Among the many rites of spring in the Texas hill country is a grueling bicycle ride known as Texas Hell Week, an eight-day affair full of fun and camaraderie that takes cyclists through some of the most scenic and demanding country in the region.
Indeed, as cyclists anticipated the start of Hell Week on Saturday morning in Fredericskburg, the sound of laughter and animated conversation was the rule, with controlled energy waiting to be released on the hills.
Nick Gerlich, the event’s founder and organizer, spoke with Digital Journal on Friday, a day before the madness was about to unfold. He noted the event started quite small, a far cry from what it is today.
Winding rural roads through the hill country are a major component to Hell Week cycling.
“Back in February of ’91, I asked some buddies of mine to go down to San Marcos and ride bikes on spring break. I got five takers. So the six of us met there, rode bikes for eight days and had a blast. Unknown to me at the time, a cycling tradition was started.”
Texas Hell Week stayed in San Marcos for three years before growth along the I-35 corridor forced them to move the event to a new location. “We had heard about Fredericksburg so we came and checked the area out, fell in love with it, and have been here every year since ’94,” Gerlich added.
Cyclists mingle on Saturday morning at the check-in before the start of Hell Week in the Texas hill country.
The scope of Hell Week has changed over the years, as well, according to Gerlich. “The event has changed over the years. When we first started, most of us were long-distance cyclists with ambitions of doing the Race Across America, so to go out and do 100, 140 miles a day was no big deal. The primary purpose was to get in a lot of early miles. If we could score a thousand miles in eight days, that was great.”
Now, with cycling’s appeal to a larger audience, Texas Hell Week attracts a variety of people with varying skill levels. “We welcome people from all cycling backgrounds. Not everybody is as crazy us, wanting to do Race Across America back then. Now we have triathletes, we have tourists, recreational riders and hardcore racers, all calibers of cyclists,” Gerlich continued.
The upside to all the hills are the moments of speed awaiting cyclists on their descents.
“It’s a real melting pot of cyclists, not just in terms of skill levels, but in terms of where they live. This year we have people from over 35 states, from across Canada. We also have a couple of participants from Germany and Slovenia. This year we’ll have between 375 and 400 cyclists. That’s record territory for us.”
Gerlich noted the abundance of small, rural, one-lane roads sprinkled throughout the hill country, stating: “The spirit of the rides is to do 100 miles a day, staying off the main roads as much as we can.” Cyclists will get to experience a range of hill country attractions, from stunning views of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area to the quaintness of Luckenbach.
An upcoming mid-week ride is considered the most challenging, Gerlich noted. “The hardest ride is on Wednesday when the riders are given two options. They can stay here and do a ride, or drive down to Bandera and do a 109-mile ride to Leakey and back.” The Leakey ride takes one deep into the canyons of the hill country, with several long, steep climbs and descents the prime attraction in a breathtaking setting.
“We’ve been doing this for 21 years and you’ll find so many of the the people here return each year, they’re our repeat offenders. It’s just fun to march through this parade of life together,” Gerlich added, obviously enthused to be back in the hill country for the annual event.
Ted Echols, Daltin Spears (left and center) expect to see about "five seconds" of their friend, Larry Thompson on Saturday's ride, as he conditions for upcoming triathlon events.
Ted Echols and Daltin Spears are first-time participants in Hell Week and came down from Dallas for the experience, based on a description of the event by their friend, Larry Thompson, who informed them it would be “real easy.”
Training for the St.George Iron Man competition is considered one of the most challenging in North America. Thompson is ranked third in the world for his age group in triathlete competitions, according to Echols and Spears.
When asked if they would ride together with Thompson on Saturday, Echols and Spears laughingly told Digital Journal that “we’ll see him for the first five seconds.”