Anyone who’s traveled the byways of Texas has no doubt noted the tacky, sometimes wacky, enticements to tourists to stop, linger and spend a little money. There’s the Alley Oop museum in Iraan, a Popeye statue in spinach-growing Crystal City and Paisano Pete, a giant fiberglass roadrunner, in Fort Stockton.
But an attraction bordering on genius — one that keeps on giving year after year – is in Wichita Falls, a city of 104,000 about 120 miles straight up U.S. 287 from Fort Worth.
A dubious claim to fame for Wichita Falls is its hellish summertime temperatures, frequently over 100 degrees. So imagine the brainstorming as townsfolk sought a way to celebrate Wichita Falls’ centennial in 1982:
“I got an idea! Let’s have a 100-mile bike ride when it’s hotter than hell — say in August. That’ll appeal to those crazy, macho cyclists. We could call it the Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred.”
At a time when snakes and lizards stay under their rocks, 1,200 riders turned up for the first Hotter ‘N Hell. It was the largest single-day 100-mile bicycle ride in the nation.
This year, for the 30th running of the Hotter ‘N Hell on Aug. 27, more than 14,000 cyclists — from spandex-clad criterium racers to kids on Huffys — are expected to ride in the event. Another 25,000 or so will come to watch the madness.
Actually, my imagined genesis of the Hotter ‘N Hell isn’t far off the mark. The ride was dreamed up by Roby Christie of what was then the newly formed Wichita Falls Bicycle Club. Mark and Jo Alice Davis, now of Weatherford, coined the name for the ride.
The Hotter ‘N Hell has proven over the past three decades to be a much better idea than one originally proposed for the centennial.
Christie said that a New York City consulting firm came to Wichita Falls with lots of three-ring binders and “wanted us to do a rocking chair marathon” lasting 100 hours. He said he nixed the idea because sitting in a rocker was alien to the can-do spirit of the town’s early settlers. He told a consultant of the plan for a 100-mile bicycle ride in 100-degree heat.
But Christie was the saner of the two. Riders and spectators who travel to Wichita Falls from all 50 states and several foreign countries spend an estimated $8 million in the community during the four-day event, which this year begins on Thursday, Aug. 25, with the 3 p.m. opening of a one of the largest consumer bike shows in the nation. There’s an off-road mountain bike race and criterium racing on Friday; the main event, the Hotter ‘N Hell 100 Endurance Ride, starting at sunrise on Saturday; and a trail run and more criterium racing on Sunday.
The event has a reputation for being impeccably planned, with the help of nearly 4,000 volunteers from Wichita Falls and North Texas, including 800 medical support volunteers.
All 17 rest stops are equipped to handle nearly every emergency. They resemble MASH units, with doctors, nurses, a triage system, IV stations, cots, fans and tubs of ice.
Over the years, the medical staffers have treated the usual bikers’ ailments: road rash, dehydration and heat stroke. But they’ve also had to deal with bees in riders’ ears and bites by emus, those long-necked, long-legged ostrich-like critters that were once thought to be a sure-fire way to get rich, but now run wild in rural Texas.
I can’t recall the number of times I’ve been asked if I’ve done the Hotter ‘N Hell — not only by Texans, but by cyclists all over the country. The ride has become a rite of passage in cycling, for many riders a bucket-list item to check off after it’s done. But other riders are as much a fixture at the event as Hell’s Gate, the 60.3-mile point that a rider must pass by 12:30 p.m. to be allowed to continue on the 100-mile course.
Take Jack Kendrick, 69, a sculptor who lives in the Hill Country just outside Fredericksburg. He’ll be riding this year in his 25th consecutive Hotter ‘N Hell.
“It’s more than a rite of passage for me,” he said. “It’s an obligation. I can’t imagine missing it. I can’t break the string. It just wouldn’t be right.”
For the record, I did the ride once — in 2002, when I was in pretty good shape after a July ride in the Colorado Rockies. That year’s Hotter ‘N Hell lived up to its name. The high for the day was 104 degrees. The asphalt was sticky and heat rising from the pavement distorted the horizon.
I hit the wall in mile 86 and reported to the closest rest stop. I correctly answered the typical triage questions — What’s your name? What day is it? Who’s the president? — and was deemed not to need an IV. A nurse handed me a bucket of ice cubes and told me to lie on a cot and cover my chest with ice. I felt better after a while and got back onto my bike to ride the last 15 miles, almost due south into a searing southerly wind. It was like riding into the gates of Hell. I turned around, went back to the rest stop and waited for the sag wagon.
During that ride, I told Christie, I pedaled along for a while with a cyclist from Iowa who was a huge fan of Texas writer Larry McMurtry. But he didn’t realize that McMurtry’s hometown, Archer City, was only a half-hour’s drive south of Wichita Falls. He decided that, after the ride, he would linger awhile in Wichita Falls and make a pilgrimage to Archer City.
Would that guy have come to Texas for a rocking chair marathon?
“I can’t imagine,” said Christie, “getting visitors from all over the world to rock in rocking chairs.”
NOTE: A shorter version of this post appears in the August issue of 360West magazine, which covers the half of the Dallas-Fort Metroplex west of Texas 360.