Bike enthusiast Bill Gibson proves that age is just a number

FREE WHEELIN’ <br>Life-long bicyclist Bill Gibson makes safety a priority, and credits his sport for his long, healthy life.

Life-long bicyclist Bill Gibson makes safety a priority, and credits his sport for his long, healthy life.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

He’s pretty sure he was born near Palo Alto, but one tends to forget those kinds of things. He was young when it happened—84 years ago.

Anyway, Bill Gibson has better things to think about these days, like keeping in shape for his next century. He zips up his jersey and pulls on his clip-ins most days, logging a solid hundred miles per week on his Cannondale road bike.

And while the sport of cycling gains popularity rapidly as athletes in their 20s and 30s compete in international tours and weekend group rides, Gibson was cycling decades before Lance Armstrong was even born, and the retired teacher and part-time Irish fiddler still bears the stamina of many people half his age.

Gibson, a Chicoan who jams at Duffy’s Tavern most Fridays with The Pub Scouts, regularly climbs up Highway 32 to Forest Ranch on the weekends. It’s a one-way ride of 11.5 miles with 2,300 vertical feet of climbing. In fact, it’s the same ride sponsored each September by Chico Velo Cycling Club in which those who reach the top of the grade in fewer minutes than their age in years get a free pint of Sierra Nevada beer when they return to town. (Gibson can do 80 minutes when he’s in a hurry.)

But the lifer Californian prefers wine.

At the top of the big ascent he regularly rolls into LaRocca Vineyards’ tasting room to order a glass. The wine there is organic, made from organic grapes and also bottled without the use of any chemicals or preservatives. Few wines attain such status, and Gibson, who has long been conscientious about eating healthfully, clearly drinks with just as much scrutiny. Sort of.

“I usually get the Cabernet because it’s the only one I can pronounce,” he jokes.

Gibson first took up cycling in the 1940s. He spent several years in France during World War II (where he likely said “Merlot” a time or two). A contract engineer for the Army, he and his crew worked at constructing bridges, roads and other key transportation infrastructure.

Bike lanes were not among the priorities, but he did ride a bicycle. It was a Raleigh that he purchased in London in 1944 and took by boat to France. Gibson got in a few miles on the clunky machine before the belly of a bomber opened overhead one night and dropped its explosive cargo on the camp. A fiery drama ensued in which a speeding truck rolled over and crumpled the bike.

Gibson himself survived the war in good health and returned to California, and in the decades since, cycling has changed dramatically. Bikes today are much lighter, they have more gears, and safety precautions have become par for the course. In the 1960s, for example, helmets appeared.

“They were made of leather and people skeptically called them ‘hairnets,’ ” recalls Gibson, who has taken concerted efforts to ride cautiously and adopt safe habits and routines, though he points out that coming to a full stop at every empty intersection may actually elevate the risk level by requiring cyclists to put a foot down.

For Gibson, that means unclipping his foot from the pedal and risking toppling over, and sometimes, he confesses, he just rolls on through. Once on an evening ride through town, Gibson was pulled over.

“I had to explain my logic to the police officer,” he said. “He let me go.”

Friends and critics have told Gibson over the years that he should quit the cycling habit for safety’s sake—many cyclists know how that conversation goes—but Gibson credits the sport as one of the activities responsible for his lasting health and vigor.

He once jogged regularly, but knee problems eventually required that he take up a lower-impact sport. Speaking of impacts, Gibson fractured his collar bone in a minor crash several years ago when he hit a hidden curb, but he was back in the saddle after just several weeks.

Otherwise, Gibson’s has been a long, safe ride. He still does the occasional 100-mile day, and until a decade ago he often rode the annual Davis Double, the famed 200-miler that loops through several counties and includes 7,000 feet of climbing.

Gibson’s wife of more than 50 years, June, once rode with him, but she has never fully taken to the sport, and so Gibson finds himself solo most weekends as he crests to the 2,700-foot contour heading up to LaRocca. A glass of organic wine is just a moment away and a lunch of cheese and bread waits in his daypack. Next weekend, next month and next year, this same road will rise to meet him, but to get back home it’s all downhill.