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More than a third of the riders who set out to ride the 200-mile Unbound Gravel don’t finish.
In 2021, after 12 and a half hours in the sweltering heat, Fred Schmid, then 88, was hardly able to keep his bike going. He’d ridden to the 120 mile checkpoint but missed the time cut. Reluctantly, he called it quits. Suzanne, Schmid’s wife, helped him load his bike and drove him back to their hotel. Fred spent most of the next day horizontal, too tired to do much of anything. The following day, Suzanne drove Fred back to the checkpoint and he rode the final 80 miles back to Emporia.
This year, Schmid is coming back for redemption.
“I’d written a check my ass couldn’t cash,” Schmid said. “But I don’t believe in giving up.”
Now a year older, Schmid remains determined to finish Unbound 200. Not surprisingly, the 89-year-old’s determination has a history. Schmid spent 50 years working as a land surveyor and learned to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from hard work.
“When I began surveying I was cutting bush all day,” he said. “That meant heat, poison ivy, mosquitos while swinging a bush axe for 10-12 hours a day. My hands blistered, everything hurt and I had to get up the next day to do the same thing. I didn’t want to be seen as a quitter; the other guys were doing the same. ‘Don’t be a candy ass,’ I’d tell myself. I still do.”
When he turned 60, Suzanne remembers that Schmid had become troubled with the reality that he was getting older, wondering how long he had to live. But she also noticed that Fred had befriended some of the folks at their local bike shop.
“He was like a kid with his nose pressed against the bakery glass window. He clearly wanted a bike,” Suzanne said. But she knew Fred wouldn’t buy one for himself, so for Christmas that year she bought him a mountain bike.
With new eyes, Schmid discovered a network of mountain bike trails near his home in Waco, Texas. After a few months of riding around the beginner trails, he made friends with a young cross-country racer who took him under his wing. After that, Schmid’s aging process went into slow motion.
“He realized that he wasn’t just an old fogie and I had managed to get him out of cut-offs and into actual cycling shorts,” Suzanne said. “Fred got to be good at bike racing and started winning. Over the next 30 years, Fred racked up more than 30 national titles and two World Championships yet he describes himself as a low-key guy.
“I’m not a competitive person, I’ve just ridden my bike,” he said. “When I’m in a race, I just do what I can. I’m not trying to beat people, I just want to have a good ride.”
Now, Schmid is almost 90 and riding one of the most difficult gravel events in the world. Aside from some trouble with his left eye and some arthritis in his foot, Schmid is in very good health, which he attributes to his lifestyle.
“It’s little things,” he said. “Like parking remotely at the grocery store, you know, to get the walk in.”
Schmid’s average blood pressure is 110/70, and his cholesterol is low. “We eat a lot of vegetables, fruit,” he said. “I bake bread at home, ciabatta, and whole wheat. I make loaves and biscuits. They’re nothing special. Just regular recipes. Nothing special, just healthy.
“I’m enjoying my life, the idea of it ending doesn’t appeal to me worth a darn. I’d see people much younger than I am on all kinds of medications, with large guts, and I just think, ‘I don’t want to be there if I can avoid it.'”
Schmid is aware of his mortality, but he remains light-hearted about it.
“You know, you get old and there’s cancer, standing in the corner waiting to nail your ass. Statistically, your chances of getting cancer increase with age, you’ve got trillions of cells in your body and any one of them can decide to go crazy. It’s amazing we live as long as we do. I just try to enjoy life I guess. Suzanne and I try to not fuss at each other, if we do, we make great effort to smooth over any rough spot we encounter. I hate being upset with anybody, I like being calm.”
Suzanne and Fred are a well seasoned team. Suzanne is chief of operations, soigneur, and fan number 1. Fred wrenches on and pedals the bike. Suzanne has Fred’s nutrition and hydration schedule fully dialed. She’s broken his ride into 40 mile increments with a detailed plan for refueling: 230-250 calories per hour, mostly in the form of gels and bars. Additional electrolytes are added to Fred’s water. He’ll ride with a 65oz hydration pack that he’ll re-fill three times and has two spare bottles on his bike. Fred said that even if he misses the timecut, if he’s physically capable, he’s going to keep riding.
In addition to riding Unbound 200, Schmid will compete in both road and mountain bike nationals this year, as well as the Mount Evans Hill Climb later in the summer. Schmid said that this may be his last season of competitive athletic pursuits, but that doesn’t mean he’s hanging up the bike.
“I just enjoy riding and that’s why I want to keep doing it,”he said. “I enjoy going out on dirt roads, looking at the farms and taking in the countryside.”