Ride, Charlie, Ride
What possessed me to join about 14,000 people in ninety-degree heat to ride in one of the largest bicycle races in the country? Why the hell not.
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How is it that Wichita Falls is home to one of the largest one-hundred-mile bicycle races in the country? With its unprepossessing architecture and a windswept location on Texas’s least romantic border, this city in north-central Texas probably doesn’t top anyone’s must-see list. But the Hotter’N Hell Hundred, conceived to celebrate the town’s centennial in 1982, turned out to be a brilliant idea—much better than the original suggestion of a rocking chair marathon. Road cyclists are a masochistic bunch who live for tough challenges, and the idea of a hundred mile ride in hundred degree heat caught on like wildfire. This year more than 14,000 riders signed up, 770 of them licensed racers, and they came not just from Texas and Oklahoma, but from all over the U.S. and even the world.
I arrived in town just after sundown on Friday, and hungry after my five-hour drive, headed straight to the Pioneer No. 3, a local landmark. The ill-lit dining room was painted brown and smelled of smoke, and the customers didn’t look as though they had ever seen a bike, but the service was friendly and the chicken-fried steak hit the spot. After dinner I headed back downtown to the Events Center (the MPEC), where late registration was still open. Although it was nearly nine o’clock, the place was buzzing, and people in tight, bright Lycra were ranging around the vendor hall studying racks of clothes exactly like the ones they were wearing. This was my first time, and I was taken aback to see so many people and so many booths, filling the nearly 40,000-square-foot exhibition space and spilling over on the concourse outside. The parking lot was full of cars, and the wide grassy medians between Burnett and Bluff streets were covered with so many RV’s you would have thought there was a UT game going on.
According to Roby Christie, who has been chairman of the event for all of its 29 years, local involvement is mostly through volunteering, and though around one thousand Wichita Falls residents rode, that number is dwarfed by the four thousand who manned registration areas and rest stops, provided EMS services, and stood at exposed country junctions directing traffic. Personnel from the 82nd Training Wing and 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base were on hand as volunteers and riders. Hotter’N Hell weekend is when the world comes to Wichita Falls, and Wichita Falls makes sure to have a welcome ready.
I left the MPEC and found a patch of grass next to a Suburban and set up my tent. With the streetlights, the nearby highway, the late arrivals, and the train horns, I don’t think anybody got much rest. By five o’clock, I and many others were up brewing coffee and checking our bikes, getting ready for the 7:04 a.m. start. There was an orange glow lighting the morning sky as I rode up 2nd Street to Scott Avenue, the town’s main drag, which was packed as tight as a Hatebreed mosh pit. The sun was just over the railroad cars as four Air Force jets flew over, drowning out the National Anthem. The cannon boomed, and we were off, sort of. The throng of riders wheeled or skated their bikes under or around the starting gate, trying to avoid colliding with one another. It was nonetheless a thrilling moment, and, as the stream of cyclists began to head west out of Wichita Falls, cameras clicked and flashed, crews up in their cherry pickers filmed, and the crowd of locals cheered. Yes, we were off.
The first ten miles, west to Iowa Park, was flat and fast. People sat outside their houses along the way, watching and waving. One man wearing a devil costume brandished a plastic trident at the endless torrent of carbon and Lycra. Even from inside the packed mass, it was an awesome sight, though most of my attention was taken up with not riding into another bike, or being slammed by one. “To your right!” “To your left!” The shouts were constant, as clusters of riders shot past me. Displaying no judgment and a questionable amount of luck, I had started very close to the front of the peloton and was now being overtaken by the “Hell’s Gate Scorchers” and “Hell’s Gate Keepers,” groups who would be long past the so-named checkpoint by the time it closed at twelve-thirty. I’m not a particularly fast rider. I have a 2005 steel-framed Bianchi Imola that I love—steel gives a stable, comfortable ride—but it is not built for speed, so I worked my way over to the curb and pedaled steadily while brightly-clad racers flew by on their fancy machines.
Wichita Falls is set on rolling prairie, a patchwork of plowed fields under a big sky, perfect cycling country, if the wind is behind you. Although the section just west of Iowa Park tumbles rather than rolls, with some sharper hills, it proved to be a pleasant ride. And, as luck would have it, the temperature stayed in the mid-nineties. By about halfway through, the peloton, if it still existed, was many miles in front of me, and I was part of a slow ant trail of riders pedaling resolutely past hay bales and creaking pump jacks. At the plentiful rest stops, we slapped on sunscreen and sucked down oranges, cookies, and Powerade before mounting our bikes and continuing on our way. At junctions and railroad crossings, county sheriff’s officers made a few farm trucks wait while we soldiered on past.
The Hotter’N Hell offers a choice of routes: 100 miles, 100 kilometers, 50 miles, 25 miles, 10 miles, an off-road race, and a run. I had decided to go for the 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, with new-found middle-aged sanguinity about my abilities. This route took us through Burkburnett and then back to Wichita Falls along I-44 straight into a southeasterly wind. This was the character-building (read miserable) section of the ride, with nothing to do except grit your teeth and grind along under the sun, by now fairly hot, while traffic roared past. Thank God for Rest Stop 14, just north of Bacon Switch Road.
Eventually we left the highway and turned east onto Missile Road and into Sheppard Air Force Base. From 2006 through 2008 Brigadier General Richard T. Devereaux was in charge of Sheppard, and he promised the town that the Air Force would always support the Hotter’N Hell ride. It certainly felt like the Air Force was keeping the faith—we rode past a display of aircraft, including small jets and large transport planes, that had obviously been wheeled out in our honor, and soon after a hundred or so personnel lined the course, shouting encouragement and high-fiving riders, which made me feel truly marvelous. My enthusiasm restored, I rode the last few miles back into Wichita Falls and past the finish line back at the MPEC straight to the fire hose, where cyclists (and kids) were cooling off.
At the finish line, I asked people how they felt. Some looked tired, others seemed unphased. “I could ride another twenty, I’m pretty sure” said one young woman, as though she had simply checked her fuel gauge. She’ll get her wish—and more. This month, there are at least 24 organized road races in Texas, and, while most likely none of them will attract 14,000 people, some of the same cyclists will be at many of these events. I joined the throng wandering through the fair booths, and bought a beer and a pair of Hotter’N Hell cycling shorts. After a few more conversations, I headed off to the Bar-L Drive In—as featured in an entry from the Texas Monthly Short Film Contest—for a Red Draw, a beer-and-tomato-juice mixture that was invented by the bar’s original owner and is famous with the locals. Combined with a hamburger and air conditioning, it was near perfect. Nobody at the Bar-L looked like they rode a bike much. But that didn’t matter.