As thousands of competitors emerge from the Savannah River and mount their bikes as quickly as possible, forgive them if they don’t fully enjoy the Aiken County countryside.
“It might be hard to look at the scenery when your eyes are bleeding and you can’t breathe, but it really offers a lot of visual appeal,” Augusta Sports Council sports development manager Randy DuTeau said. “Aesthetically it’s a beautiful course.”
The fourth annual ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon is the world’s largest of its kind with more than 3,000 competitors, and the second stage of the race will see them bike 56 miles through Aiken County’s backroads after swimming more than a mile in the chilly Savannah River. Cyclists will face the exact same course as last year – a challenging ride full of rolling hills and three significant climbs.
“The professionals would consider them power climbs, but it’s not a flat course by any stretch,” DuTeau said. “It’s going to be a real test to see who can power over the climbs, recover and then do it again.”
DuTeau said some of the roadway looks like “a smooth, black ribbon” after recent construction on Pine Log Road included a freshly paved surface. Roads involved in the race, including portions of Sand Bar Ferry Road, Old Jackson Highway, State Route 1, Gray Mare Hollow Road, Pine Log Road and State Highway 125, will remain open to vehicle traffic during the race but intersections will be monitored by law enforcement officers and volunteers.
DuTeau said safety is a top priority during the event after two of the area’s three cycling deaths over the past two years occurred on Aiken County roads near the course.
“On race day it’s a unique event where everything is geared toward what’s going on that day, but leading up to this event we’ve had over 1,000 people from out of town come here over the last few months wanting to try out the course,” DuTeau said. “What we’ve tried to do is stress bicycle safety and good habits to those who are riding. But in turn you hope drivers are trying to respect the cyclists as well.”
DuTeau said he met with members of a neighborhood watch group who live along the course last year to open dialogue about driver/cyclist safety.
Though the festivities and preparation surrounding this weekend’s events will help diminish the risks of cycling on roadways through traffic during the race, Augusta resident and Ironman competitor Mike Gilliland said it remains a factor.
“On race day you don’t have to really worry about it, but it’s always there. You’re always thinking about it,” he said. “There are just some people who don’t like having cyclists on the road. I bought my wife a bike and the first time she was out there some teenaged kids thought it was going to be funny and they started buzzing her. You have to be careful.”
Gilliland, in his 50s, said he purchased a mirror for his bike to keep an eye on traffic while training for and competing in this weekend’s race. He followed his wife’s footsteps a few years ago by getting involved in marathon running, and he said the mental strain of a triathlon can be as challenging as the physical demands.
“The bike ride is very lonely. You may train with someone or in a group, but everyone has their own pace,” he said. “It’s more just something to prove to yourself. Can I do this? It helps to have family and friends on the sidelines.”
A glimpse of the cycling portion of the race might not be easy to get with limited access to roadways in parts of Aiken County on Sunday morning, but the transition area on the Georgia side of the Savannah River near the Augusta Boathouse might give spectators a better view of the action.