Joe Medley: Haven’t heard of the Woodland Century bike ride? Area officials, cycling enthusiasts want to change that
by Joe Medley
Mar 09, 2013 | 5852 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cyclist Johnny Jonakin rides a portion of Bain’s Gap Road in preparation for the Woodland Century Ride. (Photo by Trent Penny)
Cyclist Johnny Jonakin rides a portion of Bain’s Gap Road in preparation for the Woodland Century Ride. (Photo by Trent Penny)
MCCLELLAN — Quick, name a 100-mile cycling ride that begins and ends in Calhoun County and has been around for 20 years.

A. Cheaha Challenge.

B. Woodland-Calhoun Century

C. Both of the above.

Those tempted to not look past the first answer shouldn’t feel bad, because lots of folks outside of the ever-growing Anniston-area cycling community have probably never heard of the Woodland.

That’s something organizers and cycling enthusiasts would love to change, starting with the 20th anniversary Woodland on March 23. New Anniston mayor Vaughn Stewart, who has declared the town “Bike City,” would like to change it, too.

The area has already built the Noble Street Festival around the Cheaha Challenge weekend, which includes the Sunny King Criterium and Foothills Classic. That April weekend has been ranked among the state’s top 10 tourism events.

The area also enjoys tourism hits from the recently completed Coldwater Mountain biking trail, so why not maximize the area’s cyclist-friendly terrain and grow another established event?

“They want to be tortured,” said Angie Shockley, who puts on the Woodland Century as program director for Anniston Parks and Recreation.

Glad to accommodate, organizers have tweaked the course in recent years to include the Bains Gap Road climb. It’s a 2-mile climb with a grade exceeding 20 percent at points.

“Oh, it’s awful,” Woodland regular Johnny Jonakin said. “It’s super-duper tough. It really is.

“A good majority, I guess, can get up it, but a whole lot of people have to walk part of it (and push their bikes), too. There’s nothing on the Cheaha Challenge that’s as tough as Bains Gap, for sure.”

Jonakin should know. He’s ridden 19 of 20 Cheaha Challenges and would have in 2012 but for lingering effects of injuries from an automobile accident. By his most conservative estimate, he’s done at least 10 Woodlands.

There’s not as much crossover between the two rides as one might expect. The Cheaha Challenge has swelled to 500-600 riders a year, and the Woodland drew 186 in 2012. That’s down from the all-time high of about 367, Shockley said.

How does one ride grow and the other not in an area rich with cycling enthusiasts and well-suited natural resources?

For starters, there’s unpredictable early spring weather, which has forced organizers to move the Woodland to September.

“I remember about 15 years ago I rode it, and it snowed on me,” Woodland regular Steven Vinyard said. “That was a trying experience.”

Because of unpredictable weather, much of the Woodland’s draw registers either on the day of the race or close to it. As of early this past week, six riders had pre-registered.

“That’s typical,” Shockley said.

The Woodland also lacks the surrounding events that have helped to grow the Cheaha Challenge. Recent years have seen Challenge organizers add criterium races the day before the century ride. The fast-paced circuit races anchor the Noble Street Festival in downtown Anniston.

As an added draw for competitive racers, Challenge organizers also added the Foothills Classic, a shorter road race that runs at the same time as the Cheaha Challenge but on a different course. Cheaha and The Foothils, more of a recreational ride, start and end in Piedmont.

“We try to make it much more of an event with other things happening around it,” said Mike Poe, top organizer for the Cheaha Challenge.

Poe was also a Woodland regular until daughter Virginia’s soccer activities picked up in recent years, but that’s his only conflict. He and other area cycling enthusiasts want the Woodland Century to grow. The more riders for the Woodland, the more Cheaha fliers they can hand out.

To that end, Anniston veterinarian Dr. Barry Nicholls, one of the area’s top cycling boosters and community relations director for the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, sends out Woodland registration links to Cheaha Challenge riders.

Cheaha Challenge boosters see lots of plusses in the Woodland.

“It’s a really well-done ride,” Poe said. “The city does a good job organizing it, and it’s a great route and a good time of the year, because it’s an early spring ride that kind of gets people to kind of check their fitness and gives you a goal to work toward.”

All the Woodland needs, all interests agree, is more promotion and advertising, so the city will begin online registration through next year, Shockley said. Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce manager Linda Hearn has suggested a Facebook page devoted entirely to the Woodland.

The Woodland started 20 years ago at the suggestion of former Anniston Parks and Recreation athletics director Harry Harner. He saw it as a replacement for a 5K run at a time when area interest in running had temporarily ebbed.

“Harry said let’s do a bike ride, and we all looked at him like he was crazy,” Shockley said. “But we said let’s do it.”

Those who ride the Woodland say those who don’t ride it are missing something.

Vinyard cited well-staffed rest stops and strong law-enforcement presence at intersections. He also touts the route, which incorporates part of the Chief Ladiga Trail with climbs at Dugger Mountain and Bains Gap.

“I’ve been riding for about 20 years and ridden all over the Southeast, and it’s really a highlight,” Vinyard said. “It’s a great ride.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.
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