Update: Tony Hoffman on The Freewheel Project

April 9, 2013 by  

Tony Hoffman of The Freewheel Project

On February 28, 2011, BMX News did a podcast with Tony Hoffman. In the riveting interview (linked below), Tony told us of a series of missteps with drugs and alcohol, that ultimately landed him in a prison cell for two years. By the time we caught up with him, he worked hard to turn his life around, and was looking forward to devoting his life to a new passion: helping kids avoid the mistakes he made.

Back then, “Project Freewheel,” as he called it, at its inception, was one week old. The vision was very much a blank slate, with possibility and pitfalls waiting to be written. Tony has since developed The Freewheel Project into a powerful force for good, speaking to an audience of thousands in schools; and conducting an annual summer camp for at-risk kids who need a positive role model in their lives. Tony has the unique perspective of having the experience of the struggle to back up the advice given.

BMX News contributor Alex “Elvis” Kienlen caught up with Tony, to get a present-day look at how it’s going, and what lies ahead for The Freewheel Project, and Tony’s mission. It’s a great story, unfolding right before our eyes, and we are excited to bring it to you.

Now, Alex takes over with the questioning:

Please describe The Freewheel Project (TFP):

FWP is a 501c3 public charity youth non-profit that uses BMX as a way to engage with youth and pass on life leadership skills such as decisionmaking, work ethic, community service, and positive & rewarding physical activity (BMX racing).

BMX Summer Camp at The Freewheel Project
We hold a summer camp while kids are out of school. We provide bikes and helmets to kids who do not have them, and have sessions throughout the summer. This year, we will have a three-part substance abuse curriculum (alcohol, marijuana & prescription pills), a virtual banking system, thanks to our partnership with Fresno County Federal Credit Union where the kids earn “paychecks” each week. Through that module, they learn how to spend, save and share their money. They can spend their earnings at the FWP store that will sell hats, shirts, water bottles etc. Kids will also engage in the community service portion of TFP and work within the program, staffing trash pickup, water replenishment etc.

The kids will be scored in each module and those eight-years and up that pass all of the test at the end of the camp will be awarded a free Haro Bicycle. This year we are giving away 200.2 model bikes… That aint no department store bike. These kids are leaving with dope whips.

Ultimately, TFP will be a year-round mentoring program that engages with at-risk or continuation school kids working to change behavior patterns, tutor for schooling and offer performance-based incentives to travel with the Freewheel Project BMX team to national races to compete. The obvious goal here is to get these kids back on track (no pun intended) and I believe the BMX bike and BMX racing is a golden opportunity to fuel that change.

How did you come to create TFP?

I actually had the name “The Freewheel Project” while I was serving a prison sentence at Avenal State Prison in California. I meditated day and night, trying to find my purpose for experiencing all that I have, and miraculously surviving. I knew that the BMX bike was the tool, my story was the message… what I didn’t know was the programatic portion. This came after my first year (of the project) where I just invited kids from my church to come and ride for free with me (we provided bikes and helmets then also). Once the kids were there, my vision began to expand, and I learned how we could make things more efficient. Kids are my passion, every time I see a young boy or girl I see a champion or someone who can rise-above obstacles. Our kids today are in dire need of positive role models in their lives, someone for them to say “I want to be like them.” I’m trying to be that for the kids I interact with, not in just word but in deed as well. The Freewheel Project is how I try to do that.

Tony Hoffman teaching at The Freewheel Project
The non-profit side of the FWP was inspired by a great mentor of mine, Mike Slaydon. He is founder of “Off The Front.” He is trying to minimize childhood obesity in low-income communities (as part of his program, he will give away 1200 BMX bikes this year). A Christian man also, he advised me to go 501c3 so I could eventually take a salary from the FWP, thus allowing me to devote my all of my time to what I believed my purpose was in life. Now, that can be taken the wrong way, but what some people may not know is a non-profit is still a business, and the amount of time and hours invested in getting this thing where I envision it is no different than any other job out there. The Freewheel Project just happens to be in the life-changing business. To date, I have not drawn $1 for any of my work with the FWP– only when I’m public speaking because we just don’t have that capability to do so currently.

