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Origin story: Cry Baby Hill

Photo by Josh Kampf

A sea of furiously gyrating, costumed and beer-drenched flesh congeals at the summit of 13th and Jackson. Shots are jello’d; baby dolls are brandished—to gaze upon this ritual is to gaze into the sun itself. Among the brave souls who have, the accounts are similar, if unbelievable: Somewhere inside, there are people racing bikes. 

Cry Baby Hill, the last and wildest race of Tulsa Tough, has quite possibly become the biggest of the weekend. In a gorgeous tribute to the Hill, international racing blog Manual for Speed wrote that every weirdo “within 750 miles of Tulsa, Oklahoma is on that hill during that race, and 1000% without exception, is PARTYING IT UP.” 

#takemondayoff has become synonymous with the event, with warnings to do so popping up on social media for six months before the race. But not long ago, before the DJs, global attention and attendance in the thousands; there stood only a few weird warriors. 

Like the haunted Cry Baby Bridges scattered across America, the origin of Cry Baby Hill is obscured in legend. Its birth year is said to be Tulsa Tough No. 2. The number of initial partiers is disputed, but most say it’s between 10 and 30. Among those verified in attendance were a coach with a trumpet, a man named Speedo Gonzales, and an Elvis in drag known as Melvis—“Mad woman Elvis,” Soundpony Co-owner Mike Wozniak explained to me. 

Soundpony Co-owner Josh “Salt  Dragon” Gifford* said “cycling was getting big” when CBH came into the world. 

“We were used to seeing all these crazy people wearing costumes and supporting the races in Europe,” Gifford said. “We wanted to bring that to Tulsa Tough.” 

A small crew set up camp on the hill wearing costumes, playing instruments and generally acting insane—oblivious to the seed they had planted. Gifford grabbed a baby doll from the handlebars of racer Joseph Schmalz. Disappointed in his performance in Saturday’s race, Schmalz had received the doll from his mother, who was tired of hearing him sulk. Doll in hand, Gifford ran alongside cyclists on the hellish climb.

“I was yelling, ‘Oh do you need a baby doll? You can’t get up this little cry baby hill?’ at the racers,” he said. 

In an act of divine genius, or severe intoxication, Gifford began singing about “cry baby hill” through the P.A. The idiocy on the incline had found its name. The following years saw the crew’s behavior mirrored, and the initial handful of weirdos grew to 3,000. 

The rapid evolution of the scene overwhelmed Tulsa Tough organizers. Above all else, Cry Baby Hill is a bicycle race. Amazingly, it’s still a race without barricades. Andy Wheeler, the Hill’s 2015 volunteer director, said the CBH team has employed unconventional methods to keep barricades off the hill. One effective method has been public shaming. 

One year, a spectator dumped a cooler—ice, beer and all—onto the racers. 

“When I finally found this guy,” Wheeler said, “so many people were screaming at him that he was nearly in tears.” 

Volunteer party police order the crowd to “mind the gap” and call attention to those who must be shamed. “The gap” is a narrow space between the cyclists and the drunken mob. As much as a stray camera lens in the gap could cause a wreck—and an end to Cry Baby Hill as we know it. Each year grows closer to the brink of chaos, with the well-behaved worried that surely we’ve blown it this time. Last year served as a sort of reset: Pouring rain warded off fair-weather fans, and the most pious partiers engaged in trench warfare.  

There won’t be barriers this year. But for the first time ever, security checks will keep dogs, glass and strollers off the hill. So leave those things at home. And if you want to appease the party gods—that valiant crew who first looked upon the hill and said, “What if we wear swimsuits and play a tuba?”—then mind the goddamned gap. 

[Author’s note: Not wanting to take credit for Cry Baby Hill, Josh Gifford humbly requested to be called “Squirrel” for this piece. I told him there was no way my editor would let that happen.] [Editor’s note: Nope.]

For more from Mitch, read up on touring with Verse and OKC's Community Pools to a fan-town up the road

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