mile route -- one at the finish line, one on the North Shore and one atop Lookout Mountain -- will help the spectators follow the action.
The cruel climb up Kent Street in North Chattanooga should separate whatever pretenders remain among the contenders during the race's final three laps for both the women and men.
"The grade up Kent Street is 20 percent," USA Cycling chief marketing officer Rob Borland said Friday. "We think that will break up the field just a little bit."
There are those who've wondered over the past decade whether pro cycling's doping scandals might break up the sport, at least in this country, where Lance Armstrong's once-inspiring "Livestrong" bracelets to support his cancer fundraising became a "live-wrong" cautionary tale about lies and deception.
And it hasn't always been competition at its most honorable and noble. But given the crowds that figure to line the race route Monday, it also seems to be a non-issue for many cycling enthusiasts, including Suck Creek Cycle's Shane Walker, who said of Armstrong, "I just look at it as our doped-up guy outracing their doped-up guy."
The sales pitch is that the doping has stopped, at least until the chemists find a new way to mask the medicine. And maybe it has. Or maybe it never will. Not in this sport. Not in any sport where serious money is at stake.
But for our town the bigger question is whether we can start breaking away from a history of losing these premier events, everything from the SEC women's basketball tournament to Spring Fling to the NCAA FCS title game.
Even now, as our civic leaders and elected officials justifiably bask in the joy of a true national championship waged on our asphalt, there are reasonable voices of concern over whether an event staged for seven years in Greenville, S.C., will call Chattanooga home past 2015, the final year of the current contract.
"I'd like to see more community support in terms of sponsorship dollars," said Ruth Thompson of Outdoor Chattanooga. "We certainly don't want this championship to leave here."
Monday can go a long way in making sure that doesn't happen. Pack the streets and crowd the giant video boards, buy out the beer and the burgers served along the race route and we should comfortably hold onto this event for more than one more year.
Or as Queen crooned long ago:
"Bicycle races are coming your way, So forget all your duties, oh yeah!"
The 25-year-old Walker intends to watch at least a part of the race on Kent Street, watching the suffering as the riders climb what the hill some have dubbed "the Wall."
"Just to see their faces," Walker said. "A hill like that shuts some people down. Some of them love it."
A lot of the fans could be like Outdoor Chattanooga's Thompson, a lifelong cyclist who said, "I'm an old lady on a bicycle. I've got a basket on the front and a little ol' helmet. But I can't wait to watch this race."
Finally, there's Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who rides a bike around his "flat neighborhood" with his wife several times a week.
"This isn't just about this race, though that's very important," he said. "If people enjoy this weekend, they may want to come back here for other things."
And though he was once a pretty fair athlete, Coppinger has no desire to become a professional cyclist as a backup plan.
"I don't think any of our voters wants to imagine me in Spandex," he said with a grin.
Best to leave that to those awe-inspiring, demoralizing cyclists who race so much faster than we mere mortals dare to tread.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...