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Olympian a legend in cycling

JOHN SINIBALDI: 1913-2006. He was an iron man of cycling for 75 years, while winning championships.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published January 11, 2006


John Sinibaldi pedaled his bikes more than a half-million miles, many of them on the streets of St. Petersburg.

He was an Olympian, a record holder and a cycling ambassador, a fixture on the American cycling scene for 75 years, winning national championships right up until last year.

Mr. Sinibaldi, known as "the Legend," died in his sleep on Tuesday (Jan. 10, 2006) after a short battle with lung cancer. He was 92 years old.

"I think I am safe is saying that no other amateur athlete on the planet stayed on top of one endurance sport for as long as my father," said Mr. Sinibaldi's son, John Sinibaldi. "He won his first national level race in 1928 and his last in 2005."

Mr. Sinibaldi became ill in September, a short time after winning his 18th national championship, in his age group, in Utah. He had trouble in that race and upon returning home the listlessness did not go away.

After a morning ride, Mr. Sinibaldi ran into his son at his favorite breakfast restaurant, Gold Coffee Shop at 336 First Ave. N. The elder Sinibaldi almost always rode home after breakfast. That day, he asked his son to drive him home.

"That's when I knew something was really wrong," the younger Sinibaldi said Tuesday.

Tests showed that he had a fluid build up in his chest. He was later diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He never got back on his bike.

* * *

As a teenager, Mr. Sinibaldi, who was born Oct. 2, 1913, made the 1932 Olympic team, but a stomach virus kept him from performing his best.

Three years later, he rode 100 kilometers - about 62 miles - in 2 hours, 25 minutes and 9 seconds on a one-geared bike. The record stood for almost half a century.

In 1936, he was back at the Olympics, this time in Hitler-controlled Germany. Mr. Sinibaldi raced strong and thought he had a chance to medal until his wheel broke near the finish line.

"In the 1932 Olympics I don't know what happened, I drank something that didn't agree with me," he said in a 2003 interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "It made me sick. The 1936 Olympics, I was strong. I had a couple of bad falls, but I kept getting up. I was ahead near the end, when my rear wheel collapsed. I went down. That was it. Oh, well. What are you going to do?"

World War II canceled the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, scuttling Mr. Sinibaldi's chances at an medal.

His amateur career continued with several age-group wins. In 1975, he retired from his job as a sheet-metal mechanic and moved to St. Petersburg with his wife, Betty.

But he kept riding.

Until he got sick last year, his regular routine had him up at 5 a.m., eating an oatmeal breakfast, reading the paper from back to front and filling out the crossword. After sunup, he'd pedal to the North Shore Pool to meet with riders from the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club for a 20-mile route through the city.

Many mornings, he'd wind up at the Gold Coffee Shop for pancakes before riding home to attend to his garden.

Betty died in 2000 from complications from diabetes. She had encouraged and supported her husband's many cycling endeavors.

"For a couple of years, he was lost without her," said his son, John. "He found solace on his bike. But he missed her right up until the end."

Mr. Sinibaldi's other great passion was the 90-by-50-foot garden in back of his modest St. Petersburg home. He grew figs, bananas, oranges, papayas, carambolas, strawberries, pineapples, peanuts, tomatoes, squash, carrots, onions and green beans. He also tended to several pecan trees.

On rainy days when he couldn't ride, he'd turn on some Mozart or Schubert and can fruits and berries picked from the garden.

Mr. Sinibaldi kicked a 20-year smoking habit in the 1960s. He drank mostly water and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Like his car, the television was used rarely. He said in 2003 that he suffered his last cold in 1973.

"You know what I like to do? I like to buy me a nice big soup bone and make stock out of it," he said in 2003. "I make five gallons at a time and freeze it in these little containers. I thaw a container out and go to my garden and pick some tomatoes and green beans, maybe a little celery, and then I have fresh vegetable soup."

* * *

In December, as Mr. Sinibaldi's health continued to fail, friends staged the "I Rode With the Legend" bicycle ride beginning at the North Shore Pool.

The 20-mile excursion followed his favorite route through the city and concluded with breakfast at the Gold Coffee Shop.

More than 350 people attended, many personally thanking Mr. Sinibaldi for carrying the American cycling torch for eight decades.

In attendance was Russell Allen, a fellow member of the 1932 Olympic team whom Mr. Sinibaldi had not seen in more than 70 years, his son said.

"They got along like not even seven days had passed," said Mr. Sinibaldi's son. "They both really knew how to live."

Mr. Sinibaldi often said that his secret for a long healthy life was simple: eat vegetables, go barefoot whenever possible and, of course, ride your bike like crazy.

Graham Brink can be reached at 727 893-8406 or brink@sptimes.com

MEMORIAL SERVICE

The Gee and Sorensen Funeral Home at 3180 30th Ave. N in St. Petersburg is handling the funeral. A viewing is scheduled for Friday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Services are on Saturday at 1 p.m. with a reception to follow at Sinibaldi's house.