Connie Thompson of Coffeyville, Kan., relaxes after biking from the Texas border to Hugo in the warmup ride Saturday. FreeWheel officially begins Sunday.
FreeWheel cyclists begin 400-mile journey across Oklahoma
By SHANNON MUCHMORE World Staff Writer

HUGO -- With 400 miles of hilly eastern Oklahoma terrain ahead of them, bicyclists up to the challenge are gearing up for Oklahoma FreeWheel 2006.

About 900 riders are expected to participate in the event, which begins Sunday in Hugo and ends Saturday in Baxter Springs, Kan.

Don Pike, a volunteer who helped mark this year's route, said he is looking forward to the trek, although the hills might pose a challenge for the riders.

"It is scenic," he said. "We really go through some of the prettiest country in the state."

FreeWheel director Libby Stalter said the hills make the route challenging but not impossible.

"If people have trained to ride, they should be able to do it," she said.

Although the hills may be difficult, the heat will probably be the harshest obstacle of FreeWheel 2006, Stalter said.

"Hopefully, they've trained in the heat," she said.

Rest stops with water and shade are crucial to the riders being able to avoid dehydration or worse, Stalter said.

"We try to have some place where they can stop every eight to 10 miles," she said.

Temperatures for the first few days could top 100 degrees, Stalter said.


Sandy Hutchings, who has participated in FreeWheel for more than 15 years, has learned that the event is just as much about taking in the scenery as it is about riding a bike, she said.  

"I didn't know places existed like this," she said.

Riders will stop overnight in Atoka, Wilburton, Warner, Tahlequah, Pryor and Grove, with rides averaging about 60 miles a day. Most bikers camp out for the night, but some stay in local inns, churches or schools.

FreeWheel puts an emphasis on the socialization of bicycling enthusiasts and gives them a chance to get together and catch up, Hutchings said.

"It's a ride; it's not a race," she said.

Going through smaller towns offers an opportunity to meet people and see state parks and interesting museums, as well as taking in the local color, Hutchings said.

"The townspeople are absolutely in awe," she said. "They say 'What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Wow, that's interesting.' "

Bicycle riders cross a bridge Sunday during Day 1 of FreeWheel 2006, between Hugo and Atoka. FreeWheel is the annual bicycle ride across Oklahoma. Some families take part in the event as a way to spend time together.
Freewheel: Summer Vacation: Annual ride unites families
By SHANNON MUCHMORE World Staff Writer

ATOKA -- In the season of summer vacations, a few families are finding Oklahoma FreeWheel 2006 the perfect way to spend some time together away from distractions.

"It's such an absolute change from normal life," said Christine Hirrill of Tulsa. "You're not at work. You're not at home."

The annual bicycle ride across Oklahoma began Sunday as riders biked 53 miles from Hugo to Atoka.

About 900 bicyclists are expected to continue the ride Monday with a grueling 80-mile leg from Atoka to Wilburton.

Hirrill and her husband, John, have been riding in FreeWheel for several years and wanted to include their 14-month-old daughter, Claire.

Claire rides in a trailer towed by one of her parents' bicycles. It converts to a stroller for regular use. Her parents pulled her for part of Sunday's ride.

"We started training in spring to get her used to the trailer and get us used to pulling her," Christine Hirrill said. "It's a lot of work."

The family will continue to make FreeWheel a tradition, she said.

"We fully anticipate this will continue to be a family sport," she said.

Several cyclists include their families in the ride as a way to see loved ones who live out of state.


Robert Freeman of Guthrie and his wife, Gayla, brought their granddaughter Chloe along.

Chloe, 5, has been participating in FreeWheel since she was born. She rode around the Atoka campsite with her purple Disney bicycle, complete with training wheels and handlebar streamers, while her grandparents got the tent ready.

"Now she's getting to the point where she's starting to ride her bike," Robert Freeman said. "That makes it a little bit more special."

The ride gives them a chance to have a good time with Chloe, who lives in Texas, Freeman said.

"It helps get everybody together," he said.

Ellen Proctor, interim director of FreeWheel, said the ride is a popular vacation opportunity.

"They're visiting small-town Oklahoma and it's good, clean fun," she said. "The campsites are always well set up, and there's not boisterous crowds or anything like that.

"FreeWheel is a unique opportunity for parents to get their kids out of the house," Proctor said.

"It gives them time to be totally away from the television sets and videos and all that," she said.

Host towns usually have good opportunities for camping, swimming and other summer activities.

