By Rick Sheek
This Saturday’s People’s Community Bank Roan Groan has become even more challenging.
For the first time since 1995, the race will travel all the way to the Rhododendrons Gardens on Roan Mountain. The 56.5-mile course begins at Elizabethton’s downtown monument at 9 a.m.
“The race is looking to be bigger than it was last year on the Roan Groan,” race director Reneau Dubberly said on Wednesday. “That has changed the race to rival the highest category of mountain finish as the Tour de France. We expect to have a good race.”
The Roan Groan is the first of three races that make up the Johnson City Omnium. The second is the Temple Hill Time Trial in Erwin on Saturday afternoon.
The final is the Phil Bachman Toyota Criterium in downtown Johnson City on Sunday. All of the legs are free to spectators.
John Delong of Blacksburg, Va., was the 2009 winner. He is in the field.
Brian Sheedy of Lees-McRae crossed second place in this leg a year ago, but went onto take the overall weekend title. He races for Hampton Trails Bicycle Shop.
Tennessee Pro 1 state champion John Hart (Murfeesboro) and South Carolina’s road race champ, Nathan Smith (Charleston), are also entered.
“So we’ve got quite a group of champions in the race this year,” Dubberly said.
Chattanooga’s Chris Brown is on a roll, having won six races in Tennessee this year. He is coming off a recent victory at McMinnville, which is considered one of the tour’s more stringent spreads.
“He’s running hot, but he hasn’t been here before,” Dubberly said. “The Roan Groan Mountain finish rivals the Tour de France, so he hasn’t had a chance to do that. We’ll have to see how it runs out for Chris Brown.
“It looks like a good opportunity. He won at McMinnville, which is a pretty good climb, but nothing like we’ve got.”
Registration closes at 9 this morning. More than 300 racers will take on Roan Mountain and be challenged by it.
This is the 28th year that riders come from all over the country to compete in Carter County. There will be seven waves, based on ability.
The starting line is near the Elizabethton Monument and the course is either 31.5 miles or 56.5 miles. The first group off will be the professionals, going the longest distance.
This is the highest altitude race finish in the Eastern U.S, 6,285 feet.
The field will go up 19E, then highway 362 to the Gardens.
With the climb up Roan Mountain being nine miles long at an average grade of 6.4%, it rivals the hardest mountaintop finishes in the world’s premier cycling race and is categorized as hors catégorie (above category).
This year’s early registration is 56 percent ahead of last year, when there were 293 racers.
Sponsors this year make it possible to raise the over $12,000 prize list and bring these races to the Tri Cities.
They are; Phil Bachman Toyota, People’s Community Bank, SleepZone, Charter Communications, Best Western, Nor-Well Mechanical Contractors, Johnson City Chamber of Commerce and the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s hard to pull out an exact favorite,” Dubberly said. “Because if you look at our history, we’ve not had any repeats. Most of these people have to race this race three or four times to get to that winning level.”