She may be 73, but has 27 speeds

MANATEE — Equipped with a sleek new road bicycle, one of Bradenton’s most popular deacons is set to tackle her second 126-mile “Biking For The Homeless.”

The Rev. Gretchen Platt of Christ Episcopal Church in Bradenton raised $7,000 in donations for Community Coalition for the Homeless last year when she came out of exercise retirement to ride a mountain bike from Brooksville to Bradenton in the two-day event.

This year, the 73-year-old, who also raised awareness for senior athletes with her trek in 2008, is hoping to top that donation for the Coalition on a 27-speed Scott road bike.

She is scheduled to join a throng of riders in the event, sponsored by JOY-FM and departing Brooksville at 11 a.m. Feb. 21.

“I feel very humble and proud,” Platt said Thursday about her attempt to raise more money for the homeless. “These are special people to me, and that’s why I am excited.”

Donations for Platt’s ride are coming from members of Christ Episcopal Church, residents at her winter home at Palm Lakes Estates, family and friends of the homeless and those who have heard about how she has embraced bike riding in her 70s.

“Gretchen’s a very inspiring lady,” said Aaron Welch, 63, her bike training partner from Christ Episcopal Church. “She is no spring chicken, yet she’s out there riding for the homeless. She’s a wonderful Christian.”

Welch and Platt train many Thursday and Sunday afternoons by the DeSoto Monument, along Riverview Drive and out to Robinson Preserve in northwest Bradenton — anywhere to have decent saddle time, Welch said.

Last year, when Platt decided to shake the cobwebs from her body, get fit and help the homeless, she struggled to stay with Welch during their training sessions before the grueling big race.

She finished the race but was pretty exhausted.

“The last 20 miles were rough,” Platt said. “I’m athletic, but I hadn’t worked out before last year’s ride. I had a mountain bike and rode it around the Palm Lake Estates. When I did my first practice round I thought I was going to die.”

But this year is different.

She’s been faithful to a stationary bike at home, and she’s also working with a personal trainer, Judy Emmecknecker.

“Put it this way,” Welch said, “last year we both rode mountain bikes. This year her road bike has 27-inch wheels and my mountain bike has a 26-inch wheel. She kicks my butt. Last year, she had to ride hard to keep up with me. Now, I have to ride to keep up with her.”

Platt averaged 10 to 13 mph in the ride last year. This year she’s been placed back in the 10-13 mph group, but she thinks she will do 14-15 mph.

Donations so far have been coming in slowly — only $3,000 as of Thursday — but Platt is not discouraged.

The Rev. Joel Morsch, rector of Christ Episcopal, lets her get up and make pitches to the congregation, which has always been exceedingly generous, she said.

Platt is well known in Bradenton because she is not only on the board of Manatee Religious Services and is their president, but she assists at the altar at the large church, reads the gospel to the congregation, assists at the communion rail and visits the sick.

“Biking For The Homeless” starts on Highway 50 in Brooksville.

Riding in Spandex shorts, a chartreuse riding jersey, riding gloves and a helmet, Platt will make her way with the others along back roads to St. James Methodist Church in Temple Terrace.

She will spend the first night at a Sleep Inn in Tampa.

After breakfast at the church, the riders leave Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa and end up at about 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at Sarasota Baptist Church off University Parkway in Lakewood Ranch.

Donations can be made to Christ Episcopal Church in care of “Bike Ride” and sent to 4030 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton 34205. For information, call Miriam Whitaker at 747-3907, ext. 229.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.