The 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge: Chattanooga's Two-Wheeled Tradition

Mark McKnight
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As it nears three decades, the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge returns to its roots—and reminds riders why Chattanooga is best seen by bicycle.

They say everything old becomes new again. This May, the 28th-annual 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge 100-mile course returns (mostly) to the original route, and it’s a change that should excite cyclists—even those riding for the first time.

For the past few years, construction on a bridge in Haletown, TN, had forced the route to include Raccoon Mountain instead of Suck Creek. Now that the new bridge has been completed, riders can once again make their way over Suck Creek for the first of three mountain ascents.

It’s the longest climb, at 5 miles, but also the easiest, thanks to a relatively benign 5% average grade. This year, riders will be timed on Suck Creek for a KOM (King of the Mountain) competition. A high-end Mavic wheelset awaits the winner, and other event sponsors are lining up prizes for second and third.


While the event itself is not a race, this competition could pose an internal conflict: Legs will be fresh and heart rates calm—yet many egos will be on full alert. With 90 miles left to ride, is it worth risking a Tour de France effort for a Weekend Warrior reward? No doubt many will succumb to the pressure and go full gas, hoping to earn a $1,500 wheelset—or at least a personal best on Strava.

(The official Suck Creek Strava KOM is 19:35, or 15.2 mph. That’s faster than some people will average over the entire day.)

Local triathlete Ed Rusk is riding 3 State for the first time. He’s glad about the chosen route, but he’s avoiding the KOM competition. “I always had a race that weekend,” he says. “I know the route, though, and am glad they've moved it back to the original routes. I’m not a climber, but I'll catch them on the other side. I'm hoping they have oxygen tanks ready for me at the top of each climb, though.”

Although there’s no free oxygen on course, cyclists can catch their breath on the descent into Powell’s Crossroads. They then head southwest into Alabama to climb Sand Mountain, also known as the “goat path.” They’ll experience rolling terrain atop the mountain for a good 15 miles. Once in Georgia, there’s a brief respite. Then, finally, cruelly, comes Burkhalter Gap.

Mark McKnight
Mark McKnight

It’s the shortest of the three climbs, but that’s little comfort compared to the knowledge that a grade of 18% or more is looming at the top. For the uninitiated, 18% looks like a sheer wall—and makes you feel like a toddler trying to climb up the big-boy slide. We can’t officially recommend zig-zagging across the yellow lines to lessen the grade, but we will tell you that it helps, and that it happens a lot.

Luckily, the view from the top is well worth the effort. “I'm looking forward to the climbs and just riding with friends,” says Kendrick Gibson, a recent transplant to Chattanooga who will be riding with his wife, Sara. “It's a really pretty part of the country, too. The scenery will be awesome.”

After Burkhalter Gap, the “new-old” course differs slightly from the original: For the second year in a row, riders will descend off Lookout Mountain using Nickajack Road instead of Ochs Highway. Race director Dawn Salyer says that it’s a safer option—and with hundreds of riders on course, safety is always the first priority.

And that’s the beauty of Chattanooga: The city has more options for first-class cycling than you can shake a spoke at. If one mountain doesn’t work, sub in another. If one of the roads up your chosen mountain isn’t to your liking, take another.

That kind of versatility surely helps bring superstars of the sport like George Hincapie to town. He’ll be riding again with his brother, Rich, and father, Ricardo, but there won’t be an official welcoming ceremony this year. “He’s not a special, formal kind of guy,” says Salyer. That means you’ll have to catch him hanging around the expo from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 1.

Mark McKnight
Mark McKnight

Friday afternoon also serves as early packet pick-up. There’s no onsite registration, so if you want to join in the fun, you’ll need to sign up online by April 25. You’ll also have the option of purchasing the event bike jersey and shorts, a sharp-looking kit produced by Hincapie Sportswear .

The 100- and 62-mile rides begin Saturday, May 2 at 8 a.m from Finley Stadium. The Hincapies will lead out the ride, beginning with a neutralized (slow) start before the peloton gets up to speed. Lunch will start at 11 a.m. for those doing the shorter options (62 and 25 miles) and continue until 5 p.m. for the last century finishers.

It’s safe to say the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge wouldn’t exist in its current state without the help of sponsors who understand the sport. Rock/Creek is presenting this year’s edition; Orion Sports Timing is keeping track of the KOM results; Mavic is providing prizes; and Gu Energy is helping to supply on-course nutrition, with gels and drink mix. Coca-Cola and Carter Distributing are also pitching in to make this event truly a festival, rather than simply a massive group ride.

Mark McKnight
Mark McKnight

Likewise, the event gives back to the community in the form of charitable giving. This year, the Chattanooga Bicycle Club chose Bike Walk Tennessee as the recipient of its donations. Bike Walk Tennessee is the state’s only bike and pedestrian advocacy group, helping to shape public policy and perception—and making our streets safer for cyclists. Since the organization’s inception in 2009, smaller chapters have sprung up in Chattanooga and Knoxville. Generous participation in events like 3 State 3 Mountain—a celebration of the cycling tradition in Chattanooga—can help cement pedestrians’ rightful place on the roadways.

Speaking of tradition, 25% of riders who’ve already registered said this is their first time; almost half say that they’ve ridden five or more times. For some, it’s the pinnacle of the season; for others, it’s just a training ride on the way to something even more difficult. Either way, a finish is noteworthy. And every year, each rider will experience something new—whether it’s their first time or their fifteenth.

On May 1 from 5-8:00 pm, Rock/Creek will have outdoor vendors and a huge tent demo on the field at Finley Stadium to add to the festivities for cyclists and spectators. You can RSVP to the event here.

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