Cycling and Age: The first in a three-part series.
This years Giro d’Italia saw a new champion emerge in Colombian Nairo Quintana. As well as being the overall winner, at 24 years of age he was also crowned the ‘best young rider in the race’ – a rare double that suggests we will be singing his praises for some time to come. Towards the other end of the spectrum, the race also saw one of the events oldest and most decorated riders in Cadel Evans. Dominant in the initial 2 weeks of the Giro, earning 3 days in the leaders jersey before succumbing to his younger rivals during the brutal final week in the high mountains. For many observers, this was telling evidence that ‘father-time’ is now against Cadel as a serious Grand Tour contender. Can we accept this – that at 37 years he is now ‘over the hill?’
Historically we see that only 2 riders over the age of 35 have won a Grand Tour. Belgian Firmin Lambot won the Tour de France in 1922 at the age of 36; and more recently at the 2013 Vuelta e Espana American Chris Horner claimed a famous victory at nearly 42 years of age! Clearly this is compelling evidence of the difficulty riders from mid 30’s onwards have in winning these epic events. Nonetheless it needs to be recognised that natural changes within our physiology occurring from this time onwards are relatively small – and indeed with smart training may be offset.
Perhaps the challenge of how we approach our training as we age needs to be the focus of the discussion, rather than simply writing people off for being ‘too old’. As we know training challenges us to respond, adapt, and preferably improve. Yet at the same time the desired training effect like a well, can dry up and undermine performance needs. In sports science this is referred to as the ‘Principle of Diminishing Returns’ – that is after a while the training becomes dead! For aging riders this provides a considerable training challenge – that is to continue to keep training provocative and offset elements that detract from achieving a high level of performance.
Health too needs to be considered. In the example of Evans he has battled a frustrating period of below-par health since post Tour 2011. As we know health does not necessarily discriminate. Both young and old suffer issues that compromise health. For the young rider it might be seen as a symptom of over-training and needing more recovery, for the older rider a less sympathetic judgement of being old and not recovering as when younger! The truth is we are all susceptible the fluctuations with performance and health – again ‘the too old’ rational falls flat.
It would be most interesting reading Cadel’s physiological profile from 2011 Tour de France to now 2014? What would it say to any suggestion that he is now ‘too old’ if the numbers are marginally the same over this period of time? Quite possibly he is still at a similar level to 2011, if so shouldn’t we resist from referring to his chronological age as though it was ‘a death penalty’ to performance?
Rationally if one was to measure the performance loss we can attribute with aging against the potential of what could be unlocked via cutting edge training and restoration techniques it would be unlikely for any riders at the Giro – or any Grand Tour for that matter – to have fully reached there absolute potential. More likely motivation; distraction; injury; poor training; or misfortune will be what us undermining your potential – not the biological clock.
In summary in my opinion what we need to recognise are the unique challenges in getting it all right around our preparations as we get older. This is as relevant to all of us – whether it be club rider; weekend warrior; sportive specialists or the great Cadel. Just don’t be deterred by unfounded or unexplored commentary that you are now ‘too old’ – quite clearly Chris Horner wasn’t in Spain last year!