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The Lure of Cycling: Tips from a Middle-Aged Man in Lycra

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article by Tim Olds

I confess, I’m a MAMIL (Middle-Aged Male in Lycra). In fact, at my stage of life, I’m a SMILEY (Senior Male in Lycra/Elastane, Yo).

Like most forms of physical activity, cycling is good for you. Just two hours of easy cycling each week – or one hour flat out – will reduce your odds of dying by 10%.

These stats may not be as good as some other sports such as tennis, but let’s face it, tennis clothes are really dorky. Lycra is cool, but more on that later.

Alert readers will object that road cycling must be dangerous. And they would be a little bit right. In the US, there are 21 cycling deaths per 100,000,000 trips. So you’re likely to be killed once in every five million rides you take. That’s two times higher than if you were driving a car, and 50 times higher than taking a bus. On the other hand, you’re 25 times more likely to be killed riding a motor bike.

Cycling has some other drawbacks. One study looking at IVF donors found men who cycled more than five hours a week had almost twice the odds of having a low sperm count.

While two famous Tour De France cyclists — Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso — have both been diagnosed with testicular cancer, there is little evidence cycling itself causes it. After all, Armstrong and Basso shared something else — they were both banned for doping. An association between increased risk of prostate cancer and cycling warrants further research.

Women who cycle may experience lower genital sensation than runners, and the pressure of the perineum on the saddle can cause sustained loss of feeling.

But what’s the risk of ill health compared to the joy and glory of cycling? Nothing!

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I want to get fit and ride up a mountain

Community cycling events pop up in our calendars during the spring, summer and autumn, and can be a great motivator to start a training program. So how should you prepare?

A quick piece of advice first up: don’t start by riding up Mont Ventoux – it’s been the end of cyclists way fitter than you.

Try this pre-exercise screening tool to determine if you need to see a doctor before starting training.

Next, give it plenty of time. Start training at least a couple of months before the big event. Start with a fairly gentle 20km ride, and gradually build up the distance to 50km. If you can ride 50km, you can ride 100km. If you can ride 100km, you can ride anything. Mix up the longer rides with shorter, faster rides and lots of hill work.

Cycling clubs have training rides suitable for all levels, and you can pick up a lot of good tips. And some bad ones, of course.

What should you eat? The short answer is: a hell of a lot. A Tour de France rider consumes about 25,000 to 30,000 kilojoules a day — three times as much as the average person. Frequent, high-carbohydrate meals and electrolyte drinks are recommended.

But as with your training, don’t overdo it. Norwegian reporter Nicolay Ramm attempted to eat the amount a Tour de France rider might get through in a day – in one sitting. The results were not pleasant.

But if you’re wracked with calorie guilt from Christmas festivities and a year of poor eating overall, cycling could be a good option for you.

Frame, wheels, bars: the gear

What will give you the most bang for your buck when you buy equipment?

A useful simulation by Jim Martin – one of the world’s leading aerodynamicists – allows us to make some quick estimates. These numbers are based on a recreational cyclist riding 40 kilometers in 76 minutes at baseline over a flat course.

Adopting an aerodynamic position will slice more than six minutes off that time. Aero bars cost hundreds of dollars, while saving you just seconds.. If you then use aero wheels, you will save another 2 minutes. Add an aero frame and you will cut more than a minute.

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If you choose a lightweight carbon-fiber frame, you gain a little less than a minute. But beware: there’s a famous rule in cycling that says that all bikes weigh 15 kilograms: if you have a 5kg bike you need a 10kg chain; if you have a 10kg bike you need a 5kg chain; and if you have a 15kg bike, you don’t need a chain at all.

Finally, if you add aero clothing, you can arrive another 40 seconds earlier.

All up, you could reduce your 76 minute ride to less than 64 minutes. 

Alternatively, you could get out and ride slightly more and get the same gains for free.

Doing some cycling in my active wear

Let’s talk Lycra.

Lycra has been touted as a miracle fabric capable of converting the average middle-aged weekend warrior into Brad Wiggins with a Therapeutic Use Exemption or Lance Armstrong on a cocktail of every known ergogenic aid.

Lycra compression garments are claimed to increase blood flow by stopping blood pooling in the veins – more blood means more oxygen, more oxygen means faster cycling. Lycra apparently can stop muscle wobbling, making your legs work more efficiently. Then there’s the one about Lycra being a wicking fabric, drawing sweat to the surface and facilitating cooling of the body. Of course Lycra may also enhance warm-ups by increasing skin temperature.

But the evidence for these claims is mixed — which in scientific jargon means the jury is still out. Lycra compression garments may improve repetitive jumping power, and enhance recovery after strenuous exercise, but there is little evidence they will improve your physiological performance in other ways.

Nevertheless, Lycra can look very cool. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I may see you out there in your Lycra. But only if I’m looking back.

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