How much of you is TFP, and how much of it is you?

That’s a great question.

You know… I’ve been told by mentors, “you must create a legacy, and that is only possible by making this program stand with you not here.” The unfortunate side to that is right now the FWP is ALL me in terms of the passion behind my purpose and the vision of my direction. I don’t want it to be that way forever, I want this to be a program tracks can adopt nationwide as a way to attract new youthful riders that love BMX’n.

With everyday that passes TFP is becoming more of me… I can’t control the shifts in my life the universe presents, all I know is that when these shifts take place, there are doors, and those doors lead us into our future. It is clear to me that my role as a competitive BMXer is ending, as more and more continues to progress with the FWP. I’m at ease with it, but I have a couple goals I’d like to hit as a racer before I move forward as a full-time mentor.

I understand its existence reflects a conscious decision about your life, could you share that process?

Without a doubt, it does. It is my belief that every person experiences major trials in their life, no matter what. It is also my belief that we, who survive these trials, or find the other end of the tunnel, must then turn around and shout into the tunnel for others to follow. We become a beacon for those still in the tunnel, a second wind and a hope they may have been looking for, but not know was there.

Tony Hoffman of The Freewheel Project  Interviewed on
For me, that process started because God knows I needed a lot of work before I could begin to help others. While in prison, I began to shift my thinking from negative to positive; my behavior from irresponsible to responsible. That happened, first in small ways, like getting up in the morning instead of sleeping till 5PM, organizing my belongings, cleaning up my language, training every day, giving it 100%–even though I was still in prison and didn’t need to train at all for BMX because, afterall, I couldn’t even ride a bike yet. I avoided trouble in prison because I knew my surroundings would influence my behavior. I really got serious with change, and stuck to it.

Without that change, my message would be void. Without that change, I wouldn’t know how to be successful. And now that my change has created success, to a certain degree, I am able to share that with the kids.

You’re doing a lot of speaking engagements for TFP, I guess that reflects that has been well-received? How’s the reception when you’re speaking, people coming up to you afterward and all, what are you hearing?

Speaking to 2,200 students, packing a gymnasium at one time, is like no high I’ve felt before. I’ve used every drug with needles, jump 40-foot berm jumps, been in main events with world champions, national champions, and Olympic medalists alike, and nothing comes close to staring into the eyes of a young man or woman that is captivated by the power of your story.

Locking down a room of that capacity, to the point you could hear a whisper is just crazy. These kids are listening, and relating to what I’m saying. Afterward is generally an ambush– some people want to shake my hand, many want pictures, often kids share personal stories with me about their family or someone close to them they know struggling with addiction.

When hundreds of people tweet you after a speech, telling you that you are the greatest speaker they’ve ever heard, their lives have been changed or inspired, it’s a great feeling. Honestly though, I don’t care about all the glamour… I was given a gift to speak, I didn’t create the ability to do it. It was there because my story is very real and these kids need to know whats ahead of them in life if they make the wrong choice– and the flip side: the right choice.

Is TFP turning people on to racing BMX?

It is, and it isn’t. Last year, the summer camp did not fall below 100 participants each week, we capped-out on week four at 145 kids. Fully 90% of these kids are new to BMX and the BMX track, and of the 145, 80 of them did not have their own equipment. Some of the parents who have money find themselves in the sport directly after the camp is over, others are there to earn a free bicycle. Promoting the involvement with BMX racing hasn’t been easy with our track director situation in Fresno. I’m hoping this year we can do a better job of encouraging people to get memberships. One of my goals is to spot potential talent at the camp, recruit them, and use funding from TFP to support their racing.

If somebody’s going out to the BMX track for the first time, having heard you speak, what — best case — is on their mind when they go out?

That BMX Racing is such a wonderful thing, they or their children/grandchildren enjoy.

Somebody’s out at the track for the first time…they don’t know you, TFP, none of it, and somebody says “Go ask that guy,” pointing at you. What are you going to tell this prospective racer?

