A yardful of tents and bicycles along the shore of Lake Lanier at Clarks Bridge Park in Gainesville.

Tents and bicycles dotted Lake Lanier’s Clarks Bridge Park during the last BRAG event a few years ago.

An estimated 1,500 bicyclists will roll into Gainesville in early June in a “Lakes and Libations” tour likely to pry riders off their saddles for a dip in Lake Lanier and a sit down dinner downtown. The 43rd Bicycle Ride Across Georgia (BRAG) wheels into the city June 5 for an overnight at the Gainesville Civic Center before taking off for two nights in Braselton. The route starts June 4 in Clayton and travels 325 mostly rural miles to Augusta on June 10.

Gainesville seems to be a cyclists’ favorite pit stop enroute downstate from the mountains. The bike tour has steered into the city six times since the mid-1980s. The last time, in 2019, tired cyclists landed at Lake Lanier Olympic Park after a grueling mountain stage from Ellijay.

“Gainesville is beautiful! It has so much to offer … the downtown, the lake, beautiful roads,” said BRAG Executive Director Franklin Johnson. He said construction at LLOP prevented an overnight camp at the lake, but that won’t keep cyclists out of the water. “We’re definitely trying to arrange some program at the lake, maybe paddle boarding” at LLOP, Johnson said.

Gainesville tourism director Robyn Lynch described BRAG as a “repeat tourism and sports event that we have been proud to host every five years.” She added that it “brings in an estimated $200,000 economic impact to Gainesville with the opportunity for our sports alliance and tourism team to showcase what Gainesville has to offer and encourage participants to visit again with family and friends.”

BRAG cyclist Tim Evans touts the on-and-off the bike benefits of the tour. Evans, who regularly pedals the rolling hills of northern Hall County and adjacent territories, first rode BRAG in 2011 and plans to ride this summer. Before that, he will get his bike legs pumped in the April BRAG Spring Tune Up in Rutledge.

“BRAG is like a rolling bike-a-palooza festival. I see many friends from Gainesville-Hall County and the Metro Atlanta region participating each year and for many others it is a major event on their calendar,” said Evans. “A bicycle offers the chance to experience Georgia at a human pace and to see Georgia’s communities, its kind people and all that our beautiful state has to offer, one mile at a time. Plus, you really earn your lunch and the snacks at the BRAG support stops.”

In his post as vice-president for economic development for the Gainesville-Hall County Chamber of Commerce, Evans sees BRAG as a valuable contributor to local economies. “There is an immediate economic value to BRAG stopping overnight in the community. Some riders will opt to stay in local hotels (not everyone likes tent living), eat at local restaurants and shop,” he said. “I find that BRAG riders are largely business and community leaders from all walks of life and all over the Southeast US. There is a long-term benefit in the connection BRAG participants will make with Gainesville-Hall County, and the memories they take with them from their visit can translate into new opportunities down the road.”

Johnson expects the fastest riders, pacing an average 20 miles an hour, will clip out of the pedals at the Gainesville Civic Center around 11 a.m. June 5, starting a parade of arrivals through around 2 p.m. Lynch said the city plans to provide transportation from the civic center through Gainesville with stops at the downtown square and Midland Greenway so riders have the opportunity to experience local tap rooms and restaurants. The tourism department will also provide entertainment at the civic center for participants who choose to relax after a long ride.

Cyclists who don’t opt for a hotel stay or downtown shuttle can shower, chow down, sip a beer, shake a leg, get derailleurs adjusted, have their quads kneaded, stretch their hamstrings, and settle down for the night inside the civic center or camp outside at nearby parks. The tour brings its own dining hall, BRAG Bar, shower van, mechanics, massage therapists, yoga instructors and baggage truck.

To keep cyclists on route, BRAG organizers provide a road-by-road cue sheet and post routes on the Ride with GPS app. Additionally, road signs and markings show the way. In mid-February, Johnson said he was finalizing the June route, which will travel out of Gainesville at 7 a.m. and may roll on a short section of the Highlands to Islands Trail. The preliminary map showed rest stops in Cornelia, Lula, Oakwood and Flowery Branch where cyclists can refuel with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, chips, and cookies.

Lynch expects locals to welcome the tour, as they did in 2019. “Commuters and businesses alike were very receptive to the cyclists and many businesses even stood outside, waved and held up signs encouraging the participants. With ample advance notice, I know that the Gainesville community will welcome the participants and support their efforts. With the combined efforts between the Gainesville Police Department and the BRAG Safety Team, we do not anticipate having any road closures for this event,” she said.

Evans encouraged cyclists of all shapes and experiences to hop on a bike for at least one BRAG stage. “Just do it. It’s a ride, not a race.  You don’t need a fancy bike or special equipment. My bike of choice is 25 years old, and it’s half my age. Most any bike and bike helmet will do. If it has been a while since you’ve ridden that bike, your local bike shop can check it out for you to make sure it’s road worthy. BRAG is the best supported event in cycling and it is a very welcoming event and community to first-time participants,” he said.

Participants who may not have the legs to pump up hills or sprint into towns have another option: e-bikes. Johnson allows electric- powered bikes that assist pedaling. In fact, he said that 10 of 72 cyclists in BRAG’s winter ride on the Georgia coast were e-biking it. He added that some purists may still look down their handlebars at the new technology, but “it’s not cheating to use pedal assist. It’s a small but growing” contingent of BRAG cyclists.

Johnson got off his bike to talk with Lakeside News by phone on the side of the road near St. Mary’s a day after BRAG ferried back from Cumberland Island. The sound of cars whooshing by and cyclists chatting juxtaposed the different modes of transportation and the mind frames they inhabit. He explained why he chooses to bike Georgia and invites others to join him. “There are infinitely more opportunities to discover the fabric of communities. Life on a seat with two wheels is so much different from traveling on four wheels. Most people (traveling from Gainesville to Augusta) take 985, 85 and 20 to get from point A to point B. They fly by the unique small towns and their people, food and culture.” They’ve nothing new to brag about either.

For more info: www.BRAG.org.

Photo: by Vicki Hope