Bicycle Ride Across Georgia celebrates 40 years with Big BRAG 350-mile route, including Gainesville stop

Originally published in the Gainesville Times newspaper. Article by Layne Saliba.

Tony Butler crashed on the first day of his bike ride from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta as part of Bicycle Ride Across Georgia’s U.S. Bicycle Route 21 event in September last year.

But he was having too much fun to stop. He completed the ride and will now be riding in Big BRAG, the organization’s ride across the state.

“I got me some road rash and messed up my thumb a little bit, but I was having too good a time to quit so I just kept on going,” said Butler, a Gainesville native who just moved to Hiawassee.

“I thought about doing Big BRAG, last year, but I knew I wasn’t ready for that, so I set my goal a little bit lower and went for the (U.S. Bicycle Route 21) to see how I would do and that went real well, so I had to get training for the big one.”

BRAG, which is celebrating its 40th year in 2019, has stopped in Gainesville once about every 10 years, with the last time in 2006. This year’s Big BRAG ride, June 1-8, will start in Ellijay with stops in Gainesville, Covington, Milledgeville, Swainsboro and Hinesville on its way to the coast where it will end in Darien, about 50 miles south of Savannah.

Riders take part in a Bicycle Ride Across Georgia event. Big BRAG will make a stop in Gainesville this year during its 40th anniversary. (Photo courtesy BRAG)

The trip is about 350 miles. Riders average about 55 miles each day with a day off to rest in the middle. If 55 continuous miles are too much, there are rest stops about every 15 miles.

“We kind of like to move around in the state since there’s a number of riders who do it every year, and most folks who’ve done it have done it in the past, so we like to vary it up and go through new areas of the state,” said Franklin Johnson, executive director of BRAG. “We always like to end somewhere scenic, where folks can spend some time with their family at the end of the ride.”

The trip through Gainesville wil be like a homecoming for Butler, and it’s one of the things that solidified his decision to take part in this year’s ride.

“I still have a lot of family in Gainesville,” Butler said. “Instead of sleeping in a tent that night, I can probably stay with some family.”

At each stop on the course, participants sleep overnight — some in tents, others in hotels or with family in the area — after spending some time out in the community. Johnson said that’s one of the big draws of BRAG. Participants get to see different parts of the state, especially the small towns “that might normally be passed over.” Those small towns have a lot to offer, and when 1,200 bikers come through, “they get to shine.”

When the ride comes through Gainesville, participants can camp out at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park, where there will be concessions and a concert. They’re also encouraged to get out into the city. BRAG will provide shuttles from the park to the Gainesville square.

“It gives riders a unique perspective, just to experience the state of Georgia at a much slower pace, on two wheels sitting on the seat of your bike, rather than sitting in your car,” Johnson said.

That’s exactly the experience Butler said he had on his ride from Chattanooga to Atlanta. He said it’s hard sometimes to remember it’s a ride, not a race, especially since he’s naturally competitive, but when he was passing the scenery, he was quickly reminded to simply take it all in.

“If you treat it like a race, you’re not probably going to enjoy it as much,” Butler said. “Because you miss the scenery. I stopped here and there to take pictures. I tried to enjoy it, I wasn’t on a schedule. I just wanted to get done in time to rest, get some food and get up the next day to do it again.”

Apart from the scenery, Butler said he enjoyed getting to know some of the other riders. Although it’s an individual event, there’s never a moment when riders are by themselves. There’s always someone around.

And anyone can do it. He said he saw people in their 20s and others in their 70s, which is another reason he’s excited to take part in Big BRAG this year and years to come.

“You can either see somebody up the road or somebody’s riding beside you,” Butler said. “You never feel alone … and you had some people that were going slow, and then you’d have a group of people pass you that looked like they were going 100 mph. It’s a variation of everything, and I didn’t feel out of place or that I wasn’t as good as some other people.”

Tony Butler hoists his bicycle over his head in front of the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia finish line after completing the U.S. Bicycle Route 21 in September 2018. Butler will be riding in Big BRAG, a one-week bicycle ride from Ellijay to Darien, this year. (Photo courtesy Tony Butler)
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