Cycling across Canada
I first witnessed Richard Gibbs’s astounding physical fitness while waiting for a ferry at the crest of the steep hill that leads to B.C.’s Blubber Bay ferry terminal. A helmeted cyclist flashed past me, his tanned, muscular legs going like pistons, executing a high-speed swooping turn at the bottom before shooting back up at the same speed.
What drives this 77-year-old to push his limits? And why does this Texada Island resident remain a competitive cyclist, riding 50 to 100 kilometres a day? When I met him later, I asked those questions.
“I am even competitive with myself. Do I have a complex where I have to prove myself? I have no idea,” said Gibbs.
“In 1967, I weighed 200 pounds, drank beer, and my diet was terrible.” Those factors combined with a stressful job led to a heart attack at 39. “When I came out of hospital, I was so depressed. The doctors told me I could never work again as a heavy equipment mechanic.”
With the same determination that allows him to win gruelling cycling marathons today, he proved his doctors wrong by adopting a healthy diet and getting active. Gibbs laughs when he tells of taking their stress test, running up and do stairs until he tired. “They finally stopped me when they got tired of watching me.”
Gibbs has high blood pressure, 170 over 83. If he rides 50 to 100 kilometres, it drops to 117 over 65 and will stay like that for the rest of the day. He takes no medication, just garlic pills twice a day, and has a resting pulse of 40. No bad cholesterol here. He gave up coffee recently, realizing it jumped his blood pressure by 20 points.
Gibbs admits he still drinks beer. “A funny thing is that drinking beer and cycling brings my blood pressure down.” Gibbs’s doctor says he has it made: “All you have to do is ride your bike to the pub.”
Gibbs keeps his five-foot-ten frame at 155 pounds but maintains there’s nothing special about his diet. “I eat well-balanced meals with lots of fruits, vegetables and nuts,” he says. “I keep my weight down by forgetting to eat when I’m cycling, but I always carry a few power bars.”
He competed in his first race at 14, coming third. “I was always bike crazy. Food was scarce in England during the war, and the cycling club fed us after the race. But if you weren’t fast enough, you didn’t get anything to eat,” said Gibbs.
He won his first gold cycling medal in the 1984 B.C. Senior Games at 56 and most recently collected three golds and a silver in the October 2004 Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, winning the world champion cycling shirt in his age group.
Gibbs talked of retiring from racing after Utah but reasons: “If it wasn’t for racing, I’d have no incentive to keep fit. Before I started cycling again, I was a wreck. I had terrible back and shoulder aches but found riding knocks heck out of the arthritis.”
He recently heard from Paul Hendricks, co-ordinator of the B.C. Senior Games, who wrote to Gibbs, pleading with him not to stop riding. “You’re too important an inspiration for the rest of us.”
Gibbs has not only motivated his family but as his wife, Alma, says, “He has inspired a few people to do better.” On Texada, she introduces herself as “the cyclist’s wife.”
“My father’s fitness has inspired all of us,” says 52-year-old Maryanne Strano, his eldest daughter. “I started running after I turned 50 and felt out of shape.” She joined her father in Utah for her first competition at the 2004 Huntsman World Senior Games, showing her father’s grit.
“She ran the half-marathon and came fourth in her category despite a broken toe,” says Gibbs.
Gibbs has had injuries too, breaking his collarbone in a fall in May 2004. Friends thought that would be the end of his racing career, but Gibbs laughs and says, “I was back on my bike two weeks later.”
He remains a catalyst and inspiration for two of his daughters, aged 38 and 52, who signed up for the running events at the World Masters Games in Edmonton this past July where their father took home a bronze medal.
Because Gibbs couldn’t train in Yuma, Ariz., this winter, he’ll “go on a few long rides” to make up for it. When pressed for an example, he states, “Calgary.”
Gibbs has cycled twice across Canada, averaging 100 miles a day “just for the fun of it.” His first trip was in 1998. “I always wanted to do it. I was getting close to 70 and thought I’d better hurry up, or I might never be able to.”
On his second trip, Gibbs travelled east to west. Along the way, he met up with four younger cyclists in Nova Scotia. “We more or less stayed together until Quebec City,” he says. “I got fed up because I couldn’t ride that slowly. I had to keep stopping and waiting for them.”
Gibbs says, “I might do it again next year with my grandson.”
Richard Gibbs’s philosophy is simple: “In order to keep fit, you can’t dabble at it but have to be consistent in pushing yourself to the limits of whatever level your health allows.”