The 31st year of Oklahoma FreeWheel is history.  And with only one day of rest, most of us are ready to plan for next year. 

This was my second FreeWheel.   I’m far from the veteran for sure, but I felt I had a better handle on things this year and knew what to expect.   I couldn’t have been more wrong in that assumption.  I knew what to pack, and how to train, but this year’s route in Western Oklahoma was amazing.  I found out that this part of the state is spacious, but sparse, beautiful yet harsh, and undeniably wonderful.  And the winds really do come sweeping off the plains! 

FreeWheel ’09 started in southwestern Oklahoma in Duncan and progressed some 420ish miles to Kiowa, KS.  Our overnight stops included Apache, Cordell, Cheyenne, Thomas, Fairview and Alva (small towns with big hearts). 

This post is lengthy, so read what you like and skip what you don’t like.  But hopefully it will encourage you to take on this adventure or others like it.  There’s nothing like your bicycle and Oklahoma terrain and weather to teach you what you are made of, not to mention the 850 new friends who help you make memories.

FreeWheelers arrived Friday and Saturday in Duncan to prepare for blast off on Sunday.  Many rode to the Red River on Saturday to dip their tires in the river for good luck or just to say they rode from stateline to stateline.  Others decided to rest and prepare for the miles ahead.  Saturday is always a “reunion” day….a time to renew acquaintances from previous years and to make new ones.   We found that we had a mate from Australia joining us, a German rider and others representing many states outside of Oklahoma.  What we were not expecting was the severe winds overnight.  Several campers gave up their tents to Mother Nature.  Some of us just tried to hold up our shelter the best way we could and hope for the best.  I had all my bags, my hands and feet trying to help support the tent poles while the wind howled.  Fortunately, we didn’t have much rain, and most of us managed a few hours of sleep.

Sunday, June 7 (Day 1) started with Lt. Gov. Jeri Askins sending us off from her home town at 6:30 a.m.  The first day of riding was terrific.  A zig zag of west and north roads with a great south tailwind made for some very quick riding.  Lunch in the ball park in Sterling yielded delicious homemade brownies. 

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My friend Jerry from Tulsa stopped to adjust his headgear in Cyril (pronouced like “surreal”) and then we cruised on in to Apache before noon.  Apache is a quiet place, but we were treated to snake stories from Apache’s local snake hunters.  When they removed those rattlesnakes from the containers, most of the crowded backed up a few feet.  Day 1 with 54 miles was over.

Most folks think that western Oklahoma is flat if they have never been there.  The maps show straight lines for roads.  I can only say I’d been warned, but I really wasn’t prepared for the next three days of riding with hill after hill.  The wind was less than cooperative, and several days we had severe headwinds that really become demoralizing.  However, bike riders are some of the most stubborn people I know.   Most of us have to be near heat exhaustion to stop. 

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Karen and I were twinkies on Day 2.  And we ended up with the same tan lines as well

Day 2 took us from Apache through Ft. Cobb to Carnegie with lunch at the school in Mountain View.  True to its name you can see Quartz Mountain from Mt. View.  On down the road we pedaled to Gotebo (charming name) and then a turn north to Cloud Chief and west to Cordell, a town with a terrific park, great pool and excellent Mexican restaurant.  I was told that the mayor was elected by aclaimation as no one would run.  He also plays the guitar and entertained with retro 70s rock that evening.

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Ironically, we camped in a park that does not allow bicycles!  Derrick slept under the no bike sign.  I logged 70.4 miles that day.

Day 3 had heat, entertainment, hills and wind gusts from hell.  Most of us agreed that this was the hardest day.  From Cordell we headed west for Burns Flat, then Canute and on to Elk City for lunch.  We first stopped at a cute coffee shop, then the Elk City Cafe that opened at 11, and then we toured the National Route 66 Museum.  Our side venture to Elk City was great, but it was probably my downfall.  The longer the day, the hotter and more windy the afternoon. 

