Who said pros being in the race couldn’t help the amateurs?
A group of United Health Care pros rode in Sunday’s 20th annual Cheaha Challenge as invited guests, and a 37-year-old social studies teacher from Atlanta used their help to avenge a 2-year-old disappointment.
George Darden used the pull of pros to better his 2010 time by 17 minutes against strong head and crosswinds. He was the official top overall finisher, covering the 102-mile ride up Mount Cheaha and back to the Piedmont Civic Center in four hours, 46 minutes and 12 seconds.
He wasn’t the only happy rider from Georgia.
Canton’s Lisa Randall struggled with the winds and saw her winning time from 2003 fall off, but she was the top female 100-mile rider for the second time. The 34-year-old civil engineer and entrepreneur finished in 5:57.04.
The 20th annual Cheaha Challenge drew 591 riders, including the United contingent who ran unofficially for training.
“It was an amazing ride, very relentless,” said United’s Ben Day, who rode with teammate Jeff Louder. “There are a lot of great climbs out there, great scenery. It was a great course for everybody today.
“It was challenging for everybody to go as hard as you can, and I’m sure everyone came back with a smile on their face plus some pain in their legs.”
Darden certainly had a smile on his face. As for the pain in his legs, that was two years ago, when he finished third.
“I kind of had unfinished business with this ride,” he said. “Two years ago, I felt as though I was the strongest person in the ride, and I took a lot of really long pulls in the last 20 miles, and then two guys outsprinted me in the final straightaway, which made me upset.”
Darden didn’t ride in the Cheaha Challenge in 2011. He was riding more consistently last year and opted for the Foothills Classic road race, the companion event in Piedmont on the same day.
But he wanted another shot at the Cheaha Challenge.
“I’ve been looking forward to coming back,” he said. “I was glad to come back today and have a good experience and good finish.”
The Cheaha Challenge paid Darden back, and payment came partly in the form of Day and Louder. They couldn’t win, officially, but riders who could keep up could use their pull. Darden did just that.
“It was great, particularly in that windy last 20 miles,” Darden said. “I took several short pulls, and they took longer pulls in order to make sure that we kept our speed high.”
The Cheaha Challenge also paid Darden back in the form of second-place finisher Miroslav Novak, from Huntsville. Novak was in position to make a run at the end but opted to do what others didn’t do two years ago.
“He hadn’t taken any pulls,” Darden said. “To his credit, he pulled up next to me with about five miles left and said, ‘I haven’t been doing any work, so I’m not going to sprint for the finish line, and you run across first, if you can.’
“I really appreciated that. That was a very sportsmanlike thing for him to do.”
Randall also made a triumphant return to the Cheaha Challenge, winning nine years after her last appearance. She has fond memories of her victory in 2003.
“That was, like, perfect conditions, and I had people to work with pretty much the whole time,” she said. “Everything kind of worked for me that day.”
Sunday’s wind-whipped Cheaha Challenge got payback.
“The wind, coming back in, it just pretty much crushed my soul, having to ride that 20 miles back in by myself,” she said. “There was a head wind and a cross wind that was kind of blowing us into traffic, and it was actually kind of scary at times.
“Once I had about five miles to go, I kind of stopped having a little pity party in my mind and said, ‘OK, I’m going to get this done and eat.’”
In what’s become a yearly tradition, participants paid back Cheaha Challenge organizers and volunteers with unsolicited praise.
“I love that there are so many people out that are really supportive,” Randall said. “A lot of people were cheering. The aid stations were great.
“There was a lot of law enforcement and EMTs on the course. It looked like there was a medic at the bottom of every big downhill.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.