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Seniors roll into cycle culture

Park program puts many older riders back in the saddle
by: COURTESY OF Portland Parks and Recreation, 
These recumbent three-wheeled bikes help seniors get comfortable riding in Portland Parks and Recreation’s senior bicycling program.

Linda Robinson grew up in rural Gresham and never learned to ride a bike. The country roads near her home were narrow, and her parents thought bike riding would be too dangerous.

It took Northeast Portland resident Robinson 66 years to change that, as part of a Portland Parks and Recreation program aimed at getting seniors to join the growing wave of cyclists in Portland.

Robinson's two-wheeled journey began four years ago, when, in retirement, she started working as a volunteer organizer with the Gateway Green Project, a city project to turn 35 acres of undeveloped land between Interstate 84 and Interstate 205 into a nature park. Portland being Portland, the other volunteers all spoke about their biking exploits, and there was talk about riding during the eventual groundbreaking for the new park. To Robinson, not bike riding in Portland began to feel like a party to which she hadn't been invited.

'It got to the point I was introducing myself as the only person in the room who hadn't ridden a bike,' Robinson says.

So in the summer 2009 she signed up for the parks and recreation senior recreation biking program's weekly outings. She learned about gears and brakes and the rules of the road and, not incidentally, began building up strength in her legs - all with the help of special three-wheeled recumbent bikes that parks and recreation uses to introduce seniors to riding.

Parks and recreation actually has seven of the beginner's bikes, thanks to the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which four years ago conducted a survey of local senior riders and discovered that a number of seniors didn't bike because they feared falling and injury.

The bureau also found that residents 60 and older represented one of the last remaining pockets of biking resistance in Portland and the United States, especially when compared to many European cities.

According to one 2000 study, one out of four trips taken by residents of The Netherlands who are older than 65 is taken by bike. Germans older than 65 go by bike on about 11 percent of their outings. In the U.S., fewer than half of 1 percent of trips taken by seniors involves a bike.

One successful federal grant later, the transportation bureau had the recumbent bikes and the start of a program to introduce seniors to cycling. After a year, the rides were taken over by parks and recreation, which has a waiting list for its weekly beginner and intermediate, spring through late summer rides.

There are also monthly orientation sessions, and all the rides are $6.

For those who start to feel frisky, parks and recreation brings the recumbent bikes along for each of the city's summer parkway rides, when local streets are closed to motorists.

Riding a 'Harley'

This summer parks and recreation offered 37 rides and had 185 senior riders participate. According to program administrators, they've had participants over 80 years old who hadn't ridden since childhood, along with other seniors with a variety of ailments who otherwise cannot get much physical exercise.

Mary Jubitz is one of those, an active hiker, tennis player, skier and cyclist most of her life until a series of illnesses and operations disabled her in 2003. For the last few years she has needed a walker to move around outside for anything more than the shortest distances.

Beyond the lack of physical exercise her condition affords her, Jubitz, 64, has missed being outdoors and around people. This past summer she contacted parks and recreation and was told about the senior cycling program. After a trial run on one of the recumbent bikes, which she calls tricycles, she signed up for every ride this year.

'It was fabulous,' says Jubitz, who lives in Southwest Portland. 'It just made me feel healthy again, and it was so good for my spirits to be outdoors again and to be active.'

The recumbent bikes in the parks and recreation program allowed Jubitz to get peddling again. In fact, she had a poignant moment this year when she finally gave her old two-wheeler to a church rummage sale, knowing she won't be able to ride it again.

But she has had more than a few fun moments riding with her pack of seniors. This summer she made a habit of setting the handlebars high on her recumbent bike.

'I would feel like I was riding a Harley,' she says.

As for Linda Robinson, she graduated from the parks and recreation three-wheelers this summer, when she bought her own 21-speed bike. She has been going on short rides five times a week, usually with husband David Jolma. Once a week the couple takes a long ride on one of the local bike trails.

But only on the trails, Jolma cautions.

'If she didn't learn to dodge cars as a kid, she's not going to know how now,' Jolma says. 'Her reflexes are too slow.'

For more information about the Portland Parks and Recreation seniors bike program, call 503-823-4328. The senior rides and orientations will start again in May.