Originally published at Central Track

The 31st annual Hotter ‘N Hell bicycle races were held this weekend in Wichita Falls, an event home of the largest century bike race in North America. And when our friends at Richardson Bike Mart suggested we check it out we thought, Why not.

The idea is to race like a hellbat on wheels from marker to marker in a hundred degree heat until you hit Finish Line Village. Everyone from local enthusiasts to international pros come to participate.

So we thought we’d immediately register in the 100 kilometer race, knowing full well that, if we wanted to, we could dope up on stimulants and make it an eighth of the way through the race — speed through the first part of the route and out of sight from the real challengers and just quit; say we did it, and earn our Every Man medal.

But there’s already been too much hype about doping in bicycle racing, so we’ll save that story for another time.

Everything was unfittingly cool when the event got under way on Friday, with an early morning rain and 80-degree weather welcoming a fluctuation of cyclists to registration at Kay Yeager Coliseum.

Inside, a convention was held with numerous vendors setting up shop, hustling everything from t-shirts to bike saddles to cyclewear to energy drinks and bottles of Michelob Ultra.

We found 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,” he told us. “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, you know, and we wouldn’t miss it.”

Saturday’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 trough the woods, under the train tracks and around the Wichita River, which would invariably cause many contenders to eat shit when they tried to cross it near the trail’s end.

The race started at 5p.m. and would last for nearly two hours. Onlookers stood by at the river crossing cheering the racers, unless they tried to walk across it — in which case they’d begin heckling them.

“Come on! Ride across, goddamnit,”  one loud-mouthed man began to jeer. “RIDE across, you degenerates!”

And ride they would.

The winner of the event was of area talent, 18-year-old Trent Daulton of Team Offcamber () who trains with Speedworks Cycling. Daulton clocked in at just over 50 minutes, and was a full two minutes faster than anybody else in the contest.

“It feels good to win it, this is my fourth year doing it,” he said after the race.” “I ride on average ten to twelve hours a week, and it takes a lot of commitment. A lot of riding by yourself.”

It was a fitting end to the first day of races, with a local rider winning one of the coveted prizes of the event.

*  *  *

Hotter ‘N Hell Day 2 began early on Saturday, with a USAF flyover and cannon fire officially signaling the start of the Main Event – the 100 mile Michelob Ultra USA Cycling Road Race.

Organizers had a tent camp in place where we could set up our command center, which was described to us as “sort of a cyclists’ Woodstock,” which elicited images, to us at least, of high-energy cyclists that sat around campfires eating Cliff bar smores and talking politics over the USADA’s most recent allegations against Our Hero, Lance Armstrong.

Although this was not the case, it is where we slept. And it’s where we were, still fast asleep and sprawled out in the tent, when the sounds of an F-14 flying over it are heard and BOOM – cannon fire.

Panic stricken and nerves racked, we thought that Sheppard Air Force Base was under attack, and that maybe we had stumbled into a story about more than just a bicycle race – but, there it was on the agenda – 7:05 AM: USAF Flyover and Cannon Blast (official start).

This is a serious Race full of men and women in varying age brackets, and separate from the 100k ride and the 25, 50 and 100 mile rides –Riders are just out to have fun, to prove to themselves that They Can Do It; take things at their own pace and hopefully make it back to Finish Line Village in time for a sports massage and a seat to catch the Josh Weather’s Band.

“What brings you all the way out here – out here, to Hell,” we asked a few Riders who were gearing up at the tent camp.
“ It’s been a dream, I just do it ever year,“ one man said.
“It’s the best bike ride in the world,” said another.
“Supporting my husband.”
“To participate in Hell. “

With that, we head out quickly toward the food court and past some vendors under tents trying to sell us Christianity, then raffle tickets for a high-powered deer rifle, then a batch of sweetened iced tea before we find 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 using the cannon every year.”

Small Bull hasn’t miss the race’s starting ceremony since the event’s 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.

But under the hot August sun every year, the city and its locals use this fan-favorited event to shine a bright spot on their home. Bicycling Magazine even named the ride to their bucket list, an association that event coordinators are eager to mention.

As the day nears noon, the front of the pack in the pro race begin 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 Charlie and Byers, Texas, up around a bend past the Red River and Henrietta then finally through Petroila and back to the city.

To maintain the course, nearly 4,000 volunteers spend their time – everyone from local high schoolers to volunteer firefighters, medics and police officers spend their time taking care of the track and its racers.

“There’s from little tiny kids to grandpas out here, but anybody that has any kind of competitive spirit or anyone that has a sense of adventure will be out here,” Race Director Ken Webb said. “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. After three hours and 59-minutes, Eric Marcotte came bustling through to become the overall winner. 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 teammate Heath Blackgrove, who came in third.

In all, four of the top ten spots in the pro race were claimed by ELBOWZ, who began their journey this year earlier in Dallas at the Training Camp series.

To them, it was just another day at the office

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 is just getting cooler.

All photos by Nathan Patterson.