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Go, Joe, Go

Saddling up with the cycling aficionado

Cathy
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Joe Sexton

Joe Sexton, 80, is the oldest cyclist in the West U Crew, a group of cyclists who regularly ride together. He inspires fellow riders and plans their routes. (Photo: jackophoto.com)

It’s in his DNA, he figures. The man is built for moving.

Even as a kid, Joe Sexton, now 80, was a perpetual motion machine, forsaking rides on a bumpy school bus to, instead, race the lumbering yellow tank the two and a half miles to his Austin home. Okay, he didn’t leap over hedges or fences. But the visual is reminiscent of the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Ferris sprints to beat his parents home after an epic day of playing hooky.

“It was fun,” says Joe, who completed his homework during free period in junior high, so he’d be hands-free for the run. But that’s where the comparison to Ferris ends, for Joe was a conscientious student, not a skipper of school.

“I wasn’t totally hands-free. I ran with my clarinet case,” he explains. “At 5 o’clock I’d take off when the busses were loading up, and I’d get home pretty much about the time the bus would’ve gotten me there.”

Clarinets are somewhat light, unlike saxophones, trombones, and, well, a tuba, he acknowledges. “But I probably would’ve made better time with a piccolo.”

Joe Sexton

A WONDER ON WHEELS Joe Sexton doesn’t sit still much. The 80-year-old is the oldest cyclist (“by far,” he says) in the West U Crew, a group that takes in the urban scenery of Houston and surrounding areas several days a week from the saddle of their bikes. The retired engineer plans their routes. (Photo: jackophoto.com)

That’s Joe, say those who know him. He doesn’t lollygag. He doesn’t know what it is to be left behind. You’ll never wait on Joe. In his eighth decade of life, he’s still going strong with the momentum and verve of some men half his age.

These days, he’s one of a core group of Houston cyclists known as the West U Crew, a fun, safety-conscious, cohesive bunch of guys from a myriad of professions – doctors, lawyers, cardiologists, engineers, anesthesiologists, you name it – who saddle up every Tuesday and Thursday evening for a 25-mile ride, then on weekends for longer excursions (60-70 miles on Saturday, 40-50 on Sunday), gobbling up urban scenery in large, meaty chunks.

Joe, “by far the oldest” of the cyclists, he says, is a mentor to fellow riders who marvel at his passion and athletic ability. He plans their routes, dispersing the information digitally for download on cyclists’ bike computers. They meet in his driveway to start their weeknight rides and convene at Sunset and Kirby for the weekend routes.

Sometimes he checks out the routes beforehand in his little white smart car, checking for construction and other hazards, such as too much traffic.

“Joe is as strong or stronger than a lot of the riders. He’s 20 years plus older than me, but when we go for long stretches at a high pace, he can keep up and I struggle,” says allergist Anthony Weido, 59, a neighbor and fellow West U Crew cyclist. “He’s a super gentle and relaxed guy. He never gets hot-headed. I’ve never known him to curse in anger at something that happens on the road, like a car getting too close.”

But he can whip out a sharp, dry sense of humor, playfully jabbing at fellow cyclists.

Armando Armellini, Joe, and Anthony Weido

WEST U CREW Top: Nothing’s better than the sense of freedom you have on a bike, say West U Crew members (from left) Armando Armellini, Joe, and Anthony Weido. (Photo: jackophoto.com)

“He loves to tell the guys who have a little bit of belly that they’re fat. And he doesn’t say it just once. He will say it every ride,” Anthony says, laughing. “Or, if we go get beer and tacos after a ride, he will say, ‘Maybe just get one taco. Because you’re fat.’ I’m the one telling him to keep his mouth shut because it just makes them mad and wanting to ride harder and I can’t keep up. It’s like, ‘Hey Joe! Don’t poke the bear!’”

Biking wasn’t always Joe’s main mode of exercise and entertainment. That kid who raced the bus maintained his love of running through adulthood, partaking in all sorts of competitions, a myriad of triathlons and marathons in Houston, Dallas, and Boston. Yes, the 1983 Boston Marathon, where he clocked in at 3:09.

