86-year-old world bicycling champ takes it easy on RAGBRAI

Clear Lake — Carl Grove doesn’t look like a world champion. He doesn’t look 86 years old, either, but it’s true.

The spry little guy from Elkhart, Ind., learned to bike on a $1.25 Schwinn from his dad and started cycling competitively more than 70 years later, after his 80th birthday. In the last few years, he’s picked up gold medals from national championships in Colorado and Indiana and world championships in Austria.

The world record-setter in his age group (for the 200 meters, 500 meters and 2,000 meters) regularly outpaces younger whippersnappers in their 60s and 70s.

So how does he do it?

“I do two things: I hang out with younger people, and I just keep pedaling,” he said during a lunch break Wednesday in shady Bandshell Park. “It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you just keep moving.”

Carl Grove

Carl Grove

Grove’s father died at 97 or 98; his mother, at 105. Both lived in a two-story house with a big garden, and they worked hard — moving, always moving — all their lives. And they taught their son to do the same.

Grove joined the U.S. Navy after high school and became a saxophone soloist in the Navy band. He returned to Indiana in his 20s and worked for years as a draftsman for Selmer, a company that makes top-of-the-line saxophones, clarinets and flutes.

He’s always been a biker — ever since his childhood paper route — but he didn’t step it up a notch until his late 70s, when a trainer at an elite cycling camp in the Pennsylvania mountains encouraged him to race competitively. Grove has an unusual ability to take in oxygen — and to let it out.

“I do have a big mouth,” he joked.

So he channeled that ability into increasingly bigger competitions. At the 2011 Masters World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, he placed third in a grueling 35-mile-plus road race and first in a 20-kilometer time trial, besting his closest rival by more than 2 and half minutes.

“I went up on the podium, and when they raised the American flag in front of 3,000 racers, I was really, really proud of my country — that I’d done something that kind of maybe mattered a little bit for America,” he said.

This is Grove’s first time on RAGBRAI, which he described as “the exact opposite: laid-back, lots of food, good conversations with people I’ll never see again.”

He rides with four younger team members, and they take turns on different bikes — a standard, an incumbent, another incumbent powered like a rowing machine, even one of those stair-stepper contraptions called an ElliptiGo. The group is like a spin class on the go — and undoubtedly more fun.

“You won’t find a more grateful guy than the one you’re looking at right now. I really mean that,” Grove said. “I’ve had a wonderful life.”

 

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