Pedal power from coast to coast Tour: Idaho-based company offers a cross-country bicycle trip for women aged 50 and older.

November 30, 1997|By Marcia Schnedler | Marcia Schnedler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In March, 55-year-old Gloria Smith will lead the first-ever commercial coast-to-coast bicycle tour exclusively for women 50 and older.

When this silver-haired cyclist was working in San Francisco in 1989 as a designer and general contractor of custom homes, she fell from the attic in an unfinished house and damaged a disc in her lower back. After four years of therapy, her discomfort continued. In spite of that, she decided to join six other women on her dream vacation a coast-to-coast bicycle trip from Washington to Maine.

After her first three days of cycling, Smith awoke too tired to eat breakfast. But by Day 10, she had reached a turning point: She rode 72 miles into a headwind and "felt an incredible joy at what a beautiful day it had been."

Every day Smith's back felt better, and by three weeks out the pain was completely gone. When she pedaled up to the Atlantic Ocean, Smith knew her life would never be the same.

"I couldn't jog anymore, and cycling is easier on the body than any other aerobic exercise," says Smith, who began long-distance cycling about 12 years ago.

In 1994, she founded WomanTours, a Driggs, Idaho, based company that offers a dozen women-only bicycle trips in the United States, Canada and New Zealand each year. The tours last from six to 16 days and take place mainly in the spring and fall when roads are less crowded and weather is more moderate.

In August 1996, while biking 50 miles to her doctor's office for minor knee surgery, Smith had the inspiration to organize a coast-to-coast tour strictly for women 50 and older.

"I decided that there are a lot of older women who can and want to do a cross-country trip, but hesitate to go with younger women," Smith says. "A lot of them like riding with their peers, and with women only. The atmosphere is one where women from all walks of life feel free to learn new skills, test their abilities and make new friendships that can last a lifetime."

The 56-day, 3,135-mile adventure begins March 14, 1998. The cost is $4,800 about $85 a day and includes most meals. Its 20 slots sold out quickly, so Smith added a second group departing March 16. The average age of those who have already signed up is 58.

The women will dip their tires in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, then cycle to St. Augustine, Fla., on a route mapped out by the 40,000-member Adventure Cycling Club.

Kevin Condit, spokesman for the nonprofit club, isn't surprised at the instant popularity of Smith's trips. He has seen a growth in the number of cyclists 50 or more years old.

The club recently sponsored a Montana trip and the average age of the 300 participants was 50, Condit says, and the average age of people to whom the club sells route maps is more than 50.

"Bicycling is not a high-impact sport," he says. "It's not hard on your knees if you do it properly."

Smith, a survivor of breast cancer diagnosed in 1986, will donate $100 per participant to the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a sponsor of the cross-country trip. Some of the cyclists are raising additional contributions from donors pledging a set amount per mile traveled.

WomanTours provides a six-week training schedule for inexperienced cyclists. When the women hit the road, they will be accompanied by a van and trailer carrying gear, bicycle-repair equipment, food and water. Also joining the group will be a massage therapist. They will stay in motels and occasionally bed-and-breakfast inns and resorts, with 10 to 12 nights of camping in state parks at more remote locations while averaging one rest day per week.

"That's so women can rebuild their strength and enjoy some of the sights, like Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument or the French Arcadian towns in Louisiana," Smith says. It will also allow them to avoid major downpours, though they'll keep on pedaling through lighter rainfall.

Smith hopes participants will feel the same sense of exhilaration she did on her first coast-to-coast trip.

As she cycled up the mountains through Glacier National Park, she recalls how "the clouds parted so I could see the spectacular peaks and mountain goats on top. I was overcome with an incredible feeling of renewal. Bike touring provides an antidote for physical and mental aging.

"I can't think of another sport or activity that women can pursue into their 70s or 80s that offers such immediate and positive feedback."

When you go

WomanTours is at P.O. Box 931, Driggs, Idaho 83422; 800-247-1444;

The nonprofit Adventure Cycling Club publishes the Cyclist's Yellow Pages, listing more than 200 bicycle tour operators, including a dozen or so that operate coast-to-coast trips for both sexes and all ages. The directory is $9.95, with free copies for members. Membership is $28 a year; $21 for those 60 and older. The club also sponsors tours and sells bicycle-tour maps. The club is at P.O. Box 8308, Missoula, Mont. 59807; 406-721-1776.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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