For 74-year-old Sam Asbell, mountain biking is the cure for just about anything. It’s his escape, his solace and a place of serenity in times of happiness and sorrow. And because of that, Asbell has not missed a day on his bike for eight consecutive years.
Asbell, a criminal attorney for 48 years, has made lifelong friends along the trails and mourned the tragic death of his wife in a plane crash. He has pedaled thousands of miles solo and with his “crew” exploring the woodlands of his home state of New Jersey.
“I live by the credo that when your dreams become regrets, that’s when you’re old,” says Asbell.
“My dream is mountain biking. I love mountain biking. Practicing law is a vocation; it’s not something that I love. It’s something that I do. Meanwhile, I‘m one of those lunatics that bike’s every single day.”
Today, Asbell serves of counsel to the Cherry Hill law firm of Malamut & Associates, LLC, a step toward retirement without completely removing himself from the hustle and bustle of practicing law.
On the night we spoke, Asbell is preparing to observe the third anniversary of his wife Susan’s death. The couple was married 47 years, raised two children and welcomed the joy of grandchildren together. Sadly, Susan’s life was taken in a fiery plane crash that also claimed the life of Philadelphia Inquirer owner Lewis Katz and 5 others in 2014.
No Promise of Tomorrow
“Nobody can plan for tomorrow,” Asbell says. “Every day is an adventure, and something can change in a moment. When Susan died, the mountain biking got me through it. I went out riding the day she died and the day of the funeral. To me, the woods are spiritual.”
The comfort of the trails continues to fuel his spirit to this day. “I feel free when I’m out there. I don’t need the four walls of a church or a synagogue to commune with the Supreme Being,” he says. “I’m going to do it there, in the woods. And for me, that’s a spiritual event.”
Since Susan’s passing, Asbell has reconnected with a remarkable woman with whom he can share life’s adventures. She’s a 73-year-old yoga instructor, longtime family friend and Asbell’s date to their senior prom in 1961. “She’s a wonderful, fun person, and she gives me my space when I need it,” he says.
Asbell first took up exercise in his 40s. He chose running to get in shape, to counter life’s stresses and because it was uncomplicated. “It looked like it was fun and something I could do. I wanted to get in shape,” he says.
It wasn’t long before casual running became a competitive pursuit. “By the time the running boom hit in the mid ‘70s, I was an avid runner,” Asbell says.
He favored longer, endurance running, which led him to marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and the New York City Marathon, in addition to dozens of half marathons and 10-Ks along the way.
Running offered the physical and psychological freedom that Asbell craved, until his body pushed back with injuries in his early 50s.
“My knees held up, but the rest of me didn’t,” he says. “So I started to look for something that was non-weight bearing, and that’s when I found mountain biking.”
Little did he know, that discovery would be life-changing. “I started by riding around the neighborhood and gradually worked myself into the woods,” says this New Jersey native who lives in an area where giant tree stumps, knotted roots and trail critters abound.
“I didn’t start racing mountain bikes until I was in my 60s, and now I’ve mountain biked all over New Jersey, California and Arizona. “I was competing for years, and no matter where I finished, I won a prize because I was the oldest guy in my age group.”
One of his favorite races is the Odd Man 1.3.5 Duathlon, which consists of a 3.5-mile run, 10-mile mountain bike, and 3.5-mile run. Awards go to the 1st, 3rd and 5th competitors to cross the finish line, and Asbell has brought home the prize 10 times.
Mountain Biking Adventures
Mountain biking comes with unique hazards, depending on the terrain and geography. Asbell has ridden some legendary MTB turf like Porcupine Rim in Moab, Utah, and Fruita in western Colorado. He also enjoys traveling west to California and the southwestern Arizona desert trails.
“Some of the greatest times I have had are out West. It’s gorgeous. And I love the desert,” Asbell says.
He also learned some hard lessons along the way. “Very candidly, the older you get, the smarter you get. I don’t do the dumb things I used to. If there’s an easier way to get around an obstacle, I’ll do that.
“But every so often, I still go down. A month ago, I slid off a root, did an endo, and can still feel it in my shoulder,” he says. An MRI also revealed that endo caused a concussion fracture to his back.
Nine years ago, at age 65, Asbell collided with a deer on a forest trail, leaving him with a broken neck and bruised spinal cord.
“I was going easily down a pine-needle covered trail, and I didn’t hear the deer. They didn’t hear me either. A doe hit the front of my bike, and I hit the ground. The deer took off and I looked down and said, ‘Shit, my front wheel is bent!’
Body in Motion
What drives this septuagenarian to continue mountain biking, despite the risks and hazards is good, old-fashioned fear. And not type you might think.
“I’m afraid to stop moving,” he says emphatically. “That’s what scares me. When you’re 20, you’re invincible. When you’re in your 70s, people start to die.”
That awakening prompted his commitment to exercise 1-2 hours daily for eight consecutive years. He hasn’t missed a day. He knows that as long as he keeps his body in motion, he will be able to do the things he loves.
“I hate to be maudlin, but nobody’s guaranteed tomorrow,” Asbell says. “We all have to worry about tomorrow. When I ride, I am riding for today. That’s the difference. That’s what keeps me going.”
On this day, Asbell says he may start running again and he also may listen to his doctors and take one day a week off to rest. “I like to run in the woods,” Asbell says. “I’ll start out easy.”
Young at Heart
Deep down inside, Sam Asbell is fully aware that he’s a kid at heart. “I still have the curiosity and interest that I did as a boy, and that’s what keeps me going.
His heroes are cowboys, and his mountain bike is his bucking bronco. “I want to make it very clear that my bike is my horse. I’ve always been a cowboy,” Asbell says. He rattles off names like Gene Autry and Ken Maynard and likens his journey to riding the open range.
“I have the freedom now to do and be what I want. That’s the difference,” Asbell says. “In my own personal time, I’m still that kid from Camden. And I’m having a hell of a time.”