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The benefits of cycling in old age

Cyclist magazine
14 Jan 2021

Cyclist reader Tony gives us an insight into life as an ageing cyclist, taking on kit, electric bikes, hazards, adventures and more

Every once in a while we get letters (emails) from our readers and sometimes those letters are absolute gems. We loved this one from Tony Akkermans so much that we asked if we could publish it – and thankfully he said yes

I turned 80 this year. I remember at 30 I felt that having left my youth behind I would soon be too old for demanding efforts such as running and cycling.

At every subsequent decade this sentiment became stronger, although physical evidence for my decline remained surprisingly elusive.

Having grown up in the Netherlands where, due to the absence of hills and ubiquitous cycle paths, cycling is a way of life which meant that the thought of having to let go of this healthy and pleasurable activity has become a growing concern.

Particularly when on my retirement I moved to south Shropshire where Housman's 'blue remembered hills' increasingly became a cause for blue remembered language, when punishing gradients became too much of a challenge.

This is why my partner and I, three years ago, decided to switch to electric bikes. We opted for a British built model, equipped with long range 16Ah batteries.

Although electric bikes are much heavier than the lightweight racing models, due to their sturdy build and bulky batteries, the extra boosting power more than makes up the deficit and even the steepest hills now become negotiable.

There are five levels of power assist in combination with eight gears. There are powerful disc brakes back and front. The wide gel saddles are very comfortable and suitable for aged bottoms short on adequate padding.

I should point out here that keeping fit is still our main objective, which means that we tend to keep the motor power in reserve as much as possible, only cranking it up once the effort becomes unsustainable.

To date we have covered some 2,000 miles, mostly on the many almost-traffic-free lanes around our doorstep in Shropshire and Herefordshire.

We are too old and slow to justify lycra and other fancy accoutrements favoured by the young but we do wear high visibility jackets.

Culturally-influenced headwear

My partner always wears a helmet but, never having worn one during my years of cycling in the Netherlands, I've still been unable to succumb to putting one on. In Holland cycling is seen as no more hazardous than walking and although this probably doesn't hold true in the Shropshire lanes I stubbornly cling to old habits.

I do however wear leather gloves; painful skin scrapes on tarmac when learning to cycle in my childhood have taught me to protect my hands.

Vehicle traffic does not much worry me; most drivers behave sensibly and safely. If there is any concern I have it is about wildlife. At any given time a rabbit, pheasant or squirrel might jump out from under the hedges and a collision with the front wheel on a fast descent would be precarious for both cyclist and the animal.

Another hazard on the lanes, particularly in autumn, is the annual hedge cutting operation. Cutters mounted on huge tractors effectively block all possibilities of passing and one feels guilty about making them stop their work and manoeuvring out of the way.

More troublesome can be the resulting carpet of spiky thorns which once or twice have saddled us with puncutres, even though our bikes are fitted with puncture resistant tyres.

I have often wondered why nowadays it is not possible to do away with pneumatic tires and fill up the outer tubes with a lightweight flexi-type material instead.

Roadside repair jobs involving levering off stiff outer tyres and locating often tiny leakages can be a time consuming and frustrating job. Particularly when it comes to thorn related punctures.

If the thorn isn't located and removed there is a good chance that on re-inflation further punctures will occur. I found this out the hard way when a long time ago at age 12, I rode my bike along a clipped thorny hedge and ended up making no fewer than six repairs in a row.

Route mapping

Most of our trips are around the doorstep with a length of between 10 and 15 miles. We have a choice of around half a dozen routes, all circular.

We have a subscription online to the Ordnance Survey maps which make it possible to plot a route highlighted in colours, showing distance, elevation and a bird's eye overview.

I print a map of the route in A4 which is displayed on the handlebars in a plastic wrap. The route can also be transferred to the iPhone and followed by satellite.

This system, which covers the whole of the country, allows us to venture further afield where we are less familiar. For such trips we transport our bikes on a heavy duty tow bar mounted e-bike carrier to the starting point.

Our most recent out-of-area venture look us to Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire. Here we went into the Brecon Beacons.

On a steep section we passed two policemen watching from a lay-by. My partner, pedalling strongly some 10 yards ahead of me bid them a cheery good morning. I shouted: 'Help, she is 75 years old and she is burning me off!'

Pleasingly this was met with instant loud laughter from the boys in blue. Who says policemen don't have a sense of humour?

Companionship

I am lucky that my partner is part of the tiny minority of British women still cycling in their mid-70s. Companionship, particularly on longer journeys, makes for a more enjoyable experience.

We don't ride alongside, so as not to annoy other traffic, but close enough to enable conversation.

For the longer distances we take drinks and snacks. Sometimes even a picnic. Or we stop off at a pub halfway along the route.

Apart from walking the many south Shropshire footpaths, we see cycling as an excellent way of pushing old age inactivity further down the track. 

But the older we get the more we are having to combat our children's and grandchildren's concerns about the hazards we face on the road.

Eventually we shall have to resort to venturing out in secret because we are determined to keep the pedals turning until the sorry day on which our bodies will make it clear that the end of the road has finally been reached.

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