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For Joe Datsko, 92, cycling has helped him lead 'more active, longer life'

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Joe Datsko was an admitted workaholic for the first 25 years of a 47-year career as a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan. Datsko likes to say that until he was in his early 50s "most of my exercise was writing on a blackboard."

That changed in the early 1970s when the younger of Datsko's two sons — he also has three daughters — was invited to the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials in cycling. Robert Datsko, who was in high school at the time, failed to secure one of the 12 spots, finishing in the top third of the 66-person field.

But something happened to change Joe Datsko's life.

"We became a bicycling family," Datsko, 92, recalled recently, sitting outside his apartment at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, where he now lives.

Datsko, who as a college student at Michigan once rode a three-speed Raleigh Golden Arrow bike from Ann Arbor to his hometown of Ebensburg, Pa., became the most serious cyclist of all.

The Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV) in Ohio, a 210-mile back-and-forth trip between Columbus and Portsmouth, became an annual excursion that eventually doubled as a family reunion.

And Datsko became one of the most dedicated riders in the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society, a local riding club founded by his older son, James, and some friends.

"When I retired in 1990, there was a lot of publicity about celebrating 500 years of Columbus coming to America, and I thought it would be great for me to ride cross-country like my daughter had done," Datsko said.

Datsko was one of 45 who, with a Minnesota-based cycling club, started off in Bellingham, Wash. Then age 71, he was one of only six who rode every inch of the more than 5,200-mile trip that ended 12 weeks later in Portland, Maine. Fifteen riders dropped out after the first week.

"I didn't know if I could do it. I hadn't ridden in the mountains," Datsko said. "My younger son was a captain for American Airlines, and I had an open ticket for a return flight for any weekend if I couldn't handle it."

Datsko was the oldest in the group by two years to start the tour and the oldest to finish.

"I was in good shape because I was riding with my children and three of them were bicycle racers, and I was riding with them for 20 years," he said. "I was in tremendously good shape. I was riding with people in their 30s and keeping up with them."

Datsko followed up with a ride the next summer from Portland, Maine, to Orlando, Fla. — a mere 1,680-mile jaunt.

He took another cross-country trip, from Oceanside, Calif., to St. Simon Island, Ga., in 1994. The next year, Datsko and a friend rode down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Mexican border south of Los Angeles.

After his children moved away from Ann Arbor and his wife, Doris, died, Datsko's life centered on the local cycling club. Three years ago, he became the first member to ride 100,000 miles around the college town. Overall, in his lifetime, he estimates the total is up to around 150,000 miles.

"They said that I was their inspiration and that they wanted to ride when they were 90," said Datsko, whose current bike was a birthday present from his five children and seven grandchildren for his 90th birthday.

James Datsko, a retired attorney and commercial pilot, said: "When we have a family reunion, the grandkids began to understand how unusual it is and how big an inspiration he is."

But 66-year-old James Datsko, the eldest of the five Datsko children, said "it's not just his bicycle."

He said his father was so respected at the University of Michigan that they made him a professor emeritus.

James Datsko said his father was invited to teach all over the world, and made lengthy trips to Japan and Brazil. The younger Datsko believes it was his father's seminars in Brazil that led the country's engineers to develop the popular Embraer airplane.

"He'll never say it, but after he taught down there, they started making planes that were a lot safer," James Datsko said.

Joe Datsko's transition to cycling in Maryland, where he moved last year to live closer to his daughters, has not been easy. Last fall, Datsko was diagnosed with "foot drop," a condition caused by a damaged nerve in his hip.

As a result, he didn't ride at all between September and April and now uses a brace that helps him walk and ride.

"I used to love going up hills, but now with my foot problem, I can't ride standing up," he said.

Though Datsko's mother lived until she was 96, he credits cycling with keeping him alive.

"There's no doubt, my cardiovascular workouts contributed to my leading a more active, longer life," he said. "I weighed about 210 pounds when I started to ride, and I'm down to about 180."

Once riding over 100 miles per week, Datsko is down to around 60, most of them at nearby Patapsco Valley State Park.

"There's not very many people who I meet riding around here who know me," he said. "They know nothing about me, and I know nothing about them. I prefer riding on the roads than on the bike paths because I grew up that way."

But then again, Datsko has never been one to ride because of its social value.

"The thing that keeps one riding once you get over this threshold, you get the pleasure out of the riding," he said. "There's just something about working out and getting your heart rate going to about three-quarters of maximum for a long period of time. I've slowed down, but I haven't quit."

James Datsko has inherited his father's passion for cycling. And as much as the younger Datsko loves to bike, what his father still does amazes him.

"I know I won't be doing it when I'm his age, but I'll try," he said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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