Lois Bowman begins her ride in the parking lot by the seminary, just down the hill from her home on Mount Clinton Pike. She usually starts sometime around 6 p.m., once rush hour has petered out and the heat has broken.
Bowman, historical librarian at Eastern Mennonite University, is a creature of habit. She follows the same sinuous route through Park View each time she rides: first south along South College Street, then north to the very tip of Harmony Heights, with frequent side jaunts, back-tracks and loop-‘rounds to add more miles.
She usually rides at least eight miles, and has been recently adding more twists and turns to the route, trying to up the total while remaining within the relatively flat, quiet and friendly confines of Park View. If she gets back to the seminary and feels like tacking on a bit, she does loops of the parking lot, which is a good, strong tenth of a mile in perimeter.
As of July 19, four days before her 76th birthday, she’d ridden 234 miles since May, as part of EMU’s contribution to the National Bike Challenge – a nationwide effort to have 50,000 riders log a collective 10 million miles through the end of August.
At first, Bowman thought she’d just do it for fun. Then she discovered the online “leader board” that allows her to compare her mileage totals to other participants at EMU, and her competitive spirit kicked in.
“I figured if I could ride a couple times and get ahead of the next person, well I would do that. It’s been fun, and a challenge,” she says.
The gently competitive aspect of the National Bike Challenge is part of its allure for other EMU bikers too.
“It definitely is motivating to look and see where other people are,” says Andrea Schrock Wenger, EMU’s director of marketing and communications, currently trailing Bowman in the overall standings. “If you see Lois Bowman beating you, it makes you want to put in some extra miles.”
On her regular circuits, Bowman enjoys tracking the progress of a few homes under construction in the neighborhood. She gets a feel for who keeps up their yard and who doesn’t. She’s become acquainted in passing with the people who spend their evenings outside as she rolls on by.
Bowman rides as often as she can, whenever she has a free evening and the weather’s kind. That means Monday is always out, because that’s the night she plays her fiddle at a country jam out west of town, and she “wouldn’t miss that for anything.” And the first Thursday of the month is out: HAM radio club. And the second Thursday of the month is out, too, another music jam at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. But other nights, she usually bikes.
This started back in 2005, when Bowman would accompany her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren to Hillandale Park, where the grandkids were learning to ride their bikes. And when they got the hang of it, she felt like she wanted to keep up. So she paid a visit to Mole Hill Bikes in Dayton, where she bought a Giant, equipped with lights, mirror, computer, drink rack and 21 speeds, of which she uses about the easiest third.
Riding it does wonders for her strength, she’s noticed. She just feels good, and it has worked wonders for her back pain, she says. Everyone should try it.
After she and the grandkids began biking together, they rode the five-mile route at the Bike Shenandoah fundraiser in 2006 and for the next couple years. Now her grandkids have gotten old enough that they’ve lost interest in Bike Shenandoah, but Bowman’s still at.
The route gets harder up north, on the ascent to Harmony Heights toward the cul-de-sac beside EMU President Swartzendruber’s house. At the summit of a rolling hill on Park Road, Bowman gears down and accelerates. “Let ‘er rip!” she exclaims, leaning forward against the wind, topping out at 23 miles per hour.
She was nervous to be out on the bike at first. She says she’s been intimidated by a lot of the things she’s done in her life, like going to Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree in Germanic languages in 1963. And she was intimidated about returning to Park View to join the faculty of what was then EMC, teaching Latin and German. But being intimidated, she says, is different than being unable – something she’s become more convinced of the older she gets.
“People shouldn’t make excuses for their age, because you never know what you can do until you try it,” she says. “Don’t back off of something just because it’s intimidating. Give it a try. Usually it’s not half as bad as you think it’s going to be.”
In its final half, Bowman’s route winds around the apartment building neighborhoods near Food Lion. All this used to be fields when Bowman moved here, at age 12, in 1948. When she was a girl, she lived on Chicago Avenue and took piano lessons in the house that’s now the Gemeinschaft, a home for prisoners transitioning to freedom. She rode her bike, an ancient, single-speed hand-me-down, up the Mount Clinton Pike hill to get there, zigzagging across the road when the grade got too steep. Park View has “changed dramatically” since then. It’s amazing how quickly the time’s gone by, says Bowman, now, decades later, traversing the same familiar terrain, again by bike.
Approaching mile eight, Lois makes a regular stop at the home of her sister, Ruth L. Burkholder, who lives along Park Road on the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community campus. Lois drinks a glass of Ginger Ale. She usually gets to her sister’s place partway through Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy!, and they chat for a minute, and then, she’s back on the bike, homeward bound, another nine miles in the books.