The boards are creaking as we roll hard on the banks.
Wheels whirring, lungs burning, ears bursting, intently focussed on nothing else but the wheel in front. There’s quite a breeze, which is funny, since we’re indoors… but that's because we're burning up the track. It’s pure, tense, exhilarating and terrifying – and we're only in the beginners group. “Come on, push on! Close the gap!" shouted from behind as we charge round the velodrome on our 25th lap. And then came the retort: "I am 50 you know!". That was Jen. Shit, she’s right. We’re all 50, or near enough, and we’re trying to race with 20-year olds.
Are we super badass, or just kidding ourselves we belong here?
I wondered what it is about these milestone birthdays that can both unleash a new sense of freedom and be loaded with so many unspoken expectations about what we 'should' (and perhaps 'should not') be doing at our age. And why cycling in particular is now bringing together more and more women from the half-century club. Forgive any generalisations here, but one factor could be that whole chunks of our lives get compartmentalised according to our role. We have the "party years", "career years" and "parenting years", then we reach a point where we’ve become somewhat fulfilled (or bored?) by work, our kids need / want less interaction with us, and drinking and partying ain't what they used to be (well, not every night anyway!). A bit of spare time, mental space and opportunity emerges - perhaps in our mothers' generation this is where the saying "life begins at 40" came from. But with many women now having children later in life, and career years lasting longer, it would seem that 50 is now a good point to turn some focus back on ourselves and seek something rewarding, social and fulfilling to do with ourselves.
I spoke to some of the fab fifties chicks in our group about what their age means to their life outlook and their identities as cyclists - is turning 50 really a barrier to doing amazing things, or a great reason to smash down some doors?!
I need to come clean – I’m not actually 50 yet so I’m a bit of an impostor here – but I’m near enough to it to feel affinity with my clubmates and to feel familiarity with the issues we talked about. I only really flourished in my cycling when I found a group of other women to ride with. Since then I've definitely grabbed the bull by the handlebars, taking on mountain ascents, long distance touring, night rides and track. I became a qualified group ride leader, got my track accreditation and notched up some decent maintenance skills. I regularly ride a 20-mile commute to work, in the dark, in the traffic, on my own, and keep going back for more. Clearly it's a sport, a transport and a culture that really suits me! So why cycling? Let's face it, there are cheaper sports! Although the road is free, we’re investing quite heavily in equipment, kit, events and time. The answer may be cycling's holy trinity of the physical, the social and the environmental. In our club, Joy was drawn to cycling "because it doesn’t hurt, unlike running which is too high impact on my knees and ankles". Jen loved cycling when she was young, but as an adult found herself bored in the gym: "One day I thought I'm so sick of this, I wanna be outside! I love the freedom of getting out. You see the countryside, you see so much more on a bike. You're at the right speed on a bike to see things around you". And Elaine adds, "The outdoors is clearly a defining factor. For me it was a head clearing space, time for thinking".Add to these the 'time of life' consideration for women - increasing physical activity being even more important around the menopause - and cycling appears to be the perfect sport: low impact, with load-bearing cardiovascular exercise to maintain strength and fitness and ward off osteoporosis, partnered with a hugely important social aspect to support mental wellbeing. And it's possibly true that 'old' people are younger these days, as in enjoying better health. As Joy says, "It’s funny, in my parents’ generation, being 50 was old, and I could never imagine my mother going for a 100 mile bike ride at that age. But I’m doing it!". One thing is clear – we're looking after ourselves, maybe more than when we were younger: glugging fish oils, eating good food, cutting back on junk and booze, and getting quality rest and recovery time. We're also using cycling as a means to manage our weight – or rather, to carry on eating food we enjoy without the dreaded middle age spread. Joy notices with some annoyance that her teenage son bounces back immediately after a hard ride while she takes longer to recover, and that differences in her eyesight are creeping in which might affect her ability to find a puncture and see her Garmin screen. But we're still lapping everyone on the couch. Jen - whose mum is 90 and a strong advocate for staying active into old age - says, "When I compare myself to my other friends I am much fitter than them, and fitter than I was, even when I was doing lots at the gym."
