|The Hotter 'N Hell
Wichita Falls, Texas
August 25, 2002
By Royce Smith
Pics borrowed from www.hh100.org
I made a new cycling friend at the church I attend in Statesboro. His name is Jim Hagin, and he is a horse trainer. He trains cutting horses for show. He has been cycling seriously for three months. He mentioned that he had a job interview in Wichita Falls and invited me to join him for the auto trip to Texas. Jim suggested that we attend the 21st Hotter 'N Hell Hundred (HHH) while we were in Wichita Falls.
I recalled an article in a recent Bicycling Magazine that mentioned this event. I dug through past issues until I found the article entitled, "Ten Rides That Will Kick Your Ass". The article mentioned that the event uses over 300 medical personnel to care for dehydrated cyclists, and the directors force all cyclists who receive an IV bag of fluid to stop cycling for the day. The article sounded intimidating, so I planned a century over local roads to prepare for the HHH. Claxton cyclist, Matt Rogers, and I completed a century in 95-degree heat on August 16, so I felt prepared for the Texas temperatures.
Our plan was to drive the 1250 miles and to stop only for food and fuel. On Wednesday evening at 9 pm, we loaded Jim's Mazda RX-7 convertible with our bags and bikes. Jim folded the RX-7's ragtop down, and we and departed Statesboro with a sense of adventure. The RX-7 is low-slung and fast, but its seats offered little comfort for my over-sized carcass. The trip to Wichita Falls took twenty-fours, which included a two-hour stop in Dallas. The cool wind roaring through the convertible kept the driver alert, but it also reduced the possibility of sleep for the passenger.
We did not arrive in Wichita Falls without incident. Early Thursday morning, somewhere in Louisiana, while speeding west I-20 at 75 mph, the bike rack slipped off the RX-7's bumper. We drug the rack and bikes for 200 yards before coming to a stop on the shoulder. The rack held the bikes off the road, but my rear wheel did not escape damage. It made contact with the road in the fall. The rough surface of the road ground through my tire, tube and a portion of the rim. The fall damaged the foot of the bike rack, but the rack was still functional; my rim was a total loss, though. We stopped in Bossier City, La in search of a bike shop. After getting directions from a woman taking a smoke break at a bank, we found one. The shop did not have a rim, but the clerk gave us the name of an elaborate bike shop in Dallas (Richardson Bike Mart) that would likely have a rim for my bike. The clerk called a friend and obtained directions.
We made a detour to Dallas and found the business known as the largest bike shop in Texas who boasts in their advertisements as once providing encouragement to a teenaged BMX cyclist named Lance. Eventually, this Texan cyclist progressed to road bikes and made a name for himself in France. Richardson Bike Mart is about the size of the Winn-Dixie in Claxton. They had bike brands unfamiliar to me. Many of their bikes were very expensive models; the frames alone were over $2,000. Fortunately, they had a Mavic rim in stock. The bike wrench used my undamaged spokes on the new rim. A new tire, tube, rim, labor, and new bike rack cost us over $230. As I rolled my Cannondale out to the RX-7, I felt relieved that I would make it to Wichita Falls with a road worthy bike. We discarded the damaged bike rack and left it at the entrance to the Bike Mart with hopes that someone would have a use for it.
At dusk on Thursday evening, we took the interstate around the outskirts of Wichita Falls and took county roads to Gaines Ranch. Jim had previously worked at this cutting horse ranch, and his friends were waiting for us to arrive at their home on the premises. The group of friends included the breeding manager, his family, a ranch hand, and an older female equestrian, Genie, who had horses at the ranch. After 20 minutes of making a new friendship and renewing an old friendship, we dined on Mesquite flavored sausage, brisket, and ham. After consuming second helpings, the horsemen pushed their plates forward, made room for their elbows, enjoyed a dip of Copenhagen, and directed the conversation to cutting horses. The women at the table had no complaint about the tobacco or the topic of discussion. Apparently, this was normal behavior. I was the only person in attendance who did have a love for horses, but I listened intently to learn the jargon. Later in private, Jim answered my questions.
