The joy of pedaling cross-country—even in your 80s

Irving Hoffman, 82, talks about how cycling keeps him young

Irv Hoffman
Irv Hoffman in his Smyrna garage

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is 82-year-old Smyrna cyclist Irving Hoffman, as told to Thomas Wheatley.

In 1991, my wife and I heard from a family friend about the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, or BRAG, and signed up. We didn’t have fancy bikes—my 10-year-old son had a little beat-up bike from Toys R Us—but that August, we made the 400-mile ride from Rossville to Augusta. My son did very well. We weren’t the fastest, but we completed it. Every year after that, we did a BRAG ride.

I kept riding. I’d do segments of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretching across North Carolina. On those rides, a team hauls your luggage and backs you up along the way. I was pretty fast then. I’m 82 now. When I look in the mirror, I see that I am 82. But I don’t feel 82.

In 2007, at the age of 69, I decided one day I was going to ride from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. I thought it would be an adventure. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the unknowns, and there were a lot. But I would handle them as they came. A companion and I rode 3,100 miles in 58 days.

In 2017, I talked my son, who at the time was getting his PhD in New Mexico, into shipping our bikes to Seattle. We rode along the coast of Oregon and California to Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Since then, I’ve biked 14,500 miles on nine or so long-distance trips, mostly by myself.

I don’t get lonely on the road. I don’t have to worry about anyone, I can go at my own pace, see what I want to see. My total bike weight is about 85 pounds when you include gear—a tent, tools, and the like. That’s not including water and food.

During one of my early cross-country trips, my kids bought me a Garmin, which sends a GPS signal to a satellite, and you could see where I was on a map on a website. My daughter thought I’d go off a cliff and never be seen again. Biking during the pandemic hasn’t been difficult; I rode to Key West this past October and social distanced and stayed in motels.

I have memories I will never forget. One of the campsites where my son and I stayed on our first journey together was called Elk Prairie, in the redwoods. We woke up around dawn, and in the fog, we saw an elk silhouetted against the sun. I was in awe of the beauty of the Oregon coast. The big waves, the rocks, the view. Every curve is another postcard picture. I’ve slept in hostels and in public parks in small Kansas towns where there are no hotels.

I’ve always been active. I bike about 50 or 60 miles a week—less in the winter—and play tennis three days a week at Bitsy Grant Tennis Center in Buckhead. I’ve seen so many beautiful places, places you can enjoy in a special way on a bicycle. I stop at almost all the historical road signs to see what’s been going on. When I’m riding, I think about what I’m going to eat and where I’m going to sleep. I am thankful. I know people my age who are using a walker. The reason I’m still able to do this is because I still do this.

Sometimes, I don’t bike and camp. In 2019, I packed my fold-up bicycle in my car trunk and toured the country, stopping to ride my bike on rails-to-trails projects and staying when possible at spots where Lewis and Clark camped. I went through South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest, where I rode around Portland and met up with a friend. I went down to Tucson, then Austin. I had a goal to visit a brewery every night. I visited the Abita brewery in Covington, Louisiana. I went everywhere for seven weeks.

A few years ago, when I was 79, I biked from my son’s house in Silicon Valley to Atlanta. When I got home, I said, I’m not going to do it anymore. Lo and behold, I woke up and said, I’m going to ride to Key West. I wanted to do it before I got too old to do it. When I finish, I feel like I’ve accomplished something that not many people my age get to do.

I studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech for undergrad. In 1997, I sold my photogrammetry company—we made maps using aerial photography for the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, road projects, and developments—and retired. The one thing I learned at Georgia Tech: Persevere. I guess that translates to life. Look at me—I’m just an old man. You just have to want to do it, and you can do it, anyone can do it. You just decide, that’s what I’m going to do.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.