Health on Wheels: Older Riders Savor Cycling’s Rewards

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2012 12:59

Suzanne Njirich (right) and Jeanie Smith near Moccasin; Ben Hicks photo

With the Amgen Tour of California’s May visit to Sonora, bicycling has suddenly become big news here in the Mother Lode.

The world’s best cyclists – guys who train 20,000 or more miles a year and are regulars at the Tour de France – on May 16 will test themselves against our challenging roads and daunting climbs.

That our foothills and mountains are great places to pedal, however, is hardly news to the thousands of mountain bikers and road riders who live here. And a growing number of those cyclists are older men and women who have either rediscovered the sport or are continuing a years-long passion.

Sonoran Jeanie Smith, a 58-year-old administrative assistant with the Tuolumne County Schools office, is typical of the true believers.

“A friend talked me into joining a spinning class five years ago, but after awhile I just had to get out of the gym,” says Smith, who while raising her now-grown children relied on occasional treadmill workouts to stay in shape.  “My husband gave me a bike for Christmas, and the rest is history.”

Now she rides up to three times a week with friends, has completed 66- and 100-mile rides, and last year pedaled from Lake Tahoe to the coast in a seven-day organized tour.

“It’s great exercise,” Smith says. “The scenery is beautiful, and I just love the camaraderie of riding with friends.”

‘Excellent sport, low impact’

She is not alone.

“I’d say at least two-thirds of our customers are over 40,” says Dave Frediani, a 68-year-old mountain biker and co-owner (with Merritt Lovejoy, 71) of Sonora Cyclery.

“It’s an excellent sport for fitness, especially for people 50 or over,” adds Shelley Marenka, a cycling coach and ride organizer who lives in Copperopolis.

“It’s fun, you can do it with your friends, and the impact on your body is low. I can’t tell you how many former runners with bad knees or hips I’ve seen turn to cycling.”

That was what turned this “50-something” former runner (Reebok Women’s Running Team, 1980s), to cycling.

“After my second knee surgery, the doctor said I’d better stop running if I want to be walking when I get old,” says Marenka, who holds a degree in exercise physiology and has been in the coaching and fitness business for 30 years.

Those making the switch need not worry about losing that addictive “runner’s high.” Cycling imparts its own heavy doses of endorphins, and even newcomers embrace the sport with surprising fervor.

“Quit?” laughs Smith. “I never want to quit. I’d like to be riding a bike when I’m 100.” Debbie Grant, 52, of Mokelumne Hill began riding two years ago to lose some weight.

A cycling coworker at the Central Fire District station near Mountain Ranch got her interested.

“I could do that again,” thought Grant, who rode occasionally while living in the Bay Area years ago. So she did, starting with an old road bike, then moving up to a feather-light, carbon-fiber-framed model.

“I totally love it,” says Grant, who logged 2,000 miles last year, completed century rides and met new friends. And that extra weight?

“I lost it,” she grins. “I could lose weight just looking at a bicycle.”

Staying power

The sport’s grip doesn’t loosen with the years. Consider Kelley George, 59, a Sonora pediatrician and lifelong cyclist. He has ridden at least 50 century rides, has been an annual fixture at Markleeville’s daunting Death Ride (five passes, 16,000 feet of climbing), and puts in between 70 and 200 miles a week on his road and mountain bikes.

“I commuted to high school, college and medical school on a bike,” says George. “I just never gave it up.”

Why does he do it?  “The exercise, and mostly the camaraderie,” he says. “I really enjoy riding with friends.”

And when will he quit?  “When I drop dead,” laughs the doctor.

And those are just a few of dozens of mega-miling local cyclists.

Obsession not needed

So do you have to be obsessive to enjoy this sport?

Hardly, says Krista Howell, former century-rider and now an exercise physiologist with Sonora Regional Medical Center.

“If you go out and ride 10 miles a couple of times a week, or pedal your mountain bike to Lyons Reservoir on the railroad grade once in awhile, you’re ahead of the game,” she says. “And psychologically, you might be better off – because you’re not obsessive-compulsive.”

Carol Hogan, a 67-year-old who has been cycling for more than 30 years, rides twice a week with friends – but mixes that pedaling with kayaking, hiking, cross-country skiing and golf.

“Twelve or 13 miles on the bike, then breakfast in Murphys,” says Hogan, 67, a former hematology lab supervisor in San Francisco who retired to Calaveras County 11 years ago. “It’s another great excuse to be outdoors.”

The charm of cycling, Howell notes, is that it can be exercise, a hobby, and a social occasion all at once. Plus, weekly rides with friends are a great incentive to keep training so you won’t fall behind your buddies.