Jim and I accepted Genie's offer for a place to spend the night. We expressed our thanks for the meal and followed Genie's SUV in the RX-7 to her nearby ranch home. She lived alone and had a spare bedroom and twin beds for Jim and me. Even though the twin beds reminded me of the RX-7's petite seats, my need for sleep was stronger than any temptation to complain. I tossed and turned for 30 seconds before falling into deep slumber.
On Friday morning, Jim and Genie left early to return to Gaines Ranch to watch the trainer, Dick Gaines, put the cutting horses through a workout. I slept late to recover from 24 hours of driving and catnapping in an undersized car seat. I joined Jim and Gene later and caught the end of the training session. Dick treated us to lunch at a local diner where a dish of jalapenos graced every table. After lunch, Jim took me to a western wear shop to purchase a pair of jeans and a western shirt. I could masquerade as a local if I dressed in western attire. I doubt that I fooled any Texan; my Nikes were likely the give-away.
After lunch, we took our bikes into town and rode a 10-mile warm-up ride through quiet subdivision streets. When we returned from our ride, we visited the Multipurpose Event Center (MPEC) to obtain our ride numbers and to see the cycling equipment at the Consumer Show. There were no horses at the Consumer Show; its environment was one I understood. Our relationship changed; Jim reverted to student and I became teacher. The most interesting bike I saw at the Consumer Show was a recumbent built upon a main angled, square tube and supported by two 700 x 23 wheels. We remained at the Consumer Show for the pre-ride spaghetti dinner and discussed bikes and cycling with everyone who sat at our table.
At 7:00 am on Saturday morning, we parked at the First Baptist Church near the MPEC. The ride began at 7:30 on nearby four-laned Scott Street. We cruised to Scott Street and joined the sea of cyclists waiting for the ride to begin. I turned north and south to see the beginning and the end of the crowd, but I was unable. A twosome of local DJ's broadcasted from atop a cherry picker, and their commentary came to cyclists and onlookers via elevated loud speakers at every intersection. A street evangelist carried a sign and preached the Gospel through a bullhorn to cyclists bound for Hell. A line of National Guard soldiers spaced every 30 feet corralled cyclists into the two right hand lanes of the street. A female private walked the line and offered sunscreen to her comrades. A close by burly sergeant standing akimbo refused her offer; I requested his portion, received it, and coated my nose with the perfumed ointment.
The ride began on schedule at 7:30, but due to the multitude of bikes, it was 8:00 before we crossed the actual starting line. Cyclists either walked alongside their bikes or used one foot to propel their bikes in a duck paddle fashion as they rolled closer to the starting line. I remained near the centerline to escape into the opposite lane in case of a pile-up. Law enforcement protected the first ten miles from auto traffic. Due to the mass of cyclists, it was unsafe to ride faster than 15 mph for the trip to the first rest stop.
The directors provided 11 rest stops for the century route. The number of rest stops was more for safety than for convenience. Each stop had a 30' x 60' stripped tent covering the snack and medical areas. The North Texas landscape has rolling hills; we could see the stripped tents from miles away due to the absence of trees. All stops offered iced paper towels to cool your face and neck. Jim reached the first stop before me and left before I arrived. The HHH recruited over 900 volunteers for the day, and they were very experienced at serving rushed cyclists. They carried pitchers of water and PowerAde as they greeted cyclists arriving at the rest stops. They refilled water bottles as cyclists stood astride their top tubes. This procedure reduced the lines at the tables and allowed cyclists to resume riding within a few minutes. I did not initially understand why cyclists were in such a hurry, but I later discovered the reason. The first stop offered only PowerAde, bananas, and orange slices probably because only a small percentage of cyclists used it. I caught Jim three miles after departing the first stop; he was fixing a flat. I waited for him, and we rode into the second stop together.
