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Al Piemme, 81, is going downhill fast

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by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

In 2001, Al Piemme, then 70, had just wrapped up his third world championship in downhill bicycle racing.

He had once again won the title in the 60-and-older class, whipping men 10 years his junior in the brutal competition. He was the oldest man ever to win the race.

 

A reporter asked Piemme the obvious question: How much longer can you do this?

 

“I’ll just keep competing till I get old,” Piemme said, “then I’ll take up golf.”

 

Ten years later, Piemme has yet to retire to the links. Over the years he has racked up a spectacular record of success, including nine national championships and four world championships.

 

The world championships take place each year in Bromont, Quebec, Canada, and are organized and managed by Union Cycliste Internationale, the same organization that each year puts on the Tour de France.

 

These days, Piemme said, he has slowed down somewhat. He works out at what he describes as “an old man’s level.” That includes cycling more than 5,200 miles in 2011 alone. Piemme rides three days a week with Sequim’s Spoke Folk cycling club and every Sunday with another crew that gets together out on Voice of America Road, with each of the trips averaging 30 miles or so.

 

Piemme is incredibly fit, with a resting pulse rate recently measured at 38. The normal rate is 60 to 80 beats a minute.

 

The first time a nurse saw that, he said, she “got upset” and immediately called in a doctor. “I think we have a problem,” she said.

 

The doctor, who regularly rode with Piemme, just shrugged. “He’s an athlete,” he said by way of explanation.

Never too late to learn

Piemme took up biking when he was 60 and he and his wife, Betty, were living in San Diego. “I got fat and lazy,” he said. “It just seemed to be something I could do. A little touring to places.”

 

Within two years Piemme was serious enough to sign up for his first race, which was held in Borrego Springs, just outside of San Diego. “It was 25 to 30 miles,” he said. Piemme finished second in the road race and third in the 40-kilometer time trial.

 

He was just getting started. In 1996, when he was 65 or so, Piemme rode from San Diego to Yuma, Calif., in 10 hours, 2 minutes. That’s 185 miles at better than 18 miles per hour.

 

Since then he’s ridden hundreds of thousands of miles and he’s not done yet.

 

Regarding his hobby-slash-obsession, Betty “is tolerant,” Piemme said with a laugh. He laughed again when he was asked how much he’s spent on bikes and competition.

 

“I don’t like to think about it,” he said, but was willing to admit that this year alone he spent $2,000 on a trip to Bend, Ore., where he picked up a first in the U.S. Men’s Masters Cycling Championships.

 

Betty’s biggest concern isn’t likely money. In an article in a San Diego newspaper published in the 1990s, Piemme admitted, “I know (Betty) worries when I do the downhill. Especially when she sees the ambulance going from events.”

 

These days he restricts his travel, preferring not to go to the Northeast, which he says is just too far.

But he’s training now to show his stuff at the Washington State Senior Games, which will be held in and around Olympia from July 26-29.

 

The Piemmes moved to Sequim about 10 years ago. “My wife made me do it,” Piemme said with a chuckle.

 

Betty spotted an article on Sequim “in the San Diego paper, of all places,” and learned for the first time about Sequim’s magical “blue hole” and beautiful water-side setting. That was that.

 

The Piemmes have a daughter who lives in Sequim. The opportunity to live near Karen had even more to do with their choice of new home, Al said.

 

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

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