When the Going Gets Tough

by Natasha Ball

06/08/2012

The crowd of spectators lining the edges of the course are packed just as tightly as the racers—shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel—as they lean into the 90-degree corners of the streets of the Blue Dome District. A kid on a joyride in a stolen sports car wouldn’t take a corner that fast. It’s chaos, feverish to break loose, what Tulsa Tough Event Director Malcolm McCollam calls “this total anaerobic chess game.”

Tulsa Tough is in the top four of all events on the National Racing Calendar, the list of dates and races that lords over the travel itinerary of every pro cyclist in the country. There’s nothing else like it in Oklahoma, or most other places.

Chris Zenthoefer had been back in town just long enough to draft a pitch for an idea that came to him in Wichita Falls, Texas, home of the Hotter ’N Hell Hundred. He proposed to his colleagues on the 2004 board of the Tulsa Sports Commission: If 10,000 racers were willing to schlep their bikes to Texas and spend an entire day in Wichita Falls—he wasn’t exactly impressed with the place—why shouldn’t they come to a bicycle race in Tulsa?

It’s difficult not to notice how uncomfortable Zenthoefer is sitting in a chair. His career as a cyclist dovetailed with his local fame as an entrepreneurial wunderkind. He headed an upstart downtown, where revitalization was in its nascent stages, and the development of the land along the Arkansas River was all Tulsa could talk about. A major event like this could act as a showcase of the city, he said.

It had been the habit of the Sports Commission to attempt to attract and bid on events that would serve as tourism lures. Easier, Zenthoefer had argued, would be to grow an original event, and at the grassroots level. They’d never lose the event to another city (or the impact on local hotels, restaurants, and retail that went with it), and it could be counted on year after year to lure hundreds of cars with out-of-state license plates to Tulsa.

He also couldn’t help but see bike racks on the tops of those cars, and the Sports Commission had been looking for a way out of the bidding wars for major events. We’re going to need help, they’d told him. Zenthoefer Googled “tulsa cycling clubs.”

McCollam had a bird’s-eye view at the first-ever Tulsa Tough criterium, a street race that serves as cycling’s answer to NASCAR. He wasn’t shy to admit that tears came to his eyes as he stood within the bright lights of the announcers’ podium on opening night. “It was horribly promoted,” he said, “and everything else was horrible but the event itself. It ran like a sewing machine.”

Tulsa Tough wasn’t McCollam’s first rodeo. He’d moved to Tulsa in the early 1980s, just as cycling culture was catching on in a big way in the U.S. He fell into the burgeoning local bike community, where everyone dreamed about not having to travel to find a good race. So, McCollam created one. And then another. McCollam describes himself as “just an amateur, age-group racer,” an attorney by trade with a cycling-glasses tan. He became the go-to-guy for anyone who wanted to launch a new race in northeastern Oklahoma. “I’d learned how to screw up everything you can screw up,” he said.

McCollam sat next to a 26-year-old Chris Zenthoefer in John-Kelly Warren’s 9th-floor office, overlooking the complex at 61st and Yale. The idea for a big bike race and the Sport Commission’s backing was all they’d brought with them. “I had no doubt in my mind that with what we had in the cycling community that we could organize and deliver a very well-run event,” McCollam said. “We just didn’t know if anybody was going to come to it.” A few weeks later, Warren called McCollam: “I remember him saying, ‘How much do you guys need to blow the top off this thing?’ ”

After the first few committee meetings, Zenthoefer contacted a former employee who’d moved to New York. He’d told Zenthoefer his frat nickname, and Chris remembered it while brainstorming for a name for this ride and race. The committee liked it. It captured the spirit of the event they saw in their minds, not to mention the task at hand. Said Zenthoefer’s note: “I just named an event after you.”

Tulsa Tough achieved world-class status when it dangled a purse that rivals the largest in the country in front of the noses of cycling’s top-tier teams. The lights, the speed, and the commotion turned the heads of Tulsans who hadn’t believed anything about downtown except what they saw on the evening news, likening the area to the wrong side of Gotham City. At first, local merchants were miffed. Their customers whined about the lack of parking and the road closures. But then, thousands of spectators drifted by their doors the first night of the races. Some of them came in, in search of lunch, dinner, a spot at the bar between the races. “It was the first time I felt like I could touch the energy downtown,” Zenthoefer said.

Make the event last three days, the board decided. Most racing events begin and end within 24 hours. Tulsa families were invited to Tulsa Tough’s third-year event as part of the first Townie Ride. Racing was great, but the organizers behind Tough wanted in on the mission to convince Oklahomans to trade in time on the America’s fattest cities lists for a life in the saddle.

On Sunday, the crowds spill into the street. Near the end of the course riders hit a grueling climb at Riverside and Denver. A hill like that is a natural magnet for cycling fans. They show up ringing cowbells, wearing costumes, playing guitars. One year, Soundpony big wheel Josh Gifford ran onto the course and locked pace with the pack. He lifted a baby doll onto the shoulders of a struggling racer. Every year since, that death march set on an incline has been known as Cry Baby Hill.

