Tulsa Tough photo essay: Scenes from America's criterium mecca and its wildest spectators

Part bike race, part city-wide party, the Tulsa Tough and its iconic Cry Baby Hill are a spectacle to behold.

Scenes from the 2022 Tulsa Tough
(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

The Tulsa Tough is a bike racing event unlike any other. For racers, it's three evenings of wicked fast, fiercely competitive and big money criterium racing. For the rest of the city and the hundreds of visiting spectators, it's a three-day binger that resembles a college summer block party more than a professional bike race. 

For three days, field after field of amateur racers warm up the growing crowds in time for the sun to start setting and the pros to get to the line. Whether contesting the three-day omnium or an individual race, riders from 40 states and eight countries bring their A games to this weekend as the prize purses are among the largest in the country and the crowds and prestige larger still. 

Sunday evening is the biggest race of them all, featuring the infamous Cry Baby Hill.  After winding their way from downtown Tulsa through the river side neighborhood,  racers have to climb up 13th Street to return to the start. This is Cry Baby Hill or Party Hill, a 16-year tradition in its own right, where you'll be met by a deafening cacophony of roars and heavy metal music and the unmistakable odor of cheap beer mixed with body odor. Only the most focused of racer will manage to keep their eyes on the prize, but many come simply to enjoy the crowds and maybe take a beer hand-up or two. 

This year's Omnium was won by Skylar Schneider (L39ION of Los Angeles) ahead of Australian Peta Mullens (Roxsolt Liv SRAM) in second and Olivia Cummins (LUX-CTS p/b Specialized) in third. On the men's side, Luke Lamperti (TRINITY Racing) wearing the stars-and-stripes national champion jersey won the Omnium. Best Buddies duo Alfredo Rodriguez and Bryan Gomez rounded out the podium.

Part bike race, part city-wide party, the Tulsa Tough has become the embodiment of American criterium racing, and it's truly spectacle to behold. Professional cycling photographer Drew Coleman shares scenes from America's rowdiest criterium weekend. 

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

Canadian Criterium National Champion Maggie Coles-Lyster and United States Criterium National Champion Kendall Ryan lead the break in turn three of Day 1 of Tulsa Tough. Day one was marred by tight course design and huge fields which contributed to numerous crashes in both the men’s and women's field which, unfortunately, was a theme throughout the weekend.

Scenes from the 2022 Tulsa Tough

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

In a dominant performance by her and her team Legion of Los Angeles, Skyler Schneider swept all three of the women’s pro races over the weekend in a very rare show of dominance in three very different courses. She is always aware of those that come to race and always rewards them with an intimate parade lap.

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

On day two, a horrific crash on the 3rd lap in the women’s field led to some serious discussion amongst the men’s and women’s peloton regarding rider safety which nearly led to a full-on protest. For a handful of odd reasons, the rider pictured, Larissa Castelari, lay on the tarmac for 40 minutes as the race went on around her while fans tended and supported her. Ultimately she made it to the hospital where it was discovered that she had a broken back. 

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

Easily my favorite part of the city, the Arts District course winds its way through an interesting combination of traditional Tulsa brick and mortar architecture and a new modern sensibility that is appearing. Tulsa is being rebuilt year by year. Corner 4 in the figure 8 course just above the legendary Soundpony bar is one of my favorite places to shoot. 

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

Bike racing is hard. And at Tulsa Tough it is extraordinarily hard. 3 consecutive days of full-tilt racing and a three-day average heat of 97 degrees, this races its toll.  DNA Cycling rider Kimberly Lucie shows the strain after a very tough day driving the attack.

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

6 deep, Legion of LA men massed at the front and controlling the race. A typical view of a crit race in the U.S. Ty Manger won day one which continued their stranglehold on the event, but on day 2 and 3 the peloton attacked them relentlessly in the heat and, as strong and organized as they are,  they were not able to cover every move. 

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

On day 3, having absorbed all sorts of challenges, once the race is over - win or lose - the racers do their parade / beer lap where the crowd lovingly gives them beer hand-ups and douse them as the finish. Cry Baby Hill is one of the most unique places I have ever experienced.

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

As the riders climb and turn right into turn two they ride into a sea of humanity which used to be barrier free. Back then a group of Soundpony bar patrons decided to designate themselves as race referees and ever since they have policed Cry Baby Hill to great effect. This is the stretch of race course that defines Tulsa Tough. It is by far the largest party in North American cycling.

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

The right hand turn onto Cry Baby Hill. Thousands of fans crowd the fencing partying and cheering the riders along. They douse the racers with water and beer - even the pros - and while suffering up the climb, riders appreciate the vibe and spirit of this sector. The fans take particular affection for the dropped riders who reciprocate in their own way.

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

The women’s peloton grinds up and through Cry Baby Hill in 105 degree fahrenheit heat. Temps on the road were recorded as high as 145. The heat took its toll on everyone there. Including myself. Physically, it was the single most difficult day with the camera I have had in my career. 

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

Fan portrait. It’s an astonishing sight to wander through the crowd and most them - men and women - are half dressed. Some started that way, others wound up that way. The theme this year was “A Day at the Beach” and they all leaned into it.

(Image credit: Drew Coleman)

The heat was like nothing any of us had experienced. A CWA rider raced with ice socks draped over her neck (and down her back). It was that hot.

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