Image: Art Peterson
John Klicker  /  AP
Art Peterson, 74, reaches the top of a hill during the 37-mile Lacamas Lake Loop cycle ride in Camas, Wash.  Like many cycling devotees, Peterson doesn't let age limit his physical activity.
updated 3/19/2004 4:35:48 PM ET 2004-03-19T21:35:48

He’s a yellow streak, legs pumping, hurtling his racing bike at 20 mph down a stretch of highway as straight as a shotgun barrel. Rain-slick pavement hisses as Art Peterson racks up the miles.

This is what Peterson loves — a morning of swift cycling through the valleys and over the hills of the Pacific Northwest countryside. He does it even during Oregon’s notoriously rainy winters.

Such behavior might be expected of a younger man, not a 74-year-old.

Yet Peterson was honored recently for the 80,000 miles he has ridden with a local cycling club since he joined in 1989. That’s more than 5,000 miles each year. And he rides hard, giving his cardiovascular system a thorough workout.

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Mid-way through this particular ride, Peterson pulls up to a coffee shop for a cup of joe. But first he checks the heart rate monitor/calorie counter bolted to his Klein bicycle.

“I’ve burned 1,015 calories over the past 20 miles,” said Peterson, standing there like some cycling gladiator in his helmet, sunglasses, yellow rain jacket, black tights and cleated racing shoes.

“I feel great.”

More seniors getting physically fit
Across the nation, aging Americans are working out at gyms, in swimming pools, on tennis courts and other athletic venues. You’ll see them on bicycles as well — often riding in touring clubs with cyclists half their age.

Many are people who began cycling years ago and are keeping it up because they want to stay fit, said Patrick McCormick, communications director for the League of American Bicyclists.

Others are turning to cycling because it’s easier on aging bones and joints than many other sports.

“A lot of people as they age, they start having knee problems,” said McCormick. “Because cycling is a fluid motion, it’s much easier on the knees, bones and joints than running, for example.”

Of the 700 or so members of the Portland Wheelmen, at least a half-dozen are in their 70s. Many more are in their 60s. The average age of the club membership is somewhere in the 50s. The club organizes at least one group ride a day. Chances are good several of the riders who show up are retired, or close to it.

They don’t let age get in their way — or at least they try not to. The older you get, the longer it can take to recover from crashes. Peterson, a retired county sheriff’s investigator, has been in three since 1993 — including one that left him with a concussion, three broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and other injuries. In 1994, he won the gold medal for his age group in a national race for active and retired law officers and firefighters.

Millions of cyclists over 50
McCormick estimates that more than 7 million bike riders are over age 50, and at least 3 million are over 60. They range from people who might ride a puddle-jumper on occasional trips to the grocery store to people who put in hundreds of miles each week on bikes that cost $2,000 and up and are as fined-tuned as Ferraris.

For the latter, cycling almost seems like a fountain of youth.

“They enjoy the wind in their face, the adrenaline rush, the exercise rush,” says Andrew Pruitt, director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, a former champion cyclist who was once chief medical officer for the U.S. national cycling team.

“These guys are what I aspire to be if I’m lucky enough to be 80,” says the 53-year-old Pruitt.

Many older riders have been serious cyclists over the years and have discovered that age isn’t necessarily a reason to give it up.

Betty Lou Bailey, 74, rides with the Mohawk Hudson Cycling Club in upstate New York. She became a serious cyclist at age 29, and has been riding ever since.

A retired engineer, Bailey rides her custom-made Serotta bicycle from March into the fall over hilly terrain around the Mohawk and Hudson valleys and into the Adirondacks. “This isn’t just my way of pursuing fitness. It’s my way of pursuing fun,” she said from her home in Schenectady, N.Y.

A couple of years ago Bailey was asked to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Society of Women Engineers. Her topic: “Lifetime Sports.”

Her message was that age does not have to prevent you from pursuing athletic activities.

It’s a message that long ago found a home among riders with the Portland Wheelmen.

'You don't have to lay around'
One of them is Bob Sahleen. At age 65, he’s another high-mileage rider, accumulating somewhere around 80,000 since buying a bike in 1989. Back then, when he was 51, Sahleen got into cycling because he was staring at an aging process that could turn him into a couch potato unless he did something about it.

“You don’t have to lay around,” says the retired printer. “If you go out and do something, you’ll feel better.”

Sahleen rides about 12,000 miles a year — participating in daily rides organized by the Portland Wheelmen as well as long multi-day tours through scenic places like the Canadian Rockies.

Health experts say it’s essential for people age 50 and up to know their physical abilities before embarking on strenuous or long-distance cycling.

“If you’re an older person, and just starting a new activity, you’re more prone to pick up an overuse injury,” says Bryan Pasternak, a 34-year-cyclist and physical therapist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

“Tendons will take a little longer to adapt to the new exercise,” a process that can produce aches and pains, he says.

People older than 50 with risk factors — such as heart disease and high cholesterol — should consult with their doctors before buying a bike with the intention of becoming a serious cyclist, he says. Also, the time it takes for an older cyclist to react to the unexpected — a car that appears out of nowhere — could well be longer than for a younger cyclist.

Still, Pasternak heartily supports the idea of older people taking up serious cycling.

At age 80, Paul Roscoe may be the oldest member of the Wheelmen. He has also chalked up somewhere around 175,000 miles since he first started riding seriously in 1981. He has been just about everywhere on his bike: Russia, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Australia ... the list goes on.

A few weeks ago he broke his leg while skiing. He’s recovering and hopes his doctor soon gives him the go-ahead to get back on his bike.

“I’m going to keep cycling,” he says. “I’ve got an expensive bike. I’ve got to do something with it.”

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