Seniors redefine a life cycle

The Baltimore Sun

EASTON -- Bob Benhoff zips down the country lane on a sleek bike, motioning to the other cyclists to turn. The muggy August heat doesn't slow down this 78-year-old - heck, it's only been two years since he rode across the country, with a prosthetic leg.

His 82-year-old buddy, Bill Maupai, who goes by "Lips," cracks jokes as he spins by a field of yellowed corn stalks on this quiet Eastern Shore road. Bob Carson, 73, steers his recumbent bike. George and Mary Drake, married for nearly half a century, pedal a bicycle built for two. And several other cyclists, most with gray hair, talk and laugh.

The participants are some of the more than 300 members of the Cycling Seniors, a group affiliated with the Ateaze Senior Center in Dundalk. Over the past 15 years, members of the group have cruised down nearly every scenic route in the state - and shattered some stereotypes about old age in the process.

"I think if I had retired and sat around and watched TV, I wouldn't be here now," says Maupai, who was part-owner of a now-defunct South Baltimore foundry until he retired two decades ago.

He credits bicycling with helping him quickly bounce back after an aneurysm and bypass surgery a few years back. In 2005, he rode an exercise bike the day after he had both knees replaced, he says. Six weeks later, the Cockeysville resident was biking on the road again.

Maupai says that at a recent checkup, he patted his physician's pot belly and gave him a little health advice: "I said to him, 'Doc, you've really got to get on the bike more often.'"

Other seniors say that biking brings numerous emotional and social benefits, as well as a sense of accomplishment.

When Barbara Halliwell got on a bike at the age of 58, it had been nearly 48 years since she had last ridden. But the technique came back to her, well, like riding a bike.

Now 70, the retired civilian Navy employee frequently rides with the seniors' group.

"It relieves tension and opens up your mind," she says.

She lets her thoughts wander as she pedals, she says. Sometimes she just enjoys the scenery; other times she thinks of work she needs to do around the house or the milkshake she treats herself to after a ride.

The cycling seniors are a clear reminder that aging is what we make of it, says Donna Cox, a Towson University health science professor whose research focuses on aging.

"There are a lot of stereotypes about aging, that everyone is going to become decrepit or feeble, and that's not true," she says. "It really is about attitude, perceptions of self, just how active people are."

Sometimes, older people stop participating in athletic activities because they believe that seniors are not capable of physical exertion, she says. In time, they lose muscle tone and coordination skills and become more likely to fall, she says.

Seniors who exercise are at significantly lower risks for diseases that are often associated with age. "The more active people stay, the less risk they have for falling, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer's disease," she says.

Benhoff, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 1946, started biking after a heart attack about 20 years ago.

Since then, he's biked in Europe and across the United States on a six-week tour. A few years ago, he had problems with his prosthetic leg on a bike trip across Florida. He biked with one leg, using a crutch to steady himself when he braked, recalled Maupai, who said he was along for that trip.

"He's tough as nails," says Maupai. "He's my hero."

George and Mary Drake, long-time Parkton residents who recently retired to Centerville, on the Eastern Shore, say that bicycling not only helps them stay fit, it keeps their marriage healthy - usually.

"They say if you can ride a tandem, uhhh, I don't know what," says George Drake, 69, adding, "I've only dropped her three times."

The Drakes wear matching shirts that read, "Hot and spicy CRABS-Couples Riding A Bicycle Simultaneously."

Before they started riding a tandem bike, George Drake, a retired Web developer, often had to wait for his wife to catch up with him when they rode together. Now they enjoy being able to talk while they ride, except, of course, when George Drake tells his wife she isn't pedaling hard enough.

"That just kills me," says Mary Drake, 67, a retired city schools employee.

When they aren't biking, the Drakes also hike and kayak, earning the admiration of their kids.

"They're glad we keep in shape," Mary Drake says. "They're also glad we're always busy and out of their hair."

Sporting brightly colored biking gear, the Cycling Seniors stand out against the rich greens and muted yellows of the late summer landscape. Their laughter blends with the whirring thrum of katydids and crickets hidden in thickets of chicory, Queen Anne's lace and tall, dry grasses.

A group of girls, out for a leisurely ride on their bikes, watch as the seniors whiz by.

"I thought it was pretty cool," says Ellie Webb, 16.

Towson resident Bob Carson, 73, estimates that he's ridden about 150,000 miles since he started seriously biking in 1975.

He's the president of the Baltimore Bicycling Club, will lead this year's Cycle Across Maryland and is a member of the advocacy group One Less Car, as well as a member of the Cycling Seniors. He rides almost every day, usually on a recumbent bike - the low-slung kind with back support, which can be more comfortable for long rides.

Carson says that he rides for health and for the camaraderie.

But ultimately, he adds, "It's just a feeling of freedom."

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