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 I rode with the Texas boys  (Michael in red and Craig in his Bert and Ernie jersey).  We mugged on a hill with Oklahoma’s newest windfarm in the background.  By the end of the day Michael and I agreed that everyone hated Craig because of his strong riding skills.  I know both of us did.  Michael and Craig encouraged curse words when we had a really long hill or a particularly bad gust of wind.  I’m not sure but I think I exhausted my list except for one which I just can bring myself to say even under the worst of circumstances.  Michael’s thermometer read 102 and the wind gusts were in excess of 35 mph.  A jolly day for a bike ride.  Needless to say Cheyenne was a welcome sight and a great community.  The park is very nice, the Methodist Church put on an excellent dinner, two FreeWheelers got married in the small chapel in the park (they rode away on a tandem), and we toured the National Park Services Washita Battlefield where Custer unmercifully killed Black Kettle’s people.  The story is sad, but as our small group marveled at the sunset over the hallowed ground, we were all moved by the majesty of the place.  Our 65 mile day was done.  Six of us were picked up by the president of the Chamber of Commerce in a stretch limo.  What shuttle service!

Day 4 started out retracing our path from the end of Day 3 which meant the killer hills; however, the wind was sort of behind us and we cruised the hills like we owned them.  It was FUN but very hilly once again.  As I was piloting solo for the first half of the day I decided to count the hills (The definition of a hill is:  the average rider, me, has to shift at least five gears in my nine gear cassette, or down one chainring).  I counted 68 hills before getting to our destination of  Thomas some 65 miles north and east.  Can we say “cardio work out?” 

As the morning progressed, the skies behind us grew darker.  About 20 miles from Thomas, I knew I’d better find some fuel to pedal faster. 

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Here’s the view from the rest stop when I decided to get after it.  Great hills! 

I managed to hook up with two very strong riders, Bill and Melanie from Broken Arrow,  I had ridden with them earlier in the week and for the next 20 or so miles, we rode a fairly quick paceline.  We got to Thomas about 10 minutes before the skies opened.

I don’t camp in the rain.  I don’t like wrinkling like a prune. 

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So I slept with all this fine people in the home of the Thomas Terrier’s basketball team.   I know….some people won’t understand this, but it’s actually kind of fun.  Lindsey from Stillwater and I had a great time.  She lent me some of her New Yorkers to read and many of us napped while the rain lulled us to sleep. 

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Then Tracy from Springfield, Mo, Amie from Lebanon, Mo, and Jerry from Tulsa and I rehashed our adventures in the bleachers.  Amie and I ate dinner at Big T, one of two eating establishments where I had the best hamburger a carnivore could ask for…with the local speciality, Terrier Chips (homemade potato chips).   So much for that healthy training table.

Day 5 took us from Thomas to Fairview, a short day of 53 miles.  The morning was very foggy and I couldn’t resist stopping on the South Canadian River bridge for a photo.  No wind, beautiful morning.  I was in cycling heaven. 

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Our lunch stop (which usually happens anytime from 8 a.m. on) was in Canton.  The First Christian Church served a hoagie sub sandwich with salad, and homemade desserts.  Hooray for the blond brownies and church ladies who can cook.   Canton Lake was next, a beautiful ride through the state park and then on to the stop in the road of Longdale.  Fairview was a short pedal and a terrific coasting hill ahead.  It lives up to its name.  Probably a place I could live for sure.  Terrific people, a great place to eat called the Tin Lion downtown…a great winery, Plymouth Valley, where several of us enjoyed the afternoon and several bottles of Dennis Flaming’s finest.    The evening brought Speed Wheel which is a criterium race held on Thursday during FreeWheel.  We all cheered for our own riders, especially Alex from Stillwater who raced a 30 minute race at speeds around 23 mph after riding 53 miles!  Sleep came easy after an busy day.

Day 6 forecast included some rain, so many of us tried to get an earlier start to get as far as we could on this 70 mile day.   The sky was turning blacker by the minute when I reached Ringwood in a stiff headwind about 16 miles into the day at around 7:45 a.m.  Thunder, lightning, and bluish black clouds tinged in that sick green which indicate hail made me seek shelter along with about 150 other people at a small “Mom and Pop” c-store.  I’d say that “Mom and Pop” made more money in the hour and a half that we were smashed like sardines in the store than they make during a whole week.   In hindsight we were probably a mixed blessing!

