The signal is loudly repeated as a single file of a half-dozen cyclists turns onto Choccolocco Road.
From a distance, the riders’ blinking red taillights look like some sort of Christmas decoration run amok.
The pace quickens as the group heads down this relatively flat stretch of road.
It’s dawn, and headlights slicing through the darkness are the first sign that an automobile is approaching from behind.
“Car back,” yells the last cyclist in line. The message echoes toward the front.
The bicycles hug the right side of the road. “Coming around,” someone calls out as the automobile begins to pass.
To the east, the rising sun silhouettes the riders, who are now up to about 23 mph.
The slight chill in the air that caused the riders to complain they were underdressed 15 minutes ago is no more. The exertion of fast pedaling and a heart rate north of 150 beats a minute has sweat beading on the brows of a few.
As the rider in front begins to tire, he slides to his left. The rest of the crew passes him, exchanging a word or two, or just a friendly nod. The only other sounds are heavy breathing, the rhythm of bicycle tires whirring on the asphalt and pedals being turned.
The formerly No. 2 man is now the leader of the peloton (a cycling term borrowed from the French, which translates to “platoon”). In front, he’ll bear the brunt of the wind resistance. Thanks to aerodynamics, those lined up closely behind him can reduce their effort by as much as 30 percent.
After a mile or two, the new leader will veer left and let the next rider carry some of the load. On and on this rotation is repeated, a sharing of the work on this 20-mile excursion.
As the group approaches the intersection of Choccolocco and Chosea Springs roads, the leader points his right hand rightward, a gesture repeated by several in the peloton.
The group turns right, heading straight toward the rising sun. Ahead of the pack lie rolling hills, poor road surfaces, barking dogs, speeding motorists, sharp turns and a dozen more miles of agony.
Welcome to the morning ride.
Ask Anniston’s longtime cyclists for concrete details on the history of the morning ride, and the answers are fuzzy. The tradition of early morning group riding in Calhoun County dates back 25 years, maybe 30.
“I started riding around 1998,” says one, “but the group pre-dates me for who knows how long.”
Group rides aren’t unique to Anniston. Practically anywhere a handful of cyclists are gathered there’s a good chance someone has organized regular rides. The website The Art of the Group Ride calls this cycling tradition something that “gives us challenge, motivation, accountability, fellowship, a goal and a little bit of daily purpose alongside our bigger purposes.”
Any region seeking the title “Bike City, Alabama,” as Anniston is, would be lacking without a morning ride full of traditions, quirks and a cast of characters.
Looks like we’re in luck.
The route has changed over three decades, as cyclists seek out places with the least amount of traffic. Riders once used Oxford’s Friendship Road until traffic got too heavy.
The start time varies according to when the sun rises — as late as 6 a.m., as early as 5:15. The cast of regulars expands and contracts with people’s schedules, tolerance for unpleasant weather and willingness to get out of bed before sunrise to suffer for an hour on a bicycle.
The main constant: On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the warmer months, somewhere between six and a dozen (or more) cyclists are on the road. New riders are always welcome. I first started riding with the group two years ago.
Terry Phillis, 47, of Anniston, describes the cult-like spell of the morning ride.
At first, the cycling novice who joins the group is likely to get “dropped,” unable to keep up. Yet, the newcomer keeps coming back, slowly gaining strength. As the weeks go by, the rookie eventually begins to stay with the group for the whole course.
“You now have ridden with these guys three days a week for the last three months, but it would be unusual if anyone said more than three words to you during the hour-long ride,” Phillis said. “You don’t know everyone’s name, and probably would not recognize half of these guys if you passed them in the supermarket.”
By this time, though, the morning-ride bug has claimed another cyclist. Once infected, you “look forward to it like a kid looks forward to a Little League game, laying your bike stuff out the night before, lying in bed worrying that you should have checked your tires, and going over your plan of attack as you brush your teeth by the light of your cell phone at 4:45 in the morning,” Phillis said.
Tom Nelson, 61, seconds the morning ride’s trial-by-fire initiation.
