By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Chattanooga Bicycle Club’s 3-State 3 Mountain Challenge, the ultimate leg of which runs through Dade County the first weekend of every May, has in previous years ignited antagonism between cyclists and West Brow residents. This year the Challenge rolled smoothly up Burkhalter Gap, the site of earlier strife, but an isolated hit-and-run accident on Sand Mountain, where the cyclists historically receive a warm welcome, marred the peace that otherwise characterized Saturday’s event.
Jeffery Bryan Jones, 47, of Valdosta, was taken by ambulance to North Park Hospital in Hixson, Tenn., after he was struck at about 1 p.m. Saturday by a dark-colored Silverado pickup truck, breaking his arm, confirmed Trooper Scotty Smith of the Georgia State Patrol. “I talked to him yesterday and he’d had surgery,” said Trooper Smith Tuesday morning. “He had a plate and about eight pins.”
The injured rider, said Smith, was subsequently discharged from the hospital.
A second cyclist, Lavern Lane Houseman, 64, of Park Lake, was also struck, splitting open his arm, but his cut was treated at the scene and he was pronounced fit to ride on. “He finished the race,” said the trooper.
The accident happened on Highway 301 near Brown’s Tire Service. A group of cyclists riding behind Jones and Houseman described the truck as black or dark green and driven by a single male occupant going north on 301 from DeKalb County, Ala., much too fast. “They estimated his speed in the mid-70s,” said Trooper Smith.
The witnesses said the driver was passing Jones and Houseman when he swerved to the right to avoid an oncoming vehicle, striking Jones with his passenger-side mirror. By the time he struck Houseman his speed had abated and the impact was less. But Smith said all the damage was done with that rear-view mirror, which remained at the scene. So, for a couple of hours, did Smith and his fellow troopers, searching for a Silverado with one mirror. The pickup truck driver had not stopped to assess the damage.
“A Silverado on Sand Mountain is like a Lexus in Atlanta,” said Trooper Smith. “There’s just so many of them. We chased down every one we saw to make sure they had both mirrors.”
But the troopers met with no success in their pursuit and the hit-and-run driver remains at large.
The 3-State 3-Mountain Challenge is a 100-mile cycling event now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Organizers had expected this year’s Challenge to draw about 2,000 riders.
After 2010’s race, Dade officials asked the Chattanooga Bicycle Club to reroute the last leg of the race from Burkhalter Gap Road, a county road, to Highway 136 East, a state right of way. County commissioners who had turned out to observe cyclists as they proceeded up the stark slopes of Burkhalter Gap in 2010 said they saw hair-raising safety violations as bicycles and automobiles competed for space on the narrow road. Neither were they impressed by the behavior of some riders, who greeted the officials with derision and rude gestures.
But CBC responded that Burkhalter Gap was the “crown jewel” of the Challenge and begged the officials to reconsider.
A public meeting on the matter in August 2010 at the West Brow Community Center was the occasion of much door-slamming and voice-raising on the part of outraged locals. But CBC representatives poured oil on the troubled waters, promising to meet any behavior conditions Dade imposed; and Sheriff Patrick Cannon proposed a plan to close off one lane of Burkhalter Gap for the cyclists during the race, shuttling cars up and down with an escort car.
For the 2011 Challenge, that plan was not effected: The deadly tornados of April 27 intervened, rerouting the race, diminishing its attendance, and in any case focusing the attention of Dade law enforcement and Dade leadership elsewhere.
But on Saturday, the Dade Sheriff’s Department, aided by Georgia State Troopers, did institute the escort-car plan, blocking off the upward-bound lane of Burkhalter Gap from Creek Road to the top at about 11:15 a.m. And as they had in 2010, Dade Commission Chairman Ted Rumley and District 4 Commissioner Peter Cervelli observed the Challenge from a point halfway up the “Crown Jewel.”
Rumley, incidentally, said this wasn’t Burkhalter Gap’s first nickname. Built during the 1960s during the frenzy of paving that marked the administration of former Sole Commissioner Dan Hall, the road was once known as Jacob’s Ladder. Steep, winding and utterly terrifying in the fog, it’s a shortcut between West Brow and Trenton that saves a good seven or eight miles over the more forgiving slopes of 136.
And this year, all went well. All the cyclists seemed to be wearing the identification numbers the officials had asked for as a condition of continuing the event on Burkhalter, and most hailed the commissioners with sunny smiles and comments along the line of “Thank you for all you do.”
A few utterances were more terse, not to say plaintive: “Water?” or “Halfway yet?”
But overall, the level of fitness of at least the first wave of cyclists was such that one male-female pair of cyclists were observed riding side–by–side, chatting casually as they pedaled up the nearly vertical incline.
At a rest station on Creek Road just before it tees into Burkhalter, cyclists were upbeat and friendly as they paused for water or Powerade before tackling the "Jewel.” “This is our first time here,” said one rider. “We’ll be sure to come back.”