FreeWheel also is a relatively inexpensive vacation and can provide a time for families to bond, Proctor said.

"There's every kind of family out here," she said.

FreeWheel continues through Saturday, ending at Baxter Springs, Kan.

A FreeWheeler on a recumbent bicycle crosses the Sardis Dam outside Atoka on Monday, which was Day 2 of the annual cross-state trek.
MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Freewheel: Pain-Free Pedaling: Lean back, enjoy the ride
By SHANNON MUCHMORE World Staff Writer

Several FreeWheel participants are riding recumbent bicycles because they provide more comfort.

WILBURTON -- A long bicycle ride on hilly terrain can be uncomfortable for even the most experienced riders, but some Oklahoma FreeWheel 2006 participants are perched on a different, more ergonomically styled bike to try to relieve the pain.

Recumbent bikes have a larger seat that is low to the ground and have long handlebars.

Some have seats that slope back; others have straight backs, making them look similar to a motorcycle chopper.

"On an upright bike, you're sitting on a skinny seat and you're in a bent-over position," said Fred Green of Angleton, Texas. "On this, because you're laid back, you're in an aerodynamic position anyway. To me it's more comfortable being laid back instead of hunched over."

Green, riding in his 11th FreeWheel, was the third rider to reach the second stop of the trek, which continues Tuesday with a 57-mile trip to Warner and ends Saturday in Baxter Springs, Kan.

Monday's 81 miles to Wilburton was the longest leg of the ride, leaving many recumbent bicyclists appreciating the comfort of their bikes.

"If you do a long ride, like an 80-mile ride, on a regular upright

bike, your butt is hurting and your hands are hurting because of the pressure leaning on your handlebars, and your neck and shoulder are hurting," Green said.  

"You just don't hurt as bad after you finish a ride on these."

Green rode an upright for 20 years before he started having back problems. He switched to a recumbent about six years ago. It took him a little while to get the hang of riding the new bike after riding an upright for so long, he said.

"My wife got one, too, and she had never ridden an upright bike before because it was too uncomfortable for her," he said. "But she gets on and she takes off; no problem. She's taking off in a straight line.

"I got on it, and I was wobbling around all over the place," Green said. "The guy at the bike shop was yelling at me, 'Don't run into the Mercedes!' "

Beth Rooney of Tulsa bought a recumbent bike to alleviate her neck pain.

"I was having trouble with my neck because I work on computer," she said. "It was just aggravating it, and I needed to make a change."

She also had a little trouble learning the new style.

"It just takes a couple of miles to get used to it," she said. "I only fell twice."

Rod Whitlatch of Tulsa said most recumbent riders are older people who enjoy riding but feel pain on long rides.

Recumbent bikes also are more expensive -- about twice as much as a comparable upright.

Whitlatch has ridden his recumbent for about three years.

It has a wide seat and straight back, so it works well for tours such as FreeWheel because it makes it easier for him to enjoy the scenery.

"It's like you're sitting in a lawn chair going down the road," he said. "It's the most wonderful experience."

Alex Battles-Wood, 14, of Tulsa grabs a towel before heading to the showers at Connors State College in Warner after the third day of Oklahoma Freewheel 2006. Many youngsters enjoy taking part in the annual cross-state bicycle ride.
MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Freewheel 2006: Young Riders: How I spent summer vacation
By SHANNON MUCHMORE World Staff Writer

WARNER -- Riding a bicycle about 60 miles a day for a week might not sound like what a child would call an ideal summer vacation.

But for the young riders at Oklahoma FreeWheel 2006, few things are better.

"There's a lot more than just bicycling," said Sam Eller, 11, of Kansas City, Mo. "There's all kinds of stuff. There's a lot of bicycling, but once you finish, you've got all this time to just hang out with people and meet friends and stuff. And there's lots of really good, cheap food."

Sam rode about half of Tuesday's 57-mile ride from Wilburton to Warner and will ride part of the 62 miles to Tahlequah on Wednesday. FreeWheel ends Saturday in Baxter Spring, Kan.

Sam, his brother and his father, Jim Eller, spent Monday night enjoying Wilburton by swimming and going to a movie. The ride is a good vacation for children because of the values it teaches, Jim Eller said.

"They learn adventure and perseverance," he said.

Although Sam enjoys the riding most, he also likes spending time with fellow cyclists.

"The people who ride, you can hang with them; you can relate pretty good," he said. "There's a lot of just hanging out. You have lots in common with people."

