Cycling into one’s later years

Desert View Watchtower; September 26, 2010: Mary Coulter’s beautiful watchtower on the eastern end of Grand Canyon’s South Rim was completed in 1932, which makes it one year younger than I am. It seems fitting, therefore, that this was the very spot where one of my companions on PACTour’s Grand Canyon expedition, a psychiatrist by profession, encouraged me to report on what a cyclist my age was experiencing on this high-altitude, high-mileage bicycle journey.

The conversation was prompted by the fact that I was the last rider to reach this first rest stop. The reason was clear: my legs said “go” but my lungs told me “slow down, slow down!” So that’s what I did. Even though this was our fifth day with elevations above 7,000 feet, I had not yet adjusted. Before the trip, my physician had explained that heart, lungs, and vascular system slow down with age, and his counsel had been “Don’t push as hard.” Later that day, after we had dropped to a much lower elevation, my lungs seemed to catch up with my legs, and while I still was one of the slower cyclists, I felt good again.

Later in the day, I jotted down seven observations about growing old as a cyclist.

1. The cycling habits of a lifetime continue to work, but adjustments have to be made to accommodate the changes that take place in one’s body.

2. Physical diminishment takes many forms, each of which will impact performance in its own way, and the smart cyclist figures out effective ways to respond.

3. As sheer strength diminishes, technique and pacing become increasingly important.

4. While older people can still perform at a high level, they have to accept the fact that they can’t go as fast or do as much as younger people (including themselves when they were younger).

5. Cycling with high-performing groups is advantageous and disadvantageous. It is important to choose one’s cycling companions with considerable thoughtfulness and to exercise a high degree of common sense in deciding how long to keep up.

6. A comfortable ride increases the performance capabilities of older cyclists. Another way to make this point is that the ability to complete a 100-mile day in a reasonable period of time depends upon being able to keep going all day at a good speed, and to do this comfort on the bike may be more important than light weight and stiff performance capabilities.

7. The time will probably come when the aging cyclist will no longer be able to go on long trips. Some of us may reach a stage in life when we have to quit cycling all together. For me, that time seems still to be a few years down the pike, but its virtual inevitability has to be kept in mind.

Lon Haldeman described the Grand Canyon Tour as a relaxed ride, and compared with some of the PACTour events it is. But it has pushed me to my limits. Wisdom tells me that I should either train a lot more or choose somewhat easier events. The habits of my lifetime are such that more intense training is unlikely to happen. Ergo….

Susan Notorangelo said that one of our goals is to have fun. And I did: the comradeship with other cyclists was delightful. The routes, which improve each time this tour is taken, took me places I would not cycle over on my own.  The willingness of the support crew to provide a little motor assist when I needed help made it possible for me (and several others) to do the succession of long days. Because of the group disciplines, I had less freedom to meander and dawdle than when I travel on my own, but the compensating factor is that I covered more ground and saw more mountains.

Putting it all together, the Grand Canyon Tour was one of the most satisfying cycling events of a lifetime. And if I should decide that it will be my last trip at this level of intensity, it provides a memory that will enrich my armchair reveries.

Thank you, everyone, who made this tour so wonderful.

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