We were crossing a bridge over the Arkansas River in our Nature’s Bakery Ford E350 van when I peered through the window and saw the depraved fray below. It was taking place on the riverbank. Scantily clad men and women, bejeweled, beglittered, some wearing duck inner-tubes on their waists, and some wearing masks of a baby mid-tantrum, all lined the sides of the road from the river’s edge, up the bank, and into a neighborhood. There were thousands of them. The gutters were filled with crushed beer cans. Even from a distance, I could tell these people were extremely inebriated.
The road I could see from up above on the bridge is a legendary climb I have heard much about. We were going to be racing up it an hour later. And little did I expect that this climb would provide me with the most comical bike racing story of my life. This, was Cry Baby Hill.
We parked the van as a squad of girls in bikini tops wobbled by on the sidewalk. They all carried enormous gas station sodas, labeled ‘QT’. Again and again I saw QuickTrip cups, perspiring with cool dew in women’s hands or bursting in heaps from the lids of garbage cans. I took another bite of my gluten-free blueberry Nature’s Bakery bar as I speculated on their respective soda-to-alcohol ratios mixed into these plastic vats with a straw. One of them stumbled and almost fell face first into the concrete. She must have been nursing a solid 1:1 soda to liquor mix.
Unlike these young women, we were very well hydrated and mixing Herbalife CR7 into our water bottles. Unlike these young women, already seriously sunburned, we were applying our SPF 45 paraben-free UVA and UVB protection sunscreen, provided to us by Zealios. Two muscular young men walked by, with incinerated shoulders and white necklines, like a nuclear bomb had gone off in the distance, vaporizing their shirts and leaving only the outline of the bro tanks they once wore. They were also wearing neon short shorts. We were all putting on our Jakroo race skinsuits. They were eating greasy barbecue chicken. We were wiping the grease from our chains.
Everyone around us was hammered, we were stone sober, but both they and us, were ready to party.
We rode to the starting pen where we stood in the sun, corralled like Oklahoman livestock. This is the race within the race. If you start in the back of the pack when the gun goes off, you’re done. You’ll get dropped because of the pack’s accordion effects around corners and on the course’s descent into a 120 degree turn. The stretching and contracting of the pack creates leg-destroying accelerations for those in the back of the pack. As a result, everyone wants to be first to the starting line, necessitating everyone to line up more than a half hour before the race. As per usual, Corey Williams, the always-fast sprinter with plenty of panache who rides for KHS/Elevate Pro Cycling, took the audacious approach. The night before he just hoisted his bike over the corral barrier dead front and center. Today he chose to push his way through the crowd to the front. Our young sprinter, Matt Chatlaong, who was flying the past two nights with 9th in our first Tulsa Tough criterium, and 7th last night, chose a novel approach. He sauntered into the VIP area and hung around until they told him sweaty bike racers do not belong there, forcing Matt to ride directly onto the course. We watched him enviously, suffering, behind the barricades of the steamy corral. Matt was the only guy actually on the course already. Corey Williams nodded to him from the other side of the gate: “I respect that.”
The race was on. A hundred fifty riders sprinted to the hill. It bottlenecked. Guys from 15th place and back slammed on their brakes. It was mayhem, and the roar of the crowd grew with every pedal stroke forward, until we turned through the bend onto Cry Baby Hill proper. People in referee shirts blew shrill whistles, literally holding the throngs of wasted people back. Some spectators planted long staffs on the ground, Gandalf-like, adorned with severed toy baby heads. The screaming filled my ears. The stink of beer yeast hit me full force. My legs already burned. We crested the climb, barreling through residual cannabis smoke. I hoped, inwardly, that I would not be contact high by the end of this race.
I used my brakes to maximum effect. Every time as we descended into the 120 degree turn, I passed 30 guys and slammed on my TRP direct-mount brakes at the last moment. Every race you’ll see someone do this dive bomb technique, and when its not you, you think, “What a menace.” After two mediocre races the day before, I just wanted to do a couple good attacks and try to get in the breakaway.
