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May 15—JACKSONVILLE — Bicyclists are a tight-knit group, something simple to see at an international competition’s time trials Saturday.

Around 9:30 a.m. most riders had finished qualifying for the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, a ride from Eubanks Welcome Center in Piedmont to Pete Mathews Coliseum in Jacksonville. Organizers of the Cheaha Challenge were running the qualifier, and cyclists were being called up for top placements in various divisions of gender and age. Most any audience will offer applause, but every time a name was called the cyclists cheered like their own kids were winning trophies.

For most of them, the time trials were the first chance to ride competitively in more than a year, with Sunday’s Cheaha Challenge to follow.

Cyclist Diane Schleicher, of Dahlonega, Ga., who placed in the women’s 60-64 category, said there was a lot of excitement in the crowd to perform and reconnect after so long.

“It’s been well over a year with no training rides,” Schleicher said. “It’s good to see people again.”

Cheaha Challenge ride director Brooke Nelson said this year’s registration had been record-breaking, and a sign that cyclists are no less excited to get outside after a year of pandemic lockdown.

The race group began hosting UCI time trials in 2019 and had about 80 registrants, she said, but this year there were 154 cyclists to register for the event.

The Cheaha Challenge, meanwhile, had already broken its registration record as of Friday afternoon, with more than 1,300 people planning to participate in the Sunday race. The previous record had topped out at about 1,100 registrants, Nelson said. Registration would carry on until the start of the race Sunday morning, leaving the door open to even more cyclists.

“The pandemic has made all of us so ready and so thankful to have something to do,” Nelson said.

Nadia Pavlova, a triathlete from Florida who placed in the women’s 19-34 category, said she had spent the last year cycling for herself and training for marathons. The pandemic slowing down might mean she can return to traveling for competitions and have more opportunities as an athlete.

“Everything was canceled; I couldn’t even plan anything, so I decided just to do it for myself,” Pavlova said. “This year looks much better already.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.