Senior bicyclists forge on; 'Inspirational': The older members of the Dundalk Bicycle Club amaze their younger cohorts with a commitment to riding nine miles daily.


George Derr rides a girl's Raleigh 10-speed. His friend Herb Frye sports a bright yellow Big Bird bell on his handlebars.

But, lest anyone snicker, these hardy chaps could humble the mightiest world Olympian. Derr, 81, and Frye, 76, carry the senior end of the Dundalk Bicycle Club whose members log nine miles daily and 30 miles on weekend jaunts to places like Gettysburg, Pa., and Chincoteague, Va.

Since 1985, members have enjoyed the camaraderie of the club and benefits of cycling exercise. None is a competitive rider; no club dues are charged, but a meeting is held monthly to determine the destination of weekend jaunts.

"We're all very happy, out riding and being with our friends," says fellow wheelster Lester Somers, who is 82. "One of these days, I have to find a way to quit smoking."

As they take to the streets each morning, the retirees are enthusiastic streaks of aqua and orange in their sweat suits. To ward off the cold -- doctors have advised them not to ride when temperatures drop below 28 degrees -- they sport scarves and earmuffs.

Along their routes, they stop to pick up trash and lost coins and pet a few dogs they have befriended in Logan Village and Inverness. Their 7-mph pace allows them to chat as they take in the scenery.

Recently, they pulled up at Watersedge Park on Bear Creek and fondly recalled the early days at the Bethlehem Steel plant when employment topped 33,000 workers. Then, three bridges across the creek carried trains, cars and trolleys (the No. 26 line, fondly named the "Red Rocket") to the Point.

"Remember the new guy from West Virginia who got hired just after the war?" Frye, a great-grandfather, asked his friends. "Well, this guy drove his car all the way to the plant on the railroad bridge and complained how rough the roads were in Maryland."

On their return trip, an overdressed Somers found himself winded. "And here's the guy who married the younger woman," said his wife, Dorothy, 68.

The strong spirit of these seniors pleases sports medicine specialist Dr. Bill Howard at Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore.

"You have two choices," Howard said. "You park it after a certain age and just wait to die. Or, you keep forging ahead, and these people are doing just that. Spiritually, they recognize they can remain active and that the pleasures of riding a bike stick with you. More power to them."

Howard said the senior athletes in the Dundalk Bicycle Club are doing all the right things -- checking with their personal physicians and exercising in moderation.

Cycling is a more forgiving activity than other exercises like walking and running.

"You can stay on a bike for hours and actually ride with injuries. You don't have the trauma on the feet, knees and hips," said Donald Heineke, 84, of Ellicott City, who stopped riding three years ago after competing for decades in the Maryland Senior Olympics.

Derr, who has a weak heart, says he's improved his health by riding.

"I have angina and carry my nitroglycerin pills with me," he said. "Haven't used one of them yet on a ride."

Other club members have conquered more severe medical problems -- Frye battled cancer 10 years ago, had surgery and started riding "to get me going again."

For Derr and Frye, using a woman's bike is of no concern. "Otherwise," Derr said, "us older riders couldn't swing our legs over a higher frame. The ones we use are perfect."

Riding and smart eating helps them control their weight: Derr weighs 175 pounds; Frye, 165; and Somers, 180.

Derr's wife of 58 years, Hazel, also is a regular rider with the club, which has 15 members. The 82-year-old prefers rides on trails in the woods. "I love the woods, the birds," she said. "My uncles took me hunting when I was growing up in Pennsylvania, and that love hasn't faded."

Working members of the club, who ride only on weekends, marvel at the older members.

Suzan Smith, 44, a systems analyst for the Baltimore Police Department, is the youngest of the group and has been riding with the club since 1986.

The older riders, Smith said, "are inspirational, so active. I hope I am that way when I reach that age. They know the answers to everything, nature to life.

"We have to keep up with them, they're such strong riders," she said.

Derr, from Pennsylvania, and Frye and Somers, raised in West Virginia, are products of the Depression and World War II. Their families moved to Dundalk seeking employment at the Bethlehem Steel plant and Glenn L. Martin airplane factory.

"I rode a tractor across Europe pulling our artillery pieces," Somers said. "I guess I didn't lead a fancy, spectacular life. Just worked at the Point as an electrician and retired after 34 years."

Said Derr: "You were in the Battle of the Bulge, tell 'em, Lester."

Hazel Derr changes the subject.

"We don't ride if it's too cold," she said. "Our doctors told us the cold weather is bad for our faces and hands so we just stay in and wait until the weather breaks."

Her husband said he values his daily bicycle ride much like a friend calling on the telephone or hearing the morning newspaper plop on his front porch.

"I actually get grumpy if I don't ride," Derr said last week. "I'm grumpy right now. That weather better break soon."

It did.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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