Cycling is an excellent way to get fit, lose weight, live longer, improve mental well-being and sleep quality, save time and widen your social circle – all while being kind to the environment. What are you waiting for?
In recent years, road cycling has been moving towards wider tyres as aficionados accept that reduced rolling resistance makes up for increased weight and possible reduced aero efficiency. This is great for the slightly older rider as a wider tyre not only rolls better, but also absorbs more of the pain associated with our deteriorating road surfaces.
You can take further advantage of this increased comfort by considering the new breed of ‘all-road’, ‘adventure’ or ‘gravel racer’ bikes. These are intended to cater to people who want to ride dirt paths, gravel and other off-road surfaces without going for a full-on mountain bike. Whilst these bikes are heavier – and therefore slower uphill – their characteristics offer a more comfortable ride and also tend to corner extremely well, allowing you to really go for it on the descents.
A great, British, niche brand, Mason, makes attractive, characterful models, such as the Resolution and the Definition. Consider also the Diverge, the mainstream option from American manufacturer, Specialized, or the smooth as silk, Slate – a left-field option with a bizarre single-sided front fork from another American company, Cannondale.
For some however, the lure of a properly lightweight, focussed race bike is irresistible. These elegant, efficient, sharp-handling creations can make the heart sing on a good day. They tend to be less comfortable than most other options, but the world of bike design has moved on hugely over the last decade and they are not the boneshakers that they once were. For pure style, it’s hard to resist Bianchi’s Specialissima for sheer luxurious beauty and elegance or from Cervelo’s stable, the drop dead gorgeous R5 has an unquestionable pedigree.
On average, regular cycle commuters take more than one day per year less off sick than colleagues
who do not cycle to work, saving UK businesses around £83m annually. People who do not cycle-commute
regularly have a 39% higher mortality rate than those who do.
Perhaps the most significant factor in the riding characteristics of a bike is the material from which it’s built. Carbon fibre, aluminium, steel, stainless steel and titanium all offer different choices in terms of value, weight, rigidity, comfort and look and while most manufacturers will include two or three of each of these in their range, getting your bike custom built to your specific measurements and requirements means you can avoid the compromises inherent in buying a mass-produced frame. You then have a hand-crafted, unique bike, which fits you perfectly, has all the features you value, none you don’t – and is painted in your favourite colour. This may not be a sensible option for your first bike if you’re unsure of your requirements, but a good frame-builder will help you to work out what you want, and what components to fit to your new dream machine. A great option for those interested in commissioning a bike is to head to Bespoked, the UK hand-made bicycle show 20 – 22 April, being held in Bristol this year and chat to the fitters about their craft and your options.
Once you’re on your bike, rather than simply heading to the hills and riding familiar driving routes, spend a little time plotting a route. Chris Bennett is Head of Behaviour Change at Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, which is pioneer and guardian of the National Cycle Network, a network of safe, traffic-free paths and quiet on-road cycling and walking routes within half a mile of all UK homes. Its 14,000 miles criss-cross the country, linking up villages, towns and cities. For route inspiration, visit www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/national-cycle-network/about-network. According to Chris, “Our routes are among the most iconic rides passing through some of the best countryside in the UK. From urban adventures to rural escapes, great days out with friends or family, short easy rides and long-distance challenges, we’ve got something for everyone.”
The Network is used by almost five million people a year and runs into town centres, past schools and through stunning countryside from Cornwall to the Shetland Isles.
“People who cycle regularly in mid-adulthood typically enjoy a level of fitness equivalent to someone 10 years younger
and their life expectancy is two years above the average.”
As the years pass, the way our bodies respond to exercise changes, so it’s important to give some thought to your fitness programme. Reduced levels of testosterone and Human Growth Hormone, cause a reduction in strength and power. You can combat this by ensuring you include interval sessions or a series of hard efforts in your rides. Your protein requirement increases slightly as you age and addressing this will also slow down or even halt muscle loss. Flexibility work becomes more important, so a pre-exercise stretching regime is vital – as is the cool down afterwards. You’ll notice that recovery times after exercise extend – so plan them in. Don’t try to train hard every day without a break as this will be counter-productive. Workouts stress the muscles, which causes slight tissue microtrauma. Between trainings, the stressed muscles undergo repair and building, which results in stronger, larger muscles. Training the muscles too frequently inhibits these beneficial physiological adaptations as there is insufficient time for muscle recovery and remodelling.
Building and maintaining fitness at any age is probably as much about motivation as anything else. You won’t keep doing something you don’t enjoy, so experiment to find what suits you. For example, a regular weekend mountain-bike blast with friends followed by re-hydration in the local hostelry may not give the same training effect as a hyper-focussed roadbike interval hill session, but might make you more likely to keep coming back for more. If you’re competitive by nature, exploit this characteristic to fuel your motivation. Sportives are organised rides over a set route and offer both a challenge and a change of scenery. Both prolific and hugely popular, you’ll find a huge choice of options both nationally and worldwide. Charity rides are another great way to get involved in group rides and the longer rides usually offer a supported option, whereby your luggage is carried, accommodation is booked etc. Consider entering a triathlon – every five years you’ll be in a new age category, or check out the League of Veteran Racing Cyclists, which organises races within age group categories. For hard core competitors, British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling in the UK offers a comprehensive membership package including insurance and retail discounts and organises rides, races, training and coaching from the enthusiast to the deadliest of serious professionals.
The National Cycle Network’s 14,000 miles of traffic-free paths, quiet on-road cycling and walking routes, criss-cross the country,
linking up villages, towns and cities from Cornwall to the Shetland Isles
Whatever your goal, do consider joining a club. The benefits are numerous and the social aspect is likely to help keep you motivated long term. Just type ‘cycling club’ into the search bar of your computer and you’ll be bombarded with hundreds of sites catering for recreational and racing cyclists from all disciplines. It’s a great way to meet people, keep motivated and get helpful tips and encouragement as well as local knowledge of the best places to ride. Sam Jones of Cycle UK points out, “many groups such as Cycle Bristol and Portsmouth CTC have graded challenges, which give riders something to aim for as rides get progressively longer up to a certain distance. A sense of satisfaction as each stage is achieved is a great motivator, as long as you’re setting yourself realistic targets realistically within your ability level.” However you do it, enjoy it and you’re sure to stick at it – you’ll soon be on your way to a fitter, healthier, happier you. For more advice, visit www.Britishcycling.org.uk; www.cyclinguk.org/groups-listing and www.sustrans.org.uk
As far as kit goes, the paramount consideration is the preservation of the, ahem, saddle-interface area. Conventional road-bike shorts don’t flap and don’t slow you down, but if lycra’s not your thing, then have a look at the mountain-bike styles. They have a padded, inner short which is then covered by a baggier over-short. Some riders prefer bib-shorts which use shoulder-straps to hold themselves up. This avoids discomfort from waist bands and when you lean forward and your jersey rides up you don’t end up with a band of chilly exposed flesh. Whatever you choose, it’s worth investing in quality. Finally, never ever wear underpants under cycling shorts. The integral pad is designed to move with your body, whereas underwear leads to chafing and that’s going to play havoc with anyone’s motivation!
When considering jerseys, companies like Rapha, Café du Cyclist and Pedla have shaken up the market and traditional companies like Castelli (with their Dave Millar collaboration) and Santini offer comfort, function and great style. These companies have also moved bad weather clothing forward from the days of boil-in-the-bag waterproofs which drowned you in your own sweat. Money spent on good wet or cold weather gear probably has a bigger effect on your speed and power than anything else because you’ll simply end up riding more miles.