A Pilgrimage to the Panhandle

Socializing and Spectating at the Tour of North Texas, April 1995

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 3, July 1995

Since 1983, the only consistenly existing RAAM Qualifier has been the West Coast event, known these days as Furnace Creek 508, formerly the John Marino Open or RAAM Open West. Over the years, RAAM Qualifiers have come and gone in Illinois, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere, but they're no more nowadays. Not so with the Tour of North Texas, a 583 miler organized by our new UMCA Director, Nick Gerlich, and held annually in April. This year I had the good fortune to visit and watch this event for the first time, and I had a wonderful time.

Dr. Nick Gerlich is a professor of marketing at West Texas A&M University, located in Canyon, TX, which is near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. This is a region we visited several times in RAAMs 90-92, but we've just missed since then with our current route which crosses the Oklahoma Panhandle instead of the Texan one. The TNT is the result of a semester-long sports marketing class for undergrads and grad students that Nick teaches. Students are responsible for all the details of the event, from making the routebook to soliciting sponsors and prime donations, plus all the other details involved in putting on an ultra event. The students even serve as Race Officials and run the Time Stations.

Nick has been organizing the TNT since I decided to quit putting on an April Furnace Creek 508 four years ago. Every year he invites me out to see his race, and this year, for the first time, I decided to take him up on the invitation. It would be a novel opportunity to see the RAAM gang one more time than usual. I generally only see these folks at RAAM and the 508, not counting the stray RAAMers prowling the bike show looking for sponsors that I always run into. At this TNT, I was lucky enough to get to see Seana Hogan, Jeff Bell, Jim DeCaro, Muffy Ritz, Steve Born, Mhyee, Bob Fourney, Reed Finfrock, Roger Mankus, Matt Ford and his wife, Tom and Bonnie Davies, Deiter Weik, Rick Heiss and Tracey, plus Manuel Reynante and Ed Fleming, both of whom I hadn't seen in years. As it turns out, I'd already met ALL of the racers except for the nice guys on Team Ohio; the Smiths have done the 508, and I'd run into Marie Handrahan, Ed Fleming, and Terry Lansdell over the years on crews or at RAAM Time Stations. It was a nice reunion, plus fun to meet some newcomers, crew, and Nick's students. (We do need to get more new racers on the scene, though!) I also met Carl and Sara Sawicki, the tandem pair who graced the cover of this magazine two issues ago. They're so modest, it took quite a while for them to fess up to why I thought they looked so familiar! Lastly, it was also nice to see Becky Gerlich, Nick's wife who helps run the UMCA, the TNT, and their household which includes ten dogs and a beer and pop aluminum can collection that's the worlds' fourth largest.

First stop after arriving in Amarillo was to see the U.S. National Helium Reserve. There's enough helium intentionally pumped into the ground under these near vacant buildings to supply the U.S. for a full century, according to a recent article in the LA Times. Nick took my photo in front of the site, then we crossed Old Route 66 to see the Cadillac Ranch, another Texas Panhandle tourist attraction. It's about a dozen old Cadillacs stuck into the ground nose-first with their tailpipes pointing to the sky, and it's supposed to be some sort of real-life art. Nowadays the Cadillacs have been stripped bare and painted about a million times by locals and tourists out to leave their mark on the world. Only in Texas...

At any rate, now that I've outlined everything but the race, I'll probably start heading towards the end of this article. No doubt Nick will have filled you all in elsewhere about how the race unfolded. It was pretty flat and darn windy; I was glad not to be racing, I have to say. But it was impressive to watch everyone duke it out while trying to survive the conditions. It was neat to see Bob Fourney back in the saddle after a few years away from the scene in school. He says he'll race PBP this year, by the way. I also did a little comparison of Seana Hogan and Muffy Ritz: Seana rides at an average cadence of just 60 rpm, turning over a 57 tooth big ring (and she has an 11 tooth small cog), while Muffy Ritz rides at around 90 rpm and pushes a 53 tooth big ring. Quite a difference. The real star at this race, though, was Tom Davies. Not only does he have the Master's Transcontinental Record now, but he won this TNT overall. Kudos to Tom!

The highlight of the weekend was just riding in Nick's van with Nick and Roger Mankus, shooting the breeze while the cyclists tried in vain to shoot through the breeze on the other side of the windshield. Nothing beats jawing with a fellow UMCAer, I'd say. It was a lot of fun to talk about "the new UMCA," Hell Week, PAC Tour, RAAM, PBP, and all the other events, people, and places that make up our fraternal order of long distance cyclists. Having these discussions in the Heartland of America, where the horizon's flat, goes on forever, and looks like a scene from "Dances With Wolves," somehow made perfect sense. It was a rejuvenating trip for me, one that I'm glad I made. My hat's off to Nick and Becky, and the other Texans, students and otherwise, who are working so hard to promote and participate in our sport.