“It is great to see new riders join the group, and the support the group provides to make them better riders. They struggle early on, getting frequently dropped, but when they are able to hang on, everyone is complimentary and excited for them. We are all competitive, and love to be the person leading a pull that splits the group, but we all will stop for a rider with mechanical problems or slow down the pace to allow people to catch up.”
The nice, straight line of the peloton breaks apart as it approaches the hill known as The Grind. Less than a half-mile long, The Grind is not as difficult as the area’s strenuous climbs over Bains Gap or on Cheaha Mountain. However, the 90-foot ascent is enough to separate the climbers from the plodders. (Me? I’m a plodder.)
Once over the top, the riders coast downhill, catching their breath and perhaps grabbing a quick sip from their water bottles.
If the leaders are feeling benevolent, the pace will slow down in order to let the stragglers catch up and for the peloton to reform before crossing Highway 9 for the final six miles.
That’s invariably what non-cyclists ask cyclists.
Why ride the roads at a time when automobile drivers don’t notice (or worse, don’t like) cyclists sharing the same pavement?
Why push your body to the point of pain?
Why do middle-aged men dressed in tight-fitting clothing compete so fiercely across Alabama backroads without a tangible payoff at the end?
Anniston’s Darin Sims, 48, has a good answer: “The period between 5 and 8 a.m. is pretty much the only time I am not beholden to someone or something, and I try to make the most of it. When I am on my bike, I can either focus on things that require deep thought or I can completely check out for a while, both of which are vital to my well-being.”
Strength in numbers, answers Jeff Brooks, 44, of Anniston. “Riding with the group has made me a stronger rider and given me a greater love and appreciation for the sport,” he said.
Brad Cox, 27, of Anniston, says: “The morning ride is great; it’s full of guys that have been riding for years as well as guys just starting out. The mood is always light, fun — but most of all, competitive. It’s a great way to not only stay in shape, but also to stay in touch with other riders in the community.”
“Car up,” calls a voice as the cyclists cross the severely slanted railroad tracks on Old Choccolocco Road. The finish is only a couple of miles away — all that separates the group from a normal heart rate, a shower and the rest of the day is a furious sprint.
Just like the professionals competing in classic European races, riders in the morning group line up tightly behind each other, their shoulders hunched and their hands on the lower part of their handlebars.
“I’ll lead you out for the big sprint,” one rider says to another, meaning he’ll up the pace while shielding the faster rider from the wind until the last couple of hundred feet, when the sprinter can go full-gas as he passes the field. Just like they do in the Tour de France.
Conversations before, during and after the morning ride rarely delve into the serious. Work problems, politics, religion and other weighty topics are infrequent.
A new bike attracts the sort of attention a new baby would at a church fellowship hall.
“Hey, when’d you pick that up?” someone asks, pointing to a shiny new bike that likely cost as much as the 40- and 50-somethings spent on their first cars.
“We all share a passion for cycling,” says Nelson.
Consequently, most of the small talk dwells on where you’ve been riding, who you were with and what you saw while there.
Sims reckons he’s “recovered about a dozen abandoned animals on the route and subsequently found homes for them,” including “a very small, sick kitten” that now resides at Chez Sims. He’s encountered an aggressive hog, a rogue horse and three purses, which he dutifully returned to their owners.
Loose dogs are cyclists’ most common foes. “Dog up” is the group’s signal that a canine is up the road. The aggressive ones can cause real damage, snapping at cyclists’ feet or getting tangled beneath a bike frame, sending riders sprawling on the pavement.
Any rider who’s spent miles in the saddle bears the scars of painful crashes — each one tells a story.
After the sprint, the pace slows. The riders sit up. Some check the GPS monitors mounted on their handlebars the way a doctor examines an EKG. The tiny computers deliver all the data a morning rider could want: time, average mph, heart rate, elevation gained.
Some cyclists who live nearby pedal home. Others, who drove to the starting point, cool down their muscles with a quick spin before attaching their bikes to their cars and heading home.
Someone casually asks, “You riding Wednesday?”
“Probably,” comes the response.
It’s 7:05 a.m. The rest of the day is all downhill.