Braiden Beuke,

9, and his father, Bob Beuke, are riding a tandem cycle in FreeWheel this year.  

Braiden, of Hugo, is participating for the first time. He enjoys riding, camping out and meeting people.

His friends think he's a little bit crazy for doing the ride, though.

"They say, 'What the heck are you doing, boy?' " he said.

Alex Battles-Wood, 14, of Tulsa has been on FreeWheel for rr three years and rides all the time at home. He thinks of FreeWheel as a vacation.

"You talk to friends and just get away from your work and stuff," he said. "It's a lot of fun."

All FreeWheelers have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is particularly strong in younger riders, said Ellen Proctor, the ride's interim director.

"It's a really big ego booster for some kids to be able to say, when they get back in school, (and are asked) what did you do on summer vacation, 'I rode my bicycle from Texas to Kansas,' " she said. "It's a tremendous self-esteem booster for kids."

Children also have a chance to learn Oklahoma geography and see small towns and unique museums, she said.

David Malone looks down at Barren Fork Creek, also known as Baron Fork Creek, during the fourth day of Oklahoma FreeWheel 2006. Several riders took a break during Wednesday's 62-mile ride from Warner to Tahlequah to cool off in the water.
MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Cool river entices FreeWheel cyclists
By SARA GANUS World Staff Writer

Riders stop to swim, splash and sunbathe in Barren Fork Creek.

TAHLEQUAH -- Under a bridge about 10 miles away from the FreeWheel campsite, Brenda Rollins basked under the sun Wednesday as she floated along the river shore, clad in her cycling suit.

"It feels like steam should be coming off my body," she said.

Rollins, a 19-year FreeWheel participant and retired school teacher from Tulsa, decided she wasn't going to make the same mistake this year that she did last time she was in Tahlequah.

"I came through here about eight years ago. I didn't stop, and I regretted it," she said. "This year, I thought, 'I'm doin' it.' "

Wednesday was the the fourth day of the 28th annual Oklahoma FreeWheel cross-state bicycle ride.

About a mile before the day's final rest stop in Welling, groups of families, friends and acquaintances took a detour in the afternoon to swim, splash and sunbathe in Barren Fork Creek, also known as Baron Fork Creek.

"It's just a little slice of heaven," said Jan Self, 55, of Rockwall, Texas, as she admired the small fish swimming around her. "Oh, look at the school!"

Self added that the cold water was one way to soothe a certain sore spot.


the best for what ails your tush," she said.  

Cyclists waded in the shallow water to cool down from the 62-mile trek from Warner to Tahlequah, what some consider the hardest day because of its hilly terrain.

Tom Brown, owner of Tom's Bicycles in Tulsa, is one of three mechanics who works on the road during FreeWheel. He has participated in the race every year but three, either helping other cyclists with maintenance or riding himself.

"If we go up this route, it's tradition that we come up here and take a dip," he said. "We like to think it was put here just for us."

Brown said this year's route has been near a place to swim every day, but that isn't always the case.

"We've been very lucky this year," he said.

Scott Freeman, 50, of Midwest City, said he had seen other places to stop for a dip but this river was his first time in the water.

"I actually don't think I got any wetter when I sat down, just different stuff," he said.

Many said they did a U-turn on the bridge after seeing friends taking a dip below.

"The advertising is perfect," said Mike Munn, 36, of Seattle. "Everybody sees it as they go by."

Munn, a first-time FreeWheeler, said he and his friends had planned to stop at the river before making the final trek to the campsite.

"It kind of seems like a waste to just try to get to the next stop when there might not be anything else to do there," he said.

Eric Taron of Stillwater echoed those sentiments.

"Once you get to the camp, all you do is think: Damn, I should have stopped at that bridge," he said.

A few Tahlequah locals also stopped by the river to chat with FreeWheel participants.

"We thought they would be here," said Don Bowman, 67. "This is a very popular swimming hole for Tahlequah and the little towns down here."

Jennifer Blades, 23, a recent University of Oklahoma graduate, spent her time at the river sunbathing along the shoreline. For her, the river was a spot where she could rest and take in what she has experienced during her first FreeWheel.

"You can go across the world and see things, or you can just go to your backyard and take the back roads," she said.

FreeWheel ends Saturday in Baxter Springs, Kan.

Hubert Polluk stands with his bicycle in Pryor on Thursday after completing the fifth day of FreeWheel. The 80-year-old is taking part in his 21st FreeWheel.
MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Freewheel: Veteran On Tour: At 80, longtime FreeWheeler keeps cycle going
By SARA GANUS World Staff Writer

PRYOR -- Asked how he would spend the rest of his day, 80-year-old Hubert Polluk had a simple answer.

