Grandmothers in Gear: Age is an Attitude

In Cindy Ingram, Rebecca Joy Bingham by Lola Magazine

“I’ll never be a cyclist!” Glyndwr Macaskill shouted at her husband Ian during one of their weekend bicycle rides. “I was hot and exhausted, irritated and hopeless because Ian had been an avid cyclist for many years. I was just getting started, and it seemed like I would never catch up. Things started improving for me once we both retired, and we could ride together most days. Before I knew it, I had become a ‘real’ cyclist!”

Born in a tiny town in South Africa, Glyndwr thoroughly embraces cycling, in part for the joys echoed by other women in a growing group of committed road bicyclists in the Ruston area known as the Cycling Grandmothers.

“For me, it’s the best exercise out there,” says Macaskill. “Being about to get out in the country to enjoy a variety of scenery and scents is great therapy that has seen our family through a few dark times.”

German Baron Karl von Drais was the first to create a steerable, two-wheeled contraption in 1817 known by many names, including the “velocipede,” “hobby-horse,” “draisine” and “running machine.” This early invention dubbed Drais “the father of the bicycle”, even though the bicycles we know today evolved in the 19th century.

The Cycling Grandmothers have evolved, too. In 2009, Piney Hills Cyclists gained traction as a group whose primary goals focused on safety, fitness and the environmental benefits of cycling. Five years later, Cycling’s Other Guys (COG) filled the gap for older cyclists, male and female, who wanted to ride in less competitive scenarios. Many of those early cyclists are still riding!

Even cyclists themselves have evolved. Babbs Barham, for instance, didn’t start running until after her four children graduated from Ruston High School. “I was able to compete in three marathons, four half marathons and many 5Ks before my knees gave up when I was 58. That’s when I took up cycling.”

Barham says the benefits of sharing the road with friends extends long after they come off the road. “Many of the same people I ran with eventually started cycling, too, so relationships with them continued to grow. For more than 20 years, we have celebrated children’s showers and weddings, birthdays, various retirement parties, and births of grandchildren. Some of us have even mourned the deaths of our parents. Others of us have traveled together to many states and abroad to bike and hike.”

Lifestyle Benefits

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving,” said Albert Einstein.

A study by the YMCA shows that people who had a physically active lifestyle have a well-being score 32 percent higher than inactive individuals. Cycling combines physical exercise with being outdoors and exploring new views – either solo or with a group. Together with the basic release of adrenalin and endorphins, cyclists experience the improved confidence that comes from learning new things and achieving goals.

Patricia P. Acosta has been cycling since 1994.

“I remember the exact time I fell in love with the sport,” she recalls. “Watching my husband in a mountain bike race at Lincoln Parish Park, I suddenly realized women were also racing. ‘I want to do that!’ I thought.

Acosta says she enjoyed the competition in her early years. “I like racing, as well as the encouragement of the other ladies who pushed me to excel by their own examples of commitment and dedication. Now, I enjoy the camaraderie and view of the beautiful scenery in our area.”

In the Piney Hills Countryside around Ruston, you’ll find little traffic on many well-paved roads that meander through interesting rural neighborhoods. Even with challenging hills on some of the routes, riders of all skill levels and abilities can find special places along roads near Mitchum’s Peach Orchards, Squire Creek Country Club and Sun Valley Miniature Horse Farm on Pleasant Grove Road.

Improves Immune System

“It never gets easier, you just go faster,” says Greg LeMond, former pro rider, three-time Tour de France champion and twice Road Race world champion.

Sometimes life is like that, particularly during the Pandemic. We don’t always get to choose to slow down. To counter that, Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, says mild exercise improves your immune system by increasing production of essential proteins and waking up lazy white blood cells.

Gina Holstead, a retired educator from Arkansas, started riding with her husband and son in 2007, shortly after the Big Dam Bridge made its debut as the longest pedestrian cycling bridge in North America.

“When I moved to Ruston, I met some great women who love the outdoors and want to stay healthy as long as possible,” she says. “We enjoy picking out travel destinations to ride in cycling events around the region as a fun way to support worthwhile charitable causes.”

Holstead completed her first 100-mile ride with her husband, daughter and son-in-law in 2019 in Wichita Falls, TX.

