A SUB 4 HOUR CENTURY?? - 1997
By Mark Johnson
The Hotter'n Hell Hundred (HHH) held in Wichita Falls, Texas had a Cooler'n Hell 16th birthday this year. And what a fun filled birthday party it was with 400 tandems, nearly 10% of the 8,658 registered riders if the rumor was correct.
We had to contend with a 2,000 pound Hereford bull, complete with down turned horns, loose on the course, a Hummer escort military vehicle which would at times inadvertently hinder our progress, a stretch of slimy road, an occasional crash and the sharp report of a blowout now and then. Yes, the HHH always provides memories certain to last a lifetime.
Let me digress briefly. For the second straight year, the weather thankfully did not lend credence to the rides name. Upper 60 degree temperatures predominated at start time resultant of the thick overcast and early morning misty fog which successfully held the sun at bay until 11:00. Despite the sun's presence, the mercury remained below 80 degrees until well into the early afternoon hours.
Sue and I first learned of the HHH in 1993, our first full year on a tandem, from our riding buddy Jay Sanders, a seven year veteran of the event. We found our self on the interstate heading south resultant of his coaxing and were soon to become hooked on this awesome event. Meeting up with Jay and Sandi (his rear admiral) in Texas became an annual fun filled event we would look forward to except for the year we were in France doing PBP (Paris Brest Paris).
Since Sue and I are expecting our future stokid in late October, it was only natural that Jay and I do the HHH on a tandem with Sue assuming the role of team photographer, equipment and clothing coordinator and general overseer.
We arrived at our secret parking lot, known for having all the secluded amenities a parking lot should have at this early hour, with 20 minutes remaining before the tandem start.
They always give the racers (professional and the Cats I-V) a 20 minute head start on the tandems. And last but not least, they finally open the gate and release the 8,000 single bikes 10 minutes after our departure.
Once the tires were pumped, chains lubed, water bottles and Camelbaks filled, and we had our "before" picture taken, we headed for the starting lineup. We turned too soon and found ourselves amongst 8,000 single bikes with no where to go but to thread our way back out against heavy single bike traffic, television station cables and personnel to seek a better approach.
The tandems were in sight as I made a final time check. It was only one minute before the start time as we threaded our way to the front of the purported 400 hundred tandem teams! The stretched bikes occupied three and one half lanes for one block!
No sooner had I clipped out and the words "Tandems GO!" were heard. Having not ridden for a week due to a right knee tendonitis problem, the momentum of the start was soon to lack anything resembling a proper warm up!
We were off at 30 mph but that was obviously not good enough as we frequently encroached upon 35 mph. This speed right out of the gate on this flat terrain was to be the norm for many miles before settling into a somewhat comfortable sub 30 mph speed.
Having ridden three other HHH's, I have learned you cannot ever count on getting a good group together. Some years a large double rotating pace line composed of skillful riders would develop and other years one could swear you were riding with novices.
Usually a huge pack of single bikes would catch us after 35-40 miles on previous years and propel our average from 21.8 to 23.6 mph over the next 30 miles as was the case in 1993.
This group was FAST! We worked very well together and it showed as our average speed was awesome.
The fog thickened to the point that visibility decreased to 300 yards. We would occasionally see a vehicle up ahead elusively appearing in and out of the fog. We decided it must be a pace vehicle for our high speed long bike group. There it was, the pace vehicle, becoming more and more visible. It was growing in size. It is a a a a what? A Hummer! But it is stopped in the middle of the road! It's still not moving! Slowing! Slowing! Braking! Braking, was repeated down the line as captains grabbed for the brake hoods and sharpened their senses. Bull! Bull, was also passed back. "Look at those horns!", exclaimed someone in our group. We cautiously cruised by keeping a wary eye on the horns having seen too many segments on the "running of the bulls" lately. There were no safety horn covers on the outgrowths of this fellow!
Rollin, rollin, rollin, keep those long bikes rollin! (It's Texas!) "Turbo Jay" would close down any gaps which would threaten our position in the group, a major plus since I was already exceeding the tendonitis threshold-but you only live once!
With 48 high speed miles on our legs, the Hummer came into clear view again. "Oh no!", I thought, "What now?" The Hummer, apparently with no where to go, took to the field on the left side of the road. "What the #*^%&?" Bouncing his way through the grass and dirt he passed a couple of progress impeding cars. What about us? We did not have the luxury of being able to go cross country at 30 mph!
Jay asked, "What is that?" "We caught the racers!", I exclaimed. Word was quickly passed back that the racers were in sight. "Look at how many there are!" One stoker was literally tickled pink at having caught this mob which resembled the Tour de France pack in appearance and size. Unfortunately the forth coming crash in the middle of the pack resembled the tour as well. Both lanes were filled with a sea of bodies as far as our vantage point would permit.
