Under a clear October sky, with the push of the year's first fall breeze, 330 cyclists pedaled on the open roads of the Sequatchie Valley early last month for a first-year ride that felt like anything but.
The event's size was a far stretch from where organizers of the Cycle Sequatchie ride hope to be in future years, but importantly, it was a start. Cycle Sequatchie — a partnership between local cyclists, the Chattanooga Bicycle Club and local companies — was birthed to fill the valley-sized hole left when the region's most popular ride, 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge, folded in 2018.
The area's picturesque, low-traffic roads highlighted the seamlessly never-ending route options through a mountainous region with green valleys and scenic sites. The ride was a fresh look at what locally produced cycling events in the area could be in a future without the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge, which drew more than 2,000 riders at its peak.
Cycle Sequatchie officials want to use the new ride to highlight the region as a cycling destination, but most importantly, they want to provide the area's cycling community with an event of their own.
"When I was thinking about putting on a ride, especially after 3 State left, it was about putting on a ride for Chattanooga," says event director Shannon Burke.
3 STATE 3 MOUNTAIN
For 30 years, the local cycling calendar began with the Chattanooga Bicycle Club's 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge held on the first weekend of May. It brought thousands of riders from across the country to conquer a hilly course with climbs up Suck Creek, Sand Mountain and Burkhalter Gap.
"I think the biggest draw was the route," says CBC ride coordinator Peggy Olson. "This area is so beautiful. That would draw people from all over the country."
But despite its popularity, the event faced difficulties.
The early-season date brought unpredictable weather for a ride that featured fast descents and a tough route coming off of winter's lull. Heavy rain, unpredictable temperatures and tornado damage plagued race day in its latter years, none of it worse than the 2013 death of Florida cyclist Antonio Jose Desousa Ribeiro who, during that year's rainy event, lost control while descending Ochs Highway and veered into the path of an oncoming car.
By 2016, attendance was down more than half. The event was losing participants and the club couldn't find a solution.
Some thought it was an inability to find younger riders willing to pay for such events; others wanted to move it to the fall to give more riders a chance to train for the ride. Some on the club's board wanted to do away with the event altogether.
There were discussions about what to do for the 2016 and 2017 events. Ultimately, the club decided to hold the event as it always had without major changes.
Planning was well underway for the 2018 event when it was canceled. A regularly scheduled club meeting that was supposed to go over ride details such as registration fees, apparel costs and rest stop volunteers ended with the contentious decision to nix the event.
"It was not a unanimous decision. Some of us feel like this is the loss of the most unique bicycle event of this area," the club wrote in its newsletter to members. "It covers the essence of Chattanooga, nestled between the mountains. However the majority felt this was the correct decision."
FILLING THE VOID
The following year brought major changes to CBC as longtime club members who held leadership positions were replaced. Still, there were no immediate plans by the club to replace the once-popular ride.
In the meantime, Burke, who owns Chattanooga-based bicycle touring company Velo View Bike Tours, began creating a new local cycling event. He set off largely by himself to build what ultimately became the Chattanooga Challenge.
Addressing one of the concerns of some club members, he planned his ride for October. He also got the city to agree to close Ochs Highway for the race. The early-morning ride started and ended at Finley Stadium, in time for participants to attend Oktoberfest. The 2018 ride drew about 250 registrants.
For a first-year event, Burke counted it as a success and looked to grow, but he had run into some of the same issues that plagued the bike club.
"It ran into logistical concerns," Burke says. "There are lots of other events that time of year. You have to have traffic control, and especially when you're starting downtown. That was the real issue. We ran into some of those logistical issues. If I continued to do it downtown and grow it, those conflicts would get bigger."
He partnered with the bike club and, together, the two worked to build on the Chattanooga Challenge. They instead ended up creating a new event: Cycle Sequatchie. The project drew from all the lessons learned between them, but also from another initiative Burke was working on.
Burke had been working with area tourism bureaus to document and highlight cycling routes in the area. The project, Bikeways of the Scenic South, advertises roads, scenery, landmarks as well as area businesses where cyclists can stop to buy food or drinks. Online at scenicbikeways.com, it includes routes in the Sequatchie Valley.
The valley seemed like an ideal place to host a large-scale event, Burke and the club decided. It has mountains, country roads, premiere cycling and far less traffic impact than a downtown event.
The new ride attracted registrants from 15 states.
"Getting the communities involved with this ride is what makes it stand out," says Olson. "We have different businesses and organizations that are part of it."
The ride had seven community partners, benefited The Land Trust for Tennessee, featured a farm-to-table lunch from local farmers, was professionally documented by a film crew, and had four routes ranging from 16 to 78 miles, with more planned for next year.
Organizers have already announced next year's event for Oct. 3.
"I thought it went really well," 16-year-old cyclist Andrew Keller says of the inaugural ride. "I think this was my favorite cycling event I've participated in."
Keller, of Flintstone, Georgia, has ridden in a handful of other events including last year's Chattanooga Challenge as well as Walker Rocks' Honeybee ride. He finished first in his age group for the Cycle Sequatchie 78-mile ride.
"The registration was fantastic, the volunteers were amazing and the scenery was absolutely beautiful," he says of Cycle Sequatchie. "The weather was really nice, and it was really well organized. I had a really good time and can't wait to do it again."
That's all good news for Burke and the bike club. The goal was to put on a relatively small event this year that showcased what a Chattanooga cycling event run by the local club could look like post-3 State. They hoped to use this year to establish a good reputation for the ride.
"More than anything, it's about giving the people who show up a great experience," Burke says. "That's the base for growing the ride."