How to Grow Old Gracefully As a Cyclist
Is Father Time catching up with you on the group ride? This checklist may help you determine if it’s time to prepare for the next phase of your cycling life.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
One of the greatest challenges we face in life is preparing for the future. Even a small investment now can go a long way toward providing some comfort for the older people we can hardly imagine ourselves becoming. Yet when we’re young, we prefer to live in the now, so the idea that we should be wearing sunscreen, or putting money away to benefit some fuzzy future version of ourselves, is as abstract as it is inconvenient.
Riding bikes is no different. We want to ride longer, harder, and faster. We take for granted that we’ll always be able to descend with a flat back or send it off a rock ledge. We eat, sleep, ride, and repeat, blithely indifferent to both the passage of time and the dangers of fitness.
Alas, adrenaline is the avocado toast of cycling—a temporal indulgence for which, if we’re not careful, we can sell out our very future.
In order to wear Lycra, race bikes, grind the gravel, flay the gnar-gnar on your shred sled, etc., you have to be fit. When you’re young, fitness is like a playful dog; it may leave you, but you can always count on it to come bounding back with the ball. However, as you get older, so does the Dog of Fitness. One day it’s not so quick to run after the ball, the next day it doesn’t even bother to retrieve it, and eventually it just wanders off farting, never to be seen again. This is the day for which you must prepare yourself, because if you don’t you’ll just be standing there in your bib shorts looking like an idiot.
Is it time to start preparing for the future? Perhaps—here are some warning signs it may be time to start bidding adieu to your younger self:
You Avoid Your Own Reflection
It’s an unspoken truth that all cyclists like to admire themselves as they ride past store windows. This is because we’re among the least modest people on Earth. (Humble people don’t parade around in Lycra.) So if you’ve recently begun averting your gaze because your fantasy self no longer comports with your actual self, you may be ready for a change.
You’re Always Wearing Bike Shorts
If you often have to go home and change first—or, worse, you’re simply showing up places in Lycra—this is a sign that your cycling is out of step with your current lifestyle. It’s one thing to sit around in your kit while you enjoy a post-ride coffee or beer. It’s something else to show up at the school event or real estate closing in a charity ride jersey and a pair of bib shorts. Explore bikes, accessories, and clothing that complement your day-to-day life, and let you transition seamlessly between recreation and responsibility.
You’re Over 30 and Don’t Own a Bike With a Basket
I mean…seriously? If you don’t have at least one bike you can hop on and ride around on in flip-flops while carrying a six-pack and a beach towel then you are in a dangerous place. There’s nothing wrong with race bikes. There’s also nothing wrong with thong leotards, but if that’s all you have in your closet then it’s probably time for a trip to Old Navy.
Getting on a Bike Isn’t As Easy As It Used to Be
Yesterday you were swinging a leg over your cockpit like a martial artist throwing an outward crescent kick. Today just getting it over the top tube is straining your groin. No, this does not mean you need to start pricing recumbents. However, it does mean you should at least consider selling that third road bike and adding a step-through bicycle to your fleet. Have you ever seen someone in their golden years trying to mount a road bike? It looks like a horse trying to climb a flight of stairs.
Above all, the most important thing you can do for yourself right now is to diversify your riding. Accept that not every ride has to be epic, and that shorter rides can even be more enjoyable than longer ones. Wardrobe often informs your mindset, so if you’re riding in Lycra all the time try dressing down every once in awhile, or even riding in jeans. Explore the wide world of bikes beyond what the mainstream companies market: steel frames, upright bars, singlespeeds, vintage bikes. Build a cycling portfolio that allows you to enjoy yourself on a bicycle even if you’re no longer able to hold onto the wheel in front of you, ride on technical terrain, or maintain an aggressive position.
I realize it’s extremely tempting to simply put all this off, keep right on riding at the bleeding edge, and worry about getting an old person’s bike when you’re, well, an old person. Alas, it’s not that easy. Unlearning decades of rule-bound cycling is a lot harder than it seems, and the older you get the more difficult it is. Many “serious” cyclists have become deeply set in their ways, so much so that they can’t even fathom riding a bike without wearing special clothes or using clipless pedals. These are the riders who can’t even lift their rear wheels over a low curb without the aid of a “pedal system,” and who have to completely relearn how to ride a bike in sneakers when their knees and tendons finally reject clipless pedals.
So start unclipping now, literally and figuratively, lest you harden into a rootbound house plant. It’s never too late to invest in your future. There’s a proverb–or maybe it’s a meme–that goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Raging against the dying of the light is all well and good, but just remember that when it comes to bikes this can mean riding an S-Works with ten centimeters of stem spacers, or breaking a hip in a carbon fiber-soled shoe slip-and-fall. When it comes to cycling, sometimes it’s better to go gently. Fitness is fleeting, but dignity is forever.