By Ron Bush
Durward Higgins turned 75 on January 27 and he was planning to celebrate with a 75-mile bicycle ride on his birthday so he can do another one approaching that length the next day with a group of riding buddies.
And doing it more easily than the rest.
Higgins won two USA Cycling national championships in 2016: the Masters Road Race in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the inaugural Mountain Hill Climb up Pike’s Peak in Colorado. That gave him five USA Cycling national titles over the years, along with other victories too numerous to count.
As one example, the East Brainerd resident was the overall winner — all age groups — in a Prison Prevention Ministry 62-mile race last August.
“Whether riding with the Bubbas Elite group on a 65-mile ride on a Saturday over two mountains or riding with the DUR (Disabled, Unemployed and Retirees) during the weekdays, Durward will be pushing the pace with riders often 40 years younger than him and almost always beating everyone up a long hill or mountain climb,” said Carl Scarbrough, one of those riding buddies.
“Just on our 37-mile ride Tuesday from Soddy-Daisy to Sale Creek, Durward was the only one that had enough energy and legs to climb up Hotwater Road on Mowbray Mountain and back down Montlake Road. And he had 20 years of age on most of us.”
Perhaps Higgins’ most amazing feat on a bike came in June 2012 when he and three other men set the 70-74 age-group record for the 3,000-mile Race Across America relay event by 27 hours — in six days, 13 hours, 13 minutes. They also broke the 60-plus record by almost four hours, but a German team got that one back for the younger folks two years later, when a “serious Austrian team” went hard after the Higgins group’s 70-plus record but fell far short.
“We had the strategy before the race started that we would divide into two teams of two, alternating every eight hours,” Higgins explained. “We had only one rider on the road at a time, going as hard as he could for 20 to 25 minutes and then overlapping wheels with the other guy and taking a break for the next 20 minutes.”
The “racer van” would hustle the just-dismounted cyclist to the next place for a switch. Then when one sub-team’s eight hours were up, those two turned the race over to the other two and got some sleep. They continued that pattern day and night from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md.
There were two motorhomes and three minivans with a support crew of 15 for the record-smashing performance.
Don Metz from New Hampshire was Higgins’ relay partner and subsequently wrote a book, “Not Just a Race,” about the experience.
“It was good to have the night shift when we crossed the California desert and the Arizona desert. That was unbearable in the day,” Higgins said Wednesday. “And the headlights on the follow car made it like daylight. That was a pleasant surprise. We did a lot of training but never trained at night.
“Now, crossing the peaks of the Rockies in Colorado it could get in the 30s at night, but it didn’t get that cold that year. We had really good weather when we crossed the Rockies.”
Higgins loved riding bikes as a boy in El Paso, Texas, where he grew up and went to college, “but I never had a good one,” he said. “It was always a hand-me-down or used bike. I think my first one was a J.C. Higgins, a Sears-Roebuck brand, which of course I liked because my name was Higgins. I used to take my bikes apart and put them back together.
“When I was 14 I started getting into cars, and I kind of forgot about bikes for a while,” Higgins added.
In his early 40s, though, he was going through a divorce and took up running as a therapeutic activity but got so into it that he was running a race somewhere about every weekend — and beating up his legs. He specifically had a lot of trouble with Achilles’ tendinitis but he read somewhere that cycling was a good antidote for that and provided comparable exercise.
So at 42 he bought a bike for $460. He was on a long field assignment for General Electric at the time in Kingsport, Tenn. — GE had transferred him to Chattanooga in 1971 — and soon joined the Tri-Cities Road Club.
“I moved up in steps,” he said. “I went on a business trip to the Boston area and was looking around bicycle shops and found a deal on a real good bike for $1,100. That was a pretty tricked-out bike.”
He now races two, one for speed in time trials and a road bike for climbing. He has a busy June coming up this year with three races at the Masters Nationals in Augusta, Ga. — yes, he can be a Masters champion in Augusta — followed immediately by the biennial National Senior Olympics in Birmingham, Ala. That will give him seven national-title races in nine days.
Four of his five national triumphs have been in time trials, but he really likes climbing, too.
“I really look forward to the Bubbas races on Saturday,” said Higgins, who also has a remarkable history in Soap Box Derby rallies, and national rallies wins for both his children, Scott Higgins (two) and Amy Higgins Steele.
“I used to go to Augusta for Masters Soap Box Derby,” the seemingly ageless cyclist said. “One of the national races I’ll be doing in June is on that very hill at Fort Gordon.”