Running was his thing. Until it wasn’t.

Life comes with hard knocks and his knee took a big hit. “It was a pickup football game in college,” he explains. “A guy hit me. I was blocking for somebody, and he dove into me and took my knee out. There’s quite a history to that injury and I had several procedures before I got a replacement.”

That knee replacement in 2007 came with a caveat from the doctor: You can continue to run but you will cut the lifetime of that knee in half. Not what Joe wanted to hear. But he understood the vicissitudes of life and rolled with it. “I’m a realist.”

And roll with it, he has, taking in the urban glory of the nation’s fourth largest city from the seat of his bike.

Tuesdays, the group heads south to Braeswood, east toward MacGregor Park, then north toward Interstate 45 to downtown, out Allen Parkway through River Oaks, then north on Weslayan to home. Thursdays take a different route, a bit longer.

The Saturday and Sunday rides depend on the wind. With southeast winds, they head toward Manvel. If it’s west, sometimes toward the San Jacinto Monument, or Baytown or toward NASA. Northeast finds them spinning toward Lake Houston. North means toward Cypress, northwest towards Bear Creek Park and beyond. Southwest and they’re heading to Sugar Land.

“We go out against the wind and come back with the wind,” Joe explains. “It’s fun.”

“Anyone can see that Joe is having a good time,” says civil litigation lawyer Paul Elliott, 58, also with the West U Crew. “He’s such a gifted athlete, an unbelievable athlete to not only cycle at this age, but to do so at a very high level. He’s faster than I am, which I’m embarrassed to admit, but it’s true. He’s just super strong and has the ability to go long distances at fast speeds for a long time.”

He seems to have a photographic mind of all the roads in Houston, adds Paul. “Houston isn’t the best cycling city in the world and can be a bit hazardous when you’re trying to figure out routes. Joe is the guy who knows the roads.”

safety-conscious group

The safety-conscious group enjoys each other’s company as they ride.

Joe has a theory about that. Growing up in Austin, his dad owned a mattress factory and rug cleaning company. His father knew Austin like the back of his hand, before the days of Google and GPS navigation. Joe, who helped with the rug cleaning, learned from the best during pickups and deliveries, mapping out routes in his head.

His dad, he says, was super short. “He used to joke that he wore the seat of his pants out when he stepped off curbs.” Joe penned a poem about him for his funeral, regaling a father who doted on his children, playing with them in nearly every sport, always patient and kind. A man who never rode a bike.

Indeed, Joe has that covered.

He brings up a particular ride he did solo years ago on a custom bike, built to perfection. It was a doozy, he says, a beauty in orange. He pedaled it all the way to northeast Tennessee to visit his wife Waynel’s sister, using a Subway gift card for meals along the way. Fourteen days, 1400 miles, wheels spinning 100 miles per day.

“He planned meticulously for that trip,” says Waynel, who has learned to not get stressed over his bike excursions. “I’m so used to it now, I had to release the nervousness, because he was going to do it, no matter what.”

There were a couple of glitches during that trip. Day four hit a snag. High water on the Mississippi River prevented a ferry from docking. So, no ferry to take him across. He convinced a kind person at the bed and breakfast where he stayed to get him across via bridge. From there, he ventured from Louisiana up toward Natchez, Mississippi, his destination for that day.

And he hadn’t planned for passage through a two-mile stretch of tunnel at Cumberland Gap that courses through mountains between Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Bikers and tunnels don’t mix.

Lucky for him, there are transportation employees to take pedestrians and bikers through by truck. “I went to the entrance and this truck whips around. He throws my bike in the back and we’re in business.”

“He’s very childlike in his exuberance,” says cyclist Kevin Malone, 49, a cybersecurity consultant. “He just has this excitement for cycling. It’s motivational to all the guys. He has great endurance and is always in good spirits. A good guy to ride with.

“There’s a saying in cycling. It’s not a matter of if you’re going to crash, but when,” he adds. “Most everybody has had some level of accident, including Joe.”

Yes, acknowledges Joe. There’s that.

