High above the Arkansas River, she is our Vesuvius, and boy, is it something to see when she erupts.
She sleeps for 364 days of each 365, a dormant hillside lined with indistinguishable single-level homes and condominiums. That one day, though, that one Sunday in June, she blows.
She spews water from a hose, beer from a can, the excess of both from the couple-thousand partygoers who climb her highest point at West 13th Street and South Jackson Avenue.
She screams — ecstatic yelps from the crowd, melodies and mixes from the bands and DJs who take stage, whooshes from the cyclists — those poor cyclists — who must ascend and descend her multiple times in pursuit of glory. Oh, and the earsplitting ding-ding-dings of the cowbells, those cheerleading boons and hangover exacerbators.
She shines a bright light on Tulsa’s most creative and most grotesque: the blonde woman in a lobster suit, the man test driving the sunglasses/white necktie/short-shorts combo, the heroes who wear merely their Speedos. One resident prefers to call her the “Hill of Half-Naked Women.”
Almost a decade old now, our Vesuvius knows to alert the neighbors and the masses of her eruption. The warnings appear in the days before she rumbles, in neon orange paint as the hill ascends, in the form of her credo and her common name:
Mind the Gap. Mind the Gap. Cry Baby Hill.
She is growling again this weekend, perhaps for a crowd larger than she has ever seen. Word continues to spread that Cry Baby Hill is the party of the year in Tulsa, and maybe even the party of the year in cycling in the United States.
But as Cry Baby Hill once again welcomes swaths of cycling fans and people looking for a good time on Sunday at the final leg of the three-day, Tulsa Tough bike race, it’s important to revisit the hill’s roots. Cry Baby Hill’s birth into the party it is today was gloriously organic and depravedly outrageous.
To know how Cry Baby Hill came to be Tulsa Tough’s pinnacle, one must know that in cycling, fans flock to the hills.
Josh Gifford, Mike Wozniak, Andy Wheeler and company learned it from watching some of the largest European races, including the Tour de France, on television more than a decade ago. Rabid racing fans congregated on the race’s climbs, such as Mont Ventoux, to egg on the riders.
Italians even give the fans a name: Tifosi.
“That’s where all the people go to cause a spectacle because that’s where the race is slowest,” said Wheeler, now Cry Baby Hill’s volunteer director.
For the final day of the first Tulsa Tough in 2006, Gifford, Wozniak, Wheeler and their friends set up in a friend’s driveway on West 13th Street.
But they didn’t set out to create one of Tulsa’s biggest parties. The friends, now in their early 40s, just set out to have a good time. And that first year, Cry Baby Hill didn’t exist. Yet.
In year two, she was born from Gifford’s ridiculousness and the ridicule of a junior racer.
Gifford and Wozniak co-own the Soundpony bar in the Brady Arts District, which opened in May 2006 — a month before the first Tulsa Tough. An active cyclist, Gifford also runs Team Soundpony.
In 2007, he and his wife welcomed a pro team to stay at their house for the weekend. The team included junior racer Joe Schmalz.
Schmalz raced poorly in the Brady District on Saturday. When he got back to the Giffords, he had a baby doll sitting on his handlebars.
“What the hell is this baby doll for?” Gifford asked.
Apparently, Schmalz had lamented his Saturday performance to the extent that his mother finally stuck a baby doll on his bike and called him a “cry baby.”
“I’m like, ‘Well, can I have that? Because I’ll harass people on the hill with it tomorrow,’ ” Gifford said.
Gifford and the Soundpony crew set up on the hill the next day with instruments. Microphones, electric guitars, high school band brass. There were coolers of soda and beer, a grill and $5 burger-and-chips combo meals that they sold out of the driveway to fellow spectators.
Gifford carried the doll. As cyclists pedaled uphill, he joined them on foot. He ran alongside them and propped the doll on their shoulders.
“Oh, are you just a little cry baby?” he taunted.
Then, at one point, Gifford grasped the microphone. He ad-libbed a bluesy tune, improvising lyrics about “Cry Baby Hill.”
One can assume her birth certificate got lost in the celebration. But what happened that day was clear.
A bar-owning, bike-racing troubadour christened this mound Cry Baby Hill.
Truth is, Cry Baby Hill’s birth wasn’t too different from Soundpony’s. The paths of both over the past decade are intertwined and mutually valuable.
Soundpony emerged from friends jamming together at a party, eventually belting out “Thank you, we are Soundpony!” in their intoxicated state.
