In February, a new World Hour record was set. Robert Marchand broke his own record, in fact, at the new French national velodrome, near Paris — surpassing the distance he’d set two years earlier by a whole 2.5km.
The World Hour record has gone a little out of fashion since the days of the Obree-Boardman duel, after which Messrs Indurain and Rominger set new marks, which probably need asterisks (no wonder the Hour lost its lustre). But this was different. This was very special indeed.
Robert Marchand, 102, broke his own hour record of 26.927km in February
What was remarkable about this new hour record was not the distance — 26.927km — which seems like no kind of record at all, unless the pace you ride on your Sunday café run seems like a record-setting feat. No, the notable thing about this attempt was the age of the athlete: 102. This is 20 years past the age when most of us would probably feel we’ve done well in life if we’re vaguely compos mentis, still have a few of our own teeth and can get out of a chair unaided. The idea of being more than a century old and still training to race? Forget it.
I haven’t got halfway there and I’m about ready to be done with the seasonal treadmill of getting into race shape. This was a recent change. Until the last year or so, I would have told you that I would be one of those guys still competing in the 70-75 year age group. I now realise that this was more than a little vainglorious.
One quick look at the empirical data would have told me that there are not that many guys still competing in the 70-75 field. So why would I think that I would necessarily be one of them? Apparently because I still had an appetite to compete and the will to train at 47. This meant that I wasn’t focusing too clearly on the prospect of another quarter-century stretching out ahead of early morning starts, threshold workouts, interval sessions, training rides, ramp tests, the rest.
Nor was I bargaining for the relatively rapid onset of the symptoms of middle age. Some have little impact on athletic performance — such as needing reading glasses. Others are equivocal — light sleeping and mild insomnia probably don’t help recovery, but on the other hand, it’s useful to be up early. But what has taken me by surprise is losing the ability to recover from a race effort or a hard ride. A weekend crit leaves me wiped out for three days.
You expect to slow down gradually over the years. You know that the engine becomes more of a diesel — still torquey at low revs, but without much top-end kick. But the sports physiology advice encourages you to think that as long as you stay trained, then your aerobic peak drops off very gently, perhaps a percentage point a year, at most.
Maybe so, but the numbers don’t tell the whole subjective story.
There’s a reason Dr Ferrari was dosing his riders with drops of testosterone-laden olive oil under the tongue. T is the magic ingredient: it not only gives you the physical ability to batter yourself one day, then do it over again the next, and the next, then recover and get the training adaptation, but it also gives you the will and aggression to do all that.
You don’t need to be much of an endocrinologist to know that by the time the average male is heading into his sixth decade, Mr T has gone. You still get a maintenance dose, but it is a real and palpable loss to find that your mojo is not working full-time anymore, but will show up only unreliably for casual shifts.
In the personal and social life of the middle-aged male, there is definitely an upside. It’s much easier to feel like a rounded, balanced member of the human race once one is liberated from the near-constant stream of intrusive and largely inappropriate sexualised thoughts that have assailed one’s brain for the last 30 years or so. Life is so civilised all of a sudden without having to share one’s self with a priapic adolescent.
But bike training on a low T diet, that’s not so good. A 50-mile ride can leave you feeling the same way that a 100-mile ride used to. The big efforts always now feel catabolic, like they’re breaking you down, not building you up, because you don’t have enough of the build-up stuff on board any more. And if that’s absent, what then is stoking the fire, creating the desire?
And yet, our miracle of geriatric athleticism is still going, aged 102. Not, it has to be admitted, very fast. But to be going at all, past 80, past 90, past 100, is life-affirmingly wonderful and mad. What the achievement of Robert Marchand speaks to is a refusal to be discouraged and defeated by my hormonal determinism. As if to say, I’ll take the olive oil, but you can keep the T, Dr Ferrari. Here the human will transcends mere biology.
The race of life is a long haul, with utterly unpredictable results. It may be that being the last to finish is to be the real winner. What would winning even a world medal in the 70-75 category be, after all, compared to one good hour on a bike at 102?
This column first appeared in Rouleur issue 46