Now is a good time to check our average speed, I thought, before the slower speed of the racers causes a negative effect. "27.4 mph average!", I told Jay. At this point I was thinking that maybe a sub four hour century was possible, a time I had only related to the pros until this day.
Catching them was not good enough. The long bike bunch, tired of the reduced pace, successfully worked its way to the front of the pack to find a pace motorcycle and police car leading the way.
For some strange ego and testosterone driven reason the pack's pace picked up four mph as soon as we made it to the front. We eventually pulled away, only to be caught again in three or four miles just in time for the Burkburnett hairpin turn and railroad tracks. There was no slowing down now as we pounded the tracks and swept through the turns with this sea of bodies.
I lost track of the other tandems due to the distractions and concentration needed to stay out of trouble while amongst those who deemed us not welcome.
Caught on the right side, next to the line, we worked our way across two lanes of solid bike traffic during the next couple of miles and muscled our way once again to the front of the pack. "There are our tandems!", I sang out to Jay, "They are half a mile ahead!", "Now what are we going to do?", I selfishly asked with my weary legs in mind.
Without comment, Turbo Jay's legs provided the answer as we went for it. We pulled it up half way and realized only eight tandems of our group made it through with another one floundering in the distance behind us.
As we were chasing, the escort motorcycle pulled alongside and we were given explicit instructions that should the racers catch us again that we should stay to the left and ride it out in the rear.
We fortunately caught the group shortly after turning south into a stronger head wind than previously experienced. It was not long before the familiar double pace line's effectiveness put the pack of racers into the distance so our group no longer resembled a rabbit in distress.
This tandem group was on a mission. A sub four hour century seemed impossible now with valuable time lost dealing with the "pack" and the unrelenting head wind. One stoker was heard to emphatically say, "I am not ready to give up yet."
Twang! A dreaded sound that rang through the long frame of the bike which I had not heard for a long time. "Why now?", I asked myself. Knowing we popped a rear spoke, I glanced back between my legs searching for the rear wheel which was off in the distance. Too much wobble I thought. I asked Jay if he could release the rear brake while riding or whether we needed to stop. We had to stop and realized how futile it would be to chase the group down a second time as quite a gap had formed.
The escort car for the pack was seen in the distance through the mist as we silently mounted up knowing going it alone in no mans land would be futile. We were certain to be swallowed up by the mass within the next few miles.
We clung to the left line as the motorcycle gave us the "okay" sign with his index and thumb. Once at the back we discovered two other tandems which had continued to do the cling-on thing. Many others had apparently opted for sag stops as our numbers had been sadly reduced.
The pace of the pack picked up at the 75 mile point and I thought to myself, "The tandem group is sure to be reeled in" as our speeds were once again hitting 28-30 mph on some stretches. The hares remained ahead of the hounds as we never did see them again.
An occasional tandem would get dropped from the dwindling lead group and join our cling-on group at the rear as fatigue and dehydration were becoming the norm.
We were on the home stretch trying to hang on with my tendinitis so apparent that my right arm was now used to pump my knee up and down during times of needed extra power. The single riders were starting to drop one by one as the pace increased and the light grades took their toll on the 90 plus mile legs.
The whipping effect resultant of being at the back of the pack, was taking its toll as well. We dropped off with eight miles to go and settled into what seemed a slow heart rate for the day, 80% of max!
We longingly looked at each sag the last third of the ride as we were cheered on by the volunteers wondering what tasty delights awaited riders this year. We rolled in with the intermittent company of a racer or two until they could no longer hang on.
We crossed the 100 mile point at 4:03 and reached the 101.3 mile finish line at 4:06. We managed to ride straight through with out stopping except to provide brake clearance for our wobbly wheel.
Sue, our team photographer and coordinator made a mental calculation of our arrival time and had no sooner sat down when she spotted our florescent yellow Precision Tandems jerseys as we rounded the corner in the distance.
The 1993 course was 97 miles which Sue and I completed in 4:58. We completed the 1994 event, also 97 miles, in 4:52 (more heat and wind). The 1996 event used a modified course (modified in 95) which was 101 miles. Sue and I completed the ride in a 4:30 riding time and a 4:34 total time. And of course this year Jay and I, after doing the work of a sub four hour century, came within smelling distance of our goal.
What next year will bring remains to be seen! Everyone should check this event out at least once. You cannot beat the atmosphere, the carbo-load feast the night before, the vendor displays, the ride, the sags, the value for the dollar nor the HEAT!
They really do take good care of you at the sags, which is an experience by itself. Maybe we can stop at every one of them one of these years.
Do it together!