Before Soundpony was a bar, it was a cycling team, and before it was a team, it was an off-the-cuff band name. The best ideas have meaning. Soundpony the bar is a music venue. For members of Team Soundpony, their bikes are their horses.
And Gifford and Wozniak have turned all of it — the Hill, Soundpony, the sport — into a lifestyle. Gifford credits cycling with saving his life. It helped him to lose 45 pounds and quit smoking.
He and Wozniak met in Norman, where they both worked at a Chili’s. They each eventually made their way to Tulsa and attracted crowds at The Brook and Empire as a bartending duo.
The plans for Soundpony got real when Gifford, Wozniak and with contractor and longtime friend Micky Payne found the location for the bar next to Cain’s Ballroom in July 2005. Around the same time, Team Soundpony got started.
The bar ended up right in the middle of the route for the second criterium of Tulsa Tough.
“It’s our biggest sales weekend of the year,” Gifford said. He was sitting in a camp chair outside his bar on North Main Street, under a tent that featured Soundpony and Cry Baby Hill merchandise one week before Tulsa Tough.
Just last week, Tulsa Tough officials held a ceremony to give Soundpony 99-year rights to sell merchandise with the now-trademarked Cry Baby Hill name.
It’s a blessing for Gifford and Wozniak, who are trying to expand Soundpony’s brand at the same time, especially its clothing line. Gifford called this year a “litmus test” for growth because of how much Soundpony and Tulsa Tough has been promoted.
Back in 2007, after the second race, Tulsa Tough’s visibility only continued to expand. Cry Baby Hill experienced a growth spurt along with it.
From 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., spectators worship her on both sides of the street. They follow the mannerisms of those who raised her: music, costumes, minimal clothing and a respect for the cyclists passing through the gap.
Payne, the contractor, took on a leadership role as Cry Baby Hill’s caretaker. He constructed stages for bands to perform and gave the spectacle a greater sense of professionalism.
In turn, Cry Baby Hill helped give Tulsa Tough legitimacy in the racing community.
“It’s completely unique in the sense that there’s nothing like it in the nation,” Wheeler said. “Racers want to race here just to see it. And racers keep coming back here to do it again because it gets so crazy they don’t have anything like it.”
After Sunday’s women’s pro race, the day’s penultimate contest, the female cyclists even ascend the hill to cheer on the men. For the pros, it’s their chance to cut loose after three grueling days of racing.
Vesuvius can cause damage, though; just Google search Pompeii. Four years ago, Cry Baby Hill nearly spiraled out of control.
The team of referees — volunteers who ensure spectators “mind the gap” where racers pass through — could not manage the crowd.
Thankfully, there were no wrecks, but Wheeler said the free-for-all on the hill came as close as it ever has to collapsing the race.
At that point, a decision needed to be made by Tulsa Tough’s leadership team and Cry Baby Hill’s guardians. Did there need to be barriers to protect the racers?
In an attempt to preserve the hill’s natural state, organizers instead painted lines at the edges of West 13th Street and reminders to “Mind the Gap” on the road.
The eye-popping paint worked. Cry Baby Hill roared on.
Those who partake in Cry Baby Hill’s June eruption have dressed to a theme at the behest of the hill’s guardians.
Last year, it was disco. It rained on Sunday, turning the Bermuda grass beneath the crowd’s feet into a mud carpet.
“It turned into kind of MTV Spring Break 1989,” Wheeler said.
This year, it’s “under the sea,” a theme that plays into the notion that shirt and shoes certainly aren’t required.
This is Wheeler’s first year as Cry Baby Hill director after Payne “retired.” True to theme, Wheeler said he preferred the title “admiral.”
Security will be present at the entrances to Cry Baby Hill for the first time, looking mainly to keep three banned items off the hill: dogs, strollers and glass.
Aside from that, (almost) anything goes. That’s the beauty and glory of it.
One week before Tulsa Tough, over a lunch of chicken and lamb shawarma at Laffa in the Brady district, Wheeler stopped mid-thought to smile and chuckle.
“It’s just so fun.”
The glow of his smile was familiar. A new father. Which he is, sort of: Tulsa’s Vesuvius might be a pre-teen, but Wheeler is her new guardian.
“It goes on all year,” Wheeler said, “and then the second it’s over, people start talking about next year, the theme and what we can do better.
“Honestly, as soon as it’s over, I just want to go to bed.”