Words by Dave Towle | Photos by Bo Bickerstaff
Raised in Boulder, Colorado, during the glory days of the Coors Classic, American Dave Towle found his highest racing level at the 1983 Red Zinger Mini Classic. He went on to announce every edition of the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia, and the Tours of Ireland and Utah, as well as countless other events in North America. The three-day Tulsa Tough is an event he holds close to his heart; we asked him to write about the 2016 edition, held June 10-12.
When the final podiums were presented at the 11th edition of the Saint Francis Tulsa Tough, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind the event would be back in 2017.
No one even bothered to ask the question you sadly hear with a tinge of schadenfreude at almost every event in the U.S. each year as they wrap up.
In the early years it was the big prize money and allure of three solid days of racing that brought the racers to Tulsa Tough, but quickly became much more, both to the racers and also to the host city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Tulsa Tough is part Woody Guthrie, part Davis Phinney, and part Sex Pistols.
Tulsa Tough isn’t just a race; it’s an event with a soul — one that captures the attention of both the domestic peloton and the local community. It’s a movement of the people in Tulsa, a city that defines itself by the fun it has.
What follows is the story about how a bike race happens more so than about what happened in that bike race.
In the days leading up to the 2016 edition, every weather report on local news stations mentioned how any new weather development could affect Tulsa Tough.
When the Australian Subaru NSWIS team arrived on a Monday night, there were three TV crews there to meet them, with excited field reporters touting the event.
As the city found its modern identity, events like Tulsa Tough folded in perfectly with what this community viewed itself as — slightly offbeat, fun, and yes, also tough.
People who have nothing to do with the sport of cycling actually plan to take the Monday after the race off from work, because they know they’ll be in no shape to perform less than 12 hours after coming down off Cry Baby Hill, the iconic and climactic event of the wild weekend of racing.
Tulsa picked up on this the first year the event was held. The United States has some deep eddies in cycling history and the city is one of them now — it just took Tulsa a few years to realize it loves bike racing.
What makes the name Tulsa Tough fitting isn’t the heat, or the hard courses — it’s the fact that the level of competition across all categories that come to race is as high as you see all year in America.
Tulsa Tough breaks the standard format in a racing landscape that desperately needs a breath of fresh air: Three days of racing in front of huge crowds with solid prize lists and great courses in unique and historic venues. It’s a formula that harkens back to the glory days of U.S. criterium racing in the 1980s and 90s.
With a nod to Quad Cities and the Gateway Cup, and their impressive runs, the phenomenon that is Tulsa Tough is something that the American criterium scene needs take a close look at.
What happened in Tulsa can happen in other mid-major American cities if you have a few things going for your event. A sponsor like Saint Francis — a health-care group that sees the value of hosting a health-based community celebration like Tulsa Tough — goes a long way.
Through the years, different programs have given hundreds of bikes to children, and the annual cruiser ride is on par with the gran fondos the event holds. They started with dozens of riders and now have literally 1,500. It makes finding the hundreds of volunteers needed a lot easier when everyone in the community thinks your event is giving back in a big way.
The story of Friday night’s opener in the Blue Dome District certainly has plenty of crashes and field sprints, but not always both.
The Blue Dome District is seriously hip. It’s so authentic that it’s the kind of place urban designers are trying to replicate. What was once empty lots and warehousing is now a trendy entertainment district that has grown from a couple of start-up restaurants to a full-fledged “place to be seen” on weekend nights in Tulsa.
The Blue Dome itself is sort of like the Alamo — when you see it in person, it’s a lot smaller than you thought it would be. Nonetheless, the spot that was originally a well-known filling station on Route 66 is now the namesake for Friday night’s racing venue.
Almost everyone you meet in Oklahoma is an amateur meteorologist. The weather has always been a part of the conversation leading up to the race, and this year it was actually the first time in 10 years that it really wasn’t an issue.
Neither storms, nor heat, nor humidity really came into play on a Friday evening in early June when the largest crowd in the race’s history came out to spectate and imbibe.
The Air Force Cycling Classic, held on the same weekend in Arlington, Virginia, takes a bit of talent off the table in Tulsa, but the Tulsa crowd comes for the spectacle more than for the names on the start list.
