Life on Two Wheels: 8 decades of cycling, from Canada to Colorado
August 11, 2017
Editor's note: For more photos from Dorothy Neary's decades on a bicycle, including photos from '40s-era tours to Canada, see the sports section at SummitDaily.com.
On her 92nd birthday, like she has for almost every birthday over the past eight decades, Dorothy Neary rode her bike with family.
"It was a scream," Neary said of the 6-mile ride from Loveland Ski Area to tiny Bakerville on a meandering and mostly downhill route. "It was beautiful. Everything went well — no stops, no interference."
The only difference between her 82nd birthday and the 92nd is that these days, Dorothy doesn't always pedal back uphill after a long, winding descent through her beloved Rocky Mountains. She made the ride with her daughter, Barb Neary, and Barb's husband, Dan Fillipi, and when the trio reached Bakerville, mother and daughter took a break while stepson picked up the car to shuttle everyone back into Dillon for cake and a quiet afternoon.
"I've been finding the altitude is more of a problem than it ever was before," Dorothy told me in early August, just a few weeks (and a few rides) after her birthday on July 17. "Nineties is just a number to me, but it can still be hard on the uphill, on the climb."
The Canadian tours
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Dorothy has been riding bikes longer than she can remember. As a young girl growing up in Wisconsin, she would often meet up with friends to ride around her hometown neighborhoods. When they got older, they got more adventurous, eventually leading to a "bike club" that made regular trips north into Canada for weekend getaways.
"Every weekend we would get up at the crack of dawn and hit the road, riding from hostel to hostel — there were a lot at the time — and it would cost you 25 cents a night to stay," Dorothy said of her unofficial bike club in the '40s. "We did a lot of that every weekend."
Most weekends, Dorothy would ride alongside a close friend, Hermina. The two were inseparable on bikes for decades, from those bike club rides in the '40s to longer tours in the decades to come.
One of the most memorable was in 1947, when 22-year-old Dorothy and Hermina again went north to Canada, this time as a duo, and spent several weeks pedaling through the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and all around Lake Superior. They rolled through dozens of small towns, including Highwater, Quebec, where a Greyhound bus driver took pity on two 20-something girls trying to get back home with nothing but bikes and backpacks.
"She came out time and again," Dorothy said of Hermina, then laughed at memories of their impromptu tours through post-WWII Canada. "Roads were terrible back then. There were no bike paths … (The Greyhound) had no other passengers, so he loaded our bikes in and took us to the other side of the border. He had to go that way anyway."
Into the Colorado Rockies
But biking wasn't Dorothy's only calling. She went to nursing school and started building a family with her husband, eventually growing the Neary brood to five children. As her boys and girls grew, Dorothy wanted to share her love of biking. All five children still bike, with the exception of one daughter who prefers running instead, and it all started on the first real day of summer in Wisconsin: Mother's Day.
"Mother's Day was always the first day to go riding with mom, together as a family," Dorothy remembered. Barb agreed, saying, "We know that it (biking) is special to Mom and that was a perfect way to celebrate Mother's Day with her."
In the early '80s, when kids and parents were getting older and restless, Dorothy decided to make the move to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. Unlike thousands of transplants, though, she didn't come for the skiing, or any sport really — she came to be a nurse.
From 1982 until the early 2000s, Dorothy worked for Summit Medical Center (now St. Anthony Summit Medical Center) between dozens of bikes tours. She's completed her favorite tour, Ride the Rockies, 13 times, along with out-of-state events like rides from San Francisco and Salt Lake City.
Then, there are the multiple trans-America tours. Dorothy completed several of those, including one in 1997 when she was 72 years old. She rode with a large group but often found herself riding solo, taking in miles upon miles of road at her own pace — "seeing the roses," as she calls it. She encountered dozens of people who were awed by the fact a 70-something cyclist was still riding thousands of miles at a time, and all for fun. Her favorites were in Texas, where men and women alike offered her rides in two-seater pickup trucks, or in a truck bed filled with sharp, dangerous-looking blades for deli equipment.
"I have to admit, in northern Texas I had numerous invitations for dinners," Dorothy said. "They would stop, and if they saw you stop too they would stop with you and talk a while. I had so much good luck there."
All in the family
Two years after the '97 tour, when she was 74 years old, Dorothy met with Barb and Dan for an enormous mission: bike from Anchorage, Alaska, to the southern tip of Peru — some 6,500 miles in a straight line, and they would not be taking a straight line.
Dorothy met her daughter in the small town of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Barb and Dan had already biked several hundred miles from Anchorage, where they had been living, and met mom on a misty, rainy day.
"It was a barren old place," Dorothy remembered of Prince Rupert. "I was the only one who got off the plane and they met me there to start the tour."
The trio left Prince Rupert in mid-spring, when snowmelt was running through the Canadian Rockies and everything — flowers, deer, bears, even people — were waking up again. Dorothy remembered a mama bear with two cubs that spotted the group, eyed them for a beat or two, and then scampered up a nearby tree with her youngsters. She also remembered Going-to-the-Sun Road: an unbelievably scenic stretch from Canada into Montana.
"The scenery in the spring when we were there was lovely," Dorothy said. "Going down this road, all of the water is pouring off the rocks on one side. You are completely soaked, the road isn't wide, the cars are going right next to you, and when we got to the bottom it was the coldest and wettest I've ever been."
Rather than camp that night — all three people in the group towed their gear in small bob trailers and rarely stayed indoors — the three rode their wet bones to a motel nearby. There was "no room at the inn," Dorothy laughed, but a group heard their plight and took pity, offering to put up all three bikers in a single-person cabin for the night.
It was one of the best nights of the trip, and it was needed: While Dan and Barb rode on to finish 5,100 between Alaska and Patagonia, mom split off near Colorado to join up with Ride the Rockies. She was already registered, after all.
Dorothy's rides are shorter these days. She skipped Ride the Rockies this summer for the first time in several years, but she still owns four bikes (two of which she's outgrown) and rides as often as she can.
"The people I've met make it worthwhile," Dorothy said of her decades in the saddle. "You find out that our country isn't such a bad place after all. We go a little faster today than in the early days, but it isn't a bad place."
By now, history is beginning to catch up with her. Earlier this summer, Dorothy and Barb traveled back to Wisconsin, where they visited Hermina's grave and dug through some old items hanging in Dorothy's brother's garage. There, with other relics from her childhood, was the singlespeed bike she rode in the '40s with Hermina and the bike club.
"It was really cool to see this piece of family history I've heard about my entire life," Barb said. "It's what she took to Canada with her friend right after World War II."
And she has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
"I've enjoyed biking a lot, just going slow, seeing the roses, enjoying my time," Dorothy said. "I'm 92 years old, but it's just a number, I like to say."