2008 Cherohala Challenge Photo Ride Report

On 21 June 2008 I made good use of the longest day of the year by completing my longest ride of the year–my fourth Cherohala Challenge.
The day started early. I left Knoxville at 5:45 am and arrived at Tellico Plains, TN, a bit after 7:00 am. This year the Challenge moved its start/finish location from Tellico High School to the Tellico Plains Visitor’s Center. The new staging location worked out well, though I didn’t care for all the flies buzzing around during the outdoor post-ride meal.
This year I rode the Challenge with NealH, a cyclist from Raleigh who I met on an earlier event.
The first 20-mile leg of the route to Vonore, TN, is a gently-rolling mix of quiet country roads. It’s nice terrain to get warmed up on in the early morning sunlight.

Starting off in Tellico Plains

Early morning mist on the plains

A quiet Monroe County road

Monroe Country: America’s breadbasket
We stopped briefly at the first rest stop at Vonore. Then it was a couple miles along US 411, riding through Vonore and over the lake. 411 is a main highway, but there’s a wide shoulder available, if you don’t mind dodging debris.

A heavy police presence on hand to deal with traffic chaos in Vonore

Crossing Tellico Lake
The route leaves 411 and heads east on TN 72. There are a few more rolling hills to contend with, but the terrain remains easy. We encountered very little traffic on this road.

Along TN 72

Heading to the mountains
The course joins US 129. There’s an up-tick in motorcycle traffic, with several miles of flat riding along the lake.

Chilhowee Lake
After about 10 miles, U.S. 129 heads up into the woods in a section frequently called the Tail of the Dragon–made famous due to its 318 curves in 11 miles. It’s a unique place to ride; unfortunately the experience is marred by the heavy motorcycle traffic–particularly by the riders who treat this as a personal race track. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be as many a-hole bikers out as there were last year.

Posing at the Calderwood Dam overlook

One of the 318 curves in the Tail of the Dragon

Real bikers and motor bikers mingle along the Dragon

Cyclists refueling at rest stop # 2 at the end of the Dragon

Deals Gap at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line
After the Dragon, US 129 descends sharply past Cheoah Dam (made famous from a scene in The Fugitive), then follows the quiet Cheoah River gorge upstream (1%-2% grade) for several miles.

Cheoah (“Fugitive”) Dam

Following the river upstream on Tapoco Road
After rest stop #3, the course turns onto Joyce Kilmer Road, an extremely secluded road that skirts Santeetlah Lake. There’s a few short climbs in this stretch–just enough to give you a taste of what’s ahead.
At Challenge mile 70, the route turns onto an access road and begins an unrelenting 12-mile climb. Much of the ascent is at a 6%-7% grade, but there are stretches of 8%-9%.

The long climb begins

View where the route turns onto the Cherohala Skyway
If you like climbing, the Cherohala Skyway is a great road for riding. Traffic is light, the pavement is good, the grades are challenging, and the scenery is spectacular.
Fortunately, it was relatively cool and mostly cloudy during this ride. Climbing this road under a hot sun can be brutal. The only downside to conditions was that the haze hampered visibility of the surrounding mountain ranges. The pictures here don’t do the Skyway views justice.

Along the Skyway

Self-portrait climbing at 6%

Neal rolls into rest stop #4

The Madone takes a break from climbing

At the top of the Cherohala Skyway (rest stop 5)
It’s a great feeling to reach the top. I sat there in a pensive mood for a while, soaking in the experience.
Most of the last 30 miles is downhill. Some of it is very fast. You want to be sure your brakes work well on this slope. But there are three or four short “sawteeth” climbs along the way, lest your legs want a bit more punishment for the day.

Mountain haze

The Tellico River

Neal and me after the post-ride meal
I really enjoyed this year’s ride. The weather was good, the climbing was good, the traffic was good, the road surfaces were good, the support was good, the company was good, and everyone around seemed to be in a good mood. I’m already looking forward to doing the Cherohala Challenge again.
Ride stats
Distance: 113.8 miles
Riding time: 7:28
UPDATE: NealH posted more ride photos here, here, and here.

  1. Great fotogs. I know these mountains well as I spend most of my time backpacking thru them on a regular basis. I did the Valley 50 and rode with you guys until Vonore, I was the only guy with a set of panniers on his bike. It’s not so easy taking photos while bicycling, and my only shots were of the big group at the start and some at the Vonore reststop.

  2. Great photos, Brian. I’m almost out of breath from looking at them. The curves looked scary.

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