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Omaha Magazine

Life Cycles

Dec 21, 2023 11:46AM ● By Lisa Lukecart
60+ active living  life cycles tom sitzman january february 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Tom Sitzman, a self-proclaimed nomadic cyclist, needs to hit the road. The 81-year-old finds little use in “new-fangled electronics,” preferring to memorize the 80-mile route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Hamburg, Iowa. He throws on trusty black cargo shorts, a sun-protective long-sleeve vented shirt, and a neon green reflective vest. His modern blue helmet contrasts with the outdated smooth seat on his silver Bianchi bicycle. The ebony leather saddle supported his bones for 33 years, and the shape now fits his backside like a well-loved baseball glove. Padded underwear underneath protects his bottom on longer excursions. Alpaca socks temper the smell of sweaty rides, while walnut-colored ventilated hiking sneakers add breathability and opportunity for possible rocky climbs on land at campsites. Rather than sporting high-tech road shades, his gold-rimmed glasses transition in the sunlight.

“I’m not a billboard,” Sitzman joked. “I don’t wear racing jerseys like the Tour de France.” 

For him, the road calls not for bragging rights about mileage on a watch but for the experience. That doesn’t depend on fancy equipment. Supplies and planning remain an integral part of trips since survival becomes necessary with unexpected weather or injuries prone to happen on journeys. A dusty gray backpack, suspended from a metal frame on the front tire, holds emergency supplies like a raincoat and remains within easy reach during a freak thunderstorm. A tent, sleeping bag, and a few extra clothing items somehow squeeze into a red backpack on the back tire. Food (especially cheese), a pot, and a stove find their way into another backpack, always with a plastic spoon in case an ice cream stop happens. Tire fixing provisions, including a spare tire, fold into a smaller carrier under the seat. An air pump fits under the top tube of the bike, and an extra backpack could even act as a washing machine on the road for dirty items.
After checking the lights and putting on his gloves, the cyclist heads out for yet another adventure…against the wind, unfortunately. 

No amount of groundwork covers the unexpected shifts in nature, but who would ever leave if one waited for perfect conditions? 

“The secret to life is to keep moving,” Sitzman said.

This motto reflects his time as a physical education teacher with Omaha Public Schools for 29 years, plus a few more at Boys Town, and as a recreation director at the Jewish Community Center. Sitzman’s authenticity for his studies transformed into living what he taught. 

When gas prices rose to almost 40 cents a gallon in the 1970s, Sitzman ditched the automobile and hitched a ride on his first adult bike to and from work. Sure, hazards such as a car hitting him twice might deter others from venturing out. 

“Hey, what doesn’t kill you…makes you paranoid,” Sitzman joked.

Sometimes, depending on the school, the teacher traveled over 20 miles in a day or even further to “take the road less traveled.” Nature beckoned, allowing him to take in the smells, shapes, and sounds of the passing landscape.

Sitzman handed on this passion for the outdoors, whether canoeing, hiking, or cycling, to his three children. Voyages on his bike with family, friends, or alone tallied up 27 states and almost every province in Canada except Newfoundland. Rainstorms, heat, and wind wreaked havoc during a 561-mile trip back from Green Bay, Wisconsin. His son Dan, 15 at the time, and a then 40-year-old Sitzman acclimated to the conditions. The memories of laughing and challenging themselves bonded them. Dan, now 56, followed in his father’s pedal turns by biking to his jobs at Omaha Public Schools as a science teacher and later as an Experience Coordinator with Kiewit Luminarium.

Three generational trips meant time together on dirt roads, streets, and trails at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia near the Great Allegheny Passage to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath along the Potomac River to the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska. The 330-mile trip from Pittsburg to Washington D.C. turned into a sentimental tribute to his brother and fellow cyclist, Bob, who died after a hard fight with cancer. 

Age doesn’t matter when packing up and hitting the trails, even as sun damage and wrinkles appeared on Sitzman’s weathered face from time spent in the sunshine. But after two knee replacements, most likely damaged during his youthful days of football, track, and gymnastics, he severed his Achilles tendon a year later, followed by a rupture in his other leg after raking leaves.   
“It’s no hero story,” he said, laughing. “The body is like an old car that is chugging, chugging, chugging. You get a good mechanic to fix it.”

Sitzman took that time recovering during the pandemic to start writing a book about bicycle touring and living a nomadic life. When he borrowed Dan’s indoor trainer, his son didn’t seem surprised or worried about his father’s age. 

“I would rather have him biking instead of sitting there watching TV and having a heart attack because he’s not moving around,” Dan said. 

Movement played a part in Sitzman’s artwork like  his sculpture, “The Leaper,” which graces Catlin Elementary School. He picked up sculpting steel after leaving the classroom behind, opening the Connect Gallery and Studios in 2013, which he closed six years later when he retired.

Despite the injuries slowing him down, a solid baseline allowed the biker to recover so rapidly that it shocked his doctors. Even though Sitzman takes his heart rate old school utilizing his analog watch, his wife, Jean, insisted he purchase a smartphone last year just in case. 

“There is no way I could stop him,” Jean said. “But he comes back with good stories.”

Sitzman called her on the 80-mile grueling trip back from Waubonsie State Park in Iowa. Despite camping overnight, the wind shifted. He calculated the deficit from facing the wind head-on, intuitively identified his speed, and realized he would arrive an hour late for dinner. Sitzman thought about his next family trip, possibly Ireland, as he rode into the sunset.  

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, 
click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

 

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