Phyllis Harmon sees the irony in riding a wheelchair to the dedication of a bike and walking path in her honor.
But officials will just be glad to see the 96-year-old at the ceremony Friday, Oct. 11.
The 32-year Wheeling resident is considered one of the most influential people in the history of American bicycling. One of Harmon’s major contributions was reviving the League of American Wheelmen after World War II.
Besides holding several offices over the years in the group that became the League of American Bicyclists, for decades she wrote, edited and published the magazine for the organization, often completely on her own.
The ¾-mile Phyllis Harmon path from the Des Plaines River to the overpass of the Tri-State (I-294) tollway completes a 12.5-mile pedestrian thoroughfare on the south side of Dundee Road from Route 53 in Arlington Heights to Green Bay Road in Glencoe.
It also provides a connection to the 53-mile Des Plaines River Trail from North Avenue in River Grove to the Wisconsin border.
“Beyond the recreational benefit, this path will provide a lot of people on both sides of the river with another practical transportation option, said Dean Argiris, Wheeling village president. “And that benefits everybody who commutes along Dundee, whether on foot, on a bike, or in a car.”
Harmon never got hurt while biking, but owes her new wheels — the wheelchair — to recently cracking her pelvis when she pushed on the sticky front door of her Florida home.
“You get these challenges,” she said in a telephone interview. “You learn how to cope with them.”
Harmon, who purchased her first bicycle — a red one — when she was 12 by hoarding baby-sitting and gift money, met both her late husbands through bicycling and took her six children along for the ride.
The young Chicago resident would ride seven miles to her grandparents’ home, then bike back after a lemonade. Before long she was riding alone to a Des Plaines forest preserve and then Wisconsin to see friends.
As a young woman she would commute via bike to work, then three nights a week pedal out to the suburbs for club rides — a total of 200 miles a week.
“It’s a great life, and the people that you meet on a bike are great,” Harmon said. “They love the outdoors.”
Harmon certainly appreciates the importance of the new path, which will carry people traveling to work by bike or on foot along with those out for fun and exercise. When she moved to Wheeling in 1969 she was appalled to find that bicycling to work at American Hospital Supply in Evanston seemed almost impossible.
“What have I done?” she said to herself. “How will I bike out of this town?”
“I couldn’t get across the Dundee bridge,” she says now. “Thank goodness they are finally doing it.”
Wheeling officials agree, saying Dundee Road is the only street south of Half Day Road that permits a direct and uninterrupted pedestrian crossing of the full Des Plaines River area.
Before, pedestrians could walk only along a six-inch-wide dirt path, and cyclists had to choose between riding in the mud or braving the 50 mph traffic on the street, a village news release says.
One of Harmon’s stories from 80 years of biking is how she got dragged to a bridal shower for herself rather than going on a bike ride where she hoped to interview a hero just returned from World War II.
“I was wearing my culottes and thought he would make a good article for the magazine,” said Harmon. “I wanted to interview him, not get married. I never did see him again.”
Harmon was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2009, and the League of American Bicyclists named her one of 25 people who changed the face of cycling in America.
Joe Beemster, president of the Wheeling Wheelmen, a bicycling club that Harmon founded, said she is ranked in the top 10, but Harmon corrects him, saying she’s number 12. Besides her work for the league, she helped shape transportation policy through Chicago area panels such as the Active Transportation Alliance.
Harmon misses biking, which she had to give up a decade ago because she lost 3 inches in height and became too small for her bike. But in 2011 she celebrated Mother’s Day with a spin on a recumbent three-wheeler.
Highlights of her biking career far outpace what some people consider old age.
Her first ride across the United States — from Los Angeles to Boston — was in 1990 when she was 73. Other trips took her from Chicago to Maine and Maine to Orlando. And if you ever get a chance to tour New Zealand by bike, she highly recommends it.
“It’s amazing what people can do when they don’t know it’s not possible,” said Harmon.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.