Note: This is the sixth and final article in a six-part series of blog entries regarding our Santana Rally in Chattanooga. The Introduction can be found HERE, Day 1 can be found HERE, Day 2 can be found HERE, Day 3 can be found HERE, and Day 4 can be found HERE.
While we had a great time at the Santana Mother’s Day Weekend in Chattanooga, as someone who had done a bit of tandem cycling in and around Chattanooga, we were a little disappointed that the routes selected for the rally did not allow Santana’s guests to experience the AMAZING scenery and more rural cycling routes that make Chattanooga so popular with cyclists. As an example, here are some photos taken during route scouting trips we made with some friends when they were planning the 2007 Southern Tandem Rally also held in Chattanooga.
These photos were taken out on what would be the Friday afternoon Mountain Cove Loop and the Saturday Lookout Valley Loop. Sunday’s Ride to Red Bank was a bit more urban and on par with the Santana Saturday ride, sans the Chickamauga National Park roads which are, in fact, one of the crown jewels of cycling around Chattanooga.
To help you visualize where the 2007 Southern Tandem Rally routes went compared to the 2011 Santana Mothers Day Weekend (SMDW), I’ve taken a satellite image of Chattanooga and superimposed the routes from both rallies on that image, which you can see below. The routes in the red hues are the STR ’07 loops, whereas the routes in greens and blue hues are the SMDW ’11 loops.
As you can see, the locations of the STR ’07 loops were very different from the Santana weekend routes, although there was a Saturday after lunch option for STR that took riders out along the Riverwalk… the same as the first 7 and last 3 miles of Santana’s Thursday ride to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
So, what to make of this? Well, there are a couple of things that come immediately to mind. First off, the folks who planned the 2007 Southern Tandem Rally are best described as hard-core tandem cyclists: long-time cyclist who ride their tandems every weekend, who train to stay in shape, and who enjoy challenging rides, as do a lot of the people who they know. The underlying theme of the 2007 Southern Tandem Rally was, “This isn’t your grandma’s tandem rally” because of the challenging terrain. The demographics of the rally attendees reflected that as well. In addition to only drawing 84 teams (the STR limit is typically 120 with about 100 teams typically registering), there were a lot of elite teams who travelled in from more distant places. At the same, and as you can see in the mileage ranges for the STR routes, there were all kinds of shorter options that allowed folks to skip the longer mileage, big climbs and urban traffic by doing remote starts: that is, loading up their tandem and driving to a secondary starting point outside the city.
In fact, the Friday Mountain Cove Loop was a remote start for everyone. This trimmed about 26 miles off the ride (out and back) and also kept the riders from having to deal with Friday afternoon traffic in and around the center of Chattanooga. However, when we scouted the route, we rode from the Coolidge Park area, so it was all doable without the remote start, but for a Friday afternoon ride it was just “better” to cut out the less than scenic transit section along highway 193.
I make mention of these remote starts and “scenic” aspects of the STR ’07 route planning because that is the fundamental difference I now see between STR and the Santana Weekend in Chattanooga. STR ’07 was designed to appeal to cyclists whose first priority is finding AMAZING places to ride: low traffic, roads in good condition, beautiful things to see as you ride, and constantly changing terrain. Rest stops are worked into rides and, in fact, for both Friday’s and Saturday’s rides the STR ’07 organizers enlisted their parents to set-up remote SAG stops at the distant ends of the loops because there were no stores, restaurants or other facilities available. On Sunday’s ride, a small art museum served as that stop. And, as far as points of interest, the ride routes were the points of interest. If you wanted to do any sight-seeing or visit any of the local attractions, that was secondary and something you could do on your own.
This is also true of most Southern Tandem Rallies, the Tennessee Tandem Rally and the Georgia Tandem Rally: welcome to the South y’all. We just like to ride!! Oh yeah, and we also like mass-starts. All of the tandem rallies in the South begin with a mass-start, often times with police escorts if the hotels are in urban areas where traffic lights could break-up the 50 – 100 tandem parade. There are several other benefits to mass starts that I won’t get into here, but it suffices to say it has a lot to do with the focus on the riding experience and meeting new people.
Now, lets look at the Santana Weekend. While this was only our second Santana Rally in 12 years, I eagerly await and read the descriptions of Santana’s annual events each year when they are published: we’d love to do more of these events, but time off and the associated costs are a constraint for us. But, as I said, having now attended two of the Santana Rallies and read the descriptions of all their trips it’s clear their objectives with route planning are somewhat different. For Santana, route planning becomes a connect-the-dots exercise, where routes are planned in concert with visiting attractions and places of historic interest, which are the hallmark of Santana Rallies. So, for the Chattanooga Weekend, the points of interest were the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum for Thursday, Lookout Mountain with the Incline Railway, Battles of Chattanooga & Ruby Falls for Friday, the Chickamauga Battlefield on Saturday and then Moccasin Bend on Sunday, never mind our host hotel: the Delta Queen. So, given those waypoints, route planning is a completely different exercise where the goal is to find the most interesting and scenic routes that one can safely ride on a bicycle between Point A and Point B, with reasonable mileage given this is a vacation, not a cycling hammerfest.
