Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Matt Garner
Starkville computer programmer Mike Kerr wasn’t surprised last year when his doctor told him he was teetering on the brink of diabetes.
His job kept him busy and mostly sedentary. His diet groaned with sweets.
He had been tracking his blood sugar and had noticed the rising numbers. He knew he needed exercise, but at 57, he didn’t think his knees could take the punishment of a serious walking or running regimen. And so he turned to a friend — Jimmy Richardson, president emeritus of Starkville in Motion, a non-profit, grassroots organization dedicated to promoting bike lanes, walking trails and sidewalks in Starkville and Oktibbeha County.
What happened next surprised everyone, most of all Kerr. He took Richardson up on his suggestion to try bicycling, and within a month, he was biking to work. At first, he could barely make the mile and a half ride. He had to walk the bike up hills, and as he did, he huffed, puffed and laughed at himself.
But then a strange thing happened — he realized he was having fun, and best of all, his body was responding to the increased exercise and dietary improvements. Within a month, the arduous ride to work was too easy, so he found a new, 5-mile route. A month later, that was too easy also. He found a 7.5-mile route to work.
Today, a year later, Kerr’s life has completely changed. He’s lost 45 pounds, and his blood sugar levels have stabilized to the point that diabetes is no longer a looming threat. Recently, he and Richardson completed 41- and 42-mile rides together. And instead of dreading exercise, he looks forward to it.
So why did Kerr succeed when so many others decide to try cycling, buy a bike, take the first ride and end up shoving it in the garage to gather dust? How does the average couch potato get away from the television and embark on exploring not only a healthier way of life but also the bounty of geographical riches Mississippi has to offer?
VISIT YOUR LOCAL BIKE SHOP. Talk to the employees. Be honest about your fitness level and goals.
“You’re just not going to get good biking advice in a department store,” says Jan Morgan, who co-owns Boardtown Bikes in Starkville with her husband, David. “If you feel like you’re too old or there’s a health or confidence issue, we can talk about your particular situation.”
DECIDE WHAT TYPE OF TERRAIN YOU PLAN TO RIDE. Though there are many types of bicycles, Richardson says the average beginner will want to start with a road bike, mountain bike or hybrid of the two.
Road bikes are lightweight and have narrow tires. They’re well-suited to paved surfaces and long distances but bog down in dirt and gravel, making the ride difficult and increasing the chance of falls. Mountain bikes are heavier and have large, knotted tires. They perform well in rough terrain but are hard on the body if you plan to ride the 444-mile length of the Natchez Trace. Hybrids offer the best of both worlds. With larger tires than the road bike, but smaller tires than the mountain bike, they’re suitable for pavement or off-road as long as the environment isn’t too extreme. Whichever you choose, expect to pay $350 to $500 for a sturdy, well-built beginner’s bike.
SPLURGE FOR A CUSTOM BIKE FITTING. “Getting the right size is important,” says Morgan. “It makes it more comfortable, more fun and makes a world of difference. People get on a bike and it’s not comfortable, and they think it’s supposed to be that way. It’s absolutely not supposed to be that way.”
A custom fitting session at Boardtown Bikes costs $125 and takes at least three hours. The service includes a three-dimensional physical assessment of the rider, analyzing flexibility, structural issues, pedal angles, joint bends and more.
INVEST IN THE PROPER GEAR. Richardson says every rider should buy a decent helmet, available at any big-box store for around $25. In addition, fingerless riding gloves and padded riding shorts cost little but can go a long way towards making your ride more comfortable.
GET A BUDDY. “Find somebody to partner with,” says Kerr. “You get the encouragement, and you’re less likely to put off doing it. Jimmy was very good about toning his ride down to match mine.”
A number of local groups, including bikers who gather at Boardtown Bikes Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings, offer “No Drop” rides. In other words, no rider gets left behind, no matter how slow they are.
“Somebody will always be with you,” Morgan says. “Usually, it’s me. I’m 57 years old. I don’t get in a big hurry.”
IN THE BEGINNING, TAKE IT SLOW. “I started out struggling just to do that mile and a half,” says Kerr. “Don’t expect too much. Plan on going slow and staying at that slow level for weeks on end.”
Morgan agrees. “For your first ride, you don’t want to go 30 miles,” she says, laughing. “Just go two or three miles. Pick a buddy, pick a spot, and try it out. See how you feel.”
STAY SAFE AND RESPECT THE LAW. “Please learn the rules of the road and use them,” says Richardson. “You make it terrible for everyone if you don’t do things legally. Motorists get angry, and they transfer that to other cyclists. Bikes use the same rules as automobiles. A lot of people just go helter skelter, and they can cause an accident.”
HAVE FUN. Find a pretty route and change it up occasionally. Join a local group. If you’re into gadgets, consider buying a pocket GPS to trace your route. Set goals and celebrate small successes.
Richardson, who completed a 4,000-mile Pacific to Atlantic trip in several separate rides last year at the age of 64, says he’s enjoyed every one of the nearly 12,000 miles he’s logged.
“It’s so peaceful to ride a bike,” he says. “It’s just a great, relaxing hobby. When you cross a pretty stream, stop and look at it. Enjoy it. This is a beautiful country we have, and when you’re riding it, you get to see it in ways you just can’t in a car.”