Still racing bikes at 79 | AspenTimes.com

Still racing bikes at 79

Colleen O’Neil
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Seventy-nine-year-old Jacques Houot, riding in a cyclocross race on his birthday last fall.
Colleen O’Neil / Post Independent |

If you’ve done a cycling race in the Roaring Fork Valley in the past 10 years, you’ve heard him.

“Allez! Allez!” The shout rings out across the race course. “Allez! Allez! Go!”

An elderly, 5-foot-4-inch Frenchman runs alongside the racers with a beer in his hand, spilling it across his arm as he cheers. His 10-year-old Lycra jersey fits him like a glove, and he wears his signature cycling cap. He has already raced today, and now he’s supporting the other athletes. He encounters a female spectator and entreats her for a bisou on the cheek. She laughs and allows it.

If you don’t already know him, you will soon. This infectiously vivacious 79-year-old is Jacques “Frenchy” Houot. Jacques is probably fitter, happier and more social than most of the people you know. But his path to Carbondale hasn’t been an easy one.

INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGS

“I should have died many times!” Jacques exclaims. He keeps a well-documented list of “close calls,” from his birth to the time a skier shot off a jump and landed on his back. “I have been very lucky,” he said.

Close call No. 1: Jacques was born blue. The doctors didn’t think he’d survive. But he did.

Close call No. 2: Jacques grew up on a farm in Gerardmer, a small town in northeastern France. During World War II, the German army fought over the village, and more than half the city was destroyed.

“We were right in the center of the war,” Jacques remembers. “My father was taken as a prisoner in Germany. But we survived.”

Close call No. 3: As a young man, Jacques drove his car off a bridge into a river. “I died, then,” he said. “But they found me, and I lived.” He still has the yellowed newspaper clipping to prove it. The photo shows the car submerged in the water. In another photo, a young Jacques in a suit stands next to a doctor, looking a little dazed. “Monsieur Huot (sic),” the photo caption reads, “survivant.”

As much as survival has been a constant in his life, so has athletics. When he was 14 years old, Jacques saved money from his job as a hotel valet to buy his first bicycle. In 1949, he started participating in local stage races in the hills around his home. But his cycling career was put on pause when he was drafted in the French army to fight in Algeria for more than two years.

Now, the war medal hangs on the wall at his home in the Crystal Meadows senior apartments in Carbondale. The old bronze medal is thumbtacked in the middle of a dazzling display of medals, ribbons and awards from bike and ski races he’s completed over the past 60 years.

After the war, Jacques moved to Switzerland to work as a technical adviser for a company that made jewelry and watches. He took advantage of the location change to start skiing. On a Swiss mountain, he was buried in his first avalanche.

“I dug myself out,” he remembers, “and skied back on one ski.” That experience left him shaken, but it didn’t scare him off from skiing. Rather, he credits it with teaching him most of what he knows about mountaineering.

“To be in an avalanche and survive is the best way to learn about surviving an avalanche,” he said.

‘I NEED THE MOUNTAINS’

Working in the jewelry industry brought him to America — New York City, to be exact. Never one to be trapped in the concrete jungle, Jacques jumped at an opportunity to take another job in Canada. A coworker offered to give him a ride part way, but when they arrived at the place where they planned to split, he told his friend to keep driving west. He left the high-stress life behind and moved to Colorado Springs in the late 1960s.

During his first few years in Colorado, he used his native knowledge of French food to secure work in the dining industry. Jacques did everything from washing dishes to working as a maitre d’.

“The best job,” he said with a laugh, “was when I worked as a sommelier in Durango. You just drink wine.”

He also picked up cycling again, riding a knobby-tired road bike on both roads and trails. It was mountain biking in the time before mountain bikes existed.

Jacques bounced around the state for the next 10 years — from the Front Range to Aspen. On a whim, he took a job working on sailboats in Florida. One morning, he woke up feeling strange. So, he walked three blocks to the fire station, hitting himself in the chest with his fist. “I was doing CPR on myself,” he explains. When he got there, he collapsed. A day later, he woke up in the hospital — a heart attack, and a close call yet again.

When he recovered, Jacques threw his cigarettes into the ocean and moved back to Colorado.

“I needed to live in the mountains,” he said. “I needed to rebuild my heart.”

Once he got back, Jacques started cycling and skiing again. He learned more about mountaineering and summited as many peaks as he could, and he entered every bike race he could find.

“In that way, sport saved me,” he said.

During one race, he hopped off his bike for a pit stop. It seemed to take way too long. A day later, he visited the doctor. It was prostate cancer. Immediately, he moved to California to undergo an experimental proton radiation treatment. He lived 25 miles from the hospital and rode his bike back and forth. That was his therapy. “No problem” became his motto around the treatment center.

Finally, he moved back to Colorado for good and settled in New Castle. Four years ago, he came to Carbondale to be closer to the mountains.

THE SECRET TO LONGEVITY?

Jacques’ goal was to race until he was 80 years old. Last October, his 79th birthday fell on the same day as one of Aloha Mountain Cyclery’s cyclocross races. Jacques raced four times around the course, nabbing first place in the master’s category.

After the race, the guys from the bike shop turned the event into a birthday party for Jacques, complete with the French national anthem and a birthday cake in the shape of the French flag. They even convinced a few female racers to be his podium girls. All day, he had a huge smile on his face.

“All the friendly valley people keep me going in the right direction,” he said.

As his 80th year comes closer, Jacques shows no signs of slowing down.

Still, he admits, it’s getting harder every year to stay active. He takes longer breaks in between ski season to get ready for cycling in the spring, and he does yoga to keep his core strong.

A year ago, a nagging knee issue was bringing him down. But he had a moment of clarity when he volunteered at a ski race for disabled athletes.

“Those racers were all disabled,” he explained. “One leg, no legs, blind, etc. And they don’t complain. I said to myself, ‘I don’t have the right to complain. They have the right, and they don’t.’”

So, Jacques plans to keep playing hard and having fun until he can’t anymore. No problem.


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