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Why getting older is no barrier to being a better cyclist

Susannah Osborne
7 Jul 2021

We take a look at how getting old can affect your performance on the bike, and what to do to combat it

Mark Cavendish is winning stages for fun at this year's Tour de France, to such an extent that Eddy Merckx has gone from comfortable all-time stage win record holder to nervous sweats when he turns on the telly for each day's coverage. Probably.

Now, at 36, Cav is hardly 'an old cyclist' but he is showing that despite being a few years on from his true peak, getting older is no barrier to him being a better – or at least just as good – cyclist as we always knew he was.

In his honour, we've taken another look at the science behind being an ageing cyclist and why each passing year need not necessarily mean you have to slow down.

Why getting older is no barrier to being a better cyclist

If you’re knocking on the door of middle age and your Sunday rides are getting slower and slower, it’s easy to blame your age. But before you book into a geriatric nursing home consider this – the effect that age has on your cycling performance is actually pretty small when you start looking at the type of training you do, your diet, your lifestyle and even the effect of your mates repeatedly calling you ‘Grandad’.

Former pros like Chris Horner and Jens Voigt are proof that age can have the upper hand on the road with both riders racing successfully well into their 40s.

What’s more, British pro Malcolm Elliott, who retired in 1997 aged 36, made a come back five years later at 41 and won a round of the Tour Series a month short of his 49th birthday.

So before you swap your cycling shoes for your slippers, how about working out what else it could be that’s slowing you down. 

The Science bit

The brutal truth is that as you get older you’ll probably experience a steady decline in your ability to kick your mates’ backsides. Your biological and physical peak is usually reached between ages 20 and 35 (supposedly - but more on that here), but when you look at the facts, the decline you experience is actually pretty slender. 

Estimates vary but scientists in New Zealand found that for trained cyclists, maximum power declined on average by just 0.048 watts per kilo per year from the age of 35 onwards. Other studies show a loss of between 1-3 watts per kilo.

Tim Harkness, cycle coach and sports psychologist explains, ‘Take a typical 45-year-old man who is 8kg overweight. If he loses the weight through structured training, he could gain around 30 watts. Take away the 10 watts he has lost in the ageing process and he’s still up by 20 watts.’

So it’s far from doom and gloom, especially when you consider that a study by Dr Roy Shepherd at Toronto University discovered in 2008 that as you reach middle age, regular outings on your bike can actually turn back your biological clock by up to 12 years as you get older.

Findings that are seemingly backed up by a 2015 study at King’s College London, which examined a  group of seasoned cyclists aged between 55 and 79, and discovered that they displayed significantly fewer signs of ageing compared to non-cyclists.

Making that bike of yours is the key to a long and healthy life. And if you still don’t believe us, here’s even more evidence…

Push yourself

Telomeres are the tips of your chromosomes and as you grow older they get shorter. Author and coach Joe Friel explains, ‘The length of telomeres is directly related to aerobic capacity (VO2max) and therefore endurance performance.’

Friel quotes a study by scientists at the University of Colorado, which compared the telomere length of young (18-32 years) and older (55-72 years) subjects, half of which were ‘sedentary’ and the other half ‘endurance-trained’. 

The results showed that telomere length in the older, endurance-trained subjects was only 7% shorter than the endurance-trained youngsters (compared to 13% difference in the sedentary groups).

What’s more, the higher the subject's VO2max, the longer their telomeres were. VO2max increases if you do endurance sports, but it does so even more with interval training. So you should incorporate some explosive efforts into your training to stay young.

Recover properly

If you’ve lived a life of hard knocks, it’s easy to think that your aches and pains are caused by your increasing maturity. But old injuries are just that, old injuries to cartilage or muscle.

‘There is not a direct correlation between age and injury. Train properly, stay flexible and look after yourself and you’re less likely to get injured,’ says Tim Harkness.

He adds, ‘Professional athletes work harder when they are injured than when they are fit.’ So, if you attempt Alpe D’Huez after six months off the bike and you get injured, it’s not because you’re old, it’s because you’re daft.

Lose your spare tyre

Visceral fat is the fat that’s laid down in your abdominal cavity around your organs. As we grow older, our metabolism changes and many of us are more inclined to put on fat around our middle.

But rather than accepting that looking like Michelin man is an inevitable part of ageing, you need to take steps to manage it.

Excess body weight ‘wastes energy, slows you down [and] affects performance and stresses joints,’ says Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, £14.99). 

But cyclists need to keep muscle and lose fat and to do that means incorporating weight-bearing exercise and fast, vigorous, riding into your training.  

