Bike racers defy weather to start and finish in Berlin

Friday, April 4, 2014
Racers wait for the signal to start in front of the Berlin Fire Department.

By Karen Hall


If you were in the Berlin area Saturday morning, you probably saw something that's very unusual in Marshall County: hundreds of competitive cyclists.

For the fifth year, the "Hell of the South" bicycle race started and finished at the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department.

"We have rough weather conditions today," said Race Director Marshall Bassett to cyclists waiting to start. The temperature never got above 50 degrees, and rain and wind were almost continuous.

Nevertheless, 235 riders started the race, and about 215 finished. Cyclists came from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama, and from as far away as Wisconsin and Indiana. They ranged in age from 14 to about 60, and included some college students. Bassett said cycling was a hobby for most of them, but they looked awesomely in shape and professional, decked out from helmet to shoes in real cycling gear. The bikes looked high tech, too.

The cyclists were divided into categories. All started from the fire hall and rode west to the start of a loop on back roads partly in Marshall and partly in Maury County. One stretch, on Houston Cheek Road in Maury County, was on gravel. Some groups rode the loop just once, for a total race of 29 miles, while the most advanced went around three times, for a race of 79 miles. Cyclists paid an entry fee, and the winners got cash prizes.

This was a road race, and each group of cyclists was followed by an official on a motorcycle who made sure everyone stayed on the correct side of the road and did not stray across the center line. The only exception was the sprint to the finish, when the road was closed so cyclists could take up the whole width. The finish order was captured by a camera, and starters were cautioned to remove or cover up their numbers if they dropped out and were merely pedaling back to the fire hall.

"Everyone involved in the logistics are volunteers," Bassett explained in an email. "The officials are part of a national organization that we pay for their time. We really enjoy supporting the fire hall and the community of Berlin."

A donation is made to the Berlin Fire Department and the neighboring church, Bassett said, and the fire department also made money from concessions, serving breakfast, lunch and snacks. The fire hall was also appreciated this year as a place for organizers to stay out of the weather while taking entries, posting results, awarding the prizes.

"The original idea for this race was based on an idea that my friend Thad DeHart and I had to hold a race to emulate the professional spring classics like Paris-Roubaix, called 'Hell of the North,'" explained Bassett. "Those races are held on rough roads in very rural areas ... we love the roads in Marshall County and hosting a race in a place called Berlin was the icing on the cake."