So I got to the front, we were about to hit the hill, I was 10th place, winding up to throw down everything I had on Cry Baby. I shifted to my little ring and my chain jammed. I tried shifting again, and the chain dropped. I got off my bike as the pack sped up the climb and into the distance. I shoved the chain back onto the big ring with my bare hands. Of course, I was over-geared and when I got back on, I couldn’t even turn the pedals. People laughed at me. I was embarrassed. I was dropped and could never catch up to the race. It was all over.
I got back off the bike, shifted into an easy gear, and zig-zagged up the steep climb to get up to speed. I was pissed. I had finally felt kind of good during this race before I dropped my chain. Frustrated, I started to power up Cry Baby. I turned the corner, and the referee shirt course marshals started blasting their whistles, herding the raucous fans off the road. I saw a clear line through the middle. I was out of the saddle. I was sprinting. I would crest the top in just a few seconds. And then like an apparition, a drunk man appeared in front of me, mid-stride as he ran across the road. This is the last image burned into my brain of that moment.
Have you ever seen the Heisman trophy? It is awarded to the most outstanding college football player every year, and the trophy depicts a young football player, mid-stride, with one arm outstretched to confidently stiff-arm another player. Now imagine this, except the Heisman is a drunk man, in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He is mid-stride, but instead of confidently holding out a stiff arm, he begins to lift his arm in a fuzzy involuntary act of self-defense. This was the figure frozen in my path in suspended animation. His face barely registered what was about to happen.
The collision with the man was full force. I flew over my bars and landed hard on the road. I felt my shoulder momentarily tugged out of the socket before it popped right back in. I hit the pavement and tumbled. The crowd expressed their amazement in a chorus of expletives. I crawled to the side of the road and onto a patch of grass by the curb. A man rushed to my side, “Are you okay?!” As I collected myself and assessed my injuries, the man yelled above the racket, “Find that guy! Where is that guy!? Get that guy! Kick his ass!” This Heisman-like petronus would either be beaten on the spot, or slip into the anonymity of the blind-drunk crowd. I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
I stood up to take my bike. “It’s broke,” some guy said, presenting my orange KTM to me. The bars were crooked. I put the wheel between my legs and yanked the bars as straight as I could get them. I got on the bike and started pedaling, My left quad, hip, and back were sore, scraped, and bruised. My shoulder joint was the worst. Not only had I been dropped, but I had crashed. The worst day possible.
And thats when I realized something. Wait a minute, I just crashed. I get a free lap now.
I piloted my cock-eyed bike into the wheel pit and the mechanics straightened my bars.
I was back in the race, back to late-braking the 120 degree turn, and back at the front. Only five laps after I had hit the heisman-drunkard and splattered myself on Cry Baby Hill, I was at the front of the race, attacking over the top. There was a group of five of us with a gap, I pulled, then no one else would pull, so I’d pull again. Eventually a couple more guys started working, but we were caught at the bottom of Cry Baby the next time up. I was so worked from the effort I couldn’t follow the next attack. And it turned out that was the attack which forced the race-defining breakaway. Oh well.
Matt Chat looked comfy during the remaining laps, while I faded under a cloud of heat exhaustion and dehydrated tingling sensations. Sam Bassetti was there for him and the two of them did their best to position for the sprint and finished 13th and 11th, respectively.
I crossed the finish line, and began to pedal very slowly up Cry Baby. It was just beginning to dawn on me that Drunk Heisman had actually saved my race, I was able to get back in and attack, and I was able to salvage my race weekend. After nearly a month off my bike finishing my Master’s in journalism, and a couple intensely mediocre races the two nights before, I was pleased with how it went.
I rounded the bend on to Cry Baby. The crowd was now all over the road milling and mingling with the riders, handing them beers, as they soft-pedaled uphill, completely haggard. A girl holding an orange pool noodle handed me a Bud Light as I rode by. I popped the tab, and guzzled it down in one long pour. I was immediately drunk, slapping high fives with the spectators, slightly sunburned, completely dehydrated, and clad entirely in lycra, with two beers shoved into my back pockets. I looked around. There really wasn’t much difference between they and I anymore. Everyone ends up in the same place on Cry Baby Hill, one way or another.
See the rest of Biff Stephens amazing gallery of the 2017 Tulsa Tough Cry Baby Hill, here!