Could an Older Rider Win a Pro Race? The Effects of Aging on Cycling Performance

Most professional cyclists retire in their mid-30s, but all around the country there are guys in the later 30s and into their 40s and 50s who still compete with the 1/2/pro fields. Some of them occasionally show at the front of the field or even on the podium. Are they freaks of nature, or could anyone remain competitive at a high level as they age?

The Physiology of Aging

The record books are sprinkled with athletes beyond the common pro-cyclist retirement age of 33 who have done amazing things in competition with younger athletes. Ned Overend made the Olympic MTB team in 1996 at age 41 after winning the UCI MTB World Championship at age 35. Forty-three year old pursuiter Kent Bostick made the 1996 Olympic Team, earning the nickname Bostisaurus. Frank Kramer won the World Sprint Championships 16 years in a row from 1901 to 1916, and then again in 1918 and 1921. Kramer was 41 when he won his 18th and final championship. All this doesn’t really tell us if a rider over 35 or 40 or 50 could win a Pro Tour race. One could argue that winning the bigger races requires more than just fitness, but is there any reason to think that a rider who had the potential to win in youth would not have that potential later?

There are many good studies in the scientific literature on the effect of aging on fitness measures. They tell us that VO2-max decreases a few percent per decade, that maximum heart rate decreases by half to one beat per year, and that body fat percentage increases a little every year as internal fat accumulates. Note though that these are studies done on the whole population, including sedentary people, weekend warriors and a small percentage who are athletes.

Does fitness decline in these studies because decline is inevitable with age, or because the subject pool includes sedentary people who are succumbing to the effects of being sedentary? Studies of former elite athletes show that as they get older they lose speed and strength even faster than non-athletes, if they trained at an elite level in their youth and then at a masters level or less in their 30s and 40s. Naturally when training decreases from 30 to 10 hours per week, athletes get slower.

Eventually, older athletes who don’t train end up as unfit as those who never trained, but what about athletes who train as long and as hard in their 30s, 40s and 50s as they did in their 20s? That’s what we’d need to know to judge an older rider’s chances of success in professional racing. Such studies are harder to do because there aren’t many 40-plus athletes who are training as much as they did in their 20s.

Encouraging Results

The few published studies of older athletes who have maintained their youthful level of training have found very encouraging results: Athletes who maintain elite level training arrest any “age related decline” of VO2-max and power at LT, at least to age 55 or so, and maybe longer. These studies suggest that “age related decline” is really just loss of fitness with reduced training or a result of including sedentary and minimally active individuals in population pools. Any healthy rider who trained like a pro ten or twenty years ago and who has the time to train for a comeback this year can potentially be as strong but not stronger than he or she once was.

These studies have not addressed the question of whether a rider who starts training for the first time when already older and trains for several years can reach the same level he or she could have reached had he or she started when younger. It takes a few years to accumulate fitness and then a few more to accumulate the racing smarts to ride competitively, but there’s nothing I’ve seen to suggest that a rider who starts training when over 30 or 35 can’t be successful for any physiological reason. In fact, a few years ago I had a very dedicated and driven rider turn pro at 36 after about three years of serious training.

What about Masters?

Why are masters’ races usually slower than elite races? There are numerous reasons, but just plain aging is not one of them. In fact, in Northern California where the masters’ fields are the first to fill, the masters’ events are sometimes faster than the same category elite races and the top places in overall in our District TT have been taken by 45+ riders in some years.

There are some indirect and non-inevitable consequences of aging that will interfere with fitness. For instance, elite level fitness requires 20+ hours per week of high quality training. Elite level training requires that one have those 20 hours available, and then enough time to relax and recover from all that training.

Elite recovery depends on a low-stress life that allows one to lie around at least a bit between rides. It depends on getting plenty of sleep. That’s a lot easier when you don’t have kids, a mortgage, a serious job or a spouse who wants to go out a few nights per month. You show me a 20 year old with kids, a spouse and a house payment who is somehow fitting in training around a 50 hour per week job and I’ll show you a young guy who recovers like an old guy. On the other hand, if your kids are out of the house, your mortgage is small and your finances are secure, being a little older may not interfere with recovery.

Another non-inevitable effect of aging is the accumulation of injuries. By the time riders are in their forties, many have a little knee thing, a little back thing, or maybe a little neck thing that requires some special attention and acts up when they try to ride too much. Those injuries may come from crashes, bad posture at work or accumulated overuse. In any case, a lot of older riders can’t train as far or as hard as they once could because some body part will complain. This breakdown is not inevitable. If you are lucky enough to avoid serious injuries and make generous use of  doctors, masseurs, physical therapists and chiropractors, you can prevent or heal from most injuries well enough not to have to make adjustments for them.

Could an Older Guy Win a Pro Race?

There is no reason to think that a healthy, relaxed, uninjured, highly trained rider over 35 or 40 or even 50 can’t perform as well physiologically this year as in he or she could earlier in life. Results will depend on whether the rider has the fire and luck and support of a team. There’s only one other thing that could keep our older rider from winning: Other super talented, super driven racers of any age with a super teams to support them.