They say that life begins at 40 but if riding bikes has been your life’s passion, you may feel that your best years are behind you. Could a middle aged, mid-pack mountain biker embrace his mid-life crisis and actually become a better rider?
The Big 4.0. It looms above everyone in their 30’s like the sword of Damocles. Some will see their own mortality, see the thinning hair and grey flecked beard while reliving past glories and the missed opportunities. Fuck that. That’s the slippery slope thinking that plummets you towards wearing socks and sandals and ‘Old Guys Rule’ T-shirts. I may be 39 and staring into the middle age abyss but my cup is half full; 40 is surely just the end of the beginning. Time to up the ante and prove to the world (and myself) that I’m only as old as I feel. A quick check of the bank balance confirms that I can’t afford a supercar or a Harley Davidson. What’s needed is a challenge, something to motivate me inbetween family life and work; ‘Why not compete again, enter a bike race?’ says the voice inside my head. So, before I know it I’m looking at the completed entry form to Scotland’s answer to the Megavalanche, the MacAvalanche. Mid-life-crisis it is then.
Can I become a better rider at 40?
After nearly 30 years of riding, I’m still stoked on riding bikes and I’d like to ride for another 30 but I have less time and different priorities compared to my younger self and longevity in any sport requires dedication and training. After the birth of my daughter, my body quickly exchanged muscle for fat as riding time went out of the window. My life had become sedentary in the blink of an eye and I was too tired to notice until I went for a ride and realised that I’d become the guy at the back. Things had to change, I had to stop the rot and get fit again but how to do that whilst balancing my other commitments? My main challenge in becoming a better rider, would be to increase my confidence: all those years of crashes, breaks, fractures and dislocations had taken their toll on my mind – I know I can ride faster but I don’t believe that I can. Nowadays I’m very aware that I will take longer to mend if I break. I worry about paying the bills and looking after my little girl if I go ‘man down’ on the bike. The truth is, that I will crash at some point. If I hit the gym I can strengthen my body to a degree but how do you harden your mind to the potential consequences?
Lastly, would I still enjoy racing? I have no delusions of grandeur, I just want to finish and enjoy the experience but I will need to prepare myself and have targets to work towards.
The mid-life crisis goals:
1. Improve my fitness
2. Increase my confidence
3. Compete again
Polishing the Turd
Goal one: improve my fitness
Time is the crucial factor. Dead time driving or not being active had to be kept to a minimum. I needed to get fit over winter in a way that worked with my life not instead of it. Mountain biking needs a combination of strength, stamina and technical skill but just riding at life’s mid way point takes its toll on your body. I decided that a holistic approach to my training with some enduro specific elements would be a more sustainable approach. Cyclist tend to have strong glutes and legs with poor core and upper body conditioning. This imbalance has given me issues with back pain and flexibility, which has had an effect on my riding confidence too. Add mobility issues from not following the Physio’s recovery plan when I was younger and it would seem that just keeping riding for the next decade would be a big enough ask, let alone actually improving…
We, as riders, give no thought about buying replacement bling parts to keep our whips running sweet, yet are generally reluctant to spend anything to get ourselves dialed. My old injuries needed addressing in order to prevent future ones so I invested in a series of sports massage sessions with a sports and injury therapist, which soon started to pay dividends ironing out my body’s creases and easing the stresses of daily exercise on my muscles. I started working out at the local Crossfit gym. Open to the elements and sessions in all weathers, the combination of weights and intensity was perfect for my physical needs as a mountain biker, plus I could do it at night, through the winter and in just an hour. At the same time my wife pushed me to join her doing yoga and despite never really enjoying it, I felt the difference in my back and shoulder flexibility as well as finally being able to touch my toes! With time against me, I had limited time to ride so I invested in an eMTB to help when I only had an hour to get a bunch of downhill runs in, so I could keep my technical riding fresh. Whenever I had an hour and a half, I just went flat out on the enduro or road bike to build my base miles in a very small time window. After 6 months of improving my strength and conditioning the rot had stopped and I felt stronger and fitter on the bike. To achieve Goal 2 and increase my confidence, I needed to look at how I ride and improve what I was doing wrong.
