Forty years ago Frank Peckham looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw. "I was 30 pounds overweight, out of shape and I felt sluggish," says Peckham, now 88, a retired production planner for Grumman.

He'd always been active, he says, but his desk job contributed to a sedentary lifestyle. "I had to do something or I'd go downhill fast," he recalled.

An old bike in his garage brought back memories of his days as a newspaper delivery boy. He started tooling around his Wantagh neighborhood and soon upgraded to a more modern bike, joined a bicycling club and ventured on trips throughout the Northeast. 

Yes they can
Peckham is among the growing ranks of older bicyclists who possess an age-is-only-a-number attitude. Pedaling a bicycle gets them out of the house and into their communities. They enjoy the company of other bikers while their squishy midsections become leaner. And, hey, they save gas while staying fit.

"It's fun," says Peckham, who stays fit in winter by cross-country skiing at Bethpage State Park. "I'm not trying to prove anything, but I believe that too many older people just sit around because they think they can't do anything else," he says. "Big mistake. Physical activity is important to a healthy retirement."

Judy Kelsey, 59, attaches the front wheel of her bike as her husband Nicholas Kelsey, 65, holds it steady at Eisenhower State Park. The couple live in Merrick but like to bicycle in nearby parks. Photo Credit: Dave Sanders, March 2010

Over the years he's chalked up an astonishing 157,493 miles of road-riding plus 15,004 more of mountain biking -- and counting -- every mile meticulously posted in a log he's kept.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Off-road biking is the way to go nowadays, You don't have to worry about traffic, and when you fall, it's on soft ground," says this octogenarian who considers the numerous broken bones and bruises he's received while cycling as badges of honor. "Sure, I've slowed down, and I wear a pacemaker now," he reveals, "but my cardiologist says that whatever I'm doing to keep it up."

Of course, it's always advisable for adults of any age -- but especially seniors who plan to jump into a sport -- to first get the go-ahead from a doctor, even for a relatively low-impact activity.

"Older people often feel fine, but they may not be," says geriatric specialist Dr. Alan Lucks who practices in Centereach and Ridge. "Bicycling is a good exercise for those in good condition," says Lucks, who recommends a stress test before taking up the sport. 

Riding the blues away
Sometimes, determined cyclists who are older have to fend off objections from well-intentioned family members who worry about safety issues. But for many who take to the roads, it's that fresh-air-feel-good high that keeps bringing them back.

"I lost my wife some years ago and live alone," says Nick Russolillo, 88, of Massapequa. "Sometimes I get so lonely I start talking to myself. So I stop what I'm doing, grab my riding shoes and my helmet and get out on my bike for a while. When I get back, I feel great, whatever was bothering me is gone -- I can't even remember what it was."

Freedom and weight control
Alice Rogers, 54, of Merrick agrees. "It's a wind-in-your-hair freedom, an exhilarating feeling," she says. But Rogers says there's also another incentive. "It helps me keep off the weight I lost -- over 100 pounds -- and now my goal is to enter a triathlon."

Statistics from the National Sporting Goods Association show that more than 44 million Americans participated in cycling in 2008, an increase of more than 11 percent from the previous year.

Most Long Island bicycle clubs note that more than half their members are over age 50. According to media reports, some developers of retirement communities in other parts of the country are now installing bike and walking paths rather than golf courses as amenities.

One of this leisure sport's biggest boosters is Bicycling Magazine which has been spearheading a nationwide program called BikeTown. For the past seven years, the magazine has chosen a city and invited residents to write essays explaining how a bicycle would improve their lifestyle.

Winners are given a start-up package worth $550, including a Jamis bike, Lazer helmet and OnGuard lock. Last year's contest focused on the Westbury area, and winners' bikes were assembled by Adventure Cycle & Sports in Farmingdale.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The bike is a 'commuter' model, designed for adult beginners who would likely use it for short local trips," says Loren Mooney, the magazine's editor. "It's very stable, with nice fat tires for a smooth ride, and it allows the rider to sit upright rather than bent over the handlebars in a racing or touring bike stance. We've found that many seniors enter and win."

The magazine also does a follow-up on winners. "We're gratified to hear glowing reports of higher energy levels and improved health," Mooney said. "This underscores the motivation of our co-sponsor, Met Life, which is in the business of promoting healthy lifestyles."

Last year's 30 recipients were mostly women, reflecting their growing participation in cycling.

In her winning essay, Judy Kelsey, 59, of Merrick, wrote that her whole family rides bikes -- mostly odd contraptions engineered with castoff parts by her son, Tristan, 19. Hers was 30 years old, very heavy and had only two balky gears.

"It was so exciting to win the new bike," she says. "It's a beauty. I even rode in the winter dressed in 12 layers of clothes. I can hardly wait for the warm weather. I'll be out there every chance I get."