Fran Dolan, wearing gray baseball cap, is joined by his fellow cyclists for a celebratory group photo after arriving in Sea Isle City. (Photo courtesy of Fran Dolan)

By Donald Wittkowski

It is a 78-mile trip from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to Sea Isle City. Fran Dolan – and his legs – are intimately familiar with every single mile.

When they were just 19 years old, Dolan, Joe Fitzpatrick, Marty Costello and Jim D’Angelo began making that same trip on their bikes in 1966 to celebrate the end of their first year at the St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia.

Although none of them went on to become priests, the four men still share a strong bond through the Overbrook Bicycle Association they formed all those years ago and the annual excursions they make on two wheels from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to Sea Isle.

Costello and D’Angelo didn’t ride this time around, but Dolan and Fitzpatrick cruised into Sea Isle accompanied by a police escort on Saturday, June 1, to complete the 54th year of their traditional jaunt to the shore.

“It gives us a sense of pageantry as we head into town,” Dolan said of the police escort.

Dolan and Fitzpatrick, both 73, were joined by friends and family members for the trip, including having a third generation accompany them for the first time. Two of the grandchildren of Dolan’s 76-year-old brother, Vince, were among the 20 cyclists.

Fran Dolan’s daughter, Emily, and his son, Kevin, also were part of the trip. His other son, Brendan, couldn’t make it because his wife gave birth to their fourth child two days before everyone hit the road on their bikes.

For 26 years, Dolan and his wife, Lena, 69, have owned own a vacation home in Sea Isle on Roberts Avenue. They spend their summers at the shore once the bike trip is over.

That was not the case in 1966 when Dolan, Fitzpatrick, Costello and D’Angelo set off on a whim, riding old bikes, to celebrate the conclusion of their first year in seminary school.

“We made the foolish mistake of pedaling back home the next morning,” Dolan recalled of the quick return trip to Philadelphia. “It was anticlimactic and boring. There was no anticipation, no salt air, no beach waiting for us.”

The trip is always done on the first Saturday in June. Altogether, it takes about 9 hours, including about 5½ to 6 hours of actual pedaling. The ride includes a number of stops at favorite haunts, including the Mr. Green Jeans Farm Market & Nursery on Route 73 near Hammonton and the Harley Dawn Diner on Route 322 in Folsom.

After the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, the cyclists take Church Road to Route 73, then Route 322, then Route 559, and then Route 50 before connecting to Route 9 for the final push to Sea Isle Boulevard.

Along the way, they share camaraderie, humor and some good stories while making memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

“People catch that spirit,” Dolan said. “I think it’s a group of kindred spirits and people of goodwill who have gained some wisdom over the years.”

The ride is supposed to be fun, Dolan emphasized.

However, in 1968, Dolan and his seminary buddies learned of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy while on the road. Dolan remembers seeing the tragic news on an old black-and-white television during a stop at a general store along the way to Sea Isle.

The four friends kneeled on the side of the road in prayer. Later, Dolan went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to attend RFK’s funeral. He recalled standing in line for 9 hours to pay his respects.

Dolan, Fitzpatrick, Costello and D’Angelo, all of them retired now, chose career paths other than becoming priests. Dolan, whose primary residence is the East Falls section of Philadelphia, is the retired executive director of the Catholic Charities of Trenton.

Fitzpatrick lives in Lansdale, Pa., D’Angelo, 73, resides in Bucks County, Pa., and Costello, 74, makes his home in Burlington, Vermont.

While they are, obviously, no longer 19, the memories from their first bike trip way back in 1966 remain fresh.

“The first trip, we decided the night before, ‘Let’s just do it.’ Then we grabbed our old bikes,” Dolan said.