Tag Archives: bicycling

Taking Off the Training Wheels

December 22, 2015 by

The old adage about never forgetting after learning how to ride a bike is pure hokum, and this grandpa is living proof.

On a camping trip this fall with grandsons Barrett (4) and Easton (5), I climbed aboard my daughter-in-law’s girlie bike—the robin’s egg blue cruiser outfitted with a cute basket that is perfect for holding…I dunno…kewpie dolls or friendship bracelets or other sugar-and-spice paraphernalia.

About three feet into my wobbly peddling it struck me that I could not remember the last time I had been on a bicycle. After giving it some thought, I pegged the year to be 1981. I won’t bore you with the comical, look-out-for-that-tree details of our ride over hill and over dale (poor Dale) through the campground that day.

The experience reminded me that Barrett and Easton are born-to-ride daredevils when it comes to two-wheeled action. Not 10 days after the training wheels came off Barrett’s bike he was already flying along the Wabash Trace Trail over in Iowa on one of the popular Taco Rides, and his family has since taken 10-mile jaunts along other, sometimes more challenging trails while crisscrossing the metro.

The thought of which is all absolutely horrifying to me.

And doubly so for my wife, Julie. When we let our imaginations get the best of us, life as grandparents can be a pins-and-needles game of waiting for that inevitable phone call from my son or daughter-in-law where we are informed, “Well, just thought we’d tell you that we’re on our way to the emergency room.”

That’s where this story was supposed to end. Sure, I would have yammered on for a paragraph or three on the terrors of being the grandpa of two young, adventurous boys who don’t know the meaning of fear…but that was going to be pretty much it. Column done. Over. See ya next issue.

Except that we did, in fact, get that phone call.

One week to the day after my tottering bike ride inspired this column, Barrett did a face-plant onto the pavement off his otherwise trusty steed. Yes, he was wearing a helmet, as always, but he knocked out three front teeth, and his bruised and bloodied face looked like a punch-drunk Robert Ne Niro in Raging Bull.

My son, Eric, was a BMX rebel in his teen years, and I recall holding my breath (thank goodness for a gold-plated medical plan) every time that starter gate dropped with a clang and a quartet of riders hurtled toward certain doom. That was at the bicycle track down in Lincoln but now, a generation later, Omaha has a BMX death trap of its own.

And Eric’s reaction to the events of last weekend? He plans to have Barrett fitted with a new mouthguard before going airborne for the first time in a gravity-defying ride on and over the dirt moguls of the local track. All before my grandson’s fat lip is even given a chance to recede to its former pretty-boy profile.

God help us all.

Bicycle

Retirement on the Road

July 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in 60-Plus June/July 2015 edition.

Fritz Sampson says he likes to travel slowly, but the words “travel” and “slowly” can conjure up thoughts of lounging over three hour-long dinners in Italy, or spending an entire afternoon wandering through a village in France.

For 65-year-old Fritz, “traveling slowly” means moving about 200 miles a day across Europe and Asia by motorcycle.

Last March, Fritz undertook a 115-day motorcycle journey through southern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, and Mongolia; but his plans were cut short by more than three weeks after an accident
in Mongolia.

It’s an itinerary that sounds crazy, but, when explained calmly by Fritz, seems perfectly reasonable.

“Whether it’s breaking a shoulder, or getting stopped by police, or running out of food, things are going to happen,” Fritz says. “And that’s why you take the trip, because it’s an adventure.”

According to Sampson and his wife of 40 years, Mary, he always had a daring spirit.

“That’s what I loved him for, was his sense of adventure,” Mary says. “No one is comparable to Fritz—he’s all out for the experience.

The couple met on the Model United Nations Team at Creighton University and married in 1975, right out of college. They, and their two children, moved to Germany in 1998 while Fritz pursued a degree in international tax law. His career took him everywhere from China to Belize; but he still craved different ways to see the world.

Fritz2

A long-distance cyclist, he rode for years all over the United States. But as he aged, he turned to a new mode of transportation: motorcycling.

He bought a new Harley Davidson in 2007, and in 2008 rode with his son, Marty, from Omaha to Tierra del Fuego, an island chain off the southernmost point of South America.

“One of the reasons I do this—I like meeting people on the road,” Fritz says.

After his South American excursion, Fritz was itching to do a similar trip elsewhere. He read about two motorcycle adventures on travel blogs that looked really interesting—one to the Russian far east, another in outer Mongolia—and decided to combine the two by retiring and traveling to 17 countries. He planned to begin in Ireland, meet Mary in Turkey, and eventually end up in Mongolia and Russia, but had no other itinerary.

That meant he spent a week in Bulgaria because he felt like it. He chose to go to Kazakhstan instead of Turkmenistan because he met a fellow motorcyclist who was headed there. And when he told local policemen in Turkey the name of the hostel where he was staying, they told him he shouldn’t sleep there and took him to a friend’s house, where they hosted a barbecue for him.