Georgia has county roads, but Texas has FM roads, which means Farm to Market. FM roads are rough. Texas state roads have wide shoulders - as wide and smooth as the regular lanes. Farm tractors veer onto these shoulders to allow faster traffic to pass. Even though the wide shouldered roads are designed for motorized farm machines, they are great for cycling. The century route used a mix of state roads and FM roads.
The North Texas landscape varies from what this South Georgia fellow is accustomed to cycling. The area has rolling hills, but nothing very steep. When I crested a hill, I could see for miles. Mesquite trees do not grow as tall as South Georgia pines. Any structure over 30 feet in height (such as a water tower or an oil well) was clearly visible from a distance. Georgia's rural country is lush green, but the Texas scenery seemed to be mostly shades of gray. Jim and I increased our pace to make up lost time as we headed towards rest stop number two. The pterodactyl head shaped counterbalances of the oil well pumps bowed incessantly in respect as we passed.
The second stop was a treat for two reasons - the food and the volunteers. It offered kiwi fruit, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, oranges, and bananas. This stop also offered a Polaroid photo for a fee. Actors dressed in costumes posed in front of a hand painted scene, and cyclists joined them for a photo. The actors portrayed Uncle Sam, Miss Liberty, Betsy Ross, Abe Lincoln, and George Washington. The most popular actor was a blonde buxom lass dressed in a red, white, and blue two-piece. Male cyclists were the most frequent customers.
Texas has thorns, and the wind carries them onto the roads. Jim had a knack for finding thorns. He had another flat before reaching rest stop number three, and we lost more time repairing his tire for the second time. When Jim returned to his bike after refueling at stop four, he discovered his tire was again flat. At stop four, one of the volunteers warned me that the century route would close at 12:30. She explained that the directors would force cyclists who had not reached stop six by 12:30 to take a shorter route back to the MPEC. I checked the time and realized I had to cover 22 miles in an hour. Even though I had doubts, I had a tailwind. There was a slim possibility I could make it. As Jim fussed with his third flat tire, I hurriedly departed for the cut-off point appropriately named, Hell's Gate.
My hydration strategy was to drink two bottles of fluid between every rest stop and another while in each rest stop. In my rush to make Hell's Gate at stop six, I did not drink as much as usual. I was eight minutes late. Volunteers directed me onto the shorter route as they blocked the route I had hoped to take. I was too exhausted to argue. When I reached the next stop, legs cramps and chills had become more frequent. I knew exactly what my condition meant. A director announced to all cyclists at this stop that the ride was under a red flag. A red flag meant that weather conditions were unsafe for cycling. He advised all cyclists to stop or take a sag vehicle into town. Because I had missed my opportunity to complete the century and because I was dehydrated, I chose to take a sag vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, filled with five other cyclists suffering from similar symptoms.
My sag driver returned me to the parking lot at the First Baptist Church (FBC). My legs seized with cramps as I crawled over the others to exit the Tahoe's door. I could not hold back a bellow signifying my discomfort. I limped across the street and soaked my bare feet in FBC's fountain pool while stretching my hamstrings. After my sag driver, a local judge, delivered the others who had made the return trip with him, he returned to check on my condition. During our conversation, I wondered if he demonstrated as much mercy to visitors to his courtroom. Jim arrived within 30 minutes. After having his forth flat, he chose to sag in also. Jim rode 45 miles for the day, and I rode 66.
Jim and I loaded our bikes and drove to a nearby restaurant. During our post-ride meal, we consoled each other over not accomplishing our 100-mile goal. We agreed that with a different strategy, we could have made it. Jim suggested that Kevlar lined tires could have thwarted the thorns. I suggested that an earlier departure would have allowed us more time to arrive at the cut-off point at Hell's Gate. Even with our disappointment, we were pleased we had ridden a portion of the HHH.
The Wichita Falls Times News Record listed the statistics for the annual event in their Sunday edition. Over 7,100 cyclists attended. The high temperature for the day was 104 degrees with a heat index of 105. Nineteen cyclists were hospitalized for dehydration. Medical personnel treated numerous others with road rash on site. You may view pictures and read more about this ride at the official website of the Hotter'N Hell Hundred at www.HH100.org