By James Hoggard
Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX.
Hoggard is also a former poet laureate of Texas and past president of the Texas Institute of Letters.
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I’d ridden in the Hotter’n Hell Hundred since its beginning, some four or so years back; and I often rode alone. Later, I just as often rode with a team of friends. Then, by serendipity, the matter in what became “Blue Paints” occurred. But I didn’t write it down or send it out, primarily because people, even those I didn’t know, kept asking me to tell them the story, and I did. What especially struck me about the piece was what it encapsulated: mainly the fact that long-distance road biking seemed less and less exotic; and that in spirit it wittily broke down social barriers, while including in its voice that favorite idiom of the plains, the tall tale.
From The Devil’s Fingers & Other Personal Essays
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The entry numbers for the bicycle race hadn’t come close to hitting the high figures yet, but soon they would. In a couple years more than 10,000 then 12- and even 13,000 would gather at Memorial Stadium (then downtown) the last Saturday in August for the Hotter’n Hell Hundred, the biggest century bicycle ride/race in the Northern Hemisphere. Each year a cannon shot started the event, and riders of all ages and shapes would begin the various routes. Families and friends would ride together or singly, and world class competitors and others would try to outdo themselves and as many others as they could. I had ridden in the event from the beginning – 50 miles the first time then 100K for a couple years after that, then the 100-mile route since then. The challenge was thrilling. Temperatures often topped 100F, the changeable wind was usually high, and the ambience of the rest stops celebrative.
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I was still in preparation, though. The scorch of mid-July had settled in, and it was time to start the long rides. I was more serious now than when I had first started. My bike and outfit showed that. I was no longer riding a 44-pounder in cut-off Levi’s, tennis shoes, old T-shirt and terrycloth fishing hat. The colorfulness of my getup now sometimes made me think that if I had had a bunch of brothers the way Joseph had had, I’d have been thrown in a pit, too. Sometimes I was grateful that my parents hadn’t done much breeding.
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Out of the house by 6 AM, I was ready for my first big ride of the season: Electra for breakfast, some 30-35 miles away. I’d have carbo-rich pancakes, refill my water bottles and head back home, getting 60-70 miles in before noon.
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The Dairy Queen in Electra had not yet become the Saturday morning home for bikers that it would be – a fine turn-around point for long training rides: plenty of hills and miles there and back, and a guarantee of a windfight, too. Sometimes you’d think you’d be flying on the way home then find the wind had shifted; and now, instead of at your back, it was driving hard at your shoulders and face. I also had not started riding in packs – I rarely even rode with a friend – so energy-restoring drafting was not an option. The extravagance of biking a long distance for breakfast, though, made the jaunt seem worth it; and the terrain for several long stretches was wonderfully rugged. I had long agreed with my friends in the Renaissance: too much was just enough.
Red clay sandstone gullies cut deeply and jaggedly into hills. Purple thistle was blooming in borrow ditches with prickly pear, buttercups and their cousins white bindweed. Mesquite and yucca crowded the rough rolling plains like giant webshapes and clusters of long-bladed daggers. Mid them, pumpjacks coughed and chugged and drove the polished brass tongues of steel grasshoppers down to broken formations to suck oil up out of the earth. Now and then a coyote would cross the road far ahead, and cattle loitering at barbed-wire fences would bolt, shying back out into pastures when you rolled humming past them, your clicking freewheel saying you needed to lubricate your chain. There was still a lot to learn, but now I was back on the main highway. The Dairy Queen in Electra was just a few bumpy miles ahead.
Up under the front awning now, I propped my bike against the red brick wall. The morning still young, I saw a table inside the place packed with men. Most of them were dressed in khaki, and seeing them hunkered over their coffee or pushing back away from it to listen better or to talk, I knew who they were, even though I had never been here. They and others like them all over the area had been gathering for years in places like this on Saturday mornings. They had a mission to accomplish: get away from the damn women. Saturday by god was their day off, even for those of them who might have already retired. There was no sense being pestered into a whole day full of honey-do chores, and no sense being yakked at again for being underfoot. They were here where the world made sense – at least it had until I walked in and conversation stopped. Belligerent looking eyes fixed on me.
My uniform wasn’t khaki. It wasn’t even anywhere close to the color or fit of what they had on. Damn, I thought, as I peeled off my open-fingered, palm-padded turquoise gloves, I might even have to fight my way out of here. I still had my yellow helmet on with a tiny rearview mirror sticking out from it on a fingerbone brace. My sunglasses were rainbow lens wrap-arounds. My seablue shorts were skintight Spandex, and my many-colored light-lovely-Lycra shirt hugged my chest, shoulders, and belly. It had three pockets low in back that sagged when stuff was in them, and stuff was in them now: a banana and a sandwich sack with a couple Fig Newtons for energy lags, a bit of money, and a spare innertube.
The oldest looking one of the group – he looked like the resident silver-back or Alpha male – was staring at me especially hard, so I did what I had done before in situations like this. I stared back. Following an ancient ritual, we were sizing each other up. We might even have to butt horns before the day was done. No one at the table was laughing and no one was speaking. Alpha and I kept eyeing each other until, in steps, the group turned its attention back to its table. I sat down then in a booth by the window. The waitress came and I placed my order, but the moment she left I felt another hard stare. I glanced around to meet it.
