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At 103, he's a three-wheeled wonder

If it were up to Octavio Orduño, he'd still be cruising Long Beach on a two-wheeled bicycle. But his wife insisted he get a tricycle. The city wants to make him an ambassador for cycling: 'He's our poster boy for healthy, active living around here.'

March 14, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Octavio Orduo, 103, taking his daily tricycle ride through the streets of downtown Long Beach, is our poster boy for healthy, active living around here, says Charles Gandy, the citys bike coordinator. Three years ago, Orduo's wife insisted that he give up riding two-wheelers in favor of a trike.
Octavio Orduo, 103, taking his daily tricycle ride through the streets… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

It's time to ride, but Octavio Orduño, stubborn as ever, won't put on his glasses.

His wife, Alicia, insists: "But you can't see without them."

"No," he tells her. "I don't want to."

Then he starts to head off, on his way.

If it were up to Orduño, he would still be cruising the streets of Long Beach on a two-wheeler.

But a few years back, Alicia insisted he add another wheel and get a tricycle. After all, he was 100 and beginning to lose his balance.

He turns 103 on Monday, so he's probably the oldest cyclist in Long Beach. The city, which wants to make him an ambassador for biking, likes to call him "the oldest in the world."

Orduño lives half a block from the beach. Nearly every day, he toddles from his third-floor condo to the garage where he keeps his red Torker tricycle. On it, he pedals around the neighborhood — to the park, the beach and the farmers market — in a ritual honed over nearly 40 years.

Not long ago, the city's bike coordinator, a gregarious, gray-haired Texan named Charles Gandy, took notice. He befriended Orduño and shared his story online, posting two videos of him coasting down the bike lanes, propped up by his self-installed blue velvet backrest. And that's only the start of Gandy's plan, if the old man is game. He'd like to have him cut the ribbon at bike-friendly ceremonies and appear in television and radio ads.

"He's our poster boy for healthy, active living around here," Gandy said, just what people need "to shake themselves out of a rut."

Orduño loves the attention. But his riding around town isn't any sort of campaign.

"It keeps me going," he said. "And it's better than sitting in the den all day watching cars go by."

Alicia is right. With his glasses off, it's clear he can't see too much at all.

No matter. He knows the six-block route to Bixby Park by feel. Aside from a few potholes that rock his hunched frame and make him yell "Ayyyy!," the voyage is smooth.

"I can ride this bike all day long," he says as the world whizzes by in a blur: the grind of lawn mowers, the sour smell of garbage, two growling pit bulls — one black, one beige — and a pretty girl in a flowery skirt.

The retired aerospace mechanic can't recall how old he was when he first started riding. He just remembers it took him a long time to persuade his father to buy him a bike.

The two used to argue all the time over school, which Orduño found boring and pointless. So at 16 he ran away, hopping freight trains from Oregon to Wisconsin to Chicago. For years, he says, he labored on farms and laid railroad track, stashing his cash in an old tobacco tin.

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the trains he rode filled up with desperate men — former doctors and lawyers who had lost it all.

His first marriage lasted 20 years and gave him four children — three boys, one girl. With Alicia, he had two more girls. Next year, the couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary.

His kids, grandkids and great-grandkids are spread across California and as far afield as New Mexico, Indiana and Missouri.

A few times a year, his son Eddie, 79, visits from his home north of Fresno. At the sight of him, Orduño lights up.

"I don't know how many days he has left, how many months, how many years," Eddie said of his father. "But he's had a full life."

Alicia wants him to keep having one. There are days she has to scold him. When he turned 100 and the state took away his driver's license, she thought he'd be safer. But he returns from his tricycle rides scraped up from falls.

Not long ago, on his way out of the garage, his foot slipped going uphill and he flipped over. His face hit the concrete. The bike landed on his leg. He lay on the ground for half an hour before a neighbor came to his rescue.

Once, he and the tricycle came home in a police car.

"That time, I thought I was clear, so I let it roll," he says. "I think I was going about 30 miles an hour when I went over the curb and some guys came to help me."

A day or two later, he was back on the street, "like nothing ever happened," Alicia said.

A few minutes into his ride to Bixby Park, the grassy knolls come into view and Orduño proudly calls out: "We're here!"

He waits in a driveway for the light to turn green so he can cross busy Ocean Boulevard. Just then, a giant Suburban comes up behind him, waiting for him to move. But Orduño, caught uphill without momentum, can't get his ride to budge.

The driver takes in the scene and laughs.

"Puchenlo! Puchenlo!" he teases out the window. Somebody push him!

At the park, Orduño speeds past the grass and the picnic benches, where seniors lounge in the sun.

He goes straight to the back, to his favorite place: the skateboarding zone.

There, on an open stretch of concrete, young guys with shaggy hair and saggy pants zoom around, grinding the ground with ollies and flips.

Orduño hits his brakes and takes it all in. His mouth drops open in a smile.

They return the favor, singing his praises.

"Hey, sweet ride, man!"

"Yo, check him out! He's down."

Nick Tarrant, a 21-year-old with a stubbly goatee and a low-slung action bike, asks him his name, practically yelling so Orduño can hear him.

"Hey, it's OK. I'm deaf too," Tarrant tells him, pointing to his own earpieces. The two talk bikes and hearing aids, and then Orduño says goodbye.

He is ready to ride home, to Alicia and his usual dinner of beans, brown rice and vegetables.

"Sometimes," Orduño says, as he reaches his block, "I feel stronger than the year before."

With his birthday approaching, there's been talk of getting him an electric wheelchair. Alicia thinks it will make it easier for her husband to get around.

But Orduño has grown attached to his three-wheeler and has no plans to give it up.

"Why would I?" he said. As for the wheelchair, "I think she can use it and follow me when I ride."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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