Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bike champ bikes back to childhood

To some, turning 60 means it's time to take life at a leisurely pace. To Richard Simons, it signaled something more like the shot from a starter’s gun.

Time to go very, very fast.

“I never raced a bicycle before I was 60,” said the national and world masters cycling champion in his bike helmet and championship jersey, demonstrating one of his brakeless, gearless racing bikes.

An all-around athlete since he was young, Simons left competitive sports at the age of 50 after sustaining a number of injuries. He had always enjoyed cycling as a recreational sport but it wasn’t until he turned 60 that he considered the idea of competitive racing.

In the spring of ’94, at a friend’s suggestion, Simons — who was living in Oak Park, Ill., with his wife Louise — participated in a local cycling event featuring three races for three distances: 1 mile, 5 miles, and 10 miles. Much to Simons’ surprise, he won all three.

A week later he competed in the regional masters 10k race in the 60-64 age division. Although Simons lost, his time was only a few seconds behind the national champion. Invigorated by his showing, Simons started training for his next goal: the Illinois state championship in September ’94. He won his division, making him eligible to compete in the National Senior Games in Texas eight months later, where he took home two golds and two silvers.

Simons’ primary focus for the past eight years has been the 500 meters or 2,000 meters meaning races that last from approximately 40 seconds to under three minutes. “It’s like a sprinter in track,” he explained. “I’m a ‘miler’ or ‘100-yard-dash’ as opposed to a marathon.” In the last 14 years, Simons has won two world championships, eight Pan American Games championships, and 14 national championships.

The interview with the 74-year-old champ took place in his new home in Yellow Springs not far from Springfield, where he was born. Simons spent a great deal of time as a youth in YS, attracted to the Shakespeare plays put on by Antioch College in the ’50s and ’60s. He played in the Springfield Symphony and Antioch Orchestra, attended Ohio State University, directed the Antioch Chorus, and taught music at YS public schools from 1960 to 1964. He also taught music at Antioch College from ’67-’71. “One of the reasons I’m back here,” he said, referring to last year’s move, “is because I love Yellow Springs and I know so many people here. As far as I’m concerned, I’m home.”

While Simons continued to train and set records for his age group, Louise was sitting on the sidelines, quietly entering a competition of her own.

“Louise submitted my name to the Olympic committee for consideration to carry the Olympic torch for the 1996 Games,” said Simons, proudly showing off the commemorative torch, which hangs on a wall in their home.

“I wrote that even though he was 62 years old, he could keep up the pace,” said Louise. Overtaking competitors with her heartfelt prose and appeal to select her husband to represent the senior population, Louise came in with an impressive ranking of her own: out of 4,000 cycling applicants, only 400 were selected to carry the torch.

A total of 10,000 participants carried the flame across 42 states in 100 days for the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay prior to the games in Atlanta, Ga. “Some of the [legs of the race] were by people who were running, some by people with disabilities, but mostly it was athletes of distinction in one field or another,” said Simons.

A truck with the official flame followed relay participants throughout the 15,000-mile trek to ensure that the flame never went out. “Part of the time you’re holding the torch in the middle of a crowd and everybody wants a photo,” he said. “They all want to hold it, but that wasn’t permitted.”

The lit torch, made to withstand winds up to 80 mph, fit in a rack behind the rider on a specially designed bike. But what really impressed Simons was the motorcycle escort. “I loved that,” he said, recalling the thrill of a lifetime. “They were professional drivers from Tour de France so they knew how to handle crowds. They rode in a wedge in front of me.” The wedge created a draft that allowed Simons to cruise at a nice clip he never could have achieved before — 42 mph. “That was pure fun,” he laughed. “Helicopters overhead and highway patrol — I didn’t have to worry about anything. They weren’t going to let anything happen to the torch!”

Simons’ leg of the race began in West Lafayette, Ind., where he received the flame from a Special Olympics runner. “You could see him running down the road, the crowd celebrating,” he explained. Lighting his torch from the runner’s torch, Simons then biked 29 miles towards Indianapolis and passed the flame off to the next participant — another cyclist. “When it arrived in Atlanta in the stadium, the final person to light the fire was Mohammad Ali.”

After winning the 500 meters and 2,000 meters in the 70+ division in last year’s national championship, he continues to keep his eye on the next big race.

“It’s a hoot to come into this sport at age 60,” said Simons who competes in spite of five angioplasties, two cardiac arrhythmia surgeries, a pacemaker, and a total knee replacement. To hear his goal “to be the fastest person my age ever to ride a bicycle” one can easily imagine the young boy with Olympic dreams and a fondness for Shakespeare biking through Yellow Springs.

“I’ve been cycling all my life,” said Simons. “As a child I had this feeling of such freedom on a bike. If I wanted to go someplace, I didn’t have to ask somebody to take me. I could go anywhere, I could do anything.”

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.