I distinctly remember going off into the African bush as a teenager, carrying an ex-army canvas backpack, containing water, food, and a few other bits and bobs, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and trainers. I had a sleeping bag, but usually didn’t bother taking it with, and I didn’t have a tent.
Before nightfall, I’d find what I deemed to be a suitable spot to camp, and I’d sleep on the hard ground, using my backpack as a pillow.
Move along over three decades, which involved far more motorcycle crashes than I can remember, far too many cycling crashes, plus a whole bunch of stupidity for most of my 20s, and we get to today.
I don’t live in Africa anymore, and if I had to sleep on the ground, I’d have a poor night’s sleep, probably get rained on, and eaten alive by midges. In the morning, I’d be tired, as well as stiff and sore all over. In my head, 18yo me is still there, alive and well, but I’ve begrudgingly come to accept that my body certainly isn’t 18 anymore.
I’ve long ago learned to be proud of every single grey hair – I earned those and I wear them with pride. My only gripe about getting older is that I now use reading glasses, but (besides wearing glasses) there’s nothing I can do about my eyesight.
So, in practical terms, what are the implications for someone in their 50s who want to go cycle touring?
Society places these ridiculous expectations on us, and of course we have expectations of our own. I’ve met people who, when in their 30s, couldn’t sit cross-legged on the ground anymore, because they believed grown-ups don’t do that, so they stopped. They’d stopped for so long, their legs have become too inflexible. Isn’t that just one of the saddest things you ever heard?
Regarding society’s expectations of how you should or shouldn’t behave, chuck those in the bin right now. Provided you don’t harm others, be as silly and outrageous as you feel like. You live just once, so you might as well enjoy it. Get a tattoo if you want, or don’t, if you don’t want one. Wear a Hawaiian shirt, or don’t – the choice is yours and it really shouldn’t matter a blind bit what others think. This is your life.
Personal expectations are somewhat different. Precious few people have a plan, a roadmap for their life, and most are simply winging it, making it up as they go along. Some are better at others at pretending they’re fully in control of everything that happens in their lives, but the reality is best summed up in the words of John Lennon: Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.
Let go of certain expectations. You don’t have to be rich, successful or a pillar of the community. It’s OK to just be you.
Accept certain limitations: sleeping on the bare ground will not be fun, and you’ll have a poor night’s sleep! Your body may take a while longer to recover from injury, especially if your fitness levels are low, but remember that you can increase your fitness to levels that will surprise you. Don’t use your age as an excuse, but do gently increase your fitness over time.
The most important thing you need to realise about cycle touring is that there isn’t a “right” way of doing it. As long as you go on a bike ride of reasonable distance that involves staying overnight, that’s a bike tour. Oh, and you define what a reasonable distance is to you.
Bike touring more often than not involves carrying at least some luggage on the bike, but there are people who do “credit card touring”, carrying next to nothing, and simply booking into hotels. That’s not my idea of fun, but that’s exactly the point: we’re all different, with different likes and dislikes, and that’s what makes people so interesting.
As to where you go touring, again, that’s up to you to decide. If it’s your first time, perhaps stay relatively local, but then again, there are people who, for their very first cycle tour ever, cycled round the world! It’s up to you to decide what suits you best.
Oh, and your two-day-one-night bike tour remains just as valid as a round-the-world tour. This isn’t a competition, and the only prize you’ll get is the enjoyment of it all.
Cycle touring is all about the experience. If designing your own route, do some research about the area, and change the route so you get to visit the interesting places and oddities that may exist.
If you don’t want to design your own route, that’s OK – there are plenty of ready-made routes to choose from (but few as gorgeous and well-detailed as the Somerset Circle).
When you start focusing on the enjoyment of the ride, rather than average speeds, or racing the clock, you’ll find you will relax more, and enjoy it more. Stop often, and look around. See the things you’d miss when driving. Absorb the views around you and take loads of photos.
If you need to get to a certain location, such as a hotel where you booked a room, you lose quite a degree of flexibility, but don’t cycle faster. Instead, simply cycle for a while longer – you can still check in at 8pm, so don’t worry about it.
Creature comfort is important. Invest in a good quality self-inflating sleeping mat. Skimp on everything else if you want, but if camping, that’s the best investment you can make. A good mat offers not just comfort, but also thermal insulation against ground cold.
Consider a small, light-weight 3-legged stool to take with, as it would be better than sitting on the ground. Also ensure your bike’s saddle is as comfortable as possible, so getting back on the bike in the morning doesn’t feel like torture.
Age mostly is just a number, and when you see the average age at an Audax event, you’ll realise that age alone shouldn’t stop you at all. Audax, incidentally, is long-distance cycling, and audaxers usually think nothing of going for a 300km (190 miles) ride, with some rides being doube, or even four times that distance!
You will have heard these myths being bandied around – perhaps you shared them yourself, while nodding sagely?
Myths like your VO2 max – the ability for your body to absorb oxygen into the bloodstream – will always only deteriorate, or that older people cannot ride fast anymore. Nonsense! While there is natural age-related deteriorations that will occur, the training gains in VO2 max you make can outstrip the natural VO2 max decline.
Cycle touring isn’t racing, and I normally tell people to deliberately go slow, but in terms of athletic achievement, most people in their 50s can improve their VO2 max, and cycling speed, provided they put in the effort and follow structured training.
Older people (yeesh, I’m making myself sound like a proper Ouballie now!) tend to get slower because they tend to train less, and tend to lower the intensity of that training. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t confuse the result of chosen actions with something caused by aging.
Even recovery times needn’t be longer, provided you better manage the other critical factors: nutrition, hydration and sleep.
Go on! There’s a whole world out there, waiting just for you. Don’t use age as an excuse to not go explore it!