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Bespoken Word: Over the hill

Bespoken Word
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

While COVID-19 forced schools to close and, with it, educational chaos, it’s been great to see loads more young riders on the trails this past year. The truth is though that a lot of us bikers are getting over the hill in age terms but we still want to be able to get over the same hills to get our thrills. With that in mind, I’ve been doing some basic research and asking some seriously fast seniors what changes they’ve made - or have had to make - to keep pinning as we head towards our pensions.

First up let's start with some positives. Biking is naturally a very friendly sport towards old farts. As a primarily seated sport, we’re not subjecting joints and soft tissue to anything like the same level of injury risking repeated impact as runners. That’s why you’ll find a lot of born-again bikers are actually worn-out runners who still want their exercise fix. There’s still enough rattling of our bones to do us good though, as part of the space program research on the long-term results of weightlessness revealed, a little bit of vibration and weight-bearing goes a long way to stopping bones and cartilage atrophying. Okay, so they actually did the research with sheep on a vibrating platform, not mountain bikers but 'ewe' would think the results are comparable.

Keep moving

Even if you only ride on a weekly or monthly basis you’re still ahead of the fitness curve for most people. The first thing I did to prep for this piece was to Google “Fitness for over fifties” and while 90 per cent of the returns were actually “Dating for over fifties” sites, there were some helpful medical cues too. Well, helpful if you’re decrepit enough for “how Dave walked his way back to fitness”, “Why not try aquarobics” or “How to get out of breath with household objects” features to be of use. Overall the picture it painted of the fitness levels of most people over fifty was pretty depressing.

So yes, depending on which way your metabolism and meal habits have swung, there might be a bit more curvature in the view down to our feet, or more of a breeze up our sleeves than there used to be, but if we can pedal a bike up a hill, then laugh like a kid all the way down the other side then we’re a significant step ahead of the majority of the population. In fact, if you still stick to weird old school habits like pedaling back up rather than automatically jumping off and pushing after each run then you’ll have better aerobic fitness than a lot of the confused teenagers you winch past at the local woods.

There are things we do need to take into account if we’re going to stay shredding as long as possible without breaking ourselves or burning out though. While UK XC and cyclo-cross legend - and multiple national champ - Nick Craig (52), is still mixing it up with the fastest Elite and Junior racers “because it’s more fun having a proper race,” he’s had to make some adjustments. 

“I’ve always hidden my hard training in races because I just like to ride what I fancy in between rather than having a specific plan. I love riding so much though that I’m now finding I need to be a bit more structured and dial things back beforehand if I’m still going to benefit from proper zone 4 and 5 efforts. I’m more aware that you can only do so many of those before I’m starting to damage my body rather than strengthen it too. That means I only push hard enough to taste blood afterwards when it really matters and if it’s early season and I’m not going to win then I might just back off a bit for the last lap or so. That way I can recover in time to be fresh.”

Mountain Biking pioneer Gary Fisher is still pushing the pedals hard even at 70, but he’s had to recognize that it’s the top end that tends to suffer rather than the endurance. “When I was young I used to be able to line people out at 32mph on the road and just pull a race apart and I loved it. There’s no way I could do that now, but I still won the senior Transalp stage race when I was 48 and I’ve no problem doing centuries when I want to even now.”

Bespoken Word

Steve Bates has used his experience to train smarter (Image credit: Courtesy)

Paralympic Gold Medallist and World Record Holder, Steve Bate (42), backed that up when he tapped over the 50 hilly miles or so from his house for a socially distanced coffee on a recovery day. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or just smarter with training as I started relatively late, but I definitely don’t waste as much time as I used to on things that were more about ego than effective training. I used to spend months mangling my legs each season to move from an 80kg bar to 130kg but that was only really useful for the very start of a pursuit which is just a tiny part of what I do. In other words, I use my experience to really target what gives me good gains, rather than doing what cycling folklore says I’m ‘supposed to’.

Work smart, not hard

That’s not to say weights - or at least some kind of strength training - aren’t a really smart thing to start including in your week as declining muscle mass is a definite side effect of aging. Keeping your muscles strong also helps support joints and boost your overall metabolism keeping those feel-good fluids flowing. You don’t have to pump serious iron though, in fact, lower weights with a greater range of movement bring the most benefit at a time when tendons are tightening up and becoming less elastic and old habits and injuries are starting to make themselves felt. Short, targeted weight sessions also nail the ‘working out and getting stronger’ not ‘wearing yourself out’ goals and it helps raise metabolic rates for a long time afterwards too.

Nick has become a real believer in yoga too, especially for any riders who spend a lot of time sitting down during the day and who can really benefit from unlocking hip flexors, glutes and building core stability. “I’m now at the point where I really notice if I haven’t done a session for a few days and anyone who hasn’t got time for it is talking bullshit. You just need to get up half an hour earlier and it’ll make a real difference.”

As we all know one of the biggest advantages of riding regularly is being able to indulge a bit more but actual dietary choices are also more important as you get older too, as things like cholesterol can build up over time and become a ticking time bomb. Even I’ve cut back on pies and hard cheeses slightly for the benefit of my veins and if I had more of my teeth left I’d be eating more apples too.

You can make a massive difference in offsetting age with experience on the bike too. Not just by knowing when you’re tired and throttling back a bit or picking the days you know you’ve got the power as the ones to go play with the young guns. The longer you’ve been riding, the better you’ll know how your body reacts to different intensities of riding or what you eat and drink. With less power on tap that becomes even more important too, so let others wear themselves out on the first few hills or pushing extra hard on descents while you leave a bit in reserve for the last part of the ride that people will remember, as Gary says “Always save it for the last third as nothing feels better than hammering it home.”

Bespoken Word

Gary Fisher might be pushing 70 but he is still putting the miles in  (Image credit: Courtesy)

Shred cautiously

With reaction and healing speeds also taking a downturn as you age, it’s worth applying a bit of wisdom to your riding choices too. After all, if we’ve made it this far it would be a shame to write ourselves off completely when there’s still potentially a lot of good times to be had on top of the dirt, before we make the one-way trip under it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try and progress your skills and fitness though because one of the guaranteed ways to keep you feeling way younger than you should is to keep learning and progressing with whatever you do. Continuing to stimulate your mind and body is a big help in offsetting Alzheimer's etc. even further down the line and as far as I’m concerned I’d far rather make my brain hurt trying to get my creaking hips to properly schralp a turn than by grabbing a book of sudoku puzzles.

Don’t be ashamed to be a rad dad or a gravity granny either. I know a whole load of serious shredders who are older than me and who cares if the kid I’m following down the trail is 35 years younger than I am? I’d rather grow old disgracefully and be tutted at for ‘not growing up’ than ‘acting my age’ any day and while I’ve never read the Daily Mail, I’m pretty sure it’s less likely to make me feel positive and alive than flicking through a copy of MBR.

In other words, while we’re perhaps not as elastic and endlessly energized as we were in our youth and we’re probably closer to getting a colostomy bag than backflipping into an air bag, if you’re smart with how you do it, mountain biking is a particularly fantastic way to have fun and stay fit for as long as possible.

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Guy Kesteven
Guy has been riding mountain bikes since before they were mountain bikes and is right handy on an offroad tandem (of course he is).