"Relax, drink beer and eat pretzels -- like everyone else," he said jokingly.

Polluk -- known to most FreeWheelers as "Hubie" -- had just finished the fifth day of the Oklahoma FreeWheel for the 21st time. He is one of many FreeWheel veterans who return to the tour year after year.

Wearing a long-sleeved, green-and-white checked button-down shirt, khaki shorts, sandals and, under his helmet, a faded cap, Polluk is one of the most recognizable participants on FreeWheel.

"I don't like the advertising," he said about cycling suits that include logos. "Even if they paid me, I wouldn't advertise. I advertise myself.

"People notice me; they don't notice that."

But his attire is not the only reason people notice Polluk.

"Why do they know me? That's very simple: Because I'm different," he said.

Polluk was raised in Silesia, a small village in Poland, where he grew up with no electricity or running water.

"The horse, wagon and cow were stable pillars of society," he said.

As a child, Polluk rode a bike

to and from school, so bicycling is nothing new to him.  

"As a kid, I always bicycled, unless there was a horse and buggy," he said.

Polluk moved to Tulsa in 1951 after he was a prisoner of war during World War II. Seven years later, he became an American citizen.

"I escaped, and I'm still on the run, except this time I'm on a bicycle," he said.

After working several jobs, including picking up pins at a bowling alley for 2 or 3 cents each, working as a sweeper in a machine shop and building sleds, Polluk eventually became a physical technician after attending night classes at the University of Tulsa.

He has five children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and he still rides his bike most days.

With a love of storytelling, Polluk never hesitates to find a new listener, a quality that makes him a favorite among many FreeWheelers.

"You can pull up beside him, and he'll start telling stories," said Chuck Haley of Springdale, Ark. "He'll just talk your leg off."

Although some FreeWheel alumni stop participating in the 400-mile trek across Oklahoma in their 70s and 80s, Polluk said he still looks forward to the journey every year.

"It's a sense of accomplishment," he said. "I get to meet some of the old friends and then miss the ones who've fallen out. It's almost a separate entity or community of its own."

His daughter-in-law, Sharon Polluk, said he would not miss FreeWheel for anything.

"He won't go anywhere or schedule a vacation or anything," she said.

Polluk said his good health and early morning regimen keep him going. "I don't prepare at all," he said proudly.

Polluk added that he has been to the doctor only one time since World War II and does not take any medicine. He begins every day with his own set of calisthenics, including pull-ups and push-ups.

"My son can't even do them," he said.

"No, I can't, but I can sure get to camp before you," said Steve Polluk, his 49-year-old son, who also lives in Tulsa.

Over the years, Hubert Polluk said some things have changed for him during FreeWheel.

"Surprisingly, I did the same route three or four times, and I never had to walk, but now I have to sometimes," he said. "The hills have gotten steeper."

After 21 years, Polluk said he does not plan to miss a FreeWheel and that he is ready for the last two days of this year's ride, which will end Saturday in Baxter Springs, Kan.

"I'll do it till I break a leg," he said.

Bob and Kim Restor of Sand Springs met during FreeWheel 1997 and held their wedding ceremony on a stop along the bicycle tour across Oklahoma in 2003.
MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Riders find marital milestones at FreeWheel
By SARA GANUS World Staff Writer

GROVE -- Ask anyone on FreeWheel. Almost everyone will describe the 400-mile bicycle tour across Oklahoma as an annual "family reunion."

But for some biking enthusiasts, such as Tulsans Tom Jolly and Alexis LeMieux, FreeWheel is actually where families begin.

After biking 60 miles from Tahlequah to Pryor, Jolly, 26, proposed to LeMieux, his girlfriend of six years, Thursday -- her 24th birthday.

"I'm still in shock," LeMieux said Friday, after biking 60 more miles from Pryor to Grove. "It doesn't feel like it's real yet, but it's definitely a story you can tell people."

In its 28th year, Oklahoma FreeWheel is the subject of many relationship stories for a handful of couples, many of whom return to the event each year.

Even before her proposal, LeMieux was familiar with relationship milestones on the road. Seventeen years earlier, her father, Mark LeMieux, met his wife during a FreeWheel tour.

A carpenter and former bicycle shop owner, Mark LeMieux has worked as a FreeWheel mechanic for 20 years. During one of his service calls on the road, he picked up his future bride.

