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Rock Hill 80-year-old to bike 80 miles to help student veterans

It is exactly 8 miles from Frank Rizzo's garage to his part-time job at the information desk at Winthrop University's DiGiorgio Center.

Most days that there is not snow or rain, which is most days, he rides his bicycle to and from work.

Heat? Frank Rizzo laughs at heat.

"Eight miles is easy," says Rizzo, a rough and tumble Korean War veteran who talks so tough he seems like he should be hanging out on a Flatbush Avenue street corner, picking his teeth with a switchblade.

"I do that in my sleep."

Other days, he rides around many miles with his buddies from the Rock Hill Bicycle Club. On birthdays, Rizzo is a man possessed. The past six years, Rizzo has bicycled the same number of miles as his birthday. Saturday, Rizzo will celebrate his birthday, coming up next week, with a ride.

Rizzo turns 80.

"Yep, 80 miles," he said. "It will take most of the day. We'll stop a couple of times. But at 80, believe me, one thing I have is patience."

Sharon Witherspoon works with Rizzo at the welcome desk.

"He sure will do it," she said. "This guy does anything he puts his mind to. A character, to say the least."

Rizzo is the same guy who took a part-time job at Winthrop a few years ago to stay busy after retirement. He carried a vacuum cleaner around on his back, like a jet-pack, through the student union.

He looked like George Jetson.

Since taking up cycling after retirement in 1995 at age 64, Rizzo has become a fanatic. The retired book peddler rarely misses a day.

This year, the ride is for charity. More than 40 people have already signed up for "Frank's Birthday Ride" - let's call it the Rizzo Ramble - at $35 a pop.

The money will go to the Student Veterans of Winthrop University, a group of military vets attending the school.

"These young guys coming back from these wars, they need all the help we can give them," Rizzo said. "They got guts."

Michael Widrich, a 25-year-old Winthrop senior and a five-year veteran, served as a tank crewman in Iraq before heading to college and running the student vets group.

Tough guys like Rizzo, he said, show the tenderness of veterans all over the place.

"Frank Rizzo's gesture, wanting to help us, shows the kind of guy he is," Widrich said.

Right alongside Rizzo, and the other organizer of this ride the past six years, will be a pup of a guy named George Davis. Davis rides more than 100 miles a week on his bicycle. He mapped out this crazy 80-mile jaunt.

This ride is so Davis and Rizzo can show that age means nothing.

Davis is 71.

"Next to Frank, I'm in diapers," he laughed. "I'm old, but he's ancient."

Why would Rizzo and Davis, 151 years between them, ride so much?

"Peace," said Rizzo. "I found peace and exercise on that bicycle, and I am never stopping."

The ride will head through western York and Chester counties - starting and finishing at Winthrop.

But this ride is 80 miles - mostly flat, and through some beautiful country - but 80 miles.

"I'm gonna be 80, so I ride 80," said Rizzo. "Wait till I turn a hundred. Now that'll be some ride."

These two guys are the same duo who protected a novice bicyclist three years ago on a 14-mile journey from his house in Fort Mill to Rock Hill.

The guy was a dope who hadn't ridden a bike in years, so Rizzo and Davis had to pamper him, cajole him, yell at him, and make fun of him to get him to finish even half the ride.

The guy rode a bicycle while wearing his daughter's Dora the Explorer backpack, walked up the hills, and wailed like a little brat.

That guy was rightfully mocked by anyone fortunate enough to be there to make fun of him.

That dummy was me.

And that day in August 2008 when Rizzo rode - a week after he rode 77 miles on his birthday - he rode circles around me - at about half his age.

Saturday, when he rides 80 miles, I will be somewhere far from him.

Davis, the retired engineer, laughed and said I had no guts. He was right. Rizzo with his bald head, the old Brooklyn kid, laid it out plain.

"Wimp," chuckled Rizzo.

No argument here.

Want to get involved?

The public is welcome to participate in the annual Rizzo birthday ride. To ride Saturday, a cyclist must have a bicycle in good repair, wear a helmet and be self-sufficient. Donation is $35, with all proceeds to the Student Veterans of Winthrop University.

For details, call Frank Rizzo at 803-325-1908.

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