One week, 421.6 miles and 13,735 feet of total ascent later, I finished the 30th Annual Oklahoma FreeWheel Bicycle Tour with 900 of my new best friends.  We started on June 8 in Marietta, OK and finished today in Caldwell, KS.  The tour showed off some of the most scenic parts of the state.  I was prepared for seeing some great sights, but I wasn’t prepared for the impact of the FreeWheel experience. 

When we moved to Oklahoma in 1979, FreeWheel was in its second year.  I really wanted to ride the Century day and I trained for it, but then I chickened out.  And then “life happens,” kids, jobs and family responsibilities don’t allow for a person to take a week out of their life to ride a bike across Oklahoma.

But this was THE year.  And when I sent in the registration in April, I was both excited and scared…but I was committed. 

The Katy Trail ride two weeks prior helped me prepare for the time in the saddle, so my butt had developed some great calouses.  But FreeWheel is different.  I’ve was told by veterans of the ride that there are times during the ride I’d definitely want to quit.  And that was true!  So before the ride I wondered what would keep me going.   What’s the fun in misery?  Why would someone ride hours in the pouring rain, drenched, shivering and wrinkled like a prune?  And the next day, get up and do it again only to be faced with hills that make a cyclists legs ache just to look at them, not to mention the 30mph crosswind that threatens to blow cyclists totally off the road.

Admittedly, not giving in to the the physical tests presented by cycling does have something to do with possessing a stubborn streak.  Most cyclists have it.  Tell them they can’t ride in the pouring rain for four hours, and by golly, they’re going to show you it can be done.  However, there’s more to it than that.  Cycling is a “brotherhood.”  On the days I rode “alone,” I always had the support of those around me, and I supported them.  Cycling doesn’t discriminate based on gender, age, economic status or ability or physical appearance.  Sure, some folks have really fancy bikes, and some cycle faster than others, and girls and guys do fill out the spandex differently,  But at the end of the day’s ride, we all get there just the same.  Most of us sleep in a tent or on an air mattress in “indoor camping.”  We all eat in the same places, shower in the same place, and as the sun sets, and we are all pleasantly exhausted from the day, we enjoy the same evening sky.  We swap stories of the day’s ride and speculate on the next day.  We share sunscreen, bike tools, band-aids, energy bars, Advil and laughter.  We come from all walks of life, but during FreeWheel week, what we do in our non-cycling life doesn’t matter.  We introduce ourselves only by our first names and our towns.  That’s all that matters.  And that information alone is enough to create a friendship.  Despite the hard days, everyone smiles at each other.  Everyone trusts each other to help each other out. 

FreeWheel bonds total strangers together and reunites those who have done it year after year in a way that is totally unexplanable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.  One rider described it as a “giant mobile annual family reunion, with bikes, only you pick your family.”  That’s pretty accurate. 

On day one, I knew three people who would be doing FreeWheel.   David, from Chouteau that I met at Flower Power in Muskogee in April and Randy and Sherrie that I shared a porch with during a bad storm during Tulsa Tough.  But on day one, I met Greg from Norman, Ernie and Glenn, Barbara from Wichita.  And the list grew from there.  Monday’s 5-inch rain deluge introduced me to Darryl from Houston, Keith from Edmond and Michelle from Muskogee because we shared a small corner of the Seminole Municipal Building that night.  When you sleep in very close quarters, you can’t help but become good friends.  I forgive Darryl because he snores.

I enjoyed meeting Mary Ellen and Bill from Tulsa.  We shared dinner in Perry.  And Ken from Burkburnett, TX  helped me pitch my tent in a 25mph wind in Drumright.  I enjoyed the afternoon in Henryetta talking to Tracy from Springfield, MO.  Jerry needed my help when he slipped his chain.  We were great pals from Henryetta on.  I gave him an extra tent stake and we went tent shopping, and he gave me a jersey that is too small for him.  We shared a beer in the shade.   And Bob from Tulsa helped me realize I can cycle a whole lot harder than I thought.  He inspired me to dig a little deeper and press a little harder.  And he pulled me into Tonkawa in a heck of a headwind.  Brian from Goodland, KS told us some great stories about his experience with lightning and other cross state rides and Ron was a great concert buddy. 

As we all said goodby today, we promised we’d see each other next year.  I can’t imagine not going back, despite the wind and rain and hills.   What I thought was a bike ride that I could cross off my “bucket list” of things to do and then move on was so much more.   Hopefully I can keep that FreeWheel spirit with me until next year where I’ll see all my bicycling family again.  And hopefully, I can persuade others to become a first-timer like I was this year. 

Michelle and Keith joined me at the Finish Line in Caldwell, KS