WICHITA FALLS, Tex. — When Texas towns throw summer festivals to scare up tourist dollars, the party tends to go a little rough on the animals.
In Sweetwater they trap rattlesnakes, in Anahuac they hunt alligators and at the World Championship Barbecue Goat Cookoff and Arts and Crafts Fair in Brady . . . well, you get the idea.
On the Saturday before Labor Day weekend, though, the animals get even.
That's when Wichita Falls puts on the Hotter 'N Hell Hundred, a bicycle ride across 100 miles of North Texas ranch and oil land in temperatures near or above 100 degrees.
At this shindig, it's the people who roast on the spit.
The Hotter 'N Hell Hundred goes hard on these humans--or rather, these humans go hard on themselves.
As the sun starts glowing and the Great Plains winds notch up to blow dryer force, the route, it has been said, begins to resemble the road to Saigon.
At the rest stops--tents at 10-mile intervals--groups of up to a thousand overheated peddlers litter the ground like so much road kill, gathering the strength, fluids and resolve to press on.
Not infrequently, flatbed trucks and vans and ambulances flash by, hauling in the vanquished.
The scene gets progressively uglier past the 50-mile mark, gleefully dubbed Hell's Gate I. The head of the ride's complement of about 400 medical professionals calls the terra beyond the gate the "high risk" zone--and the M.A.S.H.-style medical tents are usually rocking.
At the 1989 HHH, as it is called, 11,875 recreational riders steamed out from the 7:30 a.m. start. By the end of the day, 682 required medical attention--just over half of those for heat cramps, heat exhausting and other temperature-related problems.
But that was a good year.
In 1988, when ride-day temperature actually reached 100 and the winds blew hard, doctors and nurses hooked 276 people to saline-solution IVs. Worse yet, the HHH registered its first fatality. A 51-year-old Kansan with a history of heart trouble keeled over with a coronary attack after reportedly ignoring warnings to stop and climb off.
The ride's name notwithstanding, organizers, civic boosters and well-trained cyclists tend to play down the self-inflicted pain and suffering quotient that gives the HHH its fame.
At the Wichita Falls visitor's bureau, assistant manager Lisa Bodin talks about how "families with little ones" turn out to tackle the shorter distances--the 10-, 25-, 50- and 62-mile courses.
In its coverage of the 1989 event, the Wichita Falls Times and Record News played up the lack of serious injuries--only 34 were hospitalized, nobody died--and the holiday atmosphere brought on by the big crowd.
The newspaper, which prints a 56-page section for the event and mails it to participants, was also quick to tout how the out-of-towners booked nearly every motel room in a 50-mile radius and spent almost $1 million on food, lodging, cycle stuff and on and on.
There is that side of it.
But the image that adheres more in people's minds when they talk about the HHH is the scene at the finish as the August sun, Wichita Falls' lemon for the lemonade, starts barbecuing the plodders.
It's a picture of a less-than-perfectly-trained 100-miler wobbling in after six or eight or 10 hours in the saddle. Looking like a truck with a bad radiator, the two-wheel zombie lurches across the line, drops from his or her bike and begins vomiting at the edge of the road.
Just over a year ago, James Goodwin, Joe Vacek and Stanley Wren were three professional guys on garden-variety bicycles out for weekend spins in Houston parks.
Nothing heavy. Just a little workout for the waistline. A little nudge to the cardiovascular system.
"We'd joke about the 'cycle geeks,' " says Goodwin of the stern-faced enthusiasts who'd pump by in bright Lycra shorts and funny helmets on their way to who knows where.
But something a little nutty crept into their lives as the year went by.
More than 10 million cycles were sold in 1989 as the national cycling boom continued to surge. Goodwin, Vacek and Wren bought three of them--and helmets, poison-green shorts, special handlebar rigs, "hydration systems," pedal systems, cycling shoes. . . .
High-carbohydrate drink mixes, energy boosters and protein potions began multiplying in their kitchens. Their freezers sprouted crops of portable water bottles, chilling for the next training run, the next long ride.
This summer, the three entered the Katy Flatland 100, their first "century," and they finished in about six and a half hours counting stops. Next on their list is the Hotter 'N Hell Hundred.
Eighty percent of the 1989 riders were between 21 and 50, and 71% were men. About half of them shot for 100 miles, the rolling answer to a marathon. "You go out on a ride and you see underneath it there's this terrifically masochistic pulse," says Lawrence Wright, an Austin, Tex., free-lance writer who has survived the race.