In 1965, to celebrate the end of their first year at St. Charles Seminary, Fran Dolan, Joe Fitzpatrick, Marty Costello, and Jim D'Angelo decided to undertake a physical challenge.
"We would blow off a little steam by getting on our bikes and riding to Sea Isle City," says Dolan.
The four seminarians made it, and so was born the OBA - Overbrook Bicycle Association.
As years passed and word spread, the ride became more popular. On Saturday, those original four riders will be joined by at least 60 others for OBA's 50th trip to the Shore. After 78 miles of pedaling, they will reach Sea Isle City, where two squad cars will escort them over the bridge into town and the mayor will hand them the key to the city.
The trip will begin, as usual, on the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, where the riders will be sent off with a prayer as the police temporarily close the span. This year, to mark the 50th, there will be a new banner and commemorative T-shirts.
The OBA ride is not a race; it's about congeniality and camaraderie, memories and tradition. The cyclists will stop frequently, beginning at the Palace Diner on Route 73, where several participants treat themselves to a hearty breakfast. Other stops are spaced about every 10 miles - produce stands, Bleachers sports bar in Folsom, etc. - so the riders can regroup and stay together. Flat tires and mechanical difficulties are quickly tended to by a squadron of handy Samaritans. Altogether, the trip takes about nine hours, of which 51/2 to six are spent pedaling. Dolan must frequently remind the group to saddle up and keep moving, as the blazing afternoon sun can be merciless.
In past years, the cyclists celebrated completing the ride at Dolan's vacation home, where his wife, Lena, hosted a pizza-and-beer party. This year, in honor of the 50th, the festivities will take place at the Kixx Bar & Lounge, where Dolan expects a crowd of 120, including riders from past trips who couldn't join this one.
The OBA cyclists are an increasingly diverse lot. Of the original four seminarians, none became a priest. Dolan, 69, of East Falls, is a retired social worker and executive director of Catholic Charities of Trenton. The oldest rider is expected to be the Rev. Bernie Farley, 74, the chaplain at St. John Neumann on Roosevelt Boulevard. Dolan's brother Michael, also 74, will ride, as well. Tom Jennings, a nationally competitive long-distance runner, is expected to cruise through the ride at age 72.
After the first dozen years, OBA "finally got into the modern age," Dolan says, and included women. Dolan's three children - Emily, 39; Brendan, 36; and Kevin, 33 - will ride, and Dolan's brother Vince, of Ambler, will be joined by two of his daughters and his son. The youngest rider is likely to be Vince's granddaughter, Anna, who just completed her freshman year at Merion Mercy Academy and is 15. Fran's brother, Mike, will be flying in from Albuquerque to join the trip, and Fran's best friend, Forrest Lang, a physician who has completed about 45 rides, will come up from Tennessee.
"The trip is such a great way to connect with friends from various walks of life," Dolan says. "It's also wonderful to see how intergenerational it's become. When we started, our kids waited for us at the finish. Now it's our grandchildren."
Joe Gavin, a regular rider who died of melanoma five years ago, used to say the OBA bike ride, always on the first Saturday in June, was his favorite event. Dolan, the group's "convenor," tries to maintain enthusiasm with periodic messages, often accompanied by inspirational quotes.
One example, from A. Bartlett Giamatti: "Our pleasure is radically tangled up with our childhood. Much of what we love later in a sport or game is what it recalls to us about ourselves at our earliest. And those memories, now smoothed and bending away from us in the interior of ourselves, are not simply of our childhoods, but of our best hopes."
Though many distance rides these days raise money or awareness to fight a disease, OBA prefers to keep it light.
"Over the years, we have very consciously resisted becoming a cause ride," Dolan says, "and have tried to keep this a fun trip. I think what has made the ride so attractive and what has sustained it is the experience of feeling once again our youthful selves. The Shore for us Philadelphia working-class kids has always represented freedom, fun, and a carefree time in our lives. The Shore was the first place our parents let us go without them.
It was a place where we came of age. OBA lets us revisit all that wonderful stuff."