Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Ageing Cyclist

While this is my story, you may find similarities in your life. I have been a cyclist since I got my first bicycle. I was a young boy then and that seems like a long time ago. Well, in fact, it was a long time ago! With a career, wife, and children I did not cycle very often in my middle years. I still have my wife, but I am retired and my children are on their own. Cycling has again become an important part of my life.

During my non-cycling years, I was not a complete slug. I was a compulsive runner. My transition back to cycling occurred when my body could no longer endure the punishment of running. In hind sight I was not too bright. The doctor told me that I should quit running to heal the stress fractures in both of my feet. I ran 3 years beyond my doctor’s recommendation. Eventually, I traded my running shoes for cycling shoes.

I restarted my cycling where my running left off—punishing my body. I was not an efficient runner nor was I an efficient cyclist. Spinning was for wimps and smelling the roses was for slow pokes. Now that I am even older, parts of my body and mind are telling me to smarten up. Knee pains at the start of a journey across the United States sure smartened me up to spinning. However, I am a slow learner. Just in case you are feeling sorry for me, I am not in a nursing home and I am only 63 years of age.


I sometimes wonder if childhood events foretell what is to come. My first bike was a “3-speed English” bike. It had an internal gear hub, skinny frame, even skinnier tires, and hand breaks. Today these bikes are known as road bikes. I don’t remember why I got an English bike. I do remember that I initially resented being different from my friends. They all had the big cruiser bikes that were popular in the 1950s (before many of you were born). However, I quickly found out that my English bike was lighter and could climb better than my friends’ cruisers. That bike would not compare favorably to today’s road bikes. However, it would be considered a classic. Cruiser bikes are back in vogue and internal hubs are again gaining popularity. Bikes@Vienna has a bike on display with an internal 8 speed hub. Perhaps I am also a classic and may yet have a rebound.

Until I learned to drive, I went every where on my English bike. I took it to the swimming pool, the store, and even to see my girlfriend (who became my wife). In fact, I also used my English bike as a mountain bike. Don’t get me wrong, it was a road bike but that did not stop me from taking it into the woods and over jumps. I abused and enjoyed my childhood bike. I did not worry about miles or hills. Nor did I worry about the temperature or the weather. I even joyfully remember the reckless abandon of my youthful cycling—racing down hills thru intersections and disregarding stop signs. Just so you know that I was not completely stupid, I quit this practice after the first time I got hit by a car. However, I proudly beat my friend to the bottom of the hill! Also, I was very lucky with only minor injuries to my body. While my bike did not fare as well, I was able to replace its damaged parts with those from a discarded English bike.


No, I don’t want to rediscover how foolish I was. Nor do I want to cycle on a 3-speed bike. Rather I want to get back to that youthful feeling of freedom that the bike of my youth provided. As a youth I did not concern myself with putting in X miles over X time to maintain my fitness and prowess as a cyclist. As I free my mind I also need to take care of my body. Mind and body are not separate and they both must be nurtured.

Taking care of my body

First things first. As I get older I am learning to change and adapt. It’s not that long ago that I would have ridden through pain and that would have been considered a good thing. Didn’t our high school coaches tell us to “tough it out.” Today, I cycle with a 27-gear touring bike and my body appreciates those easy gears. It is a great bike and has transported me about 25,000 miles over the last 8 years. However, my new aches and pains (that I would have dismissed in my earlier years) are lingering to the point that they are annoying. As last summer drew to a close, I suffered from a stiff and sore neck. I tried to ignore the problem as long as I could but it would not go away. Eventually, I admitted that I had a muscle imbalance from using my drop handle bar and I needed to do something to fix the problem. What could I do: (1) purchase a new bicycle (2) replace my drop bar with a flat one, or (3) work with a physical therapist? I chose “all of the above.”

Lance Armstrong said, “It is not about the bike.” However, sometimes a new bike may be the answer to that needed change demanded by our bodies. It sure helped me. I tested many different recumbents, trikes, and other style bikes. Not only did I need a change in position to relieve that pain in my neck, I also wanted something that would be fun. However, I did not try a tricycle or Big Wheels. I did try a racing trike and liked its quickness and maneuverability. It reminded me of the Big Wheels my children loved. Maybe when I am older, I will use a tricycle. That is, if can I figure out how to attached panniers to it. Then I can keep taking multiple day/week/month cycling trips to and from the nursing home. In the end I purchased a recumbent bike that allows me to sit upright and not strain my neck muscles. Yes, recumbent cycles can be cool.

While the new bike is nice, I did not want to give up my touring bike. After some research, I purchased a butterfly handle bar that turned my cool looking road bike into a European touring bike. I bet that you thought I would say that it made my bike look___________ (add your own term for “less cool”). Getting older allows me to put a positive spin on events and totally disregard the popular racing image prevalent in U.S. cycling. Instead of looking like a “racer,” I will now cycle with a European flair. Also, without the drop bar I have an excuse for being slow.

Finally, I saw a doctor and had my neck x-rayed; nothing broken and no arthritis. The doctor sent me to a physical therapist. She gave great massages and put me on a series of strengthening and stretching exercises. She also told me that “at my age” I needed to take better care of my body and get off the drop handle bar. It took several months of serious work but the pain is gone and most of my mobility has returned.

Taking care of my mind

Taking care of my body was relatively easy; ha ha ha. The real challenge is taking care of my mind. When I am on my bike, I sometimes still focus on fitness and prowess with miles covered and time spent. Feeling cool with a European looking handle bar and recumbent is just a start on my new mindset. Sometimes, but not often enough, I focus on the moment (a Zen thing), my location, the company I keep, the weather, or just being alone and lost in my thoughts. However, I still want to enjoy the carefree cycling of my youth. No, I don’t want a 3-speed bike nor do I want to race down hills ignoring stop signs. Rather I want to let my mind free to soar with the wind until I drop and then lie in a grassy meadow to watch the clouds go by.

I am not yet where I want to be. This year I plan to cycle the Lewis and Clark trail from St. Louis, Missouri to Astoria, Oregon. I figured that this is a good opportunity for me to work on my mind set. But, this was not as easy as I had hoped. I wanted to do the trip in 2-months time which requires a modest 55 mile-a-day average. However, one of my 3 cycling companions thought that this would be difficult for him. He offered to let us go on without him. My initial response was “I want to do more miles per day not less…this sucks.”

After taking a deep breath, I thought about my goal of freeing my mind and rediscovering that lost youthful abandon. Because I enjoy my friend’s company, a new plan emerged. We reduced the average daily mileage to 45 and extended the number of days on the road. This is “now” a good thing. It means that I will have more opportunities for smelling the roses each day. I can take longer stops and enjoy more side trips. Heck, Lewis & Clark did not try to do this trip in 2-months. Their journey took 2 years. They discovered new lands, found new plants and animals, met different cultures, and their trip resulted in many books. When I get home I don’t want to find my journal filled with miles, elevations, and time on the road. Rather, I want to read about the wondrous things I saw and did. Especially, I want to read that my journey was really about smelling the roses and laying in meadows watching clouds move across the sky.
You can be the judge of my success. Check out our Lewis and Clark trip travel blog at http://oldmensbikeride2009.blogspot.com/