I was 16 years old when I first heard the Beatles song “When I’m 64.” Being 64 was inconceivable. Not any more.
When I was growing up, none of the adults in my life modeled a healthy active lifestyle. Kids got exercise by running around all day playing. Grownups played an occasional round of golf or fished. Throwing a football or baseball to your son was exercise and a Sunday pleasure to be enjoyed. Just thinking about my parents or their friends riding a bike, hiking, surfing, or running was ridiculous.
In Santa Barbara, I have lots of friends who are as old or older then I am. They are riding for exercise, daily commuting, and pleasure. I asked three of them, Ralph, Nancy, and Mark, for their thoughts on the joys and challenges of cycling as you grow older. I loved one of Ralph’s chivalrous thoughts, “I enjoy stopping my bicycle if pedestrians are about to cross and wave them to proceed, much to their surprise and pleasure.“
Cycling is a fantastic activity if you are over 60, and turning two times 30 is a fabulous opportunity to challenge yourself and your body. Maybe you’ve just rediscovered your old Raleigh or Trek in the back of the garage and want to start riding again. Dust it off and take it to your local bike shop for a quick tune-up. Do the same for yourself; refresh your street skills if you aren’t confident on the road, set realistic goals and expectations, and, finally, check with your doctor before beginning any vigorous riding. You’re not going to ride to the top of Gibraltar on your first ride! Maybe a few times around the block and a trip to the frozen yogurt store is enough for the first weekend.
If you haven’t ridden in years and are intimidated by the thought of riding on some of Santa Barbara’s busy streets, you may want to either ride on bike paths for a while (the Obern path from Hollister to UCSB is perfect) or take a refresher course. It may be true that once you learn how to ride, you never forget, but having the skills to ride in traffic makes cycling fun instead of stressful. The Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition offers Street Skills classes that will help you ride confidently and safely on city streets.
It’s fun just saddling up and cycling for daily pleasure. Instead of going to the gym to exercise, ride your bike to the Ralph’s or the Post Office. If you’re going for a walk on the beach, avoid the crowded parking lot at Hendry’s, and ride your bike. Daily cycling often allows you to enjoy the unexpected. Nancy recently told me, “Biking gives me a way of traveling that provides an up-close experience. We came upon a moose on an urban trail today!”
You can also be more ambitious with your goals. Maybe you want to ride over the San Marcos Pass, check out the ocean view from Camino Cielo, or ride in the Santa Barbara Century.
Half the battle for older cyclists is feeling scared or over-awed by the thought of pushing their bodies to the limit. You might be frightened of failure or the possible disappointment of not being to cycle as quick or as hard as you could when you were younger. As Nancy’s husband, Mark, said, “No one expects you to be fast. Anything you do impresses folks.” Conquer fears, and you can achieve great results whatever your age!
You just need the self-confidence to get over any fears or misconceptions. Imagine the thrill of knowing that if you start by riding up the Micheltorena Street overpass someday you’ll be able to grind up the 7 miles of Gibraltar — even at the age of 60 or 70? The confidence boost and kudos you will gain from this will be great for your mind and body.
Let’s start with some brutal honesty: You reached your physical peak between the ages of 20 and 35. As you age, you experience a steady decline in your peak exercise capacity. Worse, your ability to recover quickly from hard training also declines. It’s why when I ride hard, I need a nap. As you get, older you lose muscle mass and your heart, lung, and circulatory functions decrease. At 65, we don’t have the muscles of a 20 year old and our bodies are less efficient.
Don’t be depressed. There’s no reason to swap your cycling shoes for fishing or golf. You can not only maintain your cycling performance as you age but also increase it! That’s because it’s your maximum exercise capacity that declines as you age. Unless you’re already riding at your absolute peak capacity the chances are that with daily training, you can steadily gain cycling fitness. You can be faster up Gibraltar next year than this year.
Age also often means an increase in wisdom. For example, with a few years of training experience under their belt, older cyclists are more likely to train intelligently rather than simply bashing out the miles. Daily cycling has other intangible benefits. Mark said, “I get to hang out with other people in the cycling community in Santa Barbara, which is great!” Nancy added, “It adds to my calm, less-frenzied life, and it let’s us be car-free in Santa Barbara.”
Now 64 is not inconceivable but right around the corner and inevitable. I’m older, experienced, and a more cautious cyclist. Ralph said, “When I’m in traffic, I always signal all my turns but still assume that cars don’t see me until I’m certain that they do. Essentially, I’m more cautious. Yes, that means slower, but there are still places on the open, quiet road when I can safely speed.“
We’re all getting older. Even Jack Weinberg, who uttered the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30” during the height of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, turned 73 this year. You have to wonder if 80 will be the new 30. Conceivable!