Biking wisdom from middle aged cyclists

Most of the people with whom I bicycle these days are twenty to thirty years younger than I am. Some worry, fearing that they could lose their abilities as cyclists. Others continue to hope that despite the inevitabilities of advancing age they will be able to continue serious, long distance cycling for many years to come.

Some of these “younger” riders are making constructive adjustments to their cycling attitudes and habits, and a few of them have been interviewed in Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100. Judging by biographical information I have found on line, Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katovsky, authors of the book, are themselves in this middle range of life. It would be interesting to see how they would revise it if a new edition were to come out in 2035. Here are some notes from their interviews.

Gary Fisher, closely associated with the development of the mountain bike, starts his 2004 interview: “I’m 53, but I feel like I’m in my 20s. That’s because I can still get on my bike and do what I do. It’s still the same.” Acknowledging that he’s not as fast as he used to be, Fisher continues: “All the same actions are there; standing up out of the saddle, powering through this, climbing in certain gears. The act of being able to do this is really important.” He lists the changes that have come as he has aged, especially the fact that he can’t recover as quickly as he used to or go as fast. A sign of his self-knowledge and wisdom in this comment: “I’ll ride within myself and ride fast. But I’ll ride within what I know I have confidence I can do.”

John Howard, one of the nation’s most celebrated competitors and coaches and about 57 during his 2004 interview, states that “we all reach a point where we diminish in terms of vital capacity. You can accept it or just deny it.” He describes ways that he tried to fight that diminishment and provides several paragraphs of constructive ideas about maintaining vital capacity.

The fascinating part of his interview, however, comes later in the essay when he declares that he wants to have balance. “To me, that balance is more than physical. It’s mental as well.” Howard has come to the conclusion “that all of us are geared for X-number of miles at effort. When you use that up it’s probably going to be gone and you’re going to have to find something else to do.” He’s chosen not to race anymore because for him that’s “wasteful dissipation of the energy…I’ve reached a point where I know that there is no immortality. What’s important for me is to prolong, elongate the process of life and to experience it on a positive, blissful level.” For Howard, this means that he doesn’t have to compete anymore; instead he wants to be “the best coach in the world.”

Ned Overend, a record-holding mountain-biker and 57 at the time of the interview, decares that as we get older we have to pay attention to pain, nutrition, hydration, and not falling. He recommends “banishing burnout with variety.” Even in these later years he maintains “an enthusiasm for racing and riding hard” by “cross-training and not being obsessive.”

Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycle Components and 54 when interviewed, notes that in recent years he has worked hard at “trying to be fit.” Then comes the paragraph that speaks to me because I’m the same age as the people he describes. “What would be the ultimate goal in life? It is, like, you know: great family, being healthy. But you see some of these 80-year-old guys in Italy? On Sunday morning they’re out riding on these real cool bikes. I mean, that’s the goal, to be healthy like that. And helps ya keep perspective. You go for a long ride and you come back and you have a full glass of juice. It’s like the best thing ever.”

Patrick O’Grady, freelance writer and cartoonist (print and online), who is described as “bearing down on 50,” has a inviting list of recommendations: be less serious about training, keep riding all year round (older riders can ‘t afford off-seasons), have fun on a bike (O’Grady scoffs at “terminal serious types”), and make your cycling habitual.

A lot of this advice can be summed up with a recommendation my wife gave me years ago when I came into the house sweaty and out of breath after a game of kickball with our kids and their neighborhood buddies: “The way to stay young is to play with your kids, but not their games.”

As we move into the later decades, our goal should be to keep on biking much as we always have but in age-adjusted ways. For most of us, the two-wheeled life is still a great way to go.

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