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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  2/1/2003

Want Eternal Youth? Keep Pedaling!

I remember it like it was yesterday.

A big bunch of us were stopped at a light at El Camino Real in Menlo Park at the start of a 49-mile odyssey up the San Francisco Peninsula. Suddenly a young lady-racer type pulled up next to me. "What's the occasion?" she asked in a friendly enough manner.

"It's Emam's 81st birthday!" I responded brightly.

"No way!" she blurted. "Waaaay!" I retorted as we pedaled off.

That was two years ago. And Emam Shahi is still going strong.

Happy Birthday

If you're looking for the secret to eternal youth, take a look at Emam. At 83, he's never felt better. And although his hair is white, his physique is muscular and strong and his enthusiasm for cycling is boundless.

He's climbed just about every hill in a 25-mile radius of his Atherton, CA home. He shows up practically every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for standard Western Wheelers club rides, and most weekends as well.

And every October he leads yet another ride of a distance that matches his age in length -- in kilometers, of course.

I sat down for a chat with Emam at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, the regular coffee stop on the Monday Morning "Java Jive" ride.

Born in Teheran (in what was then Persia) in 1919, Emam came to the United States on a student visa in the late 1940s. He earned two degrees from UC Berkeley, in Chemistry and Petroleum Engineering.

"And guess who was my roommate in those days?" he demanded that Monday morning. "This man!" he exclaimed, pointing to the rider sitting next to him, Paul van der Heiden. Indeed, once Emam and Paul discovered they were both living on the Peninsula, they have ridden many miles together and co-led quite a few club rides.

After returning to Iran in 1954, Emam married and settled down to raise a family and build a career with the Shah's government.

Some time in the 1970s he noticed that his older son was studying Arabic in school. "I said, 'What for? You should be studying Russian or German or French. Why Arabic?' After all, it was already the official second language of Iran. I wanted him to be more well rounded than that."

So he saw to it that his son followed his footsteps by coming to the States to study. Then, in 1977, when Emam retired, he and the rest of his family followed.

Back in the 40s, when he was in high school, Emam rode a one-speed, fat-tired utility bike with metal brakes. But once he graduated he didn't ride again until around 1989.

At first he started jogging, mostly because it was popular and he was looking for a healthy physical activity. When he developed back problems, a neighbor who rode with Western Wheelers suggested he start riding a bike instead.

"In those days there were regular Thursday 'B' (leisurely) rides and 'C' (moderate) rides," he remembers. "I started doing the 'B' rides and then came out on Tuesday for the 'C' rides around the Portola Valley Loop. I really liked it because it helped me with my back. I have flat, upright handlebars for that reason."

Fellow Tuesday-Thursday rider Pete Blasberg remembers Emam's first club bike. "It was fairly heavy," says Pete. "and he carried a radio. He'd ride along near the rear."

That was about the time that Emam attempted the only century of his cycling career -- the (now defunct) Ukiah Harvest Century. "It was so hard that I limped for three months afterward." But, he hastens to add, "I am a much better rider now than I was then."

In those days Emam weighed 180 pounds, quite a lot to carry around on his relatively compact frame. Then he changed his diet from a high-carbo regimen to the high-protein Atkins diet. In short order he lost 35 pounds.

"It helped me gain energy," he claims. "I don't get tired as easily." The Atkins diet is based on blood type; as a Type O, Emam learned he needed to eat more red meat instead of the chicken and fish he used to rely on for protein. "My cholesterol dropped from 230 to 190," he says proudly.

"About the same time he got a lighter bike," adds Pete, "Immediately he became an animal on the hills."

Someone tipped off the San Jose Mercury News, which featured him in its weekly "How I Stay Fit" column in the Health section.

Of course, he caught the bike possession bug, too. For his 79th birthday his sons gifted him with a Cannondale mountain bike. Soon he had six or seven bikes hanging from the ceiling of his garage, until his wife complained once too often about dodging handlebars and saddles. Today he "only" has three bikes: two for club rides, and one for errands. "Oh, and my wife has one too," he adds.

The utility bike is a Chinese machine that can carry up to about 40 pounds of groceries or whatever. "Of course, that doesn't happen very often," he admits.

Now, at age 83 and 145 pounds, Emam rides four to five days a week. Last year he learned he'd topped the Western Wheelers stats for most miles of anyone in the club (5,227 miles in 161 rides. including 148,140 feet of climbing).

And every year he leads his now famous birthday ride on a sunny October Sunday.

Happy Birthday
Birthday photos courtesy Andy Kirk

Emam doesn't just lead the ride without providing for his friends. "He's very generous," says Pete Blasberg. "He invites the entire group to Dominic's Restaurant and buys lunch for everyone."

When asked, Emam offers some sage advice top offer about aging actively:
"Don't hurt yourself by not eating right and by not exercising and you'll have a good life.

"I exercise every morning for one hour. Then I either garden or bike. At my age the bones dry up so you have to do something. You have to move!"

When his doctor told him, "Emam, you'll live past 90," he responded, "Doctor, in life quantity is not important. It's quality that counts

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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