Though she is 78, few things pique Sadj Bartolo’s fancy like a 30-mile bicycle ride.
“You’ve seen those pictures of dogs leaning their heads out the car window with their ears streaming back? That’s how I feel on my bike,” she says.
At 89, Paul McDermott thinks nothing of pedaling 50 miles a week on his 27-speed Trek.
“I’m just an old fart who likes to ride a bike,” McDermott says. “I don’t go fast, and I don’t go far. I just go where I want to, to keep my sanity.”
McDermott and Bartolo are spokes persons, if you will, for lifelong cycling in Howard County — part of a growing corps of seniors who have taken to the roads on two-wheelers.
“It’s a trend,” says Malarie Burgess, exercise specialist for the county’s Office on Aging and Independence. As such, she runs Cycle2Health, a twice-a-week biking program for interested Howard residents 60-and-up. The activity, in its seventh year, started with a handful of riders and now numbers 160. Why the appeal?
“There’s a nostalgia that comes with cycling. People feel like kids again when they get on a bike,” Burgess says. “It’s also a lower impact sport than running. It gets you outside and it has a group social aspect.”
Both McDermott and Bartolo live in Columbia, as does Howard Feldmesser, 73. Last spring, he participated in a 100-mile ride one day, then rode 30 more the next — no easy task for one who is 5-foot-11, weighs 230 pounds and is getting up in years.
“My saddle fits me well, though my butt hangs over it,” Feldmesser says. “I love to eat, so if I didn’t ride, I’d probably weigh 400 and be just another old slob. I can’t do much about the old part, but at least I can keep the ‘Dunlop’ disease down."
An electrical engineer, Feldmesser often rides his Canondale bike seven miles to work at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. There, on Wednesday evenings, he and 50 younger colleagues wheel out of the parking lot for a cathartic two-hour ride to Highland and back.
“It’s nice to get out there with just two wheels under you, not concentrating on anything important — no politics or wars — and just watch the scenery go by,” he says. “Aching or not, every day I can, I’ll go out and ride. There are days when my riding is stink-o, but at least I did something and, generally, the next day I feel better for it.”
Friends say he’s too old for this, especially since January when, riding alone on Dorsey Road in Elkridge, Feldmesser was clipped by a hit-and-run driver and suffered a concussion. No cycling for six weeks, doctors said. He saddled up in four.
“You might say I’m addicted,” he says, having ridden 3,000 miles in the last two years.
“Some drivers signal me with a finger that they don’t like me, but that has nothing to do with age,” Feldmesser says. "Usually I succumb and signal them back.”
He rides with his wife’s blessing.
"Howard has found his true love,” Linda Feldmesser says, adding that if their house were on fire, he’d likely go for his bike “and tell me to grab his helmet and shoes.”
Bartolo understands. Her own bicycle is family, says the retired nurse who logs about 60 miles a week. She even names her bikes; this one is Xadina (sha-DI-na), which is Maltese for “little monkey” (Bartolo’s husband, Bob, is from Malta).
“I also make up songs about my bikes and sing to them as I ride,” she says. “But I have the worst voice.”
Clearly, cycling is her passion. A onetime marathoner and triathlete, Bartolo pedals up the rising hills near Glenwood like someone half her age, appreciating the leafy landscape “like you cannot do in a car.” She’s also a volunteer ride leader for Cycle2Health.
Growing up in New York, Bartolo never had a bike.
“My father gave me one for graduating from nursing school,” Bartolo says. “I didn’t know how to shift the gears.”
Now she plans to ride “as long as I can,” even if it means someday opting for a battery-powered E-bike to help her climb the more challenging terrain.
“Anything you can do to keep cycling is great,” she says.
McDermott also never rode as a kid. It seems road rage was rampant even in the 1930s.
“My father forbade me from having a bike; he said they were a menace on the highway,” he says.
McDermott was 48 and working for the National Security Agency in Germany when he bought his first bicycle. Now, each morning, he rides to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Harper’s Choice Village Center, has coffee and then rides to a nearby deli where he chats with friends before heading home. Total distance: seven miles.
“His calves are like rocks,” daughter-in-law Lori McDermott says.
Never mind the ostomy bag he has worn since cancer claimed his bladder at 75. Sometimes, on weekends, McDermott will pedal to the top of a five-story parking garage and back.
“I’ll ride forever,” McDermott says. “Every day I see people 10 to 15 years younger, all bent over and using walkers. On my bike, I go past a lot of yard sales and see all of this exercise equipment. People just don’t use it.”
Let them ride with the wind, says Burgess: “It’s good for the heart and, like any regular exercise, helps older adults keep their independence longer.”
McDermott, who lives alone, cares for himself and his trusty bike.