Larry Ritsert stands for a photo with his bicycle on Saturday, Dec. 17, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

By his own admission, Larry Ritsert isn’t much of a competitor. He thinks of himself merely as a recreational biker. That may sound ridiculous to the average person upon learning that the humble 71-year-old Oak Parker has racked up serious mileage on his two bicycles. Ritsert cycled 6,213.7 miles (thus far) in 2022 alone.

 “For a couple of days, it was just a thought experiment,” Ritsert said. “Then I decided, let’s see what happens.”

Ritsert took up biking seriously in 2017 when he retired. He was overweight, out of shape and in need of some physical activity. His knees and hips could no longer take high impact exercising after years of running. Easy on the joints, riding a bicycle seemed like a good alternative, so he borrowed a neighbor’s bike and went for a ride with his friend.

“I rode a mile and I died,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘This is terrible.’”

 He stuck with it though, and soon enough he began riding with a group of cyclists affectionally known as the Oak Park Old Pharts, or OPOP for short.

About a month into his retirement, Ritsert lost his 25-year-old son. Biking and his riding companions provided the structure and support he needed in his time of profound grief.

He became a stalwart member of the group. Fellow OPOP rider Donald Jensen, who pitched Ritsert’s story to Wednesday Journal, called him the “glue that holds the group together.”

“Larry’s outgoing personality, his enthusiasm, and how, how friendly he is to everybody, I think is just really infectious for the whole group,” Jensen said. “It keeps everybody wanting to go back for the next ride and the next ride and the next ride.”

Like Ritsert, most OPOP members are retired and over the age of 60. Its oldest member, a very active 88, is in “fantastic shape,” Ritsert says. The group bikes about three or four times a week — as long as the weather is above 30 degrees and dry.

At 7 a.m., the cyclists start in Oak Park at Harrison Street and East Avenue, then cut through Berwyn and into Riverside. Sometimes they halt briefly to watch deer in the forest preserve, then continue to LaGrange, where they stop for a scone and coffee at Blackberry Market, or in Western Springs for BB’s Baby Donuts. Then back home.

The weekly visits are a pleasure for BB’s owner Debbie Feiller, who coined the group’s name and wears her OPOP shirt every Friday. Feiller even attended the OPOP Christmas Party, hosted by Ritsert.

“Oh, I love them!” she said, noting that Ritsert took it upon himself to fix one of the picnic tables belonging to the real estate agency next to her bakery.

 It was through that group that Ritsert began considering taking on the challenge of riding 5,000 miles, which he would eventually surpass. A fellow OPOP member, Paul Oppenheim, shared an email in late May from a friend in Arizona who planned to bike 5,000 miles. Ritsert found himself wondering what he would have to do to achieve such a goal, especially during the winter months when Illinois weather is far different from Arizona.

“It’s funny because I’m not that type of guy,” he said.

He got serious about riding 5,000 miles in June, waking up at 5 a.m. to get in some biking before meeting with OPOP. Taking advantage of the warm weather, summer proved his best months, racking up over 2,000 miles during June and July, riding both in the mornings and the afternoons. Some days, he would bike close to 50 miles, keeping track of his daily totals in an old three-ring notebook.

“It was hard,” he said. “I’m not self-disciplined.”

He got a lot of support from OPOP, which kept him going, and by October he hit the 5,000-mile mark. He decided to push himself further, logging 6,213.7 miles by Dec. 7.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, believe me,” said Jensen, who is no slouch. “I’m very proud of him for what he’s done. It keeps us all motivated to go out for the next ride.”

Ritsert himself said he was relieved more than anything but admitted to being a little proud of himself too. He not only surpassed 6,000 miles this year, but also lost 30 pounds since he started biking five years ago.

With the cold wintry weather of late, he hasn’t been biking much this month. He confessed he needs a break, but he’ll be back in the saddle soon enough. Perhaps he’ll even try to surpass his personal record.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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