When Jay Bender was turning 40, his wife, Rita, thought, "What the heck am I going to get him for his birthday?"
The answer was nearby. "I was in a shopping center on Commack Road; there was a bike shop in there," she said. "He had been a jogger and kept getting shin splints. I said, 'I'll get him a bicycle!' "
She brought it home, parked it in the middle of their family room in Dix Hills and tied a red ribbon to the handlebar. "When he came home, he said 'What's that?' " Rita recalled. "I said, 'Your birthday present.' He said, 'What am I going to do with that?' I said, 'Ride it.' "
And so he has. For the past 40 years. And not just around the block.
His most recent bicycle venture took him from Long Island to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania -- a one-way, six-day, 390-mile trip he made with seven buddies, all members of an informal but tightly knit group of older riders who call themselves Crankin' Old Men.
Bender is now 80, retired from the home furnishings industry, a great-grandfather of two and an accomplished road cyclist. There are about 25 members of Crankin' Old Men who range in age from 59 to 84. Some, like Bender, have been riding for years; others started more recently to lose weight and get in shape without aggravating creaky joints -- something well-suited to bicycle-riding.
They pedal together three times a week, year-round. Usually the rides are 30-40 miles, with the group departing from the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Huntington Station. Each ride is followed by a breakfast during which there is much good-natured ribbing about who was slowest, who has the worst-looking bike shorts, who couldn't change a flat tire if his life depended on it and so forth.
Once a year, eight of the most hardy of the Crankin' Old Men go on a road trip. (Cranking is a term road cyclists use to describe someone who is riding hard and fast.) The Men have been doing these trips together for nearly a quarter-century. Past destinations have included the Blue Ridge Mountains, Cape Cod, the Finger Lakes, Canadian Rockies and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The origins of the annual trip and the group are a bit murky. What the Men agree on is that they are a spinoff of the Huntington Bicycle Club, and their acknowledged leader was Harry Peckham, a senior cyclist who lived in Huntington Station and died in 2004 at the age of 77. Bender said Peckhan "had an extensive military background and believed in teamwork and esprit de corps. We all learned a lot from him."
Nothing is left to chance
Those lessons are evident in the annual road trip; a marvel of organization and efficiency. "Like a well-oiled machine," Bender said proudly. "Everyone knows their jobs."
Planning starts in the spring. Once a destination is set, motels are booked, a 15-passenger van is rented, provisions purchased, a course mapped out. The Gettysburg trip took them from Greenlawn, along back roads through Nassau and Queens, over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan.
"Riding in the city is always an experience," said Bender. Maybe, it's the spectacle of eight older bicyclists wearing matching yellow jerseys with the Crankin' Old Men logo: a rider on a Victorian penny-farthing bike. In Brooklyn, "People were taking photos of us," Bender said. "They were yelling, 'Where ya' going?' When we told them -- their jaws dropped."
The generally friendly reception by pedestrians and drivers in traffic was a welcome change. "We didn't get anything thrown at us," Bender said. "We didn't get driven off the roads. That's happened in the past."
In all, eight of the Men, including Bender, completed the June trip: Don Natiello, 67, Paul Modelewski, 59, and Marvin Gerber, 76, all from Greenlawn; Bob McLaughlin, 68, of Huntington; Tony Barone, 82, of Dix Hills; Don Auriemma, 73, of Cold Spring Harbor; and Alec Dick, 73, a former Syosset resident who now lives in Chestertown, Maryland.
Staying safe on the road
To minimize problems, the Men ride defensively. "The key is communication," says Auriemma, a retired corporate consultant. "We always yell, 'Car back!' when there's a car behind us. We make sure everyone stays in line."
After taking the Staten Island Ferry, the Men headed south to New Jersey -- battling stiff headwinds and hills much of the way -- then rode through Delaware, Maryland, and, finally, reached Pennsylvania. The Men took turns driving the van that followed the cyclists with daily supplies for the six- to seven-hour rides.
On the road, there was only one stop for lunch before ending each of the riding days with dinner at a local restaurant. Even here, things were well organized. "We had a designated treasurer who took care of payments" for meals, motels and other expenses, McLaughlin said. It cost each rider $1,000 for the trip. "It's really a team effort," Auriemma said.
It's also good for their physical and mental health. "This is what psychologists call social support," said Norman Abeles, emeritus professor of psychology at Michigan State University and an expert on mental health for seniors. "They support each other, they have meaningful friendships and they're probably healthier, more exercise- and weight-conscious, and more relationship-oriented as a result."
The morning after arriving in Gettysburg, they stashed the bikes in the van, headed home and checked off another successful road trip for the troops while the wives stayed home.
"My wife and I have our joint interests and our separate interests and that makes for a 43-year marriage," McLaughlin said. This year, when his wife, Suzan, asked how long his trip would be, he told her about a week. Her reply: "That's all?"
Although there are women who ride on weekend excursions with the Huntington Bike Club, the Crankin' Old Men trips are for guys only.
Rita Bender said there's no way she could ride with the Men, even if they made an exception and allowed her. Years ago, she pedaled 8 miles from her home to Huntington and ended up taking a taxi home, with the bike in the trunk.
For her husband, it's a different story. "I think it's a wonderful thing for him to have this exercise and camaraderie," she says. Being part of the Crankin' Old Men, doing the weekly rides, planning and participating in the annual excursion is more than a hobby, she said. "It's a way of life for him."