Bike racers hit the road Saturday

Friday, March 31, 2017
Riders at last year’s Hell of the South race wind through downtown Belfast. This year’s road racing event happens Saturday on the winding county roads in the Belfast area.
Tribune Photo by Scott Pearsom

The roads around Belfast will look a lot like France on Saturday.

The Hell of the South bicycle race returns to town, drawing racers from all over the county and Canada to Marshall County for some tough road racing.

The rough, winding, and hilly roads around Belfast recreate the feel of the traditional European road racing honored by the organizers.

“We have some of the best scenery and best roads to ride a bike through anywhere in Tennessee,” said Thad DeHart, one of the race organizers, in this year’s race packet.

The Hell of the South name pays homage to a long-time race in northern France, famous for its difficulty, known as the Hell of the North.

Belfast will be abuzz Saturday with racers, food, and music for the third edition of the race to be held in Marshall County.

Races will still start in the center of Belfast but the race day schedule has been changed up slightly this year.

Last year featured a separate time trial race, where riders race alone against the clock, in the afternoon that has been dropped this year. DeHart said that riders loved the course that featured a long climb up Fire Tower Road, but two grueling races in one day proved too much for many entrants.

Instead for this year, junior divisions for teens have been added to the main Hell of the South race.

DeHart said that they had been leery of adding juniors because of the difficulty of the course and safety concerns but there was so much interest expressed they decided to try it.

The name of the race is more than marketing. Last year a rider was seriously injured after crashing on the downhill section on Snake Creek Road.

Racers will finish on Snake Creek Road this year instead of on Fishing Ford Road, making the overall course a bit longer.

The highest race categories will do three laps of the route, totaling 72.5 miles, up from 66 miles last year.

The number of entrants is off this year after solid growth last year. DeHart said that a very large, national-level event in Arkansas had moved their race from May to this weekend for this year. He said he knew of several Nashville area teams that would normally be here had entered there.

DeHart said that every year they evaluated the weekend of racing to make sure that everyone, from riders to sponsors to hosts, received value from their involvement.

“Each year, we’ve looked at ways to make the weekend better,” he said.

He felt good about racing in Lewisburg again next year but explored the possibility of changing the format next year.

Road races, like Hell of the South, are not the most popular format right now in cycling, he said.

Criterion races, where the course is much shorter but riders do many more laps, are more popular and have the benefit of being much easier for spectators to see the racing.

A crit, as they are known, could use a one or two mile course that passed through the square in Lewisburg creating more of a festival atmosphere among people gathered to watch along the race.

Regardless of the format, DeHart thinks bike racing has a home in Lewisburg and Marshall County.

Organizing the race is always difficult, he said, but the number of positive comments he gets from riders after a day racing here always gets him excited about coming back the next year.