Book Review: The Midlife Cyclist Examines Training Methods for Older Riders

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By John Higgins — As a low-impact form of exercise, cycling attracts and retains participants across a wide age range, and is especially appealing to those in the in the second half of their life. Much of the cycling research focuses on improving the performance of younger athletes, but this book shifts the focus to sustaining a high level of functioning for older cyclists.

Although promoted to the over-40 rider, I think it more relevant to the over-55 cyclist, and a later life cyclist rather than a midlife cyclist. I’d further rephrase the subtitle to say: “stay healthy and you can train hard, and then ride fast if you want to.” The core theme of the book is the effect of aging on the body, and what you can do to maintain a relatively high level of healthy and functional ability on the bike in the face of the inevitable. This will be a little more academic and future focused for the sub-55-year-old, but timely and relevant for us older geezers.

There are a number of cycling coaches like Joel Friel and John Hughes who have written extensively on training for older cyclists. Phil is not a coach; he is a lifelong English amateur cyclist and a professional bike fitter. Hence this is not a training manual, although the principles of training are covered. Your magazine editor possibly invited me to review this book because the author and I are the same age, and have the same profession. I also had the pleasure of meeting Phil in England at a bike fitting conference he organized and chaired several years ago. He and I undoubtedly have a few more things in common, and yet our cycling experiences and backgrounds are completely different – all of which made it an interesting read for me.

In addition to drawing on his own experiences, Phil has sought counsel from a wide range of medical and performance experts to prevent a wholistic and scientifically backed treatise for the general reader. He seems to have a lot of friends who are both cyclists and doctors or professors, and he draws heavily on their expertise for the content.

This book is not a short sharp point to point road race though. It is more of an exploratory gravel ride, taking time to diverge down various side trails, with time out for snacks and a few stories. It starts with a seemingly long grind through the valley of doom where it is made clear that we will never regain the glory of our youth, and will fully understand the effect of aging on muscle mass, strength, endurance, cardio health, and recovery. At this stage of the readers ride it is not a page turner, because who wants to turn the page to more bad news. Phil does admit to wanting to get the bad news out of the way first, and he counters with the good news that there is much benefit to continuing to exercise and be active.

Once we climb out of the valley of doom the ride gets more interesting as Phil takes us on a journey made up of multiple detours that deviate and return to the main route. As much as I think I know about bicycles there is always more to learn, and this was the case with the section on why is a bike the way it is – largely unchanged in centuries! We can either thank or curse the UCI.

There is a big loop through the territory of cardio health and risks, with some very interesting differences between male and female athletes. Bottom line: no reason not to ride hard, and you are highly unlikely to die of a heart attack riding your bike, especially if you are female. Although the health benefits of cycling are plentiful, there are some negatives. Phil does a great job of not only bringing these to our attention, but offering guidance and actions for maintaining midlife performance both on and off the bike.

Being a bike fitter, the most interesting terrain for me was the chapter on biomechanics and bike fitting. This is where Phil drew from his extensive firsthand experience rather than summarizing other professional advice. While two bike fitters will never agree on everything and I would debate some aspects of his philosophy and process, this is a very solid chapter that will appeal to those wanting a deeper understanding of the bike-body relationship and what to do about ever increasing aches and pains as the ageing body changes. You might even get an appreciation for the challenges of a bike fitter, as any particular symptom can be driven by a multiple-choice menu of causes. Additional guidance is provided on how to evaluate and select a new bike – should supply chain issues allow such indulgence. Keep in mind the English context of this book. Fenders are not likely to be high on the desired parts list of cyclists in the Intermountain West.

Any book covering topics of training and performance is going to delve into nutrition, and this book is no exception. What you are unlikely to find elsewhere are answers to questions like why it is easier to put on weight as we age – and harder to lose. As with all chapters, this one has a mix of story, anecdote, scientific expertise, and a list of recommendations and actions to make your life easier.

Before wrapping up with a series of case studies, Phil turns to the mental aspects of continuing to cycle as we age. Mindfulness of our bodies, mental state, and our decisions and actions all factor into the ability to push the exercise envelope into older age.

As with some rides, this book presents a few headwinds to battle through; familiar scenery – although approached from a different direction; and some route deviations that may reveal new, interesting, and relevant terrain for the reader. There is a lot of accumulated wisdom and experience wrapped up in the pages, as well as life lessons like why you should not mistakenly eat a pro rider’s breakfast at the team hotel. Read it – and long may you ride.

Title: The Midlife Cyclist: The Road Map for the +40 Rider Who Wants to Train Hard, Ride Fast and Stay Healthy
Author: Phil Cavell
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781472961389

John Higgins is a professional bike fitter and purveyor of unique and boutique bicycles and fit-related components and accessories in Salt Lake City. More info on bikefitr.com

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