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Cycling brought out best in friendship

October 14, 2012
By John Frederick ( , The Altoona Mirror

Gary Kephart seldom made any headlines on the Mirror sports page.

Gary was Blair County's Raymond Poulidor, the famous Tour de France racer that had the misfortune of racing during the careers of two of cycling's greatest, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. Poulidor would finish second or third in the world's greatest bike race eight times to the two legendary winners. Like Poulidor, Gary just kept riding, riding well and riding often.

I met Gary and cycling legend Ken Steel on the same day I was introduced to glycogen debt in 1975. On a late April day sliced from the edge of heaven, the two cyclists joined a Penn State Altoona physical education class for a 100-mile ride to State College and back.

I was in that class and was striving for an A that went to everyone that completed the 100-mile trek. Gary and Ken both rode me into the ground that day.

Though I managed to keep up with their blistering pace through the first half of the ride, I faded as I had my first experience with glycogen debt. I hit the "wall" somewhere around mile 70 and never saw the two riders again.

But that day was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for three-plus decades. We rode together countless times over the next 10 years. As I grew stronger, my youth eventually enabled me to get the better of Gary (six years my senior) on most days. Yet, whether in a race or a ride, he was never far behind.

Ken Steel dragged us through central Pennsylvania's countryside, and we came to enjoy the wonders and beauty of the region as much as the physical challenge of the mountains.

Through it all, Gary's dry sense of humor made us laugh - no matter the weather, terrain or how rude the drivers.

Perhaps my most memorable ride with Gary was a 350-mile adventure to central Virginia on the rugged Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway in August 1981.

Gary and I ended up in a remote campground called Peaks of Otter, northeast of Roanoke. Surrounded by peaks near or exceeding 4,000 feet, we had plenty of climbing amidst some of the most spectacular scenery in the Eastern U.S.

Hoping the weather would cooperate, we hadn't taken a tent with us. The gamble paid off the first few days, but a steady rain in the very early morning hours put us in a soggy state. We looked for what cover we could find but soon realized that the only protection came from the overhang of the campground's restroom building.

Having to that point enjoyed the peaceful quiet and clean air of the park, the pungent odor of the bathrooms was a stark and unpleasant contrast. We tried to sleep but we didn't have much success, leaving us utterly exhausted for the trip back north the next morning.

I had not ridden much with Gary in recent years but did enjoy a mountainous 100-mile ride with him and a group of mostly 50-something riders in September 2009. Gary, only a few months from his 60th birthday and the oldest person on the ride, outrode all of us on several long climbs.

Just like the Gary of the 1970s, he offered no arrogant boasting of his accomplishment. But you could tell how pleased he was.

In a strange twist of fate, I talked to Gary just a day or two before his last ride. He called my office to ask a composting question and we talked of his recent retirement, his big summer of riding and his late summer family vacation. We promised we would get together for a ride, just like the old days.

But it will now be only memories of rides gone by that I will savor, as Gary died riding down Carson Valley Road 10 days ago - on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

A tremendous bicyclist for the better part of four decades, he was more importantly a happily married man and a proud father and grandfather.

It's easy these days to be turned off by the unsportsmanlike behavior, skyrocketing salary demands, drug scandals and unseemly behavior of all kinds by athletes.

A guy like Gary Kephart, who did it for the love of the sport and pleasure of enjoying a beautiful place, stands out as an example of the way it ought to be.

I was mighty fortunate to have known him.

John Frederick resides in Antis Township.

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