Wheeling Wheelmen

The Harmon Hundred
By Sarah Stone
September 2002
Chicago Athlete

Wheeling Wheelmen's Century Stays in Gear, Year After Year

For more than 30 years the Harmon Hundred has survived through increasing traffic, suburban sprawl and inclement weather to become one of Chicago's oldest cycling invitationals. And this September, the Harmon Hundred will coast through its 32nd annual century ride.

The Wheeling Wheelmen have been doing the Harmon Hundred since September 1970. At the first ride, then called the Wheeling 100, 198 people came out. The next year, the number had grown to almost 300, and in the third year they had more than 400.

Fifteen-year Wheelmen member Bob Savio attributes the sudden success of the Harmon Hundred to the popularity of biking during the early '70s.

"It was probably one of the first invitationals in the area," he said. "There's one every weekend now."

The Harmon Hundred is still one of the largest bike rides in the Chicagoland area. Savio estimates that in its largest year, it drew 1,100 to 1,200 cyclists. Over the years, the Harmon has grown a reputation for its rest stops. The stops feature a variety of refreshments including sushi, turkey wraps, pasta salads and sub sandwiches.

"It's one of the things that draws people back," said ride chairman Mary Kay Drapeau. "We've tried to keep the same concept with providing good food, good camaraderie, good stops."

Because of the growth of the suburbs, the century ride had to begin moving away from the city. In 1991, the ride moved from Wheeling out to the Wauconda Apple Orchards. It remained there for nine years, but in 2000, the impending closure of the apple orchards as well as the continuing growth of the area, finally pushed the Harmon Hundred out to southern Wisconsin. The century now starts and finishes at Wilmot Mountain.

"You're out on country roads," Drapeau said. "There's still traffic, but it's not nearly as busy as the northern suburbs. It's gorgeous up there. It's a beautiful country to ride in."

Typically, the ride draws more than 700 people. However, not all of them ride 100 miles. The Harmon Hundred is broken down into four rides, 25 miles, 50 miles, 75 miles, and 100 miles, so cyclists of all skill levels can participate.

This year's Harmon Hundred is scheduled for Sept. 8. Registration the morning of the ride is from 6 to 10 a.m. However, they ask that the 100-milers leave by 8 a.m. because the course closes at 5 p.m. Other than the 5 p.m. cut-off time, cyclists are encouraged to enjoy the scenery and ride at their own pace.

"We have good roads; we have good leaders; we have good food," said Phyllis Harmon, founder of the Wheeling Wheelmen and the Harmon Hundred. "People love the area they're riding in."

All Ages

The 2001 Harmon Hundred met with a little disappointment. With temperatures in the low-50s, a constant rain made the ride quite chilly.

"It was cold and miserable," Drapeau said. "We ended up having 300 riders."

One of those 300 was Phyllis's 6-year-old great-granddaughter. Riding her own bike, she was determined to finish the 25-mile course, despite the inclement weather.

"Actually, we ended up forcing her to get in the car," Drapeau said.

Although 25 miles seems like a long distance for children, Phyllis has found that people of all ages can complete the distance.

"Children 5, 6, 7 and up into the 80s do the ride," Phyllis said. In fact, when her grandson was 6 years old, he did a 50-mile course. "People don't realize what children can do."

The Wheeling Wheelmen also have many older cyclists active in the club.

One group, lovingly called "the geezers," does the Tuesday and Thursday daytime rides that leave from Deerfields Bakery. Ella Shields, editor of the Wheeling Wheelmen Newsletter, said that the group usually has about 25 people on the rides.

"They're all retired and they go out on these bakery rides. I think the oldest guy there is 76," Shields said. "We all want to grow up and be like them."

Phyllis Harmon

Phyllis Harmon is not new to cycling. She wasn't new to cycling when she founded the Wheeling Wheelmen in 1970, either. And chances are, she wasn't new to cycling when most of us were born. Phyllis has been bicycling since 1928.

When Phyllis was 12 years old, she saved up $28 to buy her first bicycle, a red single-speed Ernie McKay Special bike with 28-inch wheels.

"I'd bike to my grandfather's house seven miles away," she said. "Then we moved to nine miles from his house and I'd bike there."

