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Why cycling?

This is an excerpt from Mastering Cycling by John Howard.

The sport of masters cycling is growing quickly. In Masters Cycling, JoAnne Klimovich Harrop says that masters cyclists are now more secure financially, more able to travel to nonlocal cycling events, and more interested in staying physically fit. Cycling gives them the opportunity to train or simply to ride with their spouses or friends. Aging cyclists can celebrate landmark birthdays by competing in a race or completing an endurance ride. The National Off-Road Biking Association (NORBA) and the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) enjoyed a combined membership increase of 8 percent for cyclists aged 35 and older between July 2005 and June 2006. Cyclists between the ages of 35 and 44 make up the largest contingent in both organizations at 33 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Cycling South Australia, a Web site for competitive masters cyclists, states that masters cyclists represent the strongest segment of growth in cycling across the country “down under.” Masters cycling organizations have popped up in many countries all over the globe for recreational riders and serious competitors.

I am impressed by the homemakers, the corporate warriors who work 40 to 60 hours per week, and the busy professionals who never ventured into anything athletic before discovering cycling. Many masters are empty nesters hoping to reclaim their youthful vigor (and physiques) and look to cycling as a new frontier. I am gratified by the steady flow of people I have had the privilege of advising over the years. They discover or rediscover cycling for a variety of reasons, and many come to the sport in their later years. Ultimately, the reasons for becoming a masters cyclist are as diverse as the personalities and histories of the participants.

In the United States, there are more cyclists than skiers, golfers, and tennis players combined. According to a 2008 survey that was conducted by the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), 54.9 million people ride bicycles as a regular form of exercise. Many love cycling because of the way it feels to take a fast descent down a winding, tree-lined road with the wind in their faces. Others love the satisfaction of reaching the summit of a challenging climb. Riding a bike is all about discovering who you are and how far or fast you can go under your own power. Some cyclists are equipment junkies who pride themselves in having the latest and coolest gear. Others couldn't care less about the mechanical aspects of the sport, preferring the experience of the ride, becoming more fit, and the opportunity for social interaction.

Cycling and Personal Enjoyment

The social atmosphere of cycling has changed since the early 1960s. Riding a bike to junior high or high school in those days was a very uncool activity. A classmate told me, “You drive or walk, period. You don't ride that iron mistress, especially to school.” I like the term iron mistress although it no longer applies to modern bikes, which are often constructed from aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium. At the time, bikes were sold in toy stores, and mom-and-pop bike shops sold them along with lawn mowers. Cycling was a kid's activity, something few self-respecting grown-ups would do.

I went to college in the '70s, when the social atmosphere concerning cycling was changing to one of cautious acceptability as physical fitness and cycling became synonymous. Those of us who rode were still a minority, and in my conservative Midwestern community, cycling was still considered weird. Regardless of the social ramifications, I was obsessed with cycling. Through my efforts in the saddle, I developed a strong aerobic power base that helped me with other sports, such as swimming and running. Obsession can be a valuable component of success, along with a healthy helping of confidence.

Although obsession has given way to moderation as the years have passed, I'm still commuting on a bike after more than 40 years. I ride for the joy and therapy of cycling. I view cycling as part of my disposition, character, and creed.

Today, social opportunities for cyclists are abundant. Cycling clubs, which are plentiful, usually offer groups with various levels of ability and experience. Some cyclists embark on serious rides that last three hours or more. Others travel at a leisurely pace to their favorite restaurants or coffee shops for breakfast. Longtime friendships and even marriages have resulted from club associations. Web sites and forums exist where cyclists can meet to discuss pertinent topics, share experiences, or announce organized rides. Cyclists from all over the country can arrange to meet at an event and ride together. The possibilities are limitless.

Cycling and Physical Fitness

Cycling is a stable, low-impact exercise that increases joint mobility and stability. The cyclical motion nurtures the joint cartilage and strengthens the surrounding musculature, decreasing the odds of subsequent injury. However, riding bicycles, whether stationary or mobile, that are not properly fitted can lead to injuries. The bicycle is an effective tool for recovery when used correctly.

Many of my masters clients share a rich athletic history, most often in running or swimming. Recently, I have seen former golfers and tennis players turn to cycling after abandoning their sport because of chronic overuse injuries. Some athletes are former team-sport participants who cut their teeth on baseball, basketball, or football. I'm intrigued by the fact that more of my contemporaries are gravitating toward cycling. Complaints of debilitating knee, back, and hip injuries have brought many masters athletes to the sport. Others are looking for more adventure in their workouts. Whatever attracts athletes from other sports, I think the appeal of open-road adventure is a big part of the equation.

As any older distance runner will tell you, running is not kind to joints, muscles, and ligaments. Many masters runners have gravitated toward cycling because it's easier on their bodies, and they enjoy covering more ground under their own power. A masters runner who can cover 20 miles (32 km) in less than four hours can ride 60 miles (97 km) or more in the same time with minimal training in the saddle. My occasional running buddy Ted began accompanying me on a few of my rare century (100-mile) rides. His thoughts are worth heeding: “I never thought of myself as much of a cyclist, but the joints certainly appreciate the break, and my cardio levels are now about the same on the bike as when I do my hard runs.” Ted is a small-boned masters runner and cyclist who, at 60 years of age, still uses track running for the majority of his training. A look at the membership ranks of ultradistance cyclists reveals a fair number of former runners who now cycle exclusively for exercise.

Older swimmers, many of whom still enjoy pool workouts and open-water swims, are adding cycling to their workouts. Some are budding triathletes, and others are excited about riding in wide-open spaces. Swimmers bring a wonderful sense of discipline to their cycling. Most of the masters swimmers I have coached have no difficulty following regimented programs since they have done this in the pool most of their lives with metronomic regularity.

Former president George W. Bush is one of the statistics. Like many runners who have punished their knees for 30 years or more, our former chief executive was advised by his doctors to try biking. According to his media advisor and frequent cycling companion, Mark McKinnon, Bush became a “biking maniac.” During his presidency, he spent many hours riding his carbon-fiber Trek mountain bike in and around the DC area, as well as on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “He's obsessed with it,” McKinnon said. “He now likes to do nothing but work out on his bike, and he does it with a frenzy that is reserved for people like Lance Armstrong.”

Most of the masters athletes participate in more than one form of cycling. The equipment has many manifestations, including mountain bikes, single-speed or track bikes, hybrids, which combine features from mountain and road bikes for greater stability and comfort, tandems, custom three-wheelers, recumbents, and pedaled watercraft. Each has its own appeal. Cycling, regardless of its form, is the primary panacea for masters athletes. Repetitive motion and traumatic injuries are so common in collegiate sports that few masters play tackle football or rugby. If you check the average age of the participants in any of the hundreds of charity rides or punishing ultradistance events, such as the Race Across AMerica (RAAM) and the Ironman Triathlon, you will find plenty of highly competitive masters celebrating their fitness.

Read more from Mastering Cycling.

More Excerpts From Mastering Cycling