Alpha was looking directly at me, his eyes severe, his jaw set. He looked angry but I kept my response restrained. Long ago I had learned better than to jump to conclusions. People around here were often more oblique than they seemed. Still, I had to keep challenging his stare. Backing down wouldn’t do. That might really cause trouble if the situation were truly belligerent. Around here it’s often hard at first to tell whether it is or not. Fixed on each other, neither one of us looked away; and no one at the table was talking. Then Alpha spoke, and if I hadn’t lived in the area so long I might have had no idea at all what he was asking.
His voice gravelly and his look as impassive as a snake’s, he asked, “Em paints hep?”
Keeping my look as severe as his, I told him, “Yep,” and I was right. The pants really did help, and giving me a great smile now, he asked me how, the mood between us suddenly friendly. I had misread his attitude altogether. I told him about chamois padding, circulation, chafing, unguarded gear sprockets, and material that wicks out sweat. He wanted to know if I really had come in all the way from Wichita, and when I told him yes, he laughed, then said if he ever tried pulling a stunt like that himself he’d probably die – either that or his old lady would get mad and come out after him in their pickup and wreck him.
“They’ll do that,” I said.
Saying he wanted to hear more about my get-up, he asked, “What’s that deal on your lid I saw?”
I picked my helmet up off the seat beside me and showed him. “It’s a mirror, rearview mirror.”
“That’s no bigger’n a quarter. It really work?”
“Sure, try it,” I said and handed the helmet to him.
He cocked it at an angle and squinted into the little glass. “I’ll be,” he said, moving both it and his head around to check the view from several angles. “Little booger really does work.”
“Here, let me try it,” one of the others said, reaching over to grab it, but Alpha shoved his hand away and told him:
“No. You’d probably break it, clumsy as you are.” Then giving me the helmet back, he said, “Tell me about the shirt. That’s about the loudest damn thing I ever saw.”
So I explained the importance of high visibility on the highway, not to mention style of course. Several of the others nodded and said that made sense, crazy as a lot of the drivers around here were.
“What he means,” another one told me, “is that some of the drivers round here are simple, just plain simple – like a dumb rock.”
“You mean as opposed to a smart rock?” another one asked.
“You know,” Alpha said, moseying back into the conversation to take charge again, “we got an old bud comes in here who rides himself a bike. Fact, he’ll be in here directly.”
“He don’t know jack either,” one of the others said, and the table laughed again.
Right after we turned back to our own concerns, the door opened and I heard Alpha say, “Frank, get yourself over to that booth there. Young fella has some things to tell ya.”
“What?” Frank asked.
“Go on, get yourself over there in that booth. You’re going about your biking all wrong. He’ll tell you all you need to know. Now slide on in there,” Alpha insisted, and Frank did, offering me his hand across the table. As I was shaking hands with him, I heard Alpha saying, “And tell him everything you told us – don’t forget the padded gloves either. I hadn’t even realized – none of us here had – how complicated a thing it is that ol’ Frank’s gotten himself involved with.”
“But don’t go too fast,” one of the others said. “He’s as hard of hearing as he is slow. Frank’s prone to miss a lot. We often have to repeat things for him.”
When the waitress brought my pancakes, she included a cup of coffee for Frank who told her he’d be skipping his sweet roll. He said he was going to start getting in shape while we talked. I was glad I enjoyed ambiguity. It wasn’t always clear who, if anyone, was being teased: Frank or me or the others – or if the world itself were the butt of their play. Frank, I thought, though, looked in pretty good shape already. Most of his friends did, too. They weren’t built like Greyhounds and I was sure they didn’t move like Border Collies, but they also didn’t have the peter bellies a lot of chicken-fried-steak-gravy-loving rural men around here had: tubs of guts sagging like ballast over their belts.
After awhile Frank pushed back from the table. He said what I had been telling him made sense. We had even drifted into talk about index shifting, comparative frame weights, shoe and pedal types, Presta valves, Camelbaks, and tire sizes. He also made me back up once so he could jot down on a napkin the formula for setting seat height. Then looking as if he were regathering the information in memory, he bit his right index knuckle then slapped his fist down on the table. “That makes all kinds of good sense,” he said. “Fact, I’m going in to Wichita this afternoon and get a new rig – and I mean a whole new bike, too,” he said, his voice rising. “That ol’ Huffy of mine ain’t good enough! I’m gonna upgrade to the kind of rig I need.”
“Sounds fine to me,” I told him, then checking my watch, I said I needed to get back out on the road.
“Have a good’n,” Frank and Alpha and all their friends told me as I clomped my way out in my stiff-soled shoes, cleats clicking on the floor tiles.
Two weeks later I discovered that Frank really had been serious. I had ridden into Electra again, but wanting to test how acclimated I was to distance and heat, I wasn’t going to stop at the Dairy Queen. I was simply going to refill my two water bottles from an outside faucet and circle back home by a longer route than I had used last time.
Pedaling out of town, I glanced down a cross street to check traffic when I saw Frank a block away. He was tooling down the street on his bike, and I couldn’t help but smile. Even from this distance I could tell it was new, and he hadn’t spared expense. He really had dumped his old one and gotten himself a new lightweight road bike. Not only that, he was outfitted head to foot in a color-coordinated outfit: sleekly aerodynamic silver helmet, fluorescent yellow-green shirt with matching racing-striped biking shorts, and a new pair of shoes that clicked into pedals and would make him walk around as uncompromisingly stiff and low-heeled as mine made me. I don’t think he saw me, but I waved at him anyway. I had a happily steep downhill run ahead before the road began rising meanly.