Toward the end of his first day on a 436-mile bicycling tour across the state, Blake Raley had to drop out.
But that was the last - and only - time.
Raley, of Oologah, Okla. was one of about 900 bicyclists who stopped over in Miami for the night as part of the last leg of the Oklahoma Free Wheel 2010 event. The statewide bicycling tour began last weekend in Hugo, Okla. and finished Saturday in Joplin. The bicyclists, hot and tired but otherwise appearing in good condition, camped overnight at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College before getting up early Saturday morning to finish the last part of the journey.
Raley joined the tour on Monday in Clayton, Okla. but didn't train beforehand. As a result, he had “massive cramps” and had to be transported in a vehicle for the last 23 miles to the next stop in Heavener, Okla.
Though able to finish the ride each day afterward, he ran into his share of challenges, including no less than five flat tires. Like many of his fellow bicyclists, Raley said the toughest leg of the journey was pedaling up and down the hills between Muldrow and Tahlequah. He only had to get off his bike to walk up-hill once.
Staying hydrated with plenty of water has been key, Raley said. He carried two water bottles, which he filled up at the water stops every 10-20 miles.
Camping at the end of the day with the small army of bicyclists, including the 16 other members from his church, has been one of the highlights of the trip, Raley indicated.
“We've definitely had some bonding time, which has been pretty exciting - and a little interesting,” Raley said.
Before joining the Oklahoma Free Wheel tour, the farthest Raley had ever bicycled was 25 miles. The tour has averaged about 63 miles a day.
“Coming here has been kind of a huge accomplishment for me,” Raley said.
For Dr. Kendra Grover, it's been a sort of homecoming.
Grover, who works in human resources at the University of Arkansas, is a Miami native. This was her 15th year to ride in the Oklahoma Free Wheel tour. For most of those years she's been joined by a circle of about 20 or so friends.
“We have such a nice little group you just kind of hate to miss out (on the tour),” Grover said. Later she agreed it was nice being able to make a stop in her hometown as the last overnighter before the tour's finish.
“A lot of people don't realize how nice this part of Oklahoma really is,” Grover said.
Greeting the bicyclists as they trickled in small groups to the NEO campus Friday was the NEO football booster club, who had booths set up offering hamburgers, hotdogs, chips, water, energy drinks and soda for sale to hungry and thirsty riders.
Head football coach Donnie Bigby arrived at 6 a.m. to set up the vendor booths, proceeds from which went directly to the booster club. Most of that money will be spent on game-day activities, Bigby said.
While the college fed the bicyclists that night, there was no one to fill in the afternoon slot, so the booster club stepped up.
“It's just a good way to raise money without continually having to tap into our own people,” Bigby said.
Following the bicyclists on the tour were the vans of four separate official bicycle shops that provided needed services along the way.
Scott Gibson, with Tulsa-based Sun & Ski Sports, said his crew has fixed an average of 20 flat tires every day of the tour. They have also fixed and replaced a number of spokes and chains.
“We're staying really, really busy,” Gibson said. “There's probably been a flat tire for every person here. You get some of these bikes that are really trashed and they probably shouldn't even be out here. But people soldier on and we try to help their bikes soldier on too.”
Tom Brown, owner of Tom's Bicycles in Tulsa, has participated in the Oklahoma Free Wheel event, either as a participant or a bicycle mechanic, almost every year for the past 32 years of the event's existence.
“We do this because we're probably crazy,” Brown joked. “But we really do love doing this. We love making things work and helping people. The riders are really positive people.”
Traveling ahead of the bicyclists by car were Alexandria Odekirk and Kristen Bush of Madison, Wis. Employed by Shuttleguy, a professional bicycling touring service, it was Odekirk and Bush's job to set up tents at each overnight stop before the bicyclists arrived, as well as provide towels and chairs. And then each morning it was their job to take all the tents down again to start the day over.
The two friends, both students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saw the job posting on Craigslist.com and decided it would be a fun summer job. The enticement was the opportunity for travel - the girls are going on another bicycle tour this week in Colorado - but it's the camping each night in different places that has been the real fun, they both said.
“You work hard, but at the end of the day our crew goes swimming at lakes and do other things to have fun a little,” Bush said.
“It's been a lot of fun,” Odekirk said. “We may complain during the day because it's been really hot and we're not used to Oklahoma weather, but at the end of the day it's really fun. All of our crewmembers have really bonded and we're such a family now. It's really cool.”
Ross Snider, who is on the board of Oklahoma Free Wheel, said this has been “an exceptionally pretty year” for the event, partly because of the particular route but also for good weather. The bicyclists were only rained on twice.
“The biggest challenge for most folks has been hills and heat,” he said. “And then it's been humid so people have been going through a lot of water. But it's always better to have a dry week. It's so much more comfortable than a wet week.”
Snider joined on his bike the other 900 riders every day of this year's tour. He's ridden in the event every year but one since 1981. He said he does it to renew old friendships each year and also to see the rest of Oklahoma. Snider lives in Tulsa.
“We haven't been in this part of the state for a while, so it's been nice,” he said.
Sports Editor Jim Ellis contributed to this article.