“To make it any larger and add more events, I just don’t have the time,” said Poe, the president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, who has headed up the challenge since 2000 and who founded the Noble Street Festival in 2003 to support it.
The weekend of cycling-related events coming up later this month draws hundreds of visitors to Calhoun County each year, and as NEABA looks to continue that growth, Poe and other members said the project may be beyond the scope of local volunteers.
Members of NEABA are currently looking into companies that run such sporting events professionally, including Georgia-based Medalist Sports. Jim Birrell, an executive with the company, has attended the Noble Street Festival and ridden the Cheaha Challenge on multiple occasions, Poe said.
“In order for it to go to the next level, somebody else needs to run it,” Poe said, and NEABA doesn’t have members who have the necessary time to commit to such huge events, he said. Planning for the event is practically a year-long endeavor, Poe said. After the event in April and post-event housekeeping in May, volunteers begin planning dates and securing a place for races on the national calendar in June and July. In the fall, work to secure sponsors ramps up, and registration for the Cheaha Challenge begins in January.
Members of NEABA began the festival in 2003 to attract more participants to the Cheaha Challenge by providing activities for riders and their families, adding a kid zone, restaurant tour, musical entertainment and more to the Saturday event.
The Noble Street Festival has been selected by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel as one of the top 10 events in the state three times since 2006.
“The one person who has done the most and is the most modest is Mike,” longtime volunteer Barry Nichols said. “He’s really the one who founded Noble Street Festival and was instrumental in making it what it is today.”
The centerpiece of the festival is a series of bike races known as the Sunny King Criterium, where cyclists ranging from juniors to professionals race NASCAR-style in a loop around the city’s downtown. The final two heats are professional women’s and men’s races that are part of a national points circuit. Curtis Cupp, race director for the weekend, said the criterium has been named a Tier 1 event on the National Criterium Calendar sponsored by USA Cycling, a label he likened to being named a Nextel Cup race in NASCAR. The criterium brings in competitors from all over the nation and is drawing more and more international riders.
The Cheaha Century Challenge, in its 21st year, is a 102-mile recreational ride on the Sunday following the criterium, beginning at the Piedmont Civic Center and running over Mount Cheaha to Adam’s Gap and back. The ride, which attracts mostly amateur cyclists, has grown from about 160 riders to about 700 last year.
Cupp said the Sunny King Criterium should easily draw between 500 and 600 racers. The next day, between 800 and 1,000 cyclists will likely ride the Cheaha Challenge, with an additional 300 or 400 participating in the competitive Foothills Road Race.
“I don’t know I dreamed it would be this big and as successful as it has been,” said Nichols, a founding member of NEABA. “I was thinking it would be crazy for anyone to ride from Piedmont to Adam’s Gap and back.”
Poe said NEABA members have discussed adding another day of racing to make the weekend an even bigger draw.
“It’s something we’d like to see, but we just can’t do it as volunteers,” he said, adding that it would require more higher-level management and staff.
Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart has frequently stated a goal of branding Anniston ‘Bike City, Alabama’ and eventually ‘Bike City, U.S.A.’
“If we’re going to hold ourselves out as that,” he said, “we’re going to want competitive races.”
“In the bicycle world, this is very big,” Stewart said. “We certainly want to support it and help nurture its growth beyond what it is today.”
The Noble Street Festival plays a lot of roles in the community, the mayor said.
“It’s economic development, it’s recreation, it’s quality of life, it’s healthy living,” he added.
“I think it would be a stretch to think we’re beyond a weekend destination,” he said, “but right now we’re a weekend destination.”
And tourism from the Noble Street Festival and the biking events that it supports fit perfectly into that model, he said.
Ebonee Thompson, marketing and tourism director for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, said the benefits of the weekend extend beyond the city itself.
“It’s an event like no other,” she said.
Not only does it draw people into the county from all over the country, she said, but it allows local residents to “see the excitement of outsiders for their area” and understand the value of their area from someone else’s perspective.
She said the benefit to the region’s businesses can only grow with the event.
Much like Calhoun County gets spillover traffic from the Talladega races, she said she could see cycling enthusiasts here for the events visiting Gadsden or other cities while in the area.
And while NEABA members look to help expand the event by bringing in professionals to take it to the next level, Poe said the volunteers who have worked to make the event what it is will still have a role.
“It’s important for the NEABA to stay involved in some sort of oversight role,” he said. “Not necessarily running it, but just making sure that from the cycling standpoint, it stays the course.”
Area Bicycle Association requests online votes for grant competition
The Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association is seeking community support to win $30,000 for Coldwater Mountain bike trails. Part of a grant program sponsored by Bell Bike Helmets, the money would be used to build a “flow trail” as part of a system to connect Coldwater to a new trailhead park in Anniston.
One of the factors Bell will use to determine the grant winner is a Facebook vote, which the Coldwater project led in early stages of voting that began last month. Since then, the project has fallen into last place in the polls with 18 percent. At press time, the other projects carried 30, 29 and 23 percent voting shares.
Part of the challenge for the Coldwater project is that the other trail systems under consideration are very established and have large followings, Poe said.
“We have until April 12,” said Mike Poe, president of NEABA. “If we can finish strong, I think we can come back.”
Poe said that much more than the $30,000 is at stake in the competition. The grant winner, he said, will be the subject of a national marketing campaign by Bell. Once the funded trail has been built, Bell will send professional riders, photographers and videographers to ride and document the product of their grant.
“Even beyond the money, this is going to bring a lot of national exposure to Anniston and the Coldwater system,” he said. “It’s hard to put a price tag on, but it’s as valuable if not more so than the $30,000.”
In addition, the $30,000 could be leveraged to secure more money for projects at Coldwater. Government grants usually require matching funds from local agencies. If the Coldwater project were to secure additional Recreational Trails Program grants administered through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said Poe, that $30,000 could potentially fund the local match for a $120,000 grant.
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.