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Feeling Free


Freewheeling in Oklahoma By Charles Sasser


Left: A rider pauses for a look at a resting buffalo in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Right: Jennifer Wurl enjoys her fi fth FreeWheel run across Oklahoma. Photos by Charles Sasser.


S


pring has sprung and summertime is quickly approaching. The warmer seasons bring the feeling of freedom to many outdoors fans, including bicyclists, who are much more visible throughout the Sooner State when the sun is shining brighter. The Oklahoma FreeWheel—an annual, weeklong bicycle tour through rural Oklahoma—has attracted thousands of riders from across the nation since 1978. Last year, more than 800 bicyclists meandered approximately 490 route miles north from the Red River near Frederick, Okla. to South Haven, Kan. In 2012, the Oklahoma FreeWheel ride passed through seven separate rural electric co- operative districts including: Southwest Rural Electric Association, Caddo Electric Cooperative, Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, Central Rural Electric Cooperative, Kay Electric Cooperative and Cimarron Electric Cooperative, making it a premier event. As is typical of Oklahomans, lo- cal co-op members extended Oklahoma hospitality with everything from parades and entertainment to meals and campsites.


“Through bicycling,” said Joy Hancock, director of Oklahoma FreeWheel, “we build relationships with Oklahoma’s unique peoples, cultures, communi- ties, and landscapes.” Participants range broadly in age and ability, from professional bicycle racers to four-year-old Winfi eld Fleming, whose father Tanner, from Tulsa, pulled him across the state in a little bike trailer. They come from every walk of life— doctors, lawyers, laborers, students. Wearing Spandex and helmets, they re- semble brightly colored lemmings trailing the byways of rural Oklahoma. “It’s not a race,” FreeWheel director stressed. “People take time to explore, shoot pictures, and enjoy the scenery.”


Jennifer Wurl from Houston, with her bicycle “Dolly,” participated in her


fi fth FreeWheel, bringing along a sense of humor that left giant butterfl ies chalked in bright colors on the pavement and carefully arranged roadkill ar- madillos and opossums drinking from discarded beer bottles. “When I turn 80 and look back,” Jennifer, 49, mused “it’s these kinds of memories that will keep me going.”


FreeWheel changes routes each year. From Frederick, the 2012 route passed north to Kansas through Elgin, Anadarko, Watonga, Guthrie, Drumright, and Ponca City. In 2013, FreeWheel tackles the mountains of Green Country. The ride is primarily a camping tour. Bicyclists bring their own shelters. Each evening, squatter camps spring up like mushrooms on courthouse lawns, high school football fi elds or in city parks. Those who choose not to “tent out” stay in motels or rent space in accommodating churches and public buildings. For a fee, “Shuttlebug” Tym Allison provides tents and sleeping bags and has camp all set up for tired bicyclist clients at the end of the day. A rider’s entry fee for the week is less than $300, slightly more if the rider chooses to take chartered buses to and from starting and ending points rather than drive. The fee includes campgrounds, shower trucks and bathroom facili- ties, roving maintenance people, trucks to haul luggage and camp gear between


14 WWW.OK-LIVING.COOP


“When I turn 80 and look back, it’s these kinds of memories that will keep me going.” - Jennifer Wurl, Oklahoma FreeWheel participant


campsites, route maps, refreshments, entertainment such as talent shows, and a “FreeWheeler” t-shirt. Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers escort the procession.


Cost of meals is not included in the registration. Civic, school and church groups offer meals as fundraisers. Colorful signs point the way to rural fi re stations, country schools or neighborhood churches where volunteers sell sandwiches, soup, chili and other homemade fare, and give away smiles. At a farmhouse near Apache, Elfriede Sanford waited by her mailbox to hand out iced lemonade to passing riders. Originally from Germany, she mar- ried an American soldier after World War II and migrated to Oklahoma with him. He recently passed away.


“We were Oklahoma farmers all these years,” she said. Brightly-colored pavilions manned by FreeWheel volunteers mark the sites of free fruit and drink rest stops. Jessi McDonald, a Cimarron Electric Cooperative member, has volunteered for the past fi ve years, since she was in high school. One morning, she and highschooler Eric Tower, also from the Enid area, quickly doled out coffee and hot chocolate to soaked riders strag- gling in through pouring rain.


“We’re here, rain or shine,” McDonald said.


Most riders pull camp stakes, have breakfast, and head out by dawn each day to beat the heat, stringing out individually and in groups for miles across the countryside. While Oklahoma is not the Rocky Mountains, it is not all fl at either. The route can be challenging at times—a mixture of plains punctuated by wooded hills, with sights as varied as buffalo in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge to farms and ranches and crossroads communities. Rider Lynn Carbo from Louisiana pulled up alongside another bicyclist who had been lured drowsy by the sun and a long, fl at straightaway. “Wake up!” she shouted with a laugh, startling the dozing rider.


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