The names don’t change through the three days of racing, and in the women’s field it was a weekend that would showcase the best of the younger sprinters racing on the U.S. domestic circuit, including the Schneider sisters, Sam and Skylar (ISCorp), as well as Erica Allar and her Rally Cycling team, along with the usual hit squads seen on the circuit.
The women’s start list had plenty of names to keep a dedicated fan of the sport entertained; with Tina Pic, Mandy Heintz, Mia Manganello and several other strong riders taking the front row.
The new model for teams racing the U.S. circuit seems to be to send only key riders — no need to fill out six-rider rosters with pack-fill that just eat up limited budget dollars. The days when Toyota-United would send a six-rider team to walk away with over $20,000 in prize money are long gone as well. The men’s race has the feel of a Main Street shootout these days — you never know who is going to come out of the woodwork.
One thing everyone lining the fences and filling the start grid knew was that at the end of the race, it was Daniel Holloway (Hot Route Racing) that was going to be the man to beat. The defending champ came to Tulsa to lick his plate clean and wasn’t at all afraid to show it.
Friday night racing starts just as the locals are getting out of work for the weekend. Over the years, Tulsa Tough has become a big part of the city’s outdoor evening summer lineup. It’s become the city’s de facto Kentucky Derby — just replace the mint julep with a PBR. The evening’s racing started a little after 6pm with 117 category 3 racers competing in front of a crowd the domestic pros dream about these days. The wide-open figure-eight course has always made it tough for a breakaway; it’s a big ask for anyone hoping to foil the sprinters who came to play in Tulsa.
Crowds always enjoy a story line they can track along with — something that doesn’t require a masters degree in cycling history, pharmacology, aerodynamic metallurgy, or world religion.
When you have Sam and Skylar Schneider and their ISCorp team going up against Rally and the charismatic Erica Allar, it’s an easy sell to a fired-up crowd that’s buying.
On the men’s side it was Holloway against the fun-loving Aussie Subaru NSWIS squad that included Scott and Jackson Law.
The beer was cold, the music was loud (a lot of it was Johnny Cash), and the story was engaging and easy to follow, like a good song. It was going to be smash-mouth bike racing though, pretty much exactly the same thing as NASCAR, and they get that in Tulsa, too.
By the time the women had been called to the line they had assembled with a field that included Aspire Racing’s Ellen Noble, the U23 national cyclocross champion, in what was her first criterium at this level. I wondered if she thought it is always like this on the criterium scene.
It isn’t, I wanted her to know. This is special. After a lot of talk about breakaways that never came close to making it, the women’s race came down to a field sprint.
The Schneider sisters had to know they were going to have this kind of weekend at some point. The older of the two sisters, Sam, has been consistently winning at the biggest criteriums in the U.S. over the last six years. The way the weekend played out was a dream scenario for any siblings in cycling, and I don’t think it could have happened at a better race for them or the sport.
Tulsa Tough invests a considerable portion of its budget into the web stream they offer for all categories each day. The fact that this story was documented is a good thing, as it doesn’t happen often. Erica Allar finished second behind Sam Schneider, with Ellen Noble impressing in third. It was Skylar Schneider in fourth that set the stage for one of the event’s great editions, with Rally versus ISCorp after the dust settled on Friday night.
For the men’s field, a quick web search didn’t yield much relevant data on the Aussie Subaru NSWIS contingent. That was the kind of stuff that used to happen when the Soviets arrived in Denver for the Coors Classic. As the domestic hitters were called up, the Aussies were clearly watching and taking notes.
After furious nonstop, cover-and-kill style racing, the Aussies had the team lining up four guys, including their closer, who appeared to be Scott Law, at two laps to go. Holloway — who had instigated the race’s only breakaway worth talking about, by himself — poached the Subaru lead-out and jumped from a half-lap out to win, decisively showing he is back and in a big way.
They don’t take down the monster truss used as the finish-line arch after the racing ends at 10pm — they just lower it onto its wheels and roll the whole structure the five blocks from Blue Dome over to the Brady District.
The Brady District, which was once what was known as “Black Wall Street,” is one of America’s true success stories in urban renewal history. While keeping the historic Cain Ballroom along, with other critical landmarks, this arts district has added the Guthrie Green, honoring the legacy of Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl era.