In 1933, Phyllis biked to a picnic lunch in Des Plaines, which was 18 miles from her house, making for a 36-mile trip. At that point, she realized that she could ride long distances. When she was 15, she rode alone and without any bicycle gear 80 miles from her house to Tichigan, a lake in Wisconsin.

Since then, her love of cycling has yet to cease. Savio said that Phyllis has been a member of the League of American Bicyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen) since 1937. She is also the past director, vice president of the league and editor of the national magazine. Currently, she's the Honorary Director of the league.

Phyllis started many area cycling clubs besides the Wheeling Wheelmen. "We kid her as being the mother of all bicycling clubs," Savio said.

At age 73, Phyllis cycled across America. She also has led seven tours of New Zealand. And today, at 85, she still tries to bike despite some minor setbacks.

"I've shrunk three and a half inches," she said. "As a result, it's harder to get on and off. Those are the frustrating things about getting older."

Wheeling Wheelmen

The Harmon Hundred is one of two invitationals (invitationals are open to everyone) that the Wheeling Wheelmen do every year. The other is the St. Patrick's Day Invitational. Both rides require most of the active members of the club to volunteer the day of the event. The Harmon Hundred requires 50 to 60 volunteers. With approximately 300 members in the group and a constant willingness to help, the club rarely has a shortage of assistance.

"We've never had to be worried about volunteers," Phyllis said. "We've been very fortunate that everybody pitches in and works and cooperates."

The club's membership comes from throughout the Chicago area and Wisconsin. Members can stay active year round with the club. The biking season starts with the St. Patrick's ride and continues through late October. Many members also try to trail bike and cross-country ski during the winter, as the weather permits.

On an average weekend during the biking season, the club has three to four rides scheduled, ranging between 25 to 100 miles per ride. All of the rides have cue sheets, showing the cyclists what the mileage is, where to make turns and where the rest stop is scheduled. Drapeau said that they often stop at a gas station half-way along the route where everyone can regroup.

"We encourage people to ride at their own pace," she said. "We have a large contingent of very fast riders, but we can also gear our club to having our people go out there and do a middle ride or a slower pace. This is what we like."

Shields said that the club specializes in longer routes and heavier mileage. "To me it's a great exercise, but it doesn't feel like exercise," Shields said.

Overall, people who just love to bike characterize the group.

"I really enjoy getting out and seeing the country by a bike," Drapeau said. "It's just so different. You see things that you don't see in a car. We really have a good time together. It's a very different bike club than most."

Harmon Hundred Facts

  • Wilmot Mountain, Wilmot, WI
  • Routes are 25, 50, 75 and 100 miles
  • Registration is 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
  • Registration includes well-marked roads, cue sheets, sag supports and rest stops
  • All routes open at 6 a.m. Century riders should begin no later than 8 a.m. All riders must plan to complete their routes by 5 p.m. when all routes close and SAG service stops. SAGs are intended to help riders needing assistance. Priority will be given to riders in emergency situations - illness, injury or irreparable mechanical breakdowns. Flat tires are not considered emergencies. *Use of an ANSI or Snell approved helmet is strongly recommended.
  • Carry personal identification
  • Bring a bike in good condition, with a spare tube, basic tools, a water bottle and basic knowledge of repairs *Children must be accompanied by an adult throughout the ride.
  • The routes are on public roads, which must be shared with motorists. Local law enforcement authorities might patrol the roads and might issue citations for traffic violations.
  • Multi-color, long sleeve T-Shirts with this year's Harmon logo are available for purchase.
  • For more information or to register, visit them online at www.wheelmen.com

Wheeling Wheelmen Facts

  • Founded in April 1970 by Phyllis Harmon
  • Current president: Joe Beemster
  • Membership: Approximately 300
  • You do not need to be from Wheeling to join. Most members are from the Chicago area.
  • They organize two invitationals each year: the St. Patrick's Day ride in mid-March and the Harmon Hundred in early-September
  • The cycling season runs from mid-March through late-October.
  • Three to four scheduled rides per weekend, plus weekday rides. Routes range from 25 to 100 miles.
  • All rides have cue sheets
  • Most rides have between 5 and 25 riders
  • Club rides are done in a "ride at your own pace" format
  • They also do bike path and trail rides and overnight weekend excursions
  • For a ride schedule, meeting information or to join, visit them online at www.wheelmen.com