Zenthoefer left some of his skin in the game on the asphalt on Main Street the first year of Tulsa Tough, near the left turn at Cain’s and Soundpony. He was still drunk on the excitement of Friday night’s races, so when the call for Cat 5s came over the loudspeakers on Saturday morning, he sprinted to his office for his bike. It was a middling road bike that he’d been using to commute to work. He didn’t bother to ditch the saddle bags or the hitch for his daughter’s trailer.

At the turn, another racer drove through his front tire. Zenthoefer flew over the handlebars, breaking open the underside of his forearm. He still has the scar; his photo posing with his bandages, framed with a Tulsa Tough jersey, hangs in his office. “I was totally hooked on bike racing at that point,” he said, trying to hold back a wide smile.

Kathy Ostrem huddled under her husband’s body as a downpour of hail pounded his back. The balls of jagged ice on their knuckles had become too much to bear, and they’d steered their tandem bike off the road to take cover. They survived—her husband with a cracked helmet—but their bike succumbed to the storm, its custom aluminum frame bent. “It was a summer day in Oklahoma, and I looked up after the hail was over,” Ostrem said. “The ground was white, covered with these hailstones.”

It wasn’t the usual Sunday afternoon decrescendo of the event. Last year, after the bulk of the volunteer force had headed for home, the members of the executive committee—composed more or less of the same characters as the inaugural year—formed a line that started at the back of a truck, crates of water being passed from one set of hands to the next until they were stacked in storage.

Zenthoefer realized it had been the same scene just hours before the first crit of the first Tulsa Tough event. It was fruit inside the crates then, and the end of the chain was inside his new office at the corner of Boulder and Brady. He slept there all three nights, having made space between the boxes of supplies that had been stacked up in what was going to serve as the command center for the event. For the longest time, he said, the place smelled like bananas.

Jim Beach divides the hundreds of miles he drives each year between his scooter and his Subaru as he charts the Tulsa Tough Granfondo, a showcase of northeastern Oklahoma in weekend-ride form. With him is always a map of northeast Oklahoma, plus something with which to write notes about construction, lane closures, and ideas for new detours, sketched along the roadways and in the margins.

Beach’s business cards say Ride Director, but he introduces himself as the “Granfondo maker.” He shrugs and smiles when he mentions that he writes a blog—RoadPainter.com—where he writes posts titled “Pack Mentality” and “Good bicycle route marking.” Crowning his Facebook page is a photo of the staging of last year’s Granfondo, Beach with his stopwatch in the foreground looking as if he’s about to be vaporized by a sea of brightly colored, helmeted insects.

Recreational ride design has been his thing since 1992, when, after stumbling upon a breathtaking stretch of road between Grand Lake and Pryor, Beach and his wife Kathy Marie helped to create the DAM J.A.M. ride. He’s been cycling since his father took off the training wheels. The area’s choicest cycling routes are mapped like folds in his brain. “He has these spreadsheets, and I can’t even look at them,” Zenthoefer said. Beach disavows the existence of the spreadsheets, but he does claim his cacophony of sticky notes, iPhone reminders, and scribbled notes that litter his office, “making the task of finding anything in there a real pain,” he said.

Tulsa Tough’s Granfondo race was conceived in the European style, a set of five routes on Saturday and three on Sunday in distances ranging from 24-127 miles. The fastest climbers of hills and cyclists completing 200 miles of the courses in under 10 hours over the two days of the rides earn prizes, special-designation jerseys—both traditions in rides across the pond, Beach said. Cyclists from California or Colorado wouldn’t believe that Oklahoma could offer much climbing, Zenthoefer said. Which Beach loves. His joy lies in creating an enjoyable experience for the riders, but most of all debunking assumptions about the state’s terrain. He swings a few miles out of the way to catch a road that hugs an outlying lake, a stretch of shade, a hill that unveils a panoramic view of some of the 5,000 miles feet of climbing the cyclists do on the courses as they wind through the foothills of the Ozarks.

Beach puts on his game face after Christmas, when he corrals his committee of nine volunteer captains of the rest stops that are placed along the routes of the Granfondo. It takes about three days, three volunteers, and 30 cans of yellow, upside-down spray paint to mark the courses. He walks to the same side of the road as he did the stop before. He moves the can in the shape of an arrow. He gets back in the driver’s seat and does the same thing again, and again.

During the race he serves on the Support and Gear team. He uses a cell phone to coordinate transport for injured riders, refills on water and snacks at the rest stops, and mechanical help for the marooned. After a few years of suffering the weak cell signals of the hills, he sat for the HAM radio license test. It’s like a mobile news ticker, the bundled voices of local storm chasers and HAM enthusiasts who use the challenge of reporting to Beach about the race for emergency responders’ practice.

DAM J.A.M. is a favorite with local cyclists, including Malcolm McCollam. He called Beach with the pitch for the Tulsa Tough rides. “I’ve had other events I’ve been on that aren’t very well marked, maybe only putting one mark on the ground that’s right before an intersection,” Beach said. “It’s little things. Trying to think like a rider.”

Note: The version of this story printed in the June 1, 2012, edition of This Land states that Jim Beach’s wife’s name is Kathy (it’s Marie) and that there are 5,000 miles of climbing along the course of the Tulsa Tough Granfondo rides (it’s more like 5,000 feet). We regret the error.