Reduces Risk of Cancer and Heart Disease

“Embrace your sweat. It is your essence and your emancipation,” says Kristin Armstrong, an American cyclist.

New evidence from the University of Glasgow studied over 260,000 individuals over the course of five years and found that cycling to work can cut a rider’s risk of developing heart disease or cancer in half.

Joanna Blackwelder is a 60-year old grandmother who has been cycling on and off for four decades.

“My passion for staying fit began my first year of college when I had to have a physical education elective. Because I had a job after school during my high school years didn’t leave time for participating in school sports, I took a conditioning class – which was basically a running class. Eventually, running became Blackwelder’s passion.

“It was out of necessity that I began cycling,” she says.  “When I got married, there was little extra time in the evenings so, I decided to bike the 26 miles to work every day. Not only did it save on gas money, but it also became a real source of enjoyment and a great way to stay healthy. I’ve been riding 20-30 miles, two to three times a week ever since.

Joanna and her husband use their bicycling hobby as a kind of Covid date night. “It allows us time to talk and visit with each other without the distractions at home,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like getting up early for a ride and hearing the birds singing, watching a calf drinking from its mother or a baby foal trying to run while the sun rises.”

Improves Balance and Mobility

“The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine,” says John Howard, U.S. cyclist.

Cycling isn’t just about raising your heart rate and getting you breathless. The technical elements – climbing, descending and cornering – all teach you to use your body weight to get the bike to go where you want it to go. These mobility skills translate into better balance, reduced risk of falling and improved strength and confidence.

Regardless of skill or experience, cycling presents special risks that cannot be completely eliminated.

“Biking, like any sport, can be dangerous, and you have to ride smart and be alert,” cautions Blackwelder.  “A couple of years ago, I hit a patch of gravel and crashed the bike. I now have a long titanium rod in my femur and hip to prove it.”

The accident did not keep Joanna off the bike or off the road.

“It is not just the beauty of biking that keeps me riding,” she says. “It’s also the challenges it presents and the determination it develops. Like getting back on the bike after you’ve had a wreck. I now have an iron resolve to do hard things like ride in especially in cold weather. I don’t give in to the desire to stay home. I ride anyway, even though I know my toes or fingers will go numb and my breath will keep fogging up my sunglasses. There is an odd sense of accomplishment.”

Provides Opportunity to Build Community

“Teach a man to cycle, and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.” -Desmond Tutu

Joining a riding club like Cycling Grandmothers is excellent way to grow your social circle. Even if you’re new to cycling, you’ll probably find all the maintenance and training advice you need from more experienced riders.

Several of the women in Cycling Grandmothers started riding to share an activity with their husbands.

Vicki Rasmussen learned to ride bike as a child and rode on the family farm.

“I rode a green Schwinn bicycle in college,” she says. “While rearing our family, Neil and I rode bikes and participated in area bike rides. Over the past three years, though, I’ve gotten back into biking on a regular basis. Neil has been a constant support, tuning my bike and challenging me to become a stronger rider.  We think it’s also a wonderful way to enjoy God‘s creation while getting good low-impact exercise.”

Several riders augment their road work with practices like yoga, gardening and strength training to prepare for longer rides. Glyndwr Macaskill, for instance, rode 3,188 miles last year during lockdown, including a 77th birthday ride of nearly 48 miles along Mississippi’s Longleaf Trail!

More than a few of the women cite laughter and encouragement as a big draw for continued involvement with the Cycling Grandmothers.

“The great thing about riding with these ladies is the laughter and encouragement,” she explains. “The laughter at endless stories, and time spent together building relationships. And the encouragement!!!  I am in my mid 50’s and I am in awe of the number of women that are older and stronger than I am who are still riding strong.  Often on a ride, when they are ahead of me on a route, I just think to myself or comment to friends my age, “Y’all, we have at least 20-25 more years of all this laughter and friendship!”

Improves Sleep

“Life is like a 10-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use,” says Charles M. Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip. Some of us have gears we use too often.

Scientists suggest cycling reduces anxiety – either by providing solitude for processing emotions, or from elevated endorphins – and enhances the ability to sleep. Exercise also protects against weight gain with age, which is another cause of sleep dysfunction.

Joanna Blackwelder suggests bicycling is a pathway to faith and serenity.