So does Howell still get on her road bike once in awhile? “No,” she confesses, pleading guilty to obsession herself. “I don’t have time for 200 miles a week anymore, so I don’t do it.”

‘Build it and…’

On the other hand, being obsessive can have benefits.

Just ask Sonoran Steve Hayes, 71, a retired contractor and developer who took up mountain biking five years ago to make up for the exercise that building used to give him.

But it’s not his weekly cycling regimen that makes Hayes a fanatic. It’s that he built a five-mile loop bike trail on his property between Ridgewood and Sonora Meadows. It took him five years of hard pick, shovel and hoe work to complete.

Building it got him in great shape, and he stays trim by riding loops three or four times a week and maintaining his trail after wind or rain storms.

But he still has one problem: “I keep asking, but nobody has accepted my invitation to ride.”

It’s like, “Build it and they will not come.”

Except, Hayes says, for an uninvited neighbor he’s spied riding on the trail more than once. “I’ve seen him riding a few times, and once I found a note thanking me and adding, ‘Great trail.’ ”

Getting started

What if you haven’t ridden a bike since you gave up your three-speed, $54.95 Schwinn Racer back in 1964?

First, consider what sort of cycling you fancy: mountain biking on dirt roads and trails, or road cycling on pavement. Then, if you have a riding friend your size, borrow a bike and give it a try.

Next, check out your local bicycle shop – and be prepared for sticker shock: An entry-level mountain bike costs $300 or more, and a starter road bike runs more than $600. A hybrid with upright handlebars, but skinnier tires than a mountain bike, will be somewhere in between.

Equipment and clothing – jerseys, helmets, shoes, etc. – could add $150 to $200.

Resist the temptation, serious cyclists warn, of saving a couple of hundred dollars by buying your bike at a department or big-box store. Such discount models aren’t as well made or reliable.

Still worried about cost? Yearly dues at fitness clubs, according to The Wall Street Journal, average from $500 to $700 annually and can go far higher. That would more than pay for a bicycle that could last years.

The comfort zone

But back to that first bike: Ask your shop owner to help you find a mount that fits, and test ride it on the street to assure that the seat, bars and pedals are comfortable. Then take your new bike home and get ready to become a cyclist.

Avoid extremes on your maiden voyage: Don’t hop rocks or jump stumps on your first mountain bike ride. Don’t climb up or rip down Sonora Pass on your first road outing.

“Go to a place that’s relatively flat,” suggests Howell. “Start slow, get comfortable with your balance and run through your gears to get used to them. Make sure you use gears low enough to spare your knees extra strain.”

Then choose a regular training route, perhaps one around your neighborhood where you know the intersections and traffic. Avoid busy highways. Stick to sparsely traveled roads. Later, you can branch out to rides suggested by friends or by bike shops. Or, perhaps, you can pick one of the five rides listed online at seniorfan.com (“Five sweet rides through scenic Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.”)

If you stay on the roads, as do most older riders, be careful.

“It’s of utmost importance,” stresses Marenka, whose cycling classes include safety instruction. “In crashes with cars, bicycles never win.”

Her advice: Make eye contact with drivers of approaching vehicles and keep at least three feet away from parked cars, lest an opening door abruptly and painfully end your ride.

Tuolumne, Calaveras and adjoining foothill counties have few bike lanes and to some drivers “share the road” is an alien concept. So use a handlebar or helmet mirror, wear your helmet and a colorful jersey (the gaudy colors are more about safety than fashion), obey the rules of the road, and be on constant watch for cars and trucks.

Cycling paradise

Soon you’ll be enjoying some of California’s best cycling.

The Mother Lode offers great mountain trails and hundreds of miles of sparsely traveled back roads and highways. Elevations range from less than 1,000 feet to the 8,500-foot-plus summits of Tioga, Sonora and Ebbetts Pass.

You can tailor training routes to your own abilities, adding distance and climbs as your endurance improves. And it will improve, as virtually all rides in the Mother Lode involve at least some climbing and, thus, great aerobic exercise.

Even for seniors, the sky’s the fitness limit.

“I regularly get annihilated by guys in their 60s,” laughs cyclist Eric Olson, the 46-year-old owner of Mountain Pedaler in Angels Camp, where half his customers are 40 and older.

Looking for company? Check the resource listing at seniorfan.com (“Cycling Resources”) for club rides, special events, clinics and more.

Want to go the distance? Try a metric century (66 miles) or 100-mile full century – or simply get out two or three times a week for a spin around the neighborhood.

In any case, it won’t be long before one last question occurs:

What took the Tour of California so long to find us?

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2012 12:59