There isn’t a cycling-themed public establishment in the U.S. that has more soul, or a greater cult following, than the Sound Pony, located right next to historic Cain’s Ballroom on the top side of the course.
The Sound Pony Nation, along with Cry Baby Hill, are both great examples of what happens when you give people the power to shape their own destiny through cycling. Sound Pony and friends are the group that makes up the bar patrons and the team they sponsor, Sound Pony-Triad Bank. They’re the core group that got the party going in year one on Cry Baby Hill.
The final descent after the landmarks have been passed brings what often is a solo rider or small group to the finishing stretch, always lined with tents representing just about every team and club in the Midwest.
Racing on Saturday in the Brady District was held with a slight breeze, in temperatures that would be considered hot by any standard, but perfect for Tulsa Tough.
In the women’s race it was another strong effort from the cagey Schneiders, holding off a frustrated Erica Allar. It was a fair fight, and the crowd embraced watching the sisters take another step in their careers — the top two steps of a USA Cycling Pro Road Tour podium.
In the men’s race, in classic Star Wars style, the Aussies “struck back” with a big win, with a second place to go along with it, from Scott and Jackson Law. That’s right, after the Schneider sisters went 1-2, the Law brothers did the same. It was an amazing storyline for new and old fans alike.
As the pumped-up crowd settled into a fun evening in the Brady District, the racers rolled away to prepare for the final day with way too much adrenaline in their systems to even think about sleeping any time soon.
At 1 a.m. they wheeled the truss over on surface streets, about two miles across town to the River Parks district and the home of Cry Baby Hill.
The original story of Cry Baby Hill is like many in the world of bike lore. Two riders returning from a long, hard ride were rolling back into Tulsa when one suggested a route that would avoid the steep climbs before arriving at home. “Don’t be a cry baby” was his riding partner’s response — and therein lies the name for what has become this generation’s Manayunk Wall. The cycling community has never seen a crowd that rivals the way Sound Pony and friends do it though.
Riders new to Cry Baby Hill may think they know what to expect before the final day of racing, having heard about it, or watched the many videos posted to YouTube. The truth is, they have no idea.
If one were to walk to the venue from the Brady District, with its start/finish line down along the flat and muggy Arkansas River, it might appear as if you were walking into some sort of a Burning Man situation.
The fact that spectators come to party at a professional level is crystal clear very quickly, and it goes past the costumes being wacky — they’re down right next level weird. It’s amazing.
One of the upsides of having been around for 10 years is the abundant and high-quality host housing for the weekend.
In Tulsa, a good number of the citizens that volunteer their homes up to racers are in the upscale neighborhood that Cry Baby Hill goes through. It’s encouraging to see that, over the years, the house parties integrate nicely with those who only spend this day each year on the hill. It’s part of what has been the secret of the success at Tulsa Tough — if you give the people a chance to work things out on their own, often times they will.
There are no barriers on Cry Baby Hill; the self-policing that takes place by the self-appointed Sound Pony “officials” sees everyone “mind the gap,” lap after lap, all day long. It’s something that you don’t see enough of in sport. Check out the YouTube videos and see the way the crowd has a blast while still never, in 10 years, causing a racer to come to grief on the climb.
The racing could not have been better for the crowds. On the men’s side of things it was going to come down to who had the sharpest sword on the climb.
Both the men’s and women’s events came down to shattered fields, with only the strongest still contesting for the overall omnium win, as well as the prestige of being a winner on one of America’s craziest days of racing. Holloway ended up getting the better of the Aussies, but it took everything he had.
The Schneider sisters will be a huge part of American racing for the next decade. After a stunning win on Sunday, tying her sister on points for the overall victory, Skylar Schneider deserves the attention that comes with major success, just like her Richmond worlds teammate Chloe Dygert. If you’re looking for a positive story happening in racing today, here it is.
It’s always depressing when the circus leaves town for the year, but as people walk arm and arm back to wherever it was they came from, it was nice to know we’ll all be back.
The real takeaway for me is that American crit racing is alive and vibrant, just waiting for more races like Tulsa Tough to come along, so we can keep these stories in front of people, and keep them engaged. It’s too damn good not to.