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Age: Nothing but a number for Turlock cyclists

Looking forward to their annual ride with ‘Death’

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Age: Nothing but a number for Turlock cyclists

Cyclists training for the “Death Ride” are, from left, Ralph James, Larry Smith, Vance Rogete, and Tim Quinn.

HIME ROMERO/209 Health & Wellness

POSTED July 24, 2012 6:44 p.m.

Video games with the friends, pool parties and barbeques? A night out on the town maybe?

What about an 8- to 10-hour, 129-mile bike ride through five of the highest mountain passes California has to offer?

Sure, it may seem daunting but this grueling route, famously known as the Death Ride, is exactly what Turlockers Sarge Nona and Ralph James enjoy doing in their spare time. So why would a 61-year-old business owner and a 71-year-old retired math professor submit themselves to such a physically taxing task?

The answer is simple — they think it’s fun.

“It’s hard to describe it to people, why I enjoy cycling. I discovered it 30 years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since,” James said. “I just don’t get tired of it.”

Nona and James’ road to the Death Ride began three years ago, spurred by a common desire to test the limits of their abilities, but their introductions to the world of cycling happened much earlier and were vastly different from each other.

In 1969 Nona emigrated from Iraq to the United States and settled in the Bay Area. Ten years later, in 1979, he moved to Turlock where he opened Nona’s Automotive Center and built a reputation as being a strong, athletic individual. For more than 30 years Nona displayed his athleticism by running marathons until a knee injury forced him to hang up his running shoes. The ever active Nona refused to let his knee injury completely sideline him though, so in 2005 he made the switch to cycling. He’s been pedalling ever since.

“The good thing about cycling is that, unless you crash, it isn’t really hard on your joints,” Nona said.

James moved to Turlock from Washington State in 1970 after accepting a teaching position with California State University, Stanislaus. By 1980 James had discovered cycling and its many health benefits, including weight management and cardio condition. He was hooked almost instantly.

James’ tireless passion inevitably led to cycling competitions and races, like the Davis Double Century, as well as a daily riding regime of more than 30 miles. As James grew older he began to develop arthritis in his neck, the pain of which forced him to swear off long and rigorous rides in lieu of casual rides through and around town. After retiring in 2004 and meeting Nona in 2005, James began to reconsider his stance on long, physical rides. With a group of like-minded cyclists and friends around him he decided the Death Ride would be the exception to his rule and the perfect opportunity to scratch something off his bucket list.

“I made no effort to do it until a couple years ago when my friend became interested. I really wanted to do it before I got too old to participate,” James said. “Mostly it’s about proving something to myself, that I can still keep up with the younger guys.”

With a small team on board, Nona and James began to train for the Death Ride’s 15,000 feet worth of climbing by increasing their daily riding distance and adding the hills of Merced Falls into their routine. The pair’s commitment to the ride paid off two-fold in their first two tours of the California Alps; Nona recorded a time of 8 hours and 53 minutes on his first ride, James finished within 10 hours on both, and the two completed all five mountain passes each time.

“It’s a great event, it’s very well organized and you get to meet all sorts of people,” Nona said.

This year’s Death Ride was a labor of love for the two friends, whose enthusiasm and confidence shone through in the weeks leading up to the event. Both men talked about their determination to conquer the Sierra Nevada but they also exhibited a difference when it came to their goals. Nona’s focus was on breaking his best time while James simply wanted to complete the course for the sake of riding.

“My goal is always to finish, I don’t care about the time,” James said.

“We have a passion for cycling,” Nona said. “We enjoy the riding, the challenge, and the mountains.”

It’s amazing what passion can drive men to do, what it can help them overcome. For Nona and James the passion for cycling feeds their motivation to keep their bodies in peak condition and it’s more than enough to allow them to risk the dangers involved with the Death Ride. At their age, the two Turlockers refuse to be denied the self fulfillment that comes with riding downhill at speeds over 50 mph, climbing the 8,730 feet of Ebbets Pass, or finishing something that men half their age refuse to try.

“When you’re doing it, it’s not so much fun, because it is hard,” James said. “There are times when it’s fun and other times you’re so tired you want it to be over, but when you’re all done you realize how fun it really was.”

“It is very challenging,” Nona said. “At the end of the day I’m tired, dehydrated and hungry, but I enjoy every bit of it.”

With three Death Rides under their belt it’s unlikely Nona or James will stop participating in the event any time soon. The thrill of the challenge is too great and the love of cycling too strong.

“It’s an enjoyable activity, much more so than running. Plus, it’s not particularly hard on the body,” James said. “I’ll continue cycling until I can’t do it anymore and I’ll continue riding in the Death Ride as long as my friends remain interested.”

“I’ll keep d

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