Second Life: on Cycling and Aging
Reading On My Own Two Wheels by Malachi O'Doherty*, I am transported from the North Shore of Massachusetts back to the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, where I spent some weeks on my bike this past Spring. The Belfast-based author describes many of the same roads I traveled on - the same challenging hills, treacherous weather and glorious scenery - making me long to return there even more than I do already.
But the main theme of the book - whose subtitle is Back in the Saddle at 60 - is that of the author's return to cycling after an absence of three decades, and of the relationship between cycling and aging. Overweight and diagnosed with diabetes at 60, Malachi O'Doherty turned to what had been a favourite pastime of his youth in attempts to regain his health and energy. What follows is a complex and engaging personal account that is part memoir, and part commentary on what it is like to ride again as a changed man in a changed world. It is no longer the 1980s and the author is no longer in his 30s. Confronted with a new breed of bicycles, high-traffic roads, newfangled cycling infrastructure, and a society where cycling is far from a normative behaviour, the author finds himself in a state that is a mixture of wonderment, disappointment, frustration, and delight.
On My Own Two Wheels is a personal narrative. It makes no generalisations, gives no advice, offers up no lessons to the reader. But I suspect the experiences described will be widely relatable. I would estimate that as many as a quarter of this blog's readers are middle aged men and women who had cycled in their youth and have recently gotten back into it, or are attempting to do so. I have met many such cyclists riding for transportation in Boston, and more recently at randonneuring and club ride events. I recall reading that the average age of a Paris-Brest-Paris participant is in their 50s.
There are some specifics in Malachi O'Doherty's story that I find intriguing. One is the way he faces changes that have taken place in the bicycle industry during his time off the bike. Of those who return to riding after decades of absence, many gravitate toward the type of bike that had been popular in their youth - seeking out vintage or classic machines, even taking pains to refurbish them with period-correct components. Some want to ride an exact replica of the bicycle they raced or toured on in their 20s or 30s. Others purchase the kind of bike they had dreamed of, but could never afford back in the day. But the author falls into the category that prefers a clean start and turns to contemporary industry standards. He went to a bike shop, asked for advice, and purchased a modern touring bike - fitted with brifters and clipless pedals in leu of the downtube shifters and toe clips he had used three decades earlier. The new aluminium bike is a size smaller than the steel bike of his youth. It handles differently. Far from feeling at home on the alien machine, O'Doherty nonetheless accepts the new technology and the challenges it presents. I get the sense that for him this is part of the deal: As fondly and nostalgically as he recalls the spirited rides and long touring trips of his 30s, reliving the past is not what he is after; he intends to start a new chapter.
Another choice the author makes early on is to stay away from the racing and club cycling cultures - or any particular bicycle culture, for that matter. He describes his preferred riding style as "tootling," or simply wandering around by bike. And yet, he notices contradictions in himself - competitive impulses and cravings for speed that seem to come out of nowhere and undermine (or enhance? it's not always clear) his experience of the two-wheeled journey. He relates these paradoxes in cycling to paradoxes in life. Perhaps cycling offers a means of understanding himself better.
At the time of writing this post I am 33 years old. What draws a person to the bicycle at the age of 50, 60, 70 and beyond I can only speculate. Some are motivated by health and fitness-related concerns. Others take it up as a hobby after retirement. For others still it seems to be a matter of nostalgia. But regardless of the motive, a not uncommon result is that cycling becomes more than just an interest, but a way of life. A "second life," as one local cyclist in his 70s put it, throwing a slender muscular leg over the top tube of his racing bike and giving me a meaningful wink: "I am in better shape now than I was thirty years ago and my mind is sharper." I believe him. Riding with some exceptionally strong cyclists in their 60s and 70s has made me look forward to that age in a way I hadn't done before. I'd like to be like them when I grow up.
*Malachi O'Doherty is an online acquaintance, and I am a great fan of his political books and commentary. A reviewer's copy of On My Own Two Wheels was sent to me by the publisher.