So, which is better? For us, I don’t think that’s a fair question. Frankly, we like both formats. And, to a certain extent, I think what makes the Santana Rallies so memorable is the focus on “vacation” and sight-seeing. After all, Debbie was born and has lived near Atlanta her entire life and I’ve lived in Atlanta since 1991. Neither one of us had ever actually stopped at the top of Lookout Mountain’s Point Park, visited Chickamauga Battlefield and certainly never heard of the Tennessee Valley Railroad: it’s just not something we typically do. Neither one of us are tourists, per se, and as we’ve discussed, the rallies we attend immerse us in cycling with just a tinge of sight-seeing. It was also interesting to note that at the Santana rallies everyone really acted as though they were on vacation and that makes a world of difference. There’s also something to be said for the disposition of the folks attending the rallies, as everyone seemed comfortable in their skin, were happy and energetic, and just very relaxed. Therefore, our two Santana Rallies have clearly exposed us to new and different things that have all left a lasting impression and given us fond memories: like we’d been on vacation. Our other rally experiences have given us new friends and great riding experiences, but not the same indelible impressions or post-vacation relief… hence, the completely different experience that I described at the outset of this entry.
So, which is the better value? I’m not going there. Again, these are completely different events with a different feel, target audience and overall experience. Therefore, it’s best to compare Santana’s rallies to other commercial rallies that are competing in similar markets, e.g., look at Velo Echappe’s California Coast Tour vs. Santana, or Second Summer’s Maui Challenge vs. Santana, or any of Trek’s tours, etc. Again, these are planned, all-inclusive cycling vacations. Rallies, on the other hand, should be compared to other rallies, noting some rallies are ala carte events while others are all-inclusive. For those who are interested, I wrote an article a while back on tandem vacations that also looked at price comparisons, noting I was somewhat surprised by what I learned doing my research. You can find that article HERE.
Now, having said all of that, I will put in a plug for regional tandem rallies because I think they are important events that offer a great experience for folks who truly like to ride their tandems and because I think they’re still some of the best values in tandem events. I also think that the regional tandem rallies are often times the most well-planned and organized events you’ll ever experience because the bar has been set very high in terms of the web content that’s provided in advance of the events, the time and effort that goes into making sure folks considering these events know what to expect for the rides, to include advanced publication of downloadable route maps, cue sheets and GPS data. In fact, when we planned STR ’07 we went to great pains to get the elevation maps out there because we did not want anyone to show up and have a bad experience because they were intimidated by the elevations. In fact, if you’d like to see what the website I created for STR ’07 looked like, I’ve re-hosted it on my server: http://www.thetandemlink.com/STR.html. While the home page information has been blown away and replaced by links to some photo galleries (some of which are still available), most of the links to the rally schedule, ride maps, registration information, etc. are still available.
The benchmark for tandem rallies here in the south continues to be The Georgia Tandem Rally, which was unique for its time in that a single couple — Roger Strauss and Eve Kofsky — decided to create their own annual rally that took the Southern Tandem Rally format to an entirely new level, in terms of leveraging the web for communication, the quality of the event, and creating an atmosphere that makes folks want to return to GTR year-after-year, hence its ability to fill up in almost a single day once registration opens each year.
The Tennessee Tandem Rally follows a similar format to GTR, but tends to stay in the same place year-after-year: Alcoa, Tennessee. Why, because the riding is AMAZING. Although only 1/2 the size of GTR and STR, TTR delivers big for the folks who like rolling hills, challenging climbs and a faster-than-your-average-tandem-rally pace year after year.
And, of course, the Southern Tandem Rally continues on as the smallest of the big five regional rallies in the US. I believe the Midwest Tandem Rally remains the biggest tandem rally in terms of how many teams register (~500), followed by the Northwest Tandem Rally (~300), with the Eastern Tandem Rally, Southern Tandem Rally and Southwest Tandem Rally all drawing closer to the same numbers (~100 – 120).
For anyone interested in signing up for a tandem rally in the future, I have some Registration Tips for First Timers that may be of interest. You can find them HERE.
And, as always, you can usually find out when and where tandem rallies are being held at the events page on TheTandemLink.com, which you can find HERE or by using the “Events” link from my blog.