Many riders sought shelter in barns (with and without livestock) and prevailed on the kindness of homeowners with carports.  But structures are few and far between in western Oklahoma which left many to try to ride in the torrents.   One rider learned the hazards of riding in such weather when he had a close encounter with a semi.   Fortunately, he ended up in the grass with some scraps and contusions.  A trip to the Alva Medical Center, ice packs and painkillers were the course for the rest of his FreeWheel experience. 

We all bemoan the inconsiderate nature of some drivers who crowd bicylists.  And in light of the recent deaths of the cyclists in Sand Springs, we were all concerned.  However, it’s important to remember that in a driving rainstorm, a bicyclist is the last thing any motorist expects to see on a shoulderless road.  Sometimes it’s just better to find a place to get off the road until conditions improve.  Better to be safe and live to ride another day.  He’s an extremely lucky person.

The pavement dried and we passed through Helena and McWillie where I hooked back up with my Broken Arrow paceline of Bill and Mark which was great because the wind began to pick up and the paceline was very helpful.  By the time we got to Carmen, our lunch stop, the sun was peeking out.  

On our way out of town we passed a striking red brick building.  A barely discernable sign had what looked like the word “Home.”  I theorized it might have been an orphanage remembering Pryor’s history and the Whitaker Home.  Sure enough, a web search yielded the answer.  It was an orphanage built around the time of statehood by the I.O.O.F.  It was last occupied as a nursing home but has been closed for many years.  The building appeared to be in relatively good repair from the outside.   One website I visited indicated many believe it is haunted. 

The closer we got to Alva, the longer our paceline grew.  It’s really fun to ride a paceline and see just how fast a group can go.  Our camping facilities were in a sports complex and fairgrounds.  The heat of the day turned our treeless camping area into a sauna, so after a visit to our shower truck, many of us soaked up the coolness of the concrete floor in an adjacent building until time for the closing dinner.    A cyclist can burn between 3000 to 4000 calories in a 60-70 mile ride.  So we put the Northwestern Oklahoma State University catering service to the test.  We were the largest group they had ever served, and probably the hungriest!

FreeWheel Friday is always an evening to gather, spread the thank yous liberally to all who make the ride possible, and enjoy the company of old and new friends before departing for the final destination.  Entertainment, prizes and a fair share of the week’s war stories are the order of the evening.  That night I fell asleep listening to “mom” read a bedtime story to her children in the tent next to mine.  What a great way to end the week.  This year many families and many more kids than normal rode FreeWheel.  We were all encouraged by their tenacity and the strength of their young legs.   Our sport appears to be growing and certainly in the right direction.

Day 7 turned into “grit your teeth and ride into the wind” day.  No one would have expected a north headwind in western Oklahoma in June, but as we pushed toward Kansas, we were forced to climb more hills and use all those gears we bought.  I was very glad I had them.

We all thanked Dennis (many call him Saint Dennis because he sets up his own reststop every day and says he will until he’s in a wheelchair!) one last time.  The town of Hardtner welcomed us.  FreeWheel organizers were contacted by this tiny crossroad as they wanted to be a part of the event. 

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And of course, most stop at the state line as we pass into Kansas to snap photos of the Welcome to Kansas sign and celebrate a week of fun. 

Arriving at FreeWheel’s final destination is sheer relief and bittersweet.  It’s comparable to that excited yet empty feeling after Christmas is over.   But the folks in Kiowa were cheering us as we came into town, and they offered up very tasty food in their spacious park.   Seeking out the week’s riding partners, the cyclists touch base one last time, sometimes exchanging emails, theorizing about the location and route of next year’s ride and promising to sign up again for this incredible adventure.   

It is the excitement of exploring our state, the small town hospitality, and the open hearts of Oklahomans that make FreeWheel such a wonderful experience.   And although there are some tough days, we confirm what we know each June.  Bicyclists are the best family on earth.  And families just love reunions.

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