It’s 9:00 a.m. and I’m following Travis down a sidewalk in a ridiculously hilly downtown Tulsa neighborhood. In one hand I’m carrying a thermal bag of freshly fried chicken. In the other I’ve got a giant water jug and a grocery sack full of chips. Travis is pulling a wheeled ice chest that’s packed to capacity with Leinenkugel, Bitburger, and San Pellegrino.
We make our way to what we’ve decided is our spot, and park our coolers behind us. The besties arrive a few minutes after we do, and a few more friends arrive shortly after that. By 10:30 the hill is packed.
It seems as if we’re surrounded by everyone we’ve ever known. Best friends, hockey friends, work friends, and friends-of-friends are all here. From where I’m standing I can see hundreds of people, and I know that there are hundreds more around the corner and down the street in both directions. It’s hard to determine how many people are here, but I’m sure it’s into the thousands.
We’ve created an island of coolers, each holding it’s own diverse mix of beer and snacks. Everything is communal. If someone forgot sunscreen, there will be a multitude of varying SPFs offered to them. Need a chair? Bug spray? A jello shot? No need to ever leave the hill; we have everything you want. One friend is passing out craft beer to those he sees carrying “inferior product,” a.k.a. Bud Light. I’m passing out fried chicken. Three people have told me it saved their life. Drunk people are passionate about fried chicken.
This year’s theme is “Under the Sea.” I’ve got a tank top with purple sea shells painted over my chest and a starfish in my hair. Over the course of the day I run into a woman dressed as a pineapple, an Aqua-man impersonator, a handful of scuba divers, some jellyfish, and at least a school of mermaids. There’s a guy carrying a giant swordfish. At one point, I realize everyone is covered in gold glitter.
“Where did the glitter come from?” I ask the besties.
“The glitter guy,” comes the answer.
I am pulled across the street to the Center of the Universe tent and introduced to a guy with a giant shaker full of big flakes of gold. He spritzes water onto my chest and arms before throwing glitter at me, ensuring that my body and my home (which I am miles from) will never be glitter-free again.
The band is playing so we dance in the street until the whistles are blown by referees and everyone is quickly herded onto the lawn. King Neptune tells us to “Mind the Gap” and we hurry to the curbs. Half a minute later the Volkswagen Bug pace car speeds by, followed by a pace-motorcycle. Just as everyone has found a spot behind the sidelines, we see them.
As soon as the swarm of cyclists appear at the bottom of the hill, the crowd erupts with noise. We cheer and shake cow bells and encourage them any way we can. It must look funny when they turn that corner and see a sea of aquatic-costumed crazies. Some of them are too focused on the race to notice anything but the road, but some of them can’t help but break out in a smile. They’re pedaling hard and fast on the steep incline. The bikes are so close together that one mistake could take out the entire lot of them. The first group rushes by and a cool wind follows them, blanketing us with temporary relief from the hot Oklahoma sun. Have I not mentioned the Oklahoma sun? I should, because it’s 84 degrees with 94 percent humidity. Our shorts are short because they’re cute and because we’re sweating to death.
The race takes them up Cry Baby Hill over and over and over again. Behind the leaders and the large group following are some stragglers, and they’re struggling. The hill is serious. The heat is serious. But these riders are serious about beating them both. They’ve got determination on their sweat-drenched faces and we’re cheering louder and harder, just for them. Our encouragement is focused on each individual. We let them know that they’ve got this, that they’re almost on top of the hill. That they’ve almost beat this lap. The last pace motorcycle follows behind them and the crowd swells into the street for another 2-minute dance party before it all happens again.
The last race of the day is over around 5:00 p.m. and that’s when real-life decisions get made. If you’re smart, you go home and recover. You drink some more water and take a nap. You eat real food and try to revisit reality before Monday morning. The other option is to stay out and keep the party going. Crowds flood into downtown restaurants and bars and the celebration continues. If you’re really smart, you heed the slogan “Take Monday Off” and use a vacation day to recover. Bloody Marys and a Tulsa Drillers mid-morning baseball game can fix what ails you.
The Sunday races on Cry Baby Hill are the culmination of Tulsa Tough, the weekend-long bicycling event. It’s been described as “Like that thing they do in France, but in Tulsa.” There are races in downtown on Friday night, followed by long (very long) distance races on Saturday that take the cyclists all over the metro. This year’s theme is Tough Love. It’s a nod to the love these cyclists receive from the city. Thousands of people watch every race. City streets are shut down and parking is rough in a downtown area that was never designed for this much traffic, but outside of a few people who unknowingly stumbled into the hot mess, there are no complaints. There’s nothing but love and beer and great food. On Friday night, we even get fireworks.
So many people, so much alcohol, so many degrees Fahrenheit. It’s easy to imagine it could equate to a whole lot of trouble. It never does. Whether it’s the spirit of the event or the spirit of Tulsans, everyone is nice. Everyone is taken care of. Everyone is friends. Cyclists are both rewarded and consoled with open cans from the crowd. Children are watched out for and treated respectfully at the family-friendly races on Friday and Saturday. Dogs are given belly-rubs, water, and treats. And on Sunday when a police officer administered CPR and saved the life of a collapsed racer, he was thanked and treated like a hero and celebrity for weeks after the race ended.
On the hill, there is public shaming. Act like a jerk at Cry Baby Hill and they will plaster your face and your actions all over social media. There’s not a lot that’s straight-out banned, but babies, dogs, and glass of any sort are not allowed. These three are announced tongue-in-cheek to the masses over a loudspeaker. “There are dingos on the hill and they will eat your baby. No children on the hill!” When offenders are seen, they’re nicely spoken to and gently convinced to leave. (My other favorite was spoken by a friend; “You can have ass and grass, but no glass on the hill.” As this is Oklahoma, you can’t actually have grass, but we smell it on occasion, so we know someone is getting away with it.)