He also had a run-in with corrupt police in Azerbaijan, lost 22 pounds, and experienced that fateful fall in Mongolia that cut his trip short and left him with a broken shoulder.

There’s only one thing he’s cutting out of his routine: off-roading on his motorcycle, which led to his accident. But he still wants to ride on motorcycle trips across the continental United States, Alaska, and Mexico.

After all, he says, those are “easy” rides.

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Fritz 1

Iron Woman

June 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 issue of 60-Plus.

The Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Surely, one might think, such a feat of athleticism would explode the joints of a human over, what, 40?

Not so, at least for the super-human. Mariana Phipps will be 71 this coming May. She’s a mom to three boys. Heck, she’s grandma to six children. Yet, she’s still a top competitor in one of the world’s most grueling test of human endurance.

Phipps was a swimmer as a girl, but couldn’t compete in high school or college in pre-Title IX days. By the time she started taking classes at Creighton University, it seemed that her serious days as an athlete were behind her.

“I was a pretty good, heavy smoker, and didn’t even think about doing any sports,” she says. “I had kids and I was busy.”

When her husband found out he had heart disease, they both quit smoking. However, she says, when you quit smoking, you need to do something else, “otherwise you blow up pretty fast.” She got back into swimming, and since many of her fellow swimmers were runners as well, she took up running and, later, bike riding.

Phipps ran her first marathon at age 51 in 1995 in Lincoln. She did her first Ironman at age 56 and qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in her first year of qualifying. She routinely finishes in first or second place for her age group in triathlons and won the World Championship for her age group in Hawaii in 2005.

Kurt Beisch, who works as the race director for Race Omaha, a Nebraska non-profit organization in the multi-sport industry, says the World Championship in Hawaii is like the Super Bowl for triathlons.

Race Omaha puts on several annual racing events, including the Omaha Triathlon, the Omaha Women’s Triathlon, and the Omaha Kids Triathlon. The competitors, Beisch says, are definitely an eclectic bunch.

“They range from newbies, first-time multi-sport athletes, to very decorated nationally ranked athletes,” he says. The women’s triathlon field is made up of about 38 percent first-time athletes, which makes for a great amount of camaraderie.

Indeed, Phipps says, the triathlon competitors make the sport a very social one. This may seem a bit odd for an activity that, on its surface, seems to depend entirely on the individual’s stamina and endurance. But competitors feed off each other’s enthusiasm.

“We have a very good brotherhood of triathletes here in Omaha,” she says. “And I am fortunate enough to know a lot of younger ones and more mature ones.”

Beisch, who is also a decorated triathlete, estimates that about 15 percent of the participants in the field at the events are aged 50 or older, and some of them are some of the most accomplished athletes in the country.

“[They] make me look like a grade-school triathlete compared to the achievements they’ve had in the course of their lifetime,” he says.

Older competitors, he says, have an advantage in qualifying because there are fewer of them, so there’s less competition.

But more so than the competition, Beisch says, triathletes experience a great sense of accomplishment and that “coming across that finish line is an event.

“You have covered a lot of ground, you have pushed yourself in different ways and you have competed in three events,” he says.

Phipps has worked for Nebraska Furniture Mart for the last 39 years, and the company has been very flexible with her hours to allow her maximum training time. When getting ready for a triathlon, her weekly schedule involves two swims, two bike rides, and two runs. She trains 10-20 hours a week for an Ironman and may bike up to six hours a day (though shorter triathlons
don’t require as much training time).

She gives the impression of someone who really knows her stuff. In spite of the many jokes she makes about her age, there’s a quickness and vitality to her manner.

She’s also, it seems, just about unstoppable. She has a plate and several screws in each arm and a visible scar running down from her wrist. Before one event she broke her foot and couldn’t take painkillers because painkillers can cause kidney damage. She competed anyway.

This year, she plans on competing in the Boston Marathon for the sixth year in a row. In 2013, she was having a great race and was approximately four blocks from the finish line when the race was stopped and she was escorted to safety.

Later, she saw the local Boston media’s coverage of the bombing from her hotel room. “It was grotesque. Just blood everywhere. Obviously, people crying and moaning. It was just horrible.”

However, there wasn’t any hesitation about returning the next year.

“It wasn’t even a question about going back,” she says. “We weren’t about to let the enemy stop our dreams.”

So what keeps her going? Part of it, Phipps says, is that you compete against yourself.

“You can’t compare yourself to what you were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago,” she says. “Every time you enter a new age group you have to think it’s almost like a whole new ballgame.

“Luckily, they have age groups every five years. You think of yourself as trying to stay as fast as you can in that age group, and it’s the one thing that you look forward to getting older…because let’s face it, getting older is not fun. But, when you do go over that next hump, into the next age group, then you realize it’s a whole new set of personal records for your age. That helps a lot.”

Marianna Phipps2