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At what age will a cyclist peak?

Michael Donlevy
15 Nov 2020

Riders such as Chris Horner were winning in their forties, while others burnt out at 30, so is there an age when we peak?

The 1922 Tour de France was a tale of the tortoise and several hares that pulled up lame. Philippe Thys won five stages but broke a wheel. Eugéne Christophe led until his front forks collapsed.

Jean Alavoine won three stages in a row but lost 76 minutes with a string of punctures, leaving Hector Heusghem wearing yellow – until he picked up a one-hour penalty for swapping a damaged bike that could have been repaired. And so Firmin Lambot, at 36, became the Tour’s oldest winner.

The record still stands, despite advances in sports science theoretically extending the careers of the very best riders. So what is the ideal age at which to be a winning pro cyclist – or, for that matter, a winning club rider?

'The standard thinking is that in most sports athletes peak physiologically at around 27,' says British Cycling coach Will Newton.

'It’s not quite as simple as that because there has to be a window, and for most pros that can be a broad range between the mid-twenties and mid-thirties. But it has a basis in fact.'

Statistics don’t lie. The average age of the winner of the Tour de France at the time of writing stood at 28.5 – now a bit lower thanks to 22-year-old Egan Bernal's 2019 win and 21-year-old Tadej Pogacar's 2020 victory – and research by ProCyclingStats reveals similar statistics across all pro races.

It analysed all of the results from UCI road races from 1995 to 2016 (male and female) and found that the most points were scored by riders aged 26, spiking up at the age of 25 and declining steadily from the age of 28.

It then went a step further and analysed the results of all riders whose careers spanned more than 10 years, and in this case the most points were scored at 28, spiking up at 26 and declining steadily from the age of 30.

'There are a lot of influencing factors,' says ProCyclingStats director Bert Lip. 'There could be fewer older riders or maybe they ride fewer races, or perhaps talented riders' careers get cut short by injury.

'Those factors are mostly filtered out by the 10-year limit so that’s a better representation of the peak age.'

There can be exceptions to the norm, but in broad terms physiology doesn’t lie either. 'Muscle mass peaks at around 24,' says Newton.

'VO2 max declines by around 15% per decade and muscular strength declines steadily past the age of 30.'

In fact, it’s your twenties when your body is at its peak in each of the 10 key facets of fitness: endurance, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, body composition and anaerobic capacity. 

'Sprinters tend to peak slightly younger, when the body is at its strongest,' says former pro Axel Merckx, director of the UCI Continental team Hagens Berman Axeon that works with under-23s – including now Team Sky rider Tao Geoghegan Hart –  in the US.

The fast-twitch muscle fibres needed for intense bursts of speed decline before the cardiovascular ability needed to succeed in the General Classification, and this is borne out by the fact that Mark Cavendish’s best year, results-wise, came in 2011 when he won the points classification in the Tour de France and the World Road Race Championships at the age of 26.

By the end of that Tour he had won 20 stages in four years. In the six Tours de France since he has won half as many.

The problem is that there will always be someone younger and fitter coming along behind you. ProCyclingStats also calculated when other pros were at their best in terms of results, revealing that the likes of Axel’s dad, Eddy, and Fabian Cancellara peaked at 26-27, Miguel Indurain, Stephen Roche and Classics legend Roger De Vlaeminck at 27-28.

This shows there isn’t any significant difference between the peak ages of Classics and Grand Tour winners, which is almost certainly because there’s another factor that comes into play: experience.

'Your knowledge of the past helps you change your preparation for your goals,' says Axel Merckx. 'You gain knowledge year after year and you need to be in the right place – in life, in your team – to reach your peak.'

Newton agrees: 'Teamwork and tactics make such a difference compared to individual sports. Experience, motivation, confidence and even luck – being in the right team at the right time – are crucial.

'Cycling is one of the few sports where your physical peak is relatively unimportant, because there are so many other factors involved.'

Late bloomers

Lambot isn’t the oldest Grand Tour winner, of course. That honour went to Chris Horner when he won the 2013 Vuelta a Espana at the sprightly age of 41, but he is the exception rather than the rule.

'There will always be an outlier here and there – someone who defies all logic,' says Newton.

And yet there’s as much hope for you as there was for Horner in Spain that year. The inevitable declines in fitness relate to your maximum exercise capacity, rather than your current fitness level.

Unless you’re already at your maximum, you still have room for improvement.

'The more you ride, the better you get,' says Merckx. 'If you’ve never ridden a bike you’ll progress massively over two months at any age, but after two years it becomes harder to go faster.'

Newton draws attention to the 10,000 hours theory, which surmises that this is the amount of time you have to spend doing an activity to reach your peak.

'If you start young and become a pro, it might take you 15 years. If you start later and you’re not a pro you might never get there, but there’s no reason why you can’t keep improving into your forties.

'Even after that there’s hope – if you go to a sprint session at the Manchester Velodrome there are always races at the end, and they’re usually won by guys in their sixties.

'That’s because they have the experience. They’re not stronger than the guys in their forties, but they know how to race.'

For most of us, though, aerobic fitness declines at a much slower rate than anaerobic fitness, which means you may want to up the distances you race as you get older, so you’re less likely to get burned off by youngsters.

'Older riders rarely lack endurance – in fact you can often turn into a "diesel engine",' says former pro Daniel Lloyd.

So enjoy finding your own peak, and remember that even if you’re older than the pros there is no reason to stop trying to get better.

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