Joy believes that as you get older, although fast sprint QOMs become more of a daydream, endurance and stamina increase. She's trialling a power meter this spring to test if that’s true – you can read more on the Flamme Rouge blog.
All this points to a very positive experience that our club members reinforce amongst ourselves - but confidence and dealing with risk remains a major deterrent for women, particularly older women, to take up cycling. And yes, there have been some really scary moments for many of us out on the road. There are times when you think a wrong move could be curtains, and this caution is holding us back. Joy works in a bike shop - and sees this first hand: "In my job I frequently talk to (older) women who immediately dismiss the idea of riding a road bike because they don’t like the idea of drop handlebars. And won’t even give it a try.
I think partly women lack role models – we rarely see women racing on road bikes on TV for example – which makes us think it’s only for men.
Women also lack self-confidence which leads to comments like, “I hate going downhill fast”, “I don’t like going out on my own, what if something happens?”, “I’m not sure I could cycle 30 / 50 / 70 miles, it’s such a long way!” and even, “I could never do that, I’m far too old!” from someone younger than me. Over the last few years as I’ve got nearer to 50 myself, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy the thrill of mild danger and uncertainty, rather than give in to the anxiety that has previously held me back. I think women actually have better mental resilience with age. Chances are, by 50 you'll have had to cope with some pretty heavy challenges in life, be that divorce, job loss, death of somebody close, injury, illness, parenting, "other". We're built for endurance and overcoming problems. If I’m stranded 20 miles out into the countryside with a broken chain, I know I can be confident and resourceful to either fix it or get myself home safely. I’d love to pass on this sense of confidence to those women who believe they can’t do it. The rewards are fantastic, as I've seen from my clubmates who have pushed themselves on.
When I interviewed Jen last year she said "I don't have the confidence to race. I would have loved to have done it years ago. My son does a lot of cyclocross and he keeps saying "why don't you have a go?".
Now that seed has been planted, maybe I should have a go at it! Never say never!" And there she was in November, on the podium at the local CX race, blowing us all away with her attitude. One of my proudest moments has been sharing the elation of our club ladies summiting the Stelvio Pass – a beast of 28km, 2757m of elevation, 48 hairpin bends, snow-capped all year round. It was a monumental physical and mental challenge. I asked Jen if her 'time of life' influenced her decision to take this on: "Yes! Fuck it I'm fifty! Definitely! I go away every year with my girlfriends and we just lie by the pool and drink too much sangria. This year I wanted to do something different. It's great that we'll be there to support each other". Elaine spoke about the challenge using feisty words like 'determined' and 'achievement' - perhaps getting to our age reminds us a clock is ticking somewhere and there'll only be so many chances to go for it before it all packs up.
So what advice would our fab fifties chicks give to older women who are cyclo-curious but lacking in confidence to get out there?
Join a club! It’s a great way to meet like-minded people who will push you further than you ever think possible. But if you can't find a club that chimes right with the kind of cycling you want to do –form your own! Fuck it, you’re 50! Make your own rules! Our club came together because we saw one person, the "Only Girl in the Club", racking up decent rides with the guys and showing us there was no reason to feel limited by our age or gender. As Jen says, "The older you get, the more you think 'sod it I can do that'!” And the benefit of taking up a sport late in life is that you can’t reflect wistfully on the good old days when you were really good at it! As far as I'm concerned, I'm getting fitter and faster all the time. "I love doing triathlon at my age" says Lisa, "there are so few other women competing in my age group, I've got a great chance of winning!". It's interesting that because we've started later in life, we've all seen great progression, despite the science saying that performance starts tailing off as young as 20. In fact, check out super chick Eddie Brocklesby, founder of www.silverfit.org.ukand the oldest British woman to complete an Ironman. She was 50-something last century. Started running at 52 after her husband died, saying “running proved infinitely more effective than grief counselling”. Moved onto cycling and took on the Nove Colli, a 200km race on Marco Pantani's home turf, over nine Italian hills with 9000m climbing. Last year she won her age group at New York Tri, London Tri, and Maastricht Ironman. She's 74. I’m just gonna leave that there.