The annual 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge had a record number of registrants last year: Almost 2,100 cyclists signed up. Every May, the event just gets bigger and bigger. That is, until it doesn’t.
The ride has historically faced roadblocks (literally and figuratively), some of which have deterred cyclists from returning the following year. In 2009, bad weather disrupted the ride. In 2011, fallout from a tornado closed part of the 100-mile route. In 2013, near-freezing rain made the day miserable for most -- and ended the ride early for many.
However, it was the death of a cyclist, Antonio Jose Desousa Ribeiro, that really rattled riders. He’d traveled from Jacksonville, FL to ride, and had only three miles left -- when he lost control in the cold, wet conditions and struck an oncoming vehicle.
It could have happened to anybody. Yet usually, mercifully, it doesn’t: Think of all those who have ridden for nearly three decades years without major incidents. But it only takes one.
“Registration is less than half this year,” Event Director Dawn Salyer said. “But it’s still go-time.”
Judging by the nearly 1,000 registrants, cyclists agree. The 27th annual 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge will roll out of downtown on May 3.
In ten (not continuous) years as director, Salyer has seen the ride overcome plenty of other obstacles. In her first year as director, the ride started at the downtown Sports Barn with 350 people. The street was closed just long enough to get the wheels turning; a year later, she found it “amazing” to see over 400 people.
Former mayor Bob Corker got the city to embrace 3 State -- and then allowed the Chattanooga Bicycle Club to make it better. Since then, the recipe for success hasn’t changed all that much. It has grown organically, largely by entrants bringing friends to see the fall-over-backwards-steep Burkhalter Gap. It’s the stuff great stories (and tall tales) are made of.
Salyer says, “We always have to deliver a great experience.” But that doesn’t mean it always has to stay exactly the same. For a few years, organizers have talked about nixing the Ochs Highway descent. This year, they instituted the change -- which should make cyclists feel safer.
“Safety first,” Salyer says. “They’ll still do Burkhalter, but they’ll come down Nickajack,” into Flintstone, GA. Nickajack is an equally exciting descent, with some “gnarly switchbacks” which will be well-marked with signs and police.
The metric century (62 miles) also gets a significant change: It has ascended Suck Creek in recent years, but this year, riders will climb Burkhalter and pick up with the 85/100-mile routes. That way, everybody will descend Nickajack, “and then they’ll have virtually nine miles flat,” Salyer says.
Chattanooga cyclist Blair Brown has ridden the past four years, so she’s familiar with the course. “[Last year] the only place I felt a little unsafe was going down Sand Mountain. Everything was so wet that the bike took many feet of braking before it even started slowing down,” she recalls.
“I said last year that I won’t do it if the weather is that bad again...but I know I probably will.”
Jack Howland has ridden many times, and isn’t deterred by last year’s incident. He also favors the new route: “Let's not forget that once down Nickajack, the riders have a mostly flat run-in to the finish. Whereas having to go to Ochs required endless rollers up on Lookout -- and then the descent of Ochs usually sees far more traffic. And then at the bottom, where last year's crash happened, there are rumble strips in the middle of the road. Rumble strips are bad.”
Howland says that, even though he could ride the roads any day, the appeal of 3 State is the camaraderie. “Who wants to ride 100 miles alone?” he asks. (Insert joke about triathletes).
Though this is a rebuilding year, Salyer thinks there will probably still be international presence from Canada, Niger and South Africa. Riders have also signed up from California and Arizona, which is “a little unusual” but certainly welcome. Many cyclists are likely taking a wait-and-see attitude, which could lead to a last-minute entry bump.
It appears that the spirit of 3 State is still fully intact. Salyer relishes rider feedback; cyclists have told her that, despite riding by themselves, they never felt alone. “What sets this ride apart from others is the support,” she says. “They notice police, cones, sag vehicles.”
“It was very personal for me last year. Churches were opening up as triage centers to get people out of the cold.”
“To see people when they really, really know there’s a need -- that’s what struck me last year,” Salyers says. “They rose. They definitely rose.”
And if history is any indication, 3 State 3 Mountain will rise again as well. In a year or two, riders will forget about the rain. They’ll forget about the cold. They’ll forget about the deep fatigue (or maybe they’ll crave it). But they won’t forget about Antonio Jose Desousa Ribeiro -- and they might ride with a greater understanding of the monumental effort that goes into keeping them safe on the roads.