"We spent a wonderful day together and a few years later, we made it

permanent," he said.  

Mark LeMieux doesn't like to say it's ironic that he met his wife and that his daughter got engaged at the same event, but he admits FreeWheel is very special to him and his family.

"I think it's so neat -- not necessarily ironic, but not terribly unusual either," he said. "You never know what's going to blossom."

For another couple, meeting at FreeWheel was only the beginning. Six years later, they had their wedding ceremony during the same event.

Bob and Kim Restor of Sand Springs met in Chandler during FreeWheel 1997 and were married in Hominy during FreeWheel 2003.

"I say I met him on a bike, and I married him on a bike," said Kim Restor, 49.

Both Bob, 60, and Kim Restor had participated in FreeWheel before but never met until 1997, when they joined a mutual friend on the tour.

"Actually, I had seen her two or three years before," Bob Restor said. "I thought she was pretty cute, but I never talked to her."

Even the preacher who married them was an avid FreeWheeler.

"We have people we don't even know come up to us who say, 'Hey, we were at your wedding,' " Bob Restor said.

Kim Restor said that because they had so many friends and connections from the annual event, a FreeWheel wedding was only appropriate.

"We thought it would be easy for everybody to be there," she said.

Both Bob and Kim Restor said most couples who met on FreeWheel probably connect for the same reason they did: a common interest, namely biking.

Sylvia Brown, 39, of Tulsa said that's one of the reasons she and her husband, Tom Brown, hit it off.

"(Biking) is such a big part of you; it's just your passion," she said. "Then you find someone else who's passionate about it and fall in love with them."

FreeWheel ends Saturday in Baxter Springs, Kan.

Jim Sturges takes a picture of riders T.J. Johnson (second from left), Keith Clark, Kevin Clark and Caleb Clark beside the Welcome to Kansas sign on the final day of the FreeWheel 2006 ride Saturday. Johnson is from Tulsa and the others are from Bartlesville.
Freewheel: Auld Lang Syne: Cycling teens' friendship stays the 400-mile course
By SARA GANUS World Staff Writer

BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. -- On Saturday beneath a gray, cloudy sky, six teenage boys in cycling suits stood together recounting their past seven days.

"Oh, and when we rode all day in superhero costumes?" said Chris Schroeder, 18, from Bixby.

Caleb Clark, 16, laughed.

"Oh yeah, that was awesome!" the Bartlesville teen said, remembering the day he wore a Batman suit intended for a 7-year-old.

"They were tighter than these bike shorts, if you can believe it," Schroeder later said about his Superman suit.

The group of bicycling teens -- who refer to themselves as "Team Murder" -- had just completed the final leg of the 28th Oklahoma FreeWheel with about 800 other cyclists. They are just one example of those who leave the weeklong bike tour each year with new friends and unforgettable memories.

Saturday's route -- 43 miles from Grove to Baxter Springs -- was the shortest leg of the 400-mile tour.

Light rain early Saturday caused some flat tires and heavier braking for many cyclists, but most continued to their final destination.

"I counted 16 flats," Clark said. That number included his own.

Ranging in age from 16 to 18, the boys came up with the name "Team Murder"

during an Ultimate Frisbee match at one of the FreeWheel campsites. Throughout the week, they spent almost every day riding and camping together.  

"Whoever got in first would find a place for us to set up," Clark said. "If there wasn't room, we made room."

Not surprisingly, the group said it also spent a lot of time pulling practical jokes and pranks along the way.

The word "pranks" alone makes them chuckle.

"We streaked at the campsite last night," one of them said of their Grove stay.

T.J. Johnson, 16, of Tulsa added: "I was not a part of this."

Later, Schroeder and Tim Welch, 17, from Bartlesville went skinny-dipping in the lake.

Other antics included a cap gun that they bought at a Dollar General to shoot at some of the other FreeWheelers on the road.

"We spent a lot of time at Dollar General," Clark said.

After spending seven days together, all of the team's members will return to the Tulsa area, except for Oliver Haley, 16, who came with his parents from Springdale, Ark. Although most FreeWheelers say they see one another only once a year, Haley said he doesn't plan to lose touch with the rest of the group.

"I'll definitely keep in touch with them," he said.

At that, they reminded one another they still hadn't exchanged e-mail addresses.

Asked whether Team Murder would return next year to ride in FreeWheel 2007, they didn't hesitate.

"Oh yeah," they said, in perfect unison.