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Cycling 5,000 miles on the rail trail brought new life to this man

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Coming off the Thermal Belt Rail Trail, David Sykes, stops at the Rutherford Weekly office on Main Street in Forest City for a quick photo and chat.

David Sykes celebrated a first anniversary on Thursday, April 2, as he cycled along the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. He left the trail momentarily for a photo before peddling again toward home in Spindale.

Since April 2, 2019 David has ridden his bicycle 5,141.5 miles on the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. Weather was not a factor in his decision to ride every day. Through snow, rain, hot summer days, beautiful fall days and winter cold ones, David was on his bicycle.

There's a reason for the cycling so diligently.

Thursday's anniversary of riding the rail trail a year wasn't the only anniversary that day. David and the love of his life, Beth, moved to Spindale 14 years ago on April 2 from their New Jersey home. They had about six years together in Rutherford County before Beth succumbed to cancer eight and a half years ago after undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatments.

"She never quit. She never gave up," David said. He said Beth really didn't have a choice about her treatments, she had to do them, and with a courageous fortitude she never quit. David said she was a person that "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

David had another reason to ride the trail.

On the advice of a doctor friend, David knew for his personal health he had to develop some type of exercise program. His blood pressure was high and he knew he had the issues to cause a stroke. He suffered some bouts of depression due to the loss of his wife so he wasn't in the best of health.

The doctor suggested exercise and change of diet so he decided to try the rail trail. In the past year he has lost 40 pounds. He first bought a used $25 bicycle from a friend at B Sharpe Music in Spindale and later bought a new one at the Box Store in Spindale. The bicycle has no gears.

When he rides the rail trail every day, he thinks of Beth and her willingness to do what she had to do and never give up.

"I'm not going to quit either...the rides clear my head.'

On the year anniversary of his ride, the weather was a cool 42 degrees but not nearly as cold as some 20 degree winter days. There have been rainy days, excruciatingly hot days and there have been good mild ones, too.

Much to his delight, David has seen wildlife along the trail, something he was not accustomed as a New Jersey resident.

He has experienced a snake crossing, a deer crossing, a raccoon on the trail and so many birds.

"Not long ago, just a foot away a deer crossed in front of me," he said.

The growth of pine trees along the trail riding toward Shelby, is breathtaking.

"Western North Carolina is so beautiful. You can't improve on God's handicraft. You almost have to leave here to appreciate all you have," he said.

His favorite restaurant along the trail is the Shake Shop in Spindale although he sticks to his healthy eating so he doesn't have the fried foods. He misses hushpuppies, though, and can hardly believe that right there on the trail is a factory, Lakeside Mills, that makes cornmeal for hushpuppies.

When David took his first ride last year, it lasted two miles.

"I thought I was going to die," he laughed

Each day he went a little further and a little further.

"He leaves his Spindale house early in the morning and rides first toward Gilkey and then to Forest City. His longest ride on the trail has been 32.5 miles. The trail is 26 miles long round trip, from Forrest Hunt Elementary School to Gilkey, as the trail is a little over 13 miles.

"This is not for everybody, but it could be a nice start. You can get off the bike and walk," he said.

In these days of Shelter-in-Place and social distancing, David is quick to say he gives other cyclists and walkers all the room they need. He abides by the governor's and president's orders.

He was especially grateful this year when spring arrived.

"With the birds, raccoon, you got a little hope that spring was finally coming."

Cycling has brought him many new friends and acquaintances.

Before COVID-19, David spent a lot of time at B Sharpe talking to customers about guitars and being a host for Thursday afternoon's music jam with local musicians.

"I wear my suit and open the door for folks to come in. I liked getting dressed up," he said of the Thursday picking and singing event.

One employee at B Sharpe has a granddaughter, Sarah Beth. The 10-year-old has found a new friend in David and often asks him to her house for dinners. The hospitality of the friends has lightened his load a little.

"They took me in and I'm invited to family gatherings," he smiled.

He even bought a new car from his cycling experience. He cycled by Mike's Used Cars one day and soon afterwards returned to buy a car.

His goal for 2020-21 is to continue riding along the beautiful Thermal Belt Rail Trail, but to know his limits. He doesn't want to ride so much that he doesn't take time to smell the roses.

"I will listen to my body and take off time to explore," he said.

Cycling isn't his only method of exercise.

Three to four days a week he drives to the Purple Martin Trail in Rutherfordton where he walks several miles.

A man who loves waterfalls, he said the little spillway on the Purple Martin Trail is refreshing and through the mind of a child, it's a waterfall.

He thought for a minute about a ride on the rail trail last winter. It wasn't snowing when he left his house but about the time he got to the Bechtler site, the snow started falling and the snowflakes were huge.

"I tried to catch them," he said.

About COVID-19, David said he will "Trust in the Lord and do good."

That's what Beth would do. She is his inspiration as he cycles, walks, hikes and has family time in friendly Spindale and Rutherford County.

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