Bikers gear up for one final Freedom Fest motorcycle ride

Saturday marks La Crosse’s tenth and final Freedom Fest, celebrating veterans and their service to the U.S.

Just as Freedom Fest has become a tradition in the area, so has the motorcycle rally and ride starting in the Veterans Hall of Honor parking lot the morning of the festival.

Riders say it brings a sense of camaraderie, and for the Gold Star families who have lost a loved one, the rally has extra meaning.

“Motorcycles, veterans, I think it’s been a natural fit forever,” said Gary Rudy, director of the ride and rally.

About 200 riders, many with family members who are veterans or who have themselves served the country, started gearing up for the 100-mile ride through the Coulee Region at 9 a.m.

“I feel honored to be here with all the veterans,” Sparta resident Don Whitacre said. “They’re my friends. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

“It’s just a chance for us to thank them and realize they haven’t been forgotten,” Rudy said.

“I like the freedom,” Kathryne Humble, from La Crosse, said.

That freedom is at the heart of the day’s celebrations.

“We live in a country where we are able to do things like this,” Humble said.

Of course, as many at the rally said, freedom comes at a price.

“We consider that our son. It’s an Army bear that was given to us,” Hartford resident Colleen Lemke said, pointing out a stuffed bear on the bike of her motorcycle.

Lemke, her husband and their ride-along passenger are annual visitors to the ride and rally.

“A few tears, a little bit of laughter,” she said.

Lemke’s son, Cpl. Jason Lemke, died in Iraq in 2008.

“Of course, some days you wish they were home,” she said.

Since then, she’s added a necklace she never takes off, and a few tattoos in his memory – all just a reflection of how different life is now.

“Your whole outlook on life changes,” Lemke said. “Certain things that used to bother you no longer bother you, and you look at things totally different from day to day.”

Support, however, comes in seemingly unlikely places, such as at a motorcycle rally, where there are other gold star families.

“You feel kind of proud, but a little bit of sorrow knowing what we’re riding for today,” Lemke said. “You have a connection with everybody around you. You know they’re there for the same reason we are. (It’s) a little bittersweet.”

‘Bittersweet’ is a word many were using at the rally, especially with the knowledge that with Freedom Fest ending, this will likely be the final ride.

“I’m sorry to hear this is the last one,” Whitacre said.

Riders, however, said that they’ll make the most of it..

“Today, we’ll just celebrate today,” Rudy said.

And they’ll always be celebrating freedom.

“(There’s) a lot of freedom being outside enjoying the ride,” Lemke said.

Gates opened at the UW-La Crosse Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex at 4:30 p.m. Saturday for the live music, including The Remainders and John Fogerty.

General admission tickets cost $60 at the door.

Since Freedom Fest began, it has raised more than half a million dollars for veteran causes.