From Zero to Hero
Goal two: improve my confidence
Mountain biking is a sport that rewards commitment and punishes indecision. As the terrain we ride becomes ever more challenging, coaching to develop bike control at speed and in super technical terrain becomes a crucial ‘upgrade’ that most riders wouldn’t even consider. I’ve been riding mountain bikes for decades but have never been coached, which means that I’ve had plenty of time to develop bad habits. I hoped that analysing my riding and identifying where I could improve would help to build my confidence so that my riding becomes smoother, faster and actually safer! I asked YouTube legend, Pro-Rider and Owner of Sick Skills MTB coaching, Ben Cathro to join me for a day to see if he could teach this old dog some new tricks. Ben’s mantra is ‘Be a Boss!’ when faced with rough terrain — commit to each section by riding offensively, filling the terrain with your bike and smoothing out the trail. Initially, my approach is not very boss like. I’m riding defensively, shifting my weight back and riding off the back wheel, hucking every lump and bump; fun but without tyres on the ground to brake or turn, things can go wrong quickly especially when travelling at speed or down the steep stuff.
Unpicking what you’ve been doing subconsciously for decades is not an easy task. By thinking about one area of your riding, another gets forgotten. After a few runs, something clicks and I can immediately feel the difference in control. More runs give mixed results but it’s clear that the coaching is working. There are some lines when you only have two options; commit or avoid. If the section is do-or-die and confidence is everything. Ben’s advice is to setup, look beyond to safety, get off the brakes and have faith in your ability. Success breeds success and each time I relax and commit, I’m rewarded with a pinned line. My confidence is building.
We cram what could easily take a week of coaching into a day and my body is burnt out and mind has melted. However, I now know that I can improve! I can now see with glaring clarity what I’ve been doing wrong and the day’s moderate successes have already increased my confidence. With so much to take in and practice, I now needed to take myself off to some familiar trails to get the new techniques seared into my brain. With only 10 days remaining before my 1st race, I didn’t have long to get dialled.
Boom or bust
Goal three: compete again!
I’ve not raced since I was 16, so could I release the beast within and compete against experienced racers? I set realistic expectations. The term ‘Veterans’ may make some people think old and slow but all the riders that I know who race at 40+ have been racing since the days of dial up internet and are faster than cheetah shit off a teflon coated shovel, so I would be very happy with a top 25% finish.
The day of the MacAvalanche arrived. The Mac’ is Scotland’s brutal but brilliant enduro race, that features a mass start on an un-pisted snow field! While the rest of the UK was relaxing in uncharacteristically warm May bank holiday temperatures, me and 349 other like minded idiots were freezing cold, preparing to race down the unforgiving rocks and snow of Glencoe. We waited in a line that stretched for hundreds of metres, enduring the arctic blasts of wind that hammered down the mountainside while nervously stamping our feet, like badly dancing penguins in an attempt to keep the snow from pulling all the feeling from our feet. My teeth chattered alarmingly but whether from the cold or the adrenaline was hard to tell. Every eye was watching as each new rider lept like a deranged lemming at 150 meters of soft spring snow and the start of stage one, with varying degrees of success.
As soon as I dropped in, I went into ‘the zone’, focused and relaxed I cleaned the snow and even managed to find the line that I had planned. Cathro’s mantra of ‘Be a Boss’, kept looping through my head as I braked heavily before releasing as I hammered into a berm. My months of crossfit helping me compress into each rut and hump, looking for speed and traction. Unexpectedly, I started taking scalps, adrenaline redlining as I took controlled risks looking for the quickest line. I suddenly realised that I was no longer riding defensively but actually had the confidence to attack the trail, regardless of my finishing position, I had already won!
Not Dead yet
Racing may have been my goal but the journey made me fall in love with mountain biking all over again. Investing in myself, rather than just my bike meant that I’ve become the fittest i’ve ever been and, through coaching, learnt new skills and gained the confidence that I just couldn’t find on my own. Confronting the demons that had been holding me back really has worked for me and can work for you too. Can you still progress at 40? Yes, of course you can!
Does life begin at 40? Mine has.
This article is from ENDURO issue #035
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Words: Thomas Corfield Photos: Trev Worsey