The 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge bicycle ride will celebrate its 25th anniversary on May 5 when more than 2,000 riders are expected to take part in the cycling adventure sponsored by the Chattanooga Bicycle Club. The 100-mile riders will start at Finley Stadium, climb Suck Creek, Sand and Lookout mountains traveling through the back roads of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
"The city just shines," Chattanooga Bike Club member Dave Ward says. "You have the pavilion and the stadium, and it's just fantastic.
"I can't tell you how much it means when people can come to Chattanooga and there's so many hotels downtown and they can start out and ride through town. The riders just think they're riding in the Tour de France." While the ride is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary, only over the past 10 years has the race become the huge event it is today. Ward recalls a time when the ride barely drew 200 participants and the start was in the downtown parking lot of UNUM.
As director of 3 State 3 Mountain for the past seven years, Dawn Salyer has seen the ride grow from its humble beginning. "In the year 2000, we were hoping to break 400 (riders), and I think we got to 413 that year," she laughs. "We started that year in front of the Sports Barn. Can you imagine trying to start 2,000 riders from there now?"
Since then the ride has grown to include four different routes for cyclists of different abilities. In addition to the 100-mile route, there are 25-, 62- and 90-mile options.
Ward, who will be riding the 62-mile route this year, sees 3 State 3 Mountain as a big part of what makes Chattanooga so special for residents and visitors to the Scenic City. "The ride is bigger than any one person in the town. This is what Chattanooga is all about," he says. "People get to see 100 miles around Chattanooga, and there's a lot of people that have moved here because of it."
Picking Up the Pace
Both Salyer and Ward credit former Chattanooga mayor and current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker for helping build the event into something special. "Bob Corker put this event on the map when he was mayor," Salyer says. "He kind of pinpointed several things about Chattanooga that made it outstanding, and this ride was one of the things on his list. It got a lot of hype and suddenly just grew by leaps and bounds."
After he became mayor in 2001, Corker began looking at ways to use Chattanooga's scenic beauty and extensive outdoor activities as a way to help the city grow and attract business and tourism. As part of that initiative, Corker approached the Chattanooga Bike Club about getting the city more involved with 3 State 3 Mountain. "When Bob Corker wanted to do the outdoor initiative, he came to us and asked 'What would make this a big ride?'" Ward explains. "So when the city came on board, that's what really exploded it."
With Corker's backing and help from the city, 3 State 3 Mountain quickly grew from hundreds of regional riders to thousands of riders from across the United States and beyond. By the late 2000s, the ride was attracting close to 2,500 riders, and the event helped highlight Chattanooga as an outdoor destination. "Over time that eventually led to the creation of Outdoor Chattanooga, which was designed to fully build awareness of and promote the world-class outdoor amenities this community has," says Todd Womack, chief of staff for Sen. Corker. "It was a great thing to be involved with."
Outdoor Chattanooga's partnership with 3 State 3 Mountain continues, with the organization helping coordinate traffic issues and working with local and state law enforcement to ensure the safety of riders. "Outdoor Chattanooga has been a proud partner of the event since 2005," says Philip Pugliese, bicycle coordinator for Outdoor Chattanooga. "In that time, it has extended its reputation not just around the Southeast but around the country and beyond.
"It's given people an opportunity to experience Chattanooga and we get reports all the time of people who've come to Chattanooga for a single event that then want to move here because of the huge range of outdoor activities and quality of life."
In recent years, the ride has continued despite being the victim of some bad luck, culminating with the tornadoes that ravaged the area in April 2011, just before the beginning of last year's 3 State 3 Mountain. "For three years in row we have had horrendous storms with rain and lightning and last year with the storms our attendance fell off to 1,600," Salyer says. "We don't want this event to fall out of popularity, so we're making a big push to bring it back strong this year."
Another challenge that the event has faced in recent years has been complaints from officials and residents in Dade County, Ga., because of the large number of riders on the road. Of particular concern has been Burkhalter Gap Road, which takes riders from Lookout Valley to the top of Lookout Mountain.
The legendary climb up Burkhalter Gap comes near the 90th mile of the ride when some riders are at their physical limit and the top of the climb kicks up to a 20-degree gradient which forces many riders off their bikes to finish the climb on foot.
Salyer says that she has worked hard with Dade County officials and local residents to address concerns and keep everyone happy. "I have had a meeting with (officials from Dade County), and everybody is singing the same song now," she says. "Safety was their biggest concern. As you can imagine, motorists get tired of so many cyclists. It's one thing to be out for a Saturday morning training ride, but it's another thing to have four hours of cyclists on Burkhalter Gap."
To improve traffic up Burkhalter Gap on race day, the right lane going up the mountain will be reserved for cyclists, and pilot cars will guide motorists up and down the mountain to avoid confusion and traffic jams. Other new additions for 2012 include electronic timing. An electronic chip embedded with a rider's number will give each cyclist an accurate finishing time, and the climb up Burkhalter Gap will be timed as well. "The electronic timing is a huge thing even though it's not a race," Salyer says "If you look at all the big rides around us, they're all doing it. It's kind of become what people expect."
Also new for 2012 is the 90-mile route, which takes riders over Suck Creek and Sand mountains but bypasses Burkhalter Gap and the climb up Lookout Mountain.
The challenge of three mountain climbs over a span of 100 miles clearly is what makes this ride special, but Salyer also says that the support given to riders and the large number of volunteers
is a big reason for the success of 3 State 3 Mountain. "The course itself is unique. It's that difficult challenge and the scenery is unbelievable," she says. "But I give a lot of credit to our volunteers. I've ridden a lot of centuries and the feedback we get about the experience is special. On other rides you don't get the road support and you don't get the groups of people that man our rest stops. These are local groups such as Marion County Emergency Service. These people have been a partner with us for more than 10 years. You just don't get that experience at other events that I've ridden."
Looking ahead, Salyer says she hopes the event can continue to grow while maintaining the quality that 3 State 3 Mountain has become known for which brings riders back year after year to experience more than just a bike ride. "I've always said Chattanooga is an outdoor mecca," she says. "Chattanooga can get you the best of the best, if you're a climber, if you're a cyclist, if you're a runner or a trail runner. It has always been such an outdoor playground. More and more people are bringing their families now, and they're staying for several days and making a short vacation with families out of this event."
With riders confirmed from at least 37 states and Canada for this year's ride, the future looks bright for 3 State 3 Mountain, but Salyer says she and the Chattanooga Bike Club have no intention of resting on their laurels. "We do surveys at the end of every year, and we take those seriously," she says. "We are forever going to try and make this event better and better. I guess the best goal you can have is to never settle. There's always ways to improve the ride. ... It's not the number of people at the event, it's the quality of the event and that's really our goal each year."