To Hell and Back.
In Which We Visit Wichita Falls To Check Out The Largest 100-Mile Bike Race in North America.
By Thom Fain on Tuesday August 28 2012 at 4:59 PM
The 31st annual Hotter 'N Hell bicycle races were held this past weekend in Wichita Falls.
A whole litany of competitions fall under the event's umbrella, but, more than anything else, the event's made a name for itself as being home to the largest century (read: 100-mile) bike race in North America.
When our friends at Richardson Bike Mart suggested we check it out, we thought, "Yeah, OK. Why not?"
The idea behind the race, after all, is simple enough. You race like a hellbat on wheels from marker to marker -- all in hundred degree temperatures -- until you hit Finish Line Village. Everyone from local enthusiasts to international pros come to participate. And God bless, them, because it's all intended to be something of a sludgy trek, especially in the late Texas summer heat.
But, surprisingly, everything was quite cool when the event got under way with early morning rain and 80-degree weather welcoming fashionable cyclists to registration at Kay Yeager Coliseum on Friday. Inside, a convention was held with numerous vendors setting up shop, shelling everything from t-shirts to saddles to cyclewear to energy drinks and bottles of Michelob Ultra.
We found our friends from the Richardson Bike Mart there, and owner Jim Hoyt was working the booth.
"It's phenomenal here," he said. "There's people from all over the United States. Canada, Mexico. The Canadians are a little miffed right now because it's not hot enough. But most of the people that come through here are clients or customers or friends of our company -- in the Dallas community or the Ft. Worth community or even Wichita Falls. I see people every year from Kentucky, and, last year, they came through and bought a bike from us on the way home. It's a camaraderie thing, y'know, and we wouldn't miss it."
The first day's big event would be an off road race with more than 200 contestants -- a mountain bike challenge on the Wee-Chi-Tah trail that would stretch through the woods, under the train tracks and around the Wichita River. Invariably, these obstacles caused many contenders to eat shit -- especially the river, which riders were forces to cross near the trail's end. The race started at 5 p.m. and it lasted for nearly two hours. Onlookers stood by the river crossing cheering the racers -- unless, that is, the riders tried to walk across river, in which case they were heckled.
"Come on!," one crazed man began to jeer. "Ride across, goddamnit! Ride across, you degenerates!"
So ride most contestants would. And so too would most contestants fall. Not Trent Daulton, though. The 18-year-old, locally bred winner of the event is a part of Team Offcamber and he trains with Speedworks Cycling. Daulton rode the trail in just over 50 minutes --- a full two minutes faster than anybody else in the contest.
"It feels good to win it," he said after the race. "This is my fourth year doing it. I ride, on average, 10 to 12 hours a week, and it takes a lot of commitment. It's a lot of riding by yourself."
Saturday's events were quite the different affair, though. Thousands of men and women had registered for the various criterium, the 100-kilometer event and, of course, the famous 100-mile race from which this event draws its fame. Day Two, very much so, is the big draw of the weekend.
And, yes, it started quite literally with a bang -- first with a United States Air Force flyover and then with cannon fire -- both of which signaled the start of the Main Event, the 100-mile, Michelob Ultra-sponsored and USA Cycling-endorsed road race. That was a serious race full of men and women in varying age brackets, but separate from the less competitive race we'd come really come to watch.
We were more interested in the riders that were just out to have fun, to prove to themselves that They Can Do It. They took things at their own pace, just hoping to make it back to Finish Line Village in time for a sports massage and a seat where they could catch a performance from Fort Worth's Josh Weathers Band later in the afternoon.
"What brings you all the way out here?" we asked a few riders who were gearing up at the tent camp.
"It's been a dream, I just do it every year," one man said.
"It's the best bike ride in the world," said another.
"I'm just here supporting my husband."
"I wanted to participate in Hell."
With that, we head out quickly toward the food court and past some vendors under tents first trying to sell us Christianity, and then raffle tickets for a high-powered deer rifle, and, lastly, a batch of sweetened iced tea.
At the end of the line, we found Small Bull, the Native American who had shot the cannon and signaled the start of the race moments earlier.
"I am known as Small Bull, the Cheyenne Warrior," he said. "I'm a member of the Red River Renegades. It's a tradition. We come to use the cannon every year."
Small Bull hasn't missed the race's starting ceremony since its inception in '82, and his American Mountain Men Association are just one of many groups to crash Wichita Falls once a year in support of the city's biggest event, which brings in an estimated $8.5 million a year to the struggling economy.
Racers and Riders begin near downtown, which looks a shell of an area once bustling, probably during the heyday of Oil & Gas. Since its various oil booms, the area has been troubled in its revitalization efforts, getting pounded by tornadoes and surpassed in efforts by industry and technologies of the bigger cities to the south and north.
But, under the hot August sun every year, the city and its locals use this fan-favorite event to shine a bright spot on their home. Bicycling Magazine even named the ride to their bucket list. It's an association that event coordinators are eager to mention.
As the day neared noon, the front of the pack in the pro 100-mile race began trickling in to the finish line. To get there, they had to navigate their ways out of Wichita Falls and through Sheppard Air Force base, then past the towns of Charlie and Byers, up around a bend past the Red River and Henrietta, then finally through Petrolia before they made it back to the city.
To maintain the course, nearly 4,000 volunteers -- everyone from local high schoolers to volunteer firefighters, medics and police officers -- spend their time taking care of the track and the racers in need of assistance.
"There's from little tiny kids to grandpas out here," race director Ken Webb told us. "Anybody that has any kind of competitive spirit, or anyone that has a sense of adventure will be out here. When you have 14,000 riders coming in, and they're bringing families, the impact (on the area) is tremendous."
He was at the finish line of the race, ready to congratulate its winner. And, after three hours and 59-minutes, he would greet Eric Marcotte as came bustling through the end line. The 32-year-old competitor from Scottsdale, Arizona had just come off of a second place finish at the Brentwood Grand Prix. When it was announced that he was this year's winner, a celebration was in store for him with ELBOWZ Racing (http://elbowzracing.com/) teammate Heath Blackgrove, who came in third.
In all, four of the top 10 spots in the pro race were claimed by ELBOWZ, who began their journey earlier this year in Dallas, at the Training Camp series.
To them, it was just another day at the office. The less competitive racers that trickled in as the afternoon dragged on seemed to have a greater sense of accomplishment.
Deservedly, too: Through 100 miles and 100 degree temperatures, they'd managed to stay strong. They'd participated in Hell, and, better yet, they'd made it through it. It was more than we could say from our perch near the finish line.
And dammit if we weren't a little jealous of their feats, professional and amateur alike.
At 31 years old, Hotter 'N Hell may not be all that young any more. But, by all accounts, it sure seems to be getting cooler.
All photos by Nathan Patterson.