The Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls, Texas, is considered a must-do ride for people in this region of the country. Over its 31-year history, it has grown into what it bills as the largest ride of its type. I’ve always wanted to ride it, because…well, it’s just one of those events you’ve gotta do. This year, the stars came together for me, and it turned out to be one of my cycling highlights. My good friends Russ and Debra have been going to the HHH for several years. They rent a recreational vehicle to have complete independence over the weekend. When they invited me along, I jumped at the chance. Several of us joined Russ and Debra. Their friend Toni took the 350-mile ride up there with us.
Yeah, we were living in the lap of luxury for this trip. Our friends and fellow club members, Jerry and Maggie, met us in Wichita Falls, along with Nancy. Even in a bus the size of ours, that many people bunking in created some interesting living conditions.
We carried Debra and Russ’s bikes on an outside rack. When we got to the RV parking area, they were coated with road dust. An early order of business was to get everything shipshape.
The weekend is about everything bike. A big bike expo crowds the convention center. Ride organizers put on a carbo-loading spaghetti dinner the evening before the ride, and then we went outside to watch some of the criterium racing that was part of the weekend.
The weather forecast is always on everyone’s mind as ride morning breaks. Because August in Texas is hot, hot, hot, the ride starts just after 7 a.m. That meant 12,000 cyclists got up at the crack of dawn, and many (including yours truly) headed back to the arena for a big breakfast. Then, we rode a few blocks in the dark to the starting area. We all grouped in the starting grid for the second group of 100-milers, even though only Nancy, late arrival Barbara, and I intended to ride the full 100 miles. I thought I had Russ talked into joining us, but he opted for the 100K along with the others. Tandems took off first, then the official start came at 7:05, for the fast 100-milers. Our group was held back until 7:25 before we got the go-ahead.
The only similar experience I’ve had on a bike was at the MS 150 from Houston to Austin. The group didn’t really start to thin out until well after the second rest stop, 20 miles into the ride. Nancy, Debra, Toni, and Barbara got well ahead of Russ and me right off the bat. The two of us rode together until we reached Iowa Park, about 10 miles out of Wichita Falls. There, the route made a left turn and crossed some railroad tracks. Just as we made the turn, the gates started coming down and we could see a long freight train heading our way. Russ shot across the tracks before the gates lowered all the way. I was trailing, and had to make a split-second decision. I decided to go around the gates — something I’ve never done in my life. Good thing the freight was moving slow.
The split between the 100-mile and the 100K routes came soon after. I was torn when I saw Russ turn off on the 100K route, but I plunged into the 100-miler, and soon picked up a nice paceline. The southeast wind blew briskly at our backs, and pushed us along at around 23-24 mph.
I had planned to limit my time at rest stops to about five minutes, but it was apparent that that wouldn’t happen. At rest stop 2, the first one I used, I stood in line for food, then stood in line to refill my bottles, then stood in line for the porta-potties. It took almost a half hour before I was back on the bike. Barbara and I had agreed to meet at that rest stop, but I couldn’t find her, so I got going again. She sent me a voice mail minutes later that she had waited around for me for 10 minutes, then assumed I had gone on ahead and hit the road. We didn’t see each other again until I caught up to her at the 74-mile rest stop. She had had two flat tires, which slowed her down. But she was just leaving as I arrived, so I never saw her again for the rest of the ride.
The sun broke through the overcast skies at about 1 p.m., and the day heated up quickly. It wasn’t Hotter ‘n Hell, but the strong wind made it windier than all get out. Even so, one rider I talked to at a rest stop said his Garmin was showing a surface temperature of 107-111 degrees (41-44C). Obviously, that was because of reflection from the road surface.
By now, the route had turned east, and the wind was hitting us from the right front quarter. It made the going tougher, but I could still keep up a 15 mph average. I stopped at every rest stop to top off my bottles with ice. As the day wore on, ride organizers set up new rest stops at closer intervals — so you never had to ride more than five miles without a break.
I was starting to slow. My butt was sore on the saddle, but I could see lots of other riders stand up to shake out the soreness as well. The SAG wagons did a land office business. Actually, I saw my first load of riders sag out at about 38 miles into the ride, which amazed me. Why sign up for 100 miles if you can’t do half of that? But now, after 75 miles, it seemed that I was passed every 15 minutes by another pickup pulling a trailer loaded with bikes and a bunch of guys (always guys) in the back. And a lot of these guys looked like they were real bikers, too — big guys who probably went out too fast and couldn’t finish.
At Burkburnett on the border with Oklahoma, the route turned south onto the I-44 frontage road, and dead into a strong wind. Cyclists dropped to their lowest gears and made slow headway. I caught up to Roy Jones from San Angelo, whose blog — “Pedal Pushers” — I read. “This isn’t any fun anymore,” he said.
Despite the rest stops every five miles, the scorching sun and the fierce wind forced cyclists to rest whenever possible. Some just stopped along the roadside and stood over their bikes, heads drooped into the wind.
“You okay?” I asked one.
“Yeah, fine,” he barked back. He didn’t look fine.
The route was wide open, with no shelter from either sun or wind. A clump of trees off in the distance beckoned. They turned out to be part of a roadside rest stop along the Interstate, but worn-out cyclists filled it. Many flagged down passing SAG wagons, but they were all full, and wouldn’t take on anyone else. I got back on my bike and slogged ahead.
The effect of the wind and all the stops showed itself while I was at the next-to-last official rest stop. A volunteer strode through the tent, and announced that if we wanted to finish the ride, we had to leave the rest stop immediately, or be sagged out. Heck, I hadn’t even had a chance to get one of the sno-cones they were handing out there.
After another three miles, we hit Sheppard Air Force Base. This has always been a treat for the riders, and this year for the first time in a long time, the 100-mile ride was routed through the base. A highlight was riding past a collection of jets — a B-52 bomber, F-15 fighter, T-38 trainer, A-10 Warthog — cool stuff. A little farther down, the cadets lined both sides of the street, cheering for riders and high-fiving.
Five more miles to go. I passed a few more riders and turned onto the same street we had left earlier that morning. I turned into the convention center area, passed under the big balloon arch, and was handed a medal signifying my accomplishment.
It was a bittersweet feeling. I intended to finish this century strong, unlike others I’d done in the past. But I didn’t put in enough really long training rides, which hurt my endurance. The wind was something no one could prepare for. My on-bike time: just over seven hours. But I crossed the finish line nine hours and 39 minutesafter starting — pretty miserable. My average speed over the last 20 miles couldn’t have been more than eight miles per hour.
Still, this was a great event and I’m glad I finally did it. Many thanks to Russ and Debra for sharing their RV and the rest of the gang for putting up with me. Thanks also to Development Counsellors International — the marketing group for Wichita Falls — for comping my entry fee. I’ll be back — but it might be for the 100K next time.