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Lifelong cyclist, 94, finds her wheels with daughter's help

SEMINOLE — Phyllis Harmon wasn't sure why the young man was handing her a helmet.

The 94-year-old hadn't been on a bike in years.

But on Saturday, the lifelong cyclist and oldest living member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame found herself at Bicycle Outfitters.

Earlier that morning, Harmon's daughter, Carol Terrazas, 61, had driven her to the shop. There, owner Adam Beland approached the two with matching silver helmets.

And Terrazas revealed her Mother's Day surprise: a tandem bike ride.

"Oh, my," Harmon murmured as Beland fastened the teal chin strap for her. "They didn't have these when I started riding."

• • •

Harmon's love affair with bikes began almost a century ago.

She got her first one at 12, using $28 she'd saved from baby­sitting.

It was red, and Harmon was one of few girls in the neighborhood with one. She rode it everywhere.

Soon, cycling seeped into all aspects of Harmon's life. By 19, she would take long weekend bike rides from Chicago to Wisconsin. Often, she would be the only woman in a pack of men.

Back then, when $4 could fill the kitchen pantry, female cyclists were unusual.

"My mother was mortified," Harmon said.

Harmon pioneered on.

She was instrumental in resurrecting the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists) in the 1930s, and, for more than 30 years, punched out the group's monthly magazine on a green typewriter that still sits in her home office.

At 50, she completed what's referred to in the cycling world as a "century," when a rider goes 100 miles in one day. Harmon completed hers in just over seven hours.

She did that several more times, in addition to completing other bicycling tours around the world. She didn't participate in her first race until she was 73, winning several gold medals in the Senior Olympics.

"I wasn't in it for the racing," Harmon said. "I was in it for the touring, the camaraderie."

Shortly after moving from Illinois to Florida in 2003, Harmon had one of her beloved bikes — a lightweight, chrome Schwinn Paramount — restored.

But when she took it out of its box and tried to ride, she realized there was a problem. The bike no longer fit her.

"I had lost five inches," said Harmon. "And the handle bars were an inch beyond my fingertips."

Harmon hasn't been able to ride her bike since.

"I've been on the exercise bike, but that doesn't count," she said with a grin.

• • •

"How's that feel in the knees?" Beland asked after helping Harmon onto a sleek tandem bike that had been set aside specially for the occasion.

Harmon, dressed in a prim white blouse and navy slacks, extended her left leg. Her weathered hands gripped the handlebars.

"Feel's good," she said, as her daughter hopped onto the seat in front of her.

After making sure nothing needed to be adjusted, mother and daughter walked arm and arm over a small bridge to the Pinellas Trail.

Within moments, they were off — and then back again in less than five minutes.

Harmon had a complaint.

"I can't steer," she said, her annoyance apparent.

Her daughter laughed and added: "She likes being in control."

Beland sprang into action, grabbing a green recumbent trike.

"Try that," he said, strapping Harmon's feet into special sandals that wouldn't allow her feet to slip.

This time, Harmon pedaled over the small bridge on her own. Her daughter and Beland watched as she maneuvered the low, sit-down bike.

"I've been doing it all my life," Harmon said. "Once I got rolling, it was great." As Harmon rode down the trail, her pace quickened, and she shouted out.

"WEEEE!"

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com.

Phyllis Harmon is the oldest living member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. Here, with her daughter, she’s all smiles as she gets ready to go on a surprise ride on Saturday morning.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Phyllis Harmon is the oldest living member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. Here, with her daughter, she’s all smiles as she gets ready to go on a surprise ride on Saturday morning.

Lifelong cyclist, 94, finds her wheels with daughter's help 05/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 8, 2011 4:11am]
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