Guidelines for the almost-octogenarian bicyclist

On the very day that I posted my column on bicycling with an aging heart, Fred Matheny used the phrase “Hillier Than Thou” as the focus of his bi-weekly newsletter. It was heartening for the nation’s expert on bicycle-related fitness to address a topic which is so closely related to the condition which I had addressed: the challenge that aggressive cyclists face as they move into their later Medicare years.

This sentence conveys the gist of his remarks: “When you have the right gearing for the terrain, a climb is only as tough as you want it to be.” Much of the column is devoted to recommendations including: 1) use appropriate gears for your fitness and strength; 2) keep your cadence reasonably high (80-85 revolutions per minute), and 3) do specialized training to achieve smoothness combined with quick pedaling.

After reading Fred’s advice, I reread a slender book that I bought twenty years ago along with my first heart rate monitor, The Heart Rate Monitor Book by Sally Edwards. That book and my own cycling experience had persuaded me that for well-trained athletes maximum heart rates were usually higher than the 220 minus age formula would indicate. Thus, they could safely establish training zones and ride most of the time with higher heart rates than a strict usage of the time-honored formula would allow.

As I now review the tables, however, it is clear that older cyclists may need to adjust heartbeat targets more than I have in order to deal with the inevitable age-related diminution of cardio-vascular capabilities. Cycling can still be rigorous, but rigor needs to be intelligently adapted to physiological reality. Installing a cassette that provides lower gearing (as I did this very week) is the equipment change that many older cyclists probably have to make. Paying attention to perceived effort and backing off a little is another.

The adjustments that are necessary to keep us out of the danger zone will be made more easily and with greater levels of satisfaction if older cyclists will spend some time redefining their goals so that they are suitable for people in their later years. They should also revise their riding-training habits accordingly.

Here are goals that can challenge any “almost-octogenarian” cyclist:

  • Bicycle with confidence in virtually all traffic conditions
  • Ride near the front of older cyclists and well within the schedule of organized rides
  • Keep on riding long miles; for many of us it still is possible to ride 90 to 100 miles within an eight or nine hour time period any time the situation calls for it
  • Maintain the capability of doing multi-day trips with an average of 75 miles per day (with a little training before the trip starts)
  • Enjoy what we’re doing (even when things hurt the next day)

Guidelines for a training pattern to achieve these goals:

Concentrate on “supplesse.” Fred Matheny reminds his readers of this French term that’s been around for a long time. While older cyclists still need to do a little hard-core interval training that the training literature emphasizes, it is even more important to concentrate on smooth pedaling combined with a brisk pedaling cadence. From now on, getting the most from what little we still have is the objective.

Select equipment and setups that provide day-long comfort. Jan Heine has persuaded me that road vibrations significantly diminish forward speed and at the same time increase rider fatigue. The result is that cyclists slow down, wear out, and can’t go as far or as fast as they want to. The logical conclusion for road cyclists with the above-stated goals is to choose bicycles built according to classic road designs and equipped with tires and components that allow day-long riding.

Ride at a pace that can be sustained for the entire event. The experience-based literature is correct. Starting out at too rapid a rate and pushing hard dissipate energy and lead to early fatigue. During the latter third of the ride, the result is an inevitable slow down. By starting a little slower, we can finish much faster.

Eat and drink according to a pattern that maintains hydration and fuel supply. Too little to drink, and the body robs the blood supply of fluid; too little to eat, and the muscles won’t work. Older cyclists ought to have learned this long ago, but we need to keep focused on basic needs if we hope to continue aggressive cycling into the later decades of life.

We’ve slowed down a little. So what? Let’s be glad that we’ve lived long enough to get so old!

2 Responses to Guidelines for the almost-octogenarian bicyclist

  1. eirenetheou says:

    i love it, dear brother. You are a romantic realist. That you are still doing your best at things you have done well is an inspiration to those of us who follow in your wake.

    May you continue to do good and do it well.

    God’s Peace to you.


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