For Michael Long, the past year has been a huge learning experience.
As the race director for the Chattanooga chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association's Team SORBA initiative, Long was tasked in 2013 with overseeing the launch of three new mountain bike races in the Chattanooga area. Team SORBA established the Pick Your Poison XC at Booker T. Washington State Park, an endurance time trial at Raccoon Mountain and the year culminated with the 5-Points 50 at the Lula Lake Land Trust on Lookout Mountain as part of the annual RiverRocks outdoor fall festival.
"We went from never putting on a race to putting on three races in one year and we consistently learned throughout the year," says Long. "We learned so much from Booker T. Washington last year that helped us at Raccoon Mountain. And if we hadn't taken what we learned at Raccoon Mountain and applied it, then 5-Points 50 would have never gone off as well as it did."
Long and his associates will now use what they learned last year and take it another step further, as SORBA-Chattanooga creates a new mountain bike race series to highlight the area's growing trail system and bring more and better racing to Chattanooga.
"The plan all along was to connect all the races into a single series," he says. "People are more inclined to do a race series where racers compete multiple times for a single goal.
"A race series specific to a specific city or area brings exposure to that area and to that area's trails, especially when you can have races at different trail locations that people may or may not know about. Most everybody around here knows about Raccoon Mountain, but not everyone knows about 5 Points or Enterprise South Nature Park or Booker T. [Washington State Park]."
The racing will be sanctioned by USA Cycling and will feature four race events: the already established Pick Your Poison XC, which opens the series on March 9; the Night Shift, a new event at Enterprise South on April 12; a two-day event at Raccoon Mountain on July 12-13 featuring an endurance time trial and a downhill Super-D race; and the second running of the 5-Points 50 on Oct. 11.
Racers in the series will earn points based on their results at each race, with an overall winner being crowned in various divisions at the conclusion of the series.
The two days of racing at Raccoon Mountain will incorporate an existing time trial, but the Super-D will bring an exciting new event to the race. The 5.5 mile course will be primarily downhill with a 1,200-foot drop in elevation over the course of the race, giving racers a chance to show off their more technical biking skills.
"It's more about bike handling," says Long. "It's the type of event where peddling is not as important as being able to handle the bike and going through the rocks while maintaining speed."
The Super-D will also be somewhat of a coming-out party for a brand new section of trail that SORBA has been working on developing for quite some time.
While the SORBA-Chattanooga race series is the newcomer to the local mountain-biking scene, North Georgia features a firmly established series that has been attracting a loyal following for the past decade.
The Snake Creek Gap Time Trial Series in Dalton, Ga., kicked off its 10th annual event in January, and as of last year it was the largest bike race in Georgia, according to race director Gennie Dasinger.
The three-event series is held on the 34-mile Pinhoti Trail System with one race already being held in early January and the two other events planned for Feb. 1 and the series finale on March 1.
To learn more about the event run by the Northwest Georgia SORBA chapter and to register for future races, go to the series' website at snake.nwgasorba.org.
"The weekend at Raccoon Mountain will showcase the new eight-and-a-half mile trail expansion that we are finishing now. The machine work is done and we just have to finish up the hand work," he says. "This expansion has been in the works since 2009, so we're super excited to get it done and, on top of that, host this event to showcase these new trails."
To encourage participation in the Super-D, Long said that a 10- to 15-point race series bonus will be awarded to all riders participating in that race as well as the endurance TT.
The newcomer to the race scene for this series is the Night Shift at Enterprise South. This race will be a 6-hour, nighttime event that will be a new and different challenge for even some more experienced racers in the area.
"We've been doing night rides at Enterprise South for a while," says Long. "And it's a really good place to do night rides, because there's not anything that can come up and surprise you. There's no huge rock gardens or anything like that, and it's really a lot of fun to ride there at night.
"So we decided to do a night race and do something that's not usually done and that many riders haven't tried to do before."
PAYING THE WAY
For Long and his fellow organizers at SORBA-Chattanooga, developing a racing series has been a crash course in learning how to attract sponsors to help fund and promote the racing.
"It's a huge learning experience, and I'm still constantly learning" he says. "The hardest part is cold-calling someone to try to convince them to give you money and see the value in this.
"Some of our sponsors have been easy to convince, and some have been more difficult. One of the things I've learned is that you have to utilize the people that you know and use those connections. You never know who knows what person that might be the way to get an 'in' with a company."
Fortunately, the separate races that were developed last season attracted support from many local bike shops as well as help from larger sponsors such as Lynskey Performance and Double Cola.
The connection for Lynskey is obvious. The local bike manufacturer sells high-end titanium bike frames and has been a supporter of SORBA's efforts for a long time.
"We started meeting SORBA guys out on the trails and riding with them, and we just became buddies with those guys," says Lynskey sales manager Don Erwin. "The more we rode with them the closer we got to them. Eventually, we just said, 'Why don't we donate a bike frame for you to raffle off to help fund your work?'"
That generosity from Lynskey will continue in 2014 for the race series. The company will donate a bike frame as a prize for each of the four race weekends. Erwin said that their efforts are just a way to give back and support the local cycling efforts and the growing mountain-biking infrastructure in the area.
"We are involved with this mainly to be a part of the community," he says. "We don't really get more sales out of this sponsorship. Our motivation is just to enjoy supporting the local club and the work they're doing building these trails. On our Facebook page we talk about our local trails on a regular basis and how we've got close to 100 miles of groomed mountain biking trails and how Chattanooga will ultimately become a destination for mountain biking."
For a company like Double Cola, the connection might not make as much sense at first, but marketing coordinator Megan Hallar says that her company has been active for a while in trying to attract a younger, more active clientele.
"Since our rebrand, we've really wanted to invest in events and sponsorships directly involving our target audience," says Hallar. "With the events we did with SORBA last year, it led us into other events. We got involved with Outdoor Chattanooga and their outdoor expo. We've done some hiking and other outdoors events, so we're really trying to reach out to that audience."
Double Cola became involved with the SORBA-based races last year and they went all-in to support their early efforts.
"This seemed like something a little different and it went along with our target audience of appealing to a younger, refreshing crowd so we thought it would be great to promote our Double Cola and Ski brands," Hallar says."But we didn't want to just write a check and be a sponsor like that-we provide branded tents and volunteers and drinks at any event that we can be a part of."
Double Cola will continue to provide product, signage and support for the SORBA race series this year, an effort that is even more important with the race being in the company's hometown.
"We are so proud to be from Chattanooga, and we really think we have a lot of unique, refreshing products that not a lot of the city is aware of," says Hallar. "So we're trying to market our product through tasting events and getting our product into people's hands. People in Chattanooga love local brands. They buy local and shop local, so we want them to drink local, too."
Long says that he's learned a lot from the races SORBA-Chattanooga put on in 2012, and he feels that experience will give the debut of the race series an advantage in its first year, even with the addition of new races and other variables.
"Now we know the races we want to do and we know how to approach things now," he says. "Last year everything we did was reactive, but this year we now can work to make things better."
Ultimately, the series will serve the broader purpose that SORBA has always focused on-developing quality and environmentally sustainable bike trails that everyone can enjoy whether they're racing or just out to experience this area's natural beauty.
"The more people we get utilizing these trail systems, the more land managers see that and they talk to other land managers and hopefully we get more access to more property toward our ultimate goal, which is to build more trails," Long says. "On top of all that, a race series generates more money for us that we can use to build more trails."