More than 2,000 bicyclists will roll out of town this morning from Finley Stadium on the 3-State, 3-Mountain Challenge ride, and this year they'll have a bit of star power to lead them out on the challenging 100-mile course.
George Hincapie, recently retired after an 19-year professional career that included 17 Tour de France appearances and three U.S. professional road race championships, is one of the riders, and he was featured at a reception for participants Friday at the stadium.
"I'm looking forward to it. It should be a fun day," Hincapie said after posing for pictures and signing autographs for the 225 fans and cyclists who paid extra to attend the reception. "The people I've met so far are really excited about the event. We may get a little bad weather, but that's out of our control."
The 3-State, 3-Mountain Challenge, now in its 26th year, is one of the most well-known rides in the Southeast, featuring 26-, 67-, 83- and 100-mile routes. The 100-mile, or "century," route takes riders over Raccoon, Sand and Lookout mountains on roads in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
Riders will leave from Finley at 8 a.m. and take U.S. Highway 41 North around the front of Lookout Mountain. All routes except the 100 will return to town the same way, with the century riders returning over Lookout Mountain with a climb up Burkhalter Gap Road and a descent from the mountain on Ochs Highway.
All roads will be open to automobile traffic, although police will help lead the mass start.
Hincapie's clothing company, Hincapie Sportswear, has partnered with the Chattanooga Bike Club for several years to produce the commemorative 3-State, 3-Mountain jersey, and he has some experience with the Chattanooga area from his racing days, as well.
"I've done one or two stages here at the Tour de Georgia, so I know the area a little bit," he said. "My brother's done this event once or twice and has told me about it. It's a great event.
"Since I've retired, I really have enjoyed coming to these events that promote cycling, a sport we all love, and to promote an active, healthy lifestyle. That is what an event like this does, and I'm happy to be a part of it."
For 3-State, 3-Mountain ride director Dawn Salyer, Hincapie's participation is just the icing on the cake for what promises to be a successful event.
"It's gone extremely well," she said. "Our numbers for early registration were up and stayed ahead of last year for the entire six months. Also a good volunteer response this year, and we couldn't do it without those guys."
Salyer said 2,017 riders were registered for the event, and the threat of rain today wouldn't wash it out. More tubes for tires and well-stocked support wagons will be on the road, she said, to keep riders rolling regardless of the conditions.
"It's a rain-or-shine event," she said. "The only time we ever had to delay sending [riders] off was because of lightning in the area, and when it passed we sent them on.
"So it's rain or shine, and some people get really fired up and enjoy the challenge of riding the mountains in the rain."