When I got up Sunday morning, the parade was already started. Out my window, lines of people were strolling down the hill, coolers and lawn chairs in hand. Some were in costume. Most were dressed for the heat. Some were already half-tanked.
A typical Sunday morning for the third day of Tulsa Tough, an annual cycling race series and festival that has bike enthusiasts from across the country descend on T-town with all the spandex anyone could ever want. Crowds gather for all three days of Tulsa Tough, but it’s the third day, on Cry Baby Hill, that folks really get revved up.
And it happens in my neighborhood.
A little about my ‘hood: it’s tough to define. It’s older, right on the edge of downtown Tulsa, and built on the banks of the Arkansas River. It’s a mix of people, from bohemian to bums, families and retirees, living in stately older homes, shotgun houses, or in open fields not yet developed. It’s a place where you can watch incredible sunsets from your porch, or view transients stumbling down an alley. I feel perfectly safe here, but sometimes there are police helicopters and searchlights. Typical urban neighborhood, I suppose, and the site for the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough.
So let’s talk about Tulsa Tough. This was the 13th year for the event, which attracts top cyclists from across the country and the world. For three days, they race through different courses downtown, and as the years have gone by the crowds have grown. There’s also a gran fondo ride that goes well outside the city and a townie ride where anyone with a set of wheels can take a more leisurely trek.
The climax of Tulsa Tough is the Riverside Criterium. It’s the toughest course, with steep inclines on every lap. I’m sure that’s something cyclists can appreciate and dread, but for most people, the Riverside Criterium is all about the scene that is Cry Baby Hill. It draws the biggest, most raucous crowds of the entire weekend, and I’d say most people are there more for the party than the races. Folks show up by the thousands.
It wasn’t always that way. When Tulsa Tough started, people in the neighborhood gathered at a house or two to watch the races, guzzle some beer and cheer them on. One legend has it that regulars at the Sound Pony, a downtown dive bar frequented by cyclists and other endurance athletes, started making the Sunday Tulsa Tough races a thing. However it started, someone built this party scene, and man, did it grow.
Today, the Riverview neighborhood is choked with Tulsa Tough spectators and revelers. There’s lots of skin, vats of beer, weird costumes and creepy baby-doll heads on sticks. There are a bunch of whistles and people in referee uniforms helping the crowds “mind the gap” so cyclists can actually freely race without fear of running into errant fans. It’s grown so big that the food truck cabal decided to come, and live music on a stage popped up. Debauchery of all sorts happens, though most people keep it in check. I think. Anyway, I tell people that Cry Baby Hill is an annual excuse to get drunk on a Sunday morning, and I think that’s mostly true.
Some of the cyclists get into it. If they’re not concentrated on actually winning, they’ll slow down and take a brew from the crowd before continuing. Cops are there in droves, as are paramedic crews. It’s hot out there, and sometimes the combination of a 12-pack of Natty Light and high heat/humidity doesn’t work out too well.
You might think the description of my neighborhood, the event, and the crowd is negative, but let me shut that down right now: I dig this scene. Endurance sports don’t get a lot of love, so when the hordes arrive to cheer on the competitors, I’m all for it. Come on down, invade the ‘hood for a few hours and have a good time. Too many parts of town (any town, really) are too buttoned down, becoming regimented to the point of lifelessness. My neighborhood is a trip pretty much every day, and I guess it’s fitting that Day Three of Tulsa Tough is sort of a holiday of weirdness for my weird little place.
That all of it surrounds cycling hits home, too. I don’t race, but I spend a decent amount of time in the saddle these days. I chose where I live so I could bike to work. It’s also close to a paved trail system that’s great for longer rides. I’m not a racer, but I get these people even if my ride costs less than the accessories they attach to theirs.
So how did all this go down for me? Well, as the crowds clogged my streets, I mowed my yard. Picked up a half-empty can of Coors Light kindly donated to my lawn. I dumped the rest out, recycled the can, then jumped on my bike and rode to the center of the action.
While recording part of the race from a more “family friendly” part of the course, a half-baked spectator noticed by Denver Broncos ballcap and proceeded to talk smack. Turns out, he was a Chiefs fan. They got us twice last year, but I reminded him that the Broncos have three Lombardis in the case to Kansas City’s one. He was forceful at first (I was hoping that this wouldn’t turn into a real fight), but chilled out long enough to have a more nuanced discussion about how the AFC West was going to play out. His girlfriend got bored, so we bro-hugged and they left.
I rode to a few more spots, taking pics and taking in the scene. Everywhere I went, the streets were lined with people, sometimes ten deep. Whistles would blow, a chase vehicle would zip by, and then a couple of cyclists would follow. Behind them, the whirring gears of a few dozen more cyclists, bunched up in the peloton, breezed by. The crowd cheered, yelled, rang their cowbells and took a swig from coozy-lined cans and red Solo cups.
This scene repeated itself for several hours until the last pro races were done. Podiums were mounted and trophies awarded. Fans eventually stumbled back into their houses, or toward their cars, and not a small number of them took the next day off.
What does this all mean? I’m not sure about the origins of Tulsa Tough. There’s a healthy cycling community in Tulsa, but not more than any other mid-sized city. Even so, Tulsa Tough is a huge success, an international draw, seemingly getting bigger every year. That an obscure endurance sport can become so huge here is encouraging, even if half the appeal is just showing up for the party. It’s a weird, geared-up and beer-soaked thread in a community tapestry that might otherwise be mildly bland.
Come next June, we’ll do it all over again. See ya next time for Year 14 of Tulsa Tough. Cry Baby Hill awaits.