Last August, shortly after I returned from a glorious cycling trip shadowing the Tour de France and watching Lance garner his sixth maillot jaune, I was cycling with a friend here along the Connecticut shoreline. My long time biking pal, Don Anderson was fifty nine years old and had ridden ably in Spain and France with me earlier in the summer. He was a fit fifty-nine and I was about to turn that age in just a few days. As usual we were chatting, chortling at our sharp insights about life and just enjoying the ride. Years ago, when we first went to the Pyrenees, we shared our trepidation about climbing the Aubisque. Then, in our mid fifties, we wondered if we could make it without embarrassing ourselves as we had seen pictures and heard stories that completely unnerved us. Maybe that is when we started into our Walter Mitty flights of pure confabulation. As with most creative thinking, it was a coping mechanism. Somehow imagining ourselves as younger and stronger helped us get over our fears. We both made it up the 19 kilometer climb in fine shape and have been riding and climbing together ever since. Each spring, we go to Don?s farmhouse in Vermont and put some strain into our legs getting ready for the famous European climbs. It works well and we flourish in Europe to such a degree that we have shepherded many middle aged and older riders up daunting hors categorie climbs throughout Europe.
This last August, I inferred that Don was enjoying our conversation on the subject of our shared ages partly because he does not like being older and feels some comfort in the silliness of our being the same age for six weeks at the end of each summer. Of course, he was mentally preparing himself to turn sixty. I well understand this anticipation as I have been getting myself ready for some years. I reminded Don, that doc Allen who we rode with in Spain was also fifty nine. Allen is also older than I am, by just one day and has been my skiing partner for nearly thirty years. Interestingly, I made a connection that Allen Parsley is also the fastest skier I have ever skied with aside from Don Anderson. Then I was on a roll, another cycling friend from way back in college days, Don Fisher is also fifty-nine. In this age of sophistry and exaggeration it did not take much to generalize our connecting the dots to conclude: ?All great cyclists are fifty nine.? We laughed and dropped it for other subjects: politics, kids or maybe skiing. Then we got quiet and stood on the pedals for Great Hill ten miles north of our departure point. Great Hill Road is aptly named for the rolling Connecticut country side but it is a pimple compared to the enormous climbs in the Pyrenees or the Alps. But we are fifty nine and have seen the world and know how to climb, so Great Hill is a cakewalk. Through the next six weeks we made casual references to the preponderance of great cyclists clustered at the same age. We well understood how outrageous the claim but found small silly comfort anyway. Such are the giggles of ageing cyclists. As former runners, we cast glances at older runners along the road plodding and looking every bit their age. We know that in all our gear, spandex and sunglasses we could fool them some of the time and look like, say a forty year old, if we held form and didn?t tarry.
For the last ten years as I have become ever more engaged with cycling and touring. I have challenged myself to keep up with better and often younger riders. I still prefer my fifty year old riders but get great satisfaction out of riding well and surprising younger riders. I have managed to improve my cycling performance steadily every year since turning fifty. It was only in my mid forties that I started to ride seriously, dropping the chain and lock, getting decent gear and tight pants. A vital piece of the gear included a speedometer, really a small on board computer that keeps all kinds of data about any ride and enables me to measure my progress. I also ride a regular Thursday night training ride which over the years has attracted evermore younger and better riders. Eight years ago we usually averaged between 18 and 19 mph on this training ride over a rolling twenty five miles distance. About six years ago I finally broke the twenty mile barrier for an hour ride. It was just three years ago that we broke 20 mph average routinely on the regular training rides. This last spring we often got up to a score of riders, and by early summer we started to come in with averages over 21 mph. This new rung of achievement must prove the axiom that we were not getting older, we were getting better.
I then went to Europe for nearly three weeks in July to guide a group of riders for Thomson Bike Tours and soak up the Tour de France. Every year when I do this, I lift my level of cycling and am a notch up when I return. This year was no exception. I came back feeling strong and once again found small bulging muscles just over my knee cap. For many years I have had two twenty mile courses from my home on which I can test myself without the benefit of drafting in a group ride. Essentially these are time trial courses. One goes down along the Long Island shoreline and has just a few slight dips and rises. It has a bit more traffic, but not much as it only goes through one small Connecticut village with a single stop sign. I know this home course intimately, every pot hole and dog. I know exactly where to shift and where to stand. I know where I can catch a break and where to watch for cars entering from the side. This is the first course on which I managed to break 20 mile an hour average some years back. I have another twenty mile time trial course which goes inland and has a bit more rise to it and is therefore more challenging. Again, I can go right from my driveway and not go through any significant traffic. I go early in the morning and really have just one traffic light to time at about the six mile mark. Once again, the course is beautiful, out Long Hill Road, over Flat Meadow Road, out Scenic Route 77 and around Lake Quonapaug and back home. The week I turned fifty nine I averaged 21.3 mph on this course. Not bad; I broke my old record by over one mile an hour. Wow, I was something at age fifty nine. But now I had a problem. I had set a biking goal to improve in a measurable way every year until I was sixty. How was I going to beat this? My biking business partner and coach, Peter Thomson, laughed and said I overdid it. I should have held back and only did 20.8 mph and saved some improvement potential for next year. But at fifty nine, I never save anything for next year. I am a member of an elite group and want to make them all proud.
I tucked the achievement away as certain evidence that I had a very good year cycling in 2004. Since then I have started my annual decline into winter. I run more with my dog in the woods and ride less. However, recently, I came across something about another fifty nine year old cyclist, Eddie Merckx. The top cyclist of all time is our age exactly. Don Anderson was right about this; the best cyclists are fifty nine. Maybe we did not think about including The Cannibal because in all the pictures we had seen of him over the last decade he looked like a Belgian toad, fat and out of shape. However, what I read recently, and set me thinking, was that he had been trimming down and riding again. In fact, some of his times for 20-25 mile rides were posted and mine were better, considerably better. I was way up on him, by maybe 10-12%.
Which got me thinking even more? I could not really be a better cyclist than Eddie Merckx. Merckx could say he did not realize that there was a competition and he would be right. There is no competition, just my wondering mind attempting to deal with aging and enjoying juxtapositions and oddities. But, still I did have a better year than Merckx. I had logged nearly five thousand miles, climbed Alpe d?Huez, Col de la Froix, Col d?Aspin, the Tourmalet, and the Plateau de Baille. I had not raced but I had broken my personal best time trial effort by over 5%. I had led dozens of able but aging riders through foreign lands and daunting landscapes, in all kinds of weather and not lost a single one. I had a tremendous year on the bike. It was easy to conclude; at least on the bike, I had a better year than Merckx.
Always there is next year. I think I ought to give Eddie a chance at me. So, here is my thought. I will invite Merckx to start training earlier in the year and meet me at the vaunted Mount Ventoux on July 14th, Bastille Day. I know I am going to be there. I am leading a ride up the Ventoux while shadowing the 2005 Tour de France. It is all a part of the program to make sure I do not falter in my goal to improve every year until I am sixty. I will be trim, fit and mentally ready. This will be the centerpiece of my 2005 campaign to stave off aging. Lance may not know what he is going to do next year, but I do- I will be going mano a mano up the Ventoux with the best cyclist of all time. I will have a slight psychological edge on him because he will have turned sixty June 17th. I will still be just a young fifty nine. In my mind, and we all know that is the most powerful ingredient of strong cycling- the mind- we will both give it our all and we will be pounding out the steady pace which will keep us forever young.
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