Eighty miles for 80 years: John Shepherd is RF’s happiest cyclist
"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm."—Henry David Thoreau
Said the bard of Walden Pond. If that's true, the five friends who cycled north from River Falls early one summer morning were the epitome of youth. The calendar told a different story.
Eric and Mark were youngsters in their early 60s. Dan and Jim bookended the 70-year milestone. Up front, dancing on his pedals and attacking the first hill was John Shepherd, the birthday boy. He'd just turned 80 and the goal was 80 miles.
Approximately one out of three Americans is over 50. Many of them look ahead with concern about their health and happiness. As John enters his ninth decade, his life is a testament to the idea that while there are no guarantees, it's a lot more fun to get outside, do your best and pursue your passions. And if your passion is cycling, ride your bike like you stole it.
The first time I met John Shepherd he was yelling. That did not seem out of place because a rider was lying on the road with a broken collarbone after a bike crash. I told this story to a friend who said, "The first time I met John, he was yelling too. But we were in a restaurant."
Yelling may be a little harsh but let's just say that you can hear John speak over jet engines. A colleague of his recalls that John was a familiar figure at University of Wisconsin-River Falls faculty meetings, standing at the rear of the auditorium. Despite his location on the periphery, all heads would turn when he boomed out a comment in his stentorian voice, spiced with a distinct British accent. Now, at age 80, he's still the kind of guy who speaks in a forceful volume that turns heads at the local coffee shop.
Perhaps that's what you get if you grow up in London amid air raid sirens and Luftwaffe bomb explosions. Born in 1937, John remembers playing among wreckage, and picking up spent shell casings which had rained over the neighborhood during strafing runs and dogfights.
John was also always interested in anything scientific. One of his biggest disappointments as a small boy occurred when a damaged V-2 missile fell on the neighborhood while he was out of town. He wanted to inspect the engine.
It was a difficult time and John grew up tough. As the wartime danger increased many civil servants including John's father were sent to Wales for safekeeping. Allies or not, the Welsh children picked on the newcomers incessantly, particularly tormenting John's older brother. That did not work out so well for them when they tried to bully John, a feisty type who would eventually become a fierce rugby player and an English judo champion.
He grew up enjoying sports. He was a school champion in the 100 meter dash. Studies came first however, and he gained entrance into the prestigious Imperial College. This may be where his love affair with cycling began. He procured an old fixed gear bike to buzz around London between classes.
The bike was not the only love affair to begin at Imperial College. There he met and successfully courted his future wife, Bev, despite overwhelming odds—a college enrollment of 3,000 men and 100 women.
At that time there were no weight classes in judo but despite his slight stature, John was the captain of the All-British University Judo Team. He was also an instructor. Bev was an iconoclast
herself. She and a friend decided to break the martial arts glass ceiling by enrolling in John's judo class. Soon the martial arts turned to marital arts and John and Bev were married.
John's first university teaching position brought him to the United States at Case University in Cleveland. They returned to England in order for Bev to be with her mother who was dying. Eventually they returned to the United States where John took a position as a physics professor at the UW-RF. He and Bev have remained in River Falls ever since.
John became a well known character in the community as he pursued his interests with vigor and his usual loud voice. To see his largest passion, one need only visit the giant university sundial, designed and "shepherded" to completion by John. Standing 60 feet tall it was, and may still be, the tallest sundial in America. Its accuracy is startling.
When John retired, he did not slow down. He continued to pursue his cycling and skiing interests, and coached soccer on the side. For years, he placed highly in his age group in the American Birkebeiner. In River Falls he helped organize "the Wednesday Night Ride." The Wednesday Ride is a curious amalgamation of cyclists of all ages and gender, although there is a distinct AARP feel to the group. So loosely organized that one rider refers to it as the YCTA Bike Club, (You Call This A Bike Club?), it is a fun group, open to all, that celebrates the end of each ride with a cookout. John sends out a weekly reminder and weather forecast and is a mainstay of the ride.
Although double the age of many of the riders, John keeps up by supplementing his riding and skiing with a vigorous schedule of Body Pump, a weightlifting class held at the local Y. He is notorious for the outsized pile of weights he stacks on his bar despite his slight frame.
This regimen has also helped him weather some tough times. He's not bullet proof, and in the past 10 years has dealt with atrial flutter which required cardioversion and an ablation. He also is a prostate cancer survivor and has a shoulder so badly damaged that it's been judged beyond repair. No matter. John soldiers on and finds time to chip in on community events.
Of great importance to the cycling and wellness community is his chairmanship of the Tri4Grace, a charity triathlon established in memory of Grace Goblirsch, a young River Falls college student who was taken by cancer. Proceeds support a scholarship awarded to a student who has been directly affected in some way by cancer.
John turned 80 this year. His family and academic associates celebrated that milestone with a traditional surprise birthday party. His cycling friends insisted that he celebrate by riding mileage equal to his age. He protested that he annually rides the Minnesota MS 150. His claim was disallowed because the MS 150 is done over two days and so it came to pass on Aug. 23, 2017, that John Shepherd led his friends on a brisk 80-mile ride from River Falls north and over the new Stillwater bridge. The crew returned in time to catch the beginning of the Wednesday Night Ride and finish up the necessary miles to make it an 80-mile day.
From the bombed out streets of London to his bucolic small college town on the beautiful Kinnickinnic River, John has lived a life of intellectual curiosity, vigor and healthy addiction to the pleasures of outdoor exercise. There are many stories like this in silent sports territory and we need to share and cherish them.
There's an odd form of discrimination that discourages older folks from taking risks, be they
physical or emotional. Sure, accidents happen on skis and bikes but illnesses from decreased activity and a sedentary lifestyle are a bigger danger. Occasionally you'll catch a younger faster athlete smirking as you're passed, but that's a small price to pay for staying active. If you're reading this and wondering if you dare go for a group ride, or even a run or hike with younger friends, don't sell yourself short. John is not the fastest rider in River Falls but he is one of the happiest. It's a joy that we can all share by setting aside our egos and taking a little risk.