Anthony Weido, Armando Armellini, and Joe Sexton

BIKE BREAK Top, from left: Anthony Weido, Armando Armellini, and Joe are all smiles, taking a break from a spin around West University. (Photo: jackophoto.com)

The West U Crew was formed after breaking off from larger biking groups where too many accidents were occurring. Too many aggressive riders. “You don’t want to be in those situations,” says Joe, who, like most avid cyclists, has had his share of incidents.

He’s broken his arm in two cycling accidents. And he had his hip replaced after falling when his tire lodged in a crack during a nighttime outing, causing him to lose control of the bike. In 2014, cycling home after a group ride, he was struck by a car on Bissonnet. “I had a lot of injuries with that one. Broken bones, surgeries,” he says, lifting his pant leg to reveal a large indentation that required a skin graft.

“I think probably that’s the best thing about Joe,” says his wife. “He doesn’t get dissuaded, and he is very persistent about recovery. That’s a great lesson to me.”

He was back in the saddle immediately once the doctor gave the green light after his hip replacement, say his friends.

“He doesn’t let things stop him,” says Waynel, an educator. The two met at the University of Texas where she was majoring in English, with a minor in math. Joe was working toward his master’s degree in electrical engineering. He was her math tutor. “She was real cute,” he says.

Joe, she suspects, pursued his master’s as an excuse to enjoy intramural sports. “He never finished his master’s degree but had a lot of hours toward it. I’m convinced he used graduate school to just play handball, racquetball, golf, all the intramurals he did,” she quips.

They married in 1969 after she graduated. He was 25, she was 21. It’s been a fun, supportive marriage, each pursuing their passions. He had a lifelong career as an electrical engineer at Texas Instruments. Waynel worked for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) for decades as an instructor and administrator, teaching in the Third Ward. She was HISD Teacher of the Year in 1989. She taught three years at The Rice School and was an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center where she created staff development materials for teachers around the state to help them teach children to read.

The couple do not have children. “Or, we had 25 a year,” says Joe of Waynel’s students who frequently visited their home.

The couple reflects on their ex-pat assignment with Texas Instruments living in the South of France from 1989-1990. Joe biked with mountains and the Mediterranean Sea as scenery, like cycling through a painting. “Hardship duty,” he deadpans.

He also traveled to see the Tour de France several times, meeting up with cycling friends to watch participants in the men’s multi-stage bicycle race. “We would bike to an area and watch them. We would go ahead of them and watch them go by. And then we would ride and do some of the climbs that they were going to do.”

Frank Sexton, Joe Sexton

A younger Joe with his supportive, doting dad, Frank M. Sexton. Joe recalls his father playing all kinds of sports with him. “But he never rode a bike,” Joe recalls. “He was an inspiration,” says Waynel, Joe’s wife.

“As a cyclist, Joe is just amazing,” says restaurant owner Kopi Vogiatzis, 52, who has ridden plenty with the West U Crew. He recently took a break to pursue mountain biking. “He just cycles in such a strong way. He’s the example of age not defining your movement. I’m an active guy, but I look at Joe and think there’s still a lot to do, a lot of boxes to check. He’s got a spirit of adventure that looms large.”

True, says Waynel, who sees this in her husband daily. “He doesn’t just talk, he does.”

Years ago, Joe took master swimming classes to improve his technique and time in triathlons. At the urging of a friend, he’s now a Little League umpire, working with children in Cypress and Sugar Land. He once read a book called Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain and signed up for classes by the author’s son in California. He came home with a self-portrait, among other drawings.

“If you want to do something, just do it,” says Joe, whose favorite thing to do, of course, is on two wheels.

He reflects again on that solo Tennessee trip, and the trusty orange custom bike that carried him 1400 miles. At the trip’s end, he flew home, shipping his bike back. It made it as far as Texas, but never made it home.

“I kept track of it, and it was traced to Stafford,” he says. So, he went to the UPS distribution center there hoping to find it. “Poof. They didn’t know where it was. It was gone.

“It’s in somebody’s garage,” Joe says, with a pfft. “That’s what I think.”

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