Stay motivated

Remember those teenage years when you did something once and instantly got better? Well, we’re sorry to say it, but they’ve gone. Progress comes more slowly as we get older, which can make it hard to feel motivated.

‘Seeing instant and progressive results gives you confidence,’ says Harkness, ‘and with confidence comes motivation.’ 

But rather than chuck your bike in a hedge when it starts getting hard (and then endure the embarrassment of having to retrieve it), it’s time to reassess – being as fit as you can be, given your work and lifestyle, is a more realistic goal than completing the Étape in the top 50.

You can always look to race against people in a similar age bracket to yourself as you get older.

The League of Veteran Racing Cyclists specifically caters for cyclists over 40, organising loads of great events throughout the year – see lvrc.org.uk for details.

Don’t worry, be happy

‘The notion of mortality can make people exercise inappropriately,’ says Harkness. The worrywarts among us can develop a fear of pushing too hard, or being out of breath in case we end up injured or in cardiac arrest.

Sport scientist Joe Friel in his book, Faster at Fifty: How To Race Strong For The Rest Of Your Life (VeloPress, £15.99) explains that while it does take us a little longer to warm up as we age, we’re still capable of training hard. 

What’s more, if you’ve been cycling or exercising for most of your life, then the chances of having a heart attack during a hard effort, or long ride, are actually pretty slim.

By the time you’ve hit your 40s, you’ve usually proved that your heart can cope with most efforts that you throw at it. Although it’s always a good idea to regularly check your blood pressure and to listen to your body. 

Make a point of mixing up your rides

Training is about challenging your body to do something new. Weekend warriors who ride the same route every week should think about doing something novel or new.

‘Changing the stimulus – the route, the intensity or the duration is an effective way of shocking your body and you may be quietly surprised by the effect,’ says Harkness. 

Get enough rest

If you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck after every event you do you can, to some degree, legitimately blame your age. Muscle soreness, fatigue and the ability to get back on the bike all take a hit as you get older, but that’s where resting properly can help.

Australian scientists asked ‘veterans’ (aged on average 45) and younger cyclists (with an average age of 24) to perform a 30-minute time trial at high intensity on three consecutive days.

Surprisingly, there was no decrease in their performance over the three days but the veterans complained of greater muscle soreness, and found it harder to recover. Which is why a proper recovery routine is important.

That means getting your carbs and protein in within 20 minutes of a 90-plus minute ride – a banana blended in half a litre of full fat milk will do; making sure you warm down with an appropriate set of stretches, and then make sure you get some proper sleep.

Massage, baths and compression tights as well as just putting your feet up (literally) are all other simple ways to aid recovery. 

Remember, you’re as old as you think you are

Implicit association describes the attitudes and beliefs that you uphold. Being ‘old’ is, for many people, associated with being slow or ill.

A study in the mid-90s, by researchers at New York University, asked 30 participants to unscramble sentences that were either made up of words stereotypically associated with age (for example, frail, ill etc) or with more youth-related words.

They were then asked to walk down a corridor. Those who were given the age-related words walked more slowly than the comparison group. 

Conversely, in the 80s Dr Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor, took a group of men in their 70s and 80s to a monastery that had been decorated as if it was 1959. There was a black and white television, they listened to songs from the era and discussed the events of the time.

They were also asked to act 20 years younger. After two weeks they reported better flexibility, strength and some even claimed to have better eyesight and hearing. The conclusion? That our mind-set is a lot to do with how we age. Think young to be young.

Get a Bike Fit

Feeling uncomfortable on your bike, or getting pain on long rides, can make cycling seem like hard work.

Mark Murphy, an expert bike-fitter at Specialized UK says, ‘Proper position on the bike is critical for all levels of cyclists. For a novice rider, a bike fit ensures maximum comfort and cycling ease. Experienced riders will find that a good fit increases efficiency, power, and comfort.

'Cyclists of all levels will reduce their chance of cycling-related injuries by having a bike fit.’ 

A good bike fit that pays attention to your shoes and cleats as well as the bike, can in some cases increase your power output.

If you’re a bit one-sided and your left-right balance is askew, adjusting your saddle height and adding shims, like the ones used by Specialized, under your cleats can even things out and make your pedalling more efficient.

Indulge yourself

Now, here is one where it definitely does pay to be more mature! Assuming that as you get older you usually get wealthier, then the 40-year-old you can usually afford something better than a Raleigh Grifter. 

Good kit makes bike riding easier. So, if the odds are against you in other ways, time to spend some of that hard-earned cash on yourself for once, because that sub 7kg bike is going to make cycling a whole lot easier.

• For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb

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