I always just say.. “Grab a bike, put on a helmet and give it a try”

After that, I follow up with a few pointers for them on the track.. At Fresno kids need a lot of encouragement most of the time because of the steepness of the jumps. Once they go at it slow, they pick it up quick. After that it’s really up to the parents to bring them back, if the kids love it. But back to our track director situation, properly selling them on BMX Racing is tough right now!

You’ve been racing BMX how long? What, in those years, do people get wrong in their heads, that they need to re-tune their thinking about?

Tony Hoffman at the 2013 USA BMX Winter Nationals

This will be my ninth season racing believe it or not (I’m a baby out there in terms of experience).. should of been 10th but I blew my knee out.

First… PARENTS… SLOW DOWN for goodness sakes. Let your kids have fun.. The frame weight isn’t going to win a race and teams are not necessary. So often, parents are just way-overkill and jumping from team to team before their kids are even experts. Then, when they turn expert, they just burn every team for the next best deal.

As a rider. I think it all depends on what BMX means to you. Not everyone is out to beat Maris Strombergs or Marc Willers and that’s the great thing about our sport–you don’t have to be what you don’t want to be. But if you DO want to get to the top, it’s all about enjoying the process. Too-often, I see riders cussing, throwing helmets, crying etc over a bad race, instead of crossing the finish line acknowledging that the lap may not of been what you were looking for, but there is always the next lap to improve what needs to be improved. Time and work have this way of smoothing things out and it’s expedited when you put things into the proper prospective.

What do people get wrong about The Freewheel Project?

I’m not sure about this one.. I guess I haven’t heard what the critics have to say. One time, one of those fake twitter accounts said that I was giving away bicycles to try and con kids into believing in Jesus. I’m open about my faith, but I do not talk about God or persuade kids into God one-bit during my summer camp. These are kids who need guidance, not a sermon. God will find them in time. Meanwhile, I’ll be obedient and do God’s work with these kids.

And, what do people get RIGHT about TFP right off the bat?

That it’s a work our community needs. It’s a new way of reaching out to kids, and giving them a positive message.

No doubt, TFP has had an impact on you. Now, as you’re nosing into the gate for a moto, how does the world look different from when it did in your pre-TFP days?

The world is, and has never been, the same. I don’t want to say that it’s taken my racing edge away from me but I know in Reno this year, which was my first race back in 15 months (because of my complicated ACL recovery) I was under a lot less stress to perform. This will benefit me as my skills sharpen again because you always do better when you are relaxed. At heart, I’m there for the kids, and that makes me want to do well. I realize how blessed I am to be able to get into a gate and race. Before any of my issues happened, it was all about me. I could never put things into the right perspective, because I wasn’t grateful for the small things that matter most.

You went through, let’s call it, a “reformation” of yourself. And I’m assuming their was a gap between that reformation and TFP. What went on in your head where you understood the need for TFP?

Tony Hoffman Interview on BMX NEWS
The main portion of the “reformation” was in prison. The meat and potatoes of what you see/hear today is a biproduct of my work done for two years locked up. The second-half of that reformation was getting to AA pro. I felt that for my message and the FWP to hold legitimacy I needed to make it to AA pro which took me 1.5 yrs to do after getting out of prison. Prior to my first back in 2009 I had not touched a bike, in any form, since 2002. This whole time I was racing I knew the need for the FWP because, “What if there is another Tony out there… A kid with massive amounts of talent and all the wrong role models?”

Tell us about your present-day sponsors; those who help you make it happen.

Always first, Jesus Christ for the guidance and direction to my life. Mom, Dad & Brother (My factory sponsors), DB and Haro Bicycles, Nema, Bell Helmets, BOX, Promax, GU Energy, SRM Training Systems, Freelap Timing Systems, Gaerne shoes, D-City, Lost Reality.


The Freewheel Project Website

Tony Hoffman Speech to Buchanan High School Seniors (March 2012)

Original Tony Hoffman Podcast on (February 2011)

Photos courtesy of Tony Hoffman, unless otherwise credited.