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Archive for Monday, September 4, 2006

A crash course in cycling

Hotter’N Hell Hundred lives up to billing

September 4, 2006

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I'm not sure why I accepted my brother-in-law's invitation to ride with him in the Hotter'N Hell Hundred.

I know when he proposed it, back in the chill of late winter/early spring, the thought of a couple of hours on a bicycle saddle in Texas, in the middle of the summer, didn't sound so intimidating.

But I know the moment the magnitude of the ride finally hit me. About two hours away from our destination the day before the ride, I saw a road sign proclaiming: "Wichita Falls - 122 miles."

And that's when it dawned on me.

I was tired of sitting. My legs were stiff. And every time we got out of the van, we were hit by an oppressive wall of flame known as summer down South.

And I thought to myself, "If I'm this uncomfortable now, dreading the next couple of hours in a nice, air-conditioned van, how the heck am I going to deal with the fact that, less than 24 hours away, I'm supposed to swing a leg over my bike and ride just about the same distance we were from Wichita Falls - without the air conditioning, on an uncomfortable wedge of a seat in place of a comfy captain's chair, for close to six hours?"

Little did I know, I didn't even come close to anticipating the agony that awaited.

In the beginning

The Hotter'N Hell Hundred first was held in 1982, when Wichita Falls wanted to celebrate its centennial.

Two special events were proposed to mark the occasion. The local bike club suggested a 100-mile bike ride in 100-degree heat to celebrate the city's 100 years. A New York City consulting firm - New York City! - suggested a rocking chair marathon.

The good folks of the Falls decided the settlers they were honoring weren't really rocking-chair sorts (not that they really were cyclists, either, but that's beside the point), and settled on the bike ride.

Thus, the first Hotter'N Hell Hundred was born.

The first HHH drew 1,200 riders and billed itself as the largest single-day 100-mile ride in the country.

Last weekend, the Hotter'N Hell Hundred celebrated its 25th anniversary and was expected to draw 10 times as many two-wheeled pilgrims - including me, attempting my first "century," and my brother-in-law and his brother, two longtime cyclists and century veterans.

And they're off

The three of us set out from the hotel early, in the predawn darkness.

The ride started at 7 a.m., but brother-in-law Jeff warned that we needed to arrive early so we could be close to the start/finish line and not have to wade through thousands of riders - and, no doubt, more than a few crashes caused by the mass start - before even getting under way.

As we wheeled the two or so miles from hotel to ride start, I thought we were being a bit reckless.

Though I often ride at night, I have lights, reflectors and blinky lights. We had none of those things, and as we pedaled through unfamiliar streets, I worried that an errant pothole could end the ride early for one or all of us.

My fears proved unfounded, and we arrived well before the start and were greeted by the sight of thousands of cyclists.

Cycles and cyclists stretched for blocks. The scene was more party than staging area, with music, food and banter - and loads of Lycra - plentiful.

The ride started just after 7, and a record 11,800 participants were off. Slowly.

That many cyclists of varying ability don't get up to speed instantly, so the first mile or so was a slow-and-go Slinky. People clipped in and out of their pedals, dabbled feet, scootered along. Riders on mountain bikes wobbled, and full-on racers dodged through traffic. Tires flatted.

But the roads cleared out a bit by the 10-mile rest stop, and the riding began in earnest.

And I was glad we followed Jeff's advice. We started maybe 100 feet from the start line. I can't imagine how congested the roads would have been had we started at the back.

Look out below

We had agreed to bypass the first two rest stops to let the crowd thin a bit, and stuck together, more or less, until we pulled in at the 30-mile rest stop.

There, we headed our different ways to refill water bottles, bolt food and, um, toil at the Porta-A-Johns.

Business finished, I prepared to mount up and saw Jeff and Dave's bikes were gone, so I saddled up and headed up the road in pursuit.

I made it about 1.6 miles.

At that point, the roads still were a bit congested with post-pit-stop traffic.

One rider swerved to avoid something in the road. Another swerved to avoid the first. And hit my front wheel, diverting me into a seam in the road.

Trying to put an end to the domino effect, I tried to hold my line, but my line ended in a nasty pothole, and I went down.

Hard. About 20 mph.

I pavement surfed for a good 10, 15, 1,000 feet - keep in mind, my feet were secured to shoes that were, in turn, firmly attached to my pedals - along the unusually abrasive Texas chip-n-seal.

Total carnage: a couple of deep cuts on my left hand, bruise on my left hip, silver-dollar-sized chunk of flesh scraped off my right palm, abrasions on each knee, road rash along the length of my right forearm and a strawberry the size of my hand on my right hip.

As the blood dripped and riders whizzed past, my only thought was, "Seven hours in the car for a 30-mile ride and a nasty crash. Nice."

Thanks, Doc

I walked back to the 30-mile rest stop, pushing my bike, for medical attention.

There, I was mummified: After all the wounds were cleaned and dressed, I had huge mitts of gauze wrapped around both hands, a massive bandage taped to my right hip and another wrap of gauze up and down my right arm.

"Doc" suggested I pack it in, but I told him I'd try to continue.

The final 70 miles are something of a steamy blur.

I remember hitting 50 miles and thinking I was only halfway done. I remember lots of human carnage - bikes and humans littering the side of the road, seeking the solace of shade provided by the seven trees I counted along the route.

I remember Hell's Gate, the 60-mile rest stop where, a couple of hours after I had passed, the ride's medical consultant decided to close the rest of the 100-mile route and directed riders to the shortcut home. It was a controversial decision, but it was made when the heat and humidity - it was said the ride was held on a record 107-degree day - combined to reach a potentially deadly level.

Legend has it a few riders have died during the previous 24 rides, and dozens last weekend were sent to the hospital, most suffering from dehydration.

I also remember the headwind over 20 or so of the final 30 miles. Brutal.

I recall blood soaking through my dressings and an occasional Einstein with an unsolicited, "Wow, that looks like it hurts."

Thanks. I'd almost forgotten.

I also remember turning with the wind for the final five or so miles and getting pushed gently toward the finish.

Maybe, I thought toward the end of the Hotter'N Hell Hundred, there really is a God.

The end

Finally, just over 51â2 hours of ride time - including the bike-pushing backtrack - later, I rolled across the finish.

I had gone through 10 water bottles (two of which I simply dumped over my head), shaved a few precious grams off my bike, leaked who-knows-how-much bodily fluid and given up my pound of flesh, all to see the bike computer click over to 107 miles on the day by the time I rolled up to the hotel.

I never met up with Jeff and Dave again. Dave had bonked late, when the ride's distance and nasty weather caught up to him. He stumbled around in daze, I was told, before lying down in the shade of a rest stop, where Jeff nobly plied him with food and drink until he recovered enough to get back on the bike.

Jeff then "pulled" Dave to the finish, riding in front to break the wind and make the final 30 or so miles more bearable.

About an hour and a half after I made it back to the room, after the most painful shower of my life, Jeff and Dave rolled up.

I recounted my wreck, and Jeff and Dave told me about Dave's bonk.

We swapped stories and congratulated ourselves.

Then we went looking for food.

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