I turned forty recently. This shouldn’t be a really big deal, and I guess it’s not, but on the other hand, it kind of is. I’m not worked up about the arbitrary “forty” milestone, nor about the distant tombstone lurking somewhere behind it, but more about the day to day slackening of my faculties. The fortieth birthday merely put a finer edge on my growing awareness of this gradual decay.
But wait, you’re saying: you’re still in good shape, it’s way too early to start fretting about this. And I know you’re right (this hypothetical you, trying to buck me up—thank you for that). When I hear my parents (who are ageing very gracefully, thank goodness) talk about their friends who are suffering from sciatica, glaucoma, memory loss, and even those nameless maladies like no longer being able to walk well enough to enjoy, say, a guided tour of some faraway place, I know I should be grateful that I can still, for example, ride my bike up hills most twenty-year-olds wouldn’t and/or couldn’t. But such reassurances only go so far, because I can remember a time when I needed no such reassurances.
Perhaps you have time to read this blog simply because it’s a rest day in the Tour de France. This year, I have been hugely absorbed in this race, more so than usual, because of the return of Lance Armstrong. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not a rabid Lance fan, and would love to see Levi Leipheimer or Christian Vande Velde win. In fact, by 2005 when Lance won his seventh Tour, I was frankly kind of bored by him; his ruthlessly efficient, carefully calculated winning style that year made him seem more like a bully to me than anything. Now it’s different, because, well, he’s so fricking old.
No, Lance is not some doddering, batty, stooped old senior dribbling fruit-cup juice down his chin. He’s still a force to be reckoned with and to his great credit is still causing much suffering in the Tour de France peloton, which (I challenge you to refute) is the greatest theater of suffering in all of sport. But it’s weird to see a guy with graying sideburns in that peloton, and the part of me that craves Lance’s success is the same part that’s reluctant to turn the world over to the younger generation. If Lance can triumph over the young Alberto Contador, he’ll be winning one for all of us old guys.
Lance seemed especially symbolic when I watched him in yesterday’s Tour stage, a 129-mile journey from Pontarlier, France to Verbier, Switzerland, a course featuring a big climb at the end. Two weeks into the stage race, this was a day of reckoning, and finally all the intrigue and theorizing about the rivalry within Lance and Contador’s team was put to rest. Contador mopped up the asphalt with Lance and everybody else. The young Spaniard soloed to victory with a supreme show of force and sheer strength, the way Lance used to, and though I won’t say Contador made it look easy, he had a certain spring in his pedal stroke, an ebullience, a lightness on his feet, like a young Muhammad Ali.
Lance, meanwhile, faltered and was powerless even to hang with the second-place finisher, Andy Schleck, who looks like he’s about fourteen years old. As I watched Lance being paced to the finish line by his teammate, Andreas Klöden, all I could think was, “Lance looks so old.” The way Klöden held back, making sure Lance was still on his wheel, he might as well have been pushing the former champ in a wheelchair. Looking at Lance’s drawn, grimacing face, I thought, “Dang, that’s how I felt this morning when I had to get up at six to watch this race.”
As soon as the Tour coverage ended I headed over to Albany’s Memorial Park where my bike club (www.eastbayveloclub.com) was helping the Berkeley Bike Club with its annual criterium, a multi-lap race around the park. My teammate Ian Lockley and I announced the Masters 45+ race. I have to say, it was impossible to transfer all the enthusiasm I'd had for the Tour stage to this local event. Lance had set out to prove that he could still be the best stage racer in the world, and these guys in this race were trying to prove … what? That they were still faster than a bunch of other local forty-somethings? No, that’s probably not the whole story. I think they were proving that at their age they could still race a bike, and do it well. I couldn’t fault them for this: at least they were still out there, while I was just talking about racing, and finding myself unable to resist making fun of their age to the dozens of fans along the course.
Kidding aside—I have great respect for those who still have the courage to race, knowing as I do how much harder racing is than just riding—I would like to point out that in a general sense the 45+ field was in the same race as Lance. Like Lance, they’re denying the fact of their ageing, refusing to give up their vigor without a fight. And It’s a good fight, despite the fact that they’re all—we’re all—doomed.
The future of cycling
After the Masters race I met up with my family and herded Alexa and Lindsay off to the registration area to sign them up for their race. I hadn’t been sure that they’d be interested in doing the kids’ event, but to my great satisfaction they immediately liked the idea. Here they are on their way to the start line. (Lindsay is #541, an anagram of my first race number, 154.)
My announcing duties included the kids’ race, and I pointed out to the spectators that these kids were the future of American cycling. I told them, “Twenty years from now, when one of these kids is in the Olympics, you can say, ‘I remembering watching her race as a little kid, at Memorial Park in Albany, and she stopped to blow her nose halfway to the finish line.’” And though none of these kids put on a blistering pace, they had something that even Lance Armstrong doesn’t: they were beginning something new. For Lance, bike racing is about the possibility of one more yellow jersey, about salvaging just a bit more glory from the fumes of his previous career. For the kids, all the glory is spread out before them, waiting to be seized, bit by bit, over the next couple of decades.
Did watching my kids race make me feel old? No, it didn’t. I could kick their asses, man. But I’ll tell you what did make me feel old: listening to them talk about the race later, as I lay on the floor of their bedroom in the dark trying to think up a bedtime story. They weren’t actually talking about the race per se; they were talking about the Jelly Bellies they got as a prize. “My favorite are the brown ones,” Lindsay said rapturously. “Oh, yeah, those are either chocolate or coffee,” Alexa replied. “But my favorite is definitely light green. They taste like … like a spring morning, they’re just so … fresh.”
I felt so jaded, lying there trying to remember what it was like to really enjoy something as trivial as a jelly bean. What a rich, wondrous world children inhabit, where almost anything can be a source of joy and wonder. As an adult I’m forced to ignore so much: as my brain ossifies, I have to filter out more and more of the world just to give my mind room to maneuver. The kids, meanwhile, are being thrilled by every little detail. A spider’s web. A pattern on a tile floor or rug. A popcorn-flavored jelly bean.
Last night I dreamed about bike gears. Specifically, I had this seemingly endless dream about trying to count the number of teeth on a freewheel cog, to make sure there were enough. I needed 27, but every time I tried to count them I lost my place. “Dammit all, they used to stamp the number on these,” I complained grumpily, like old people do. The gist of the dream was the growing doubt—no, the panic—that I was losing my mental faculties and might never again be able to do as simple a mental task as counting the number of teeth on a cog.
No doubt the dream was triggered by something that happened at the race yesterday. Not long after I arrived, I ran into a teammate, Marty, who presented me with a late birthday present: a plastic ring that snaps onto a bike wheel to keep the chain from going into the spokes. It was a gag gift, a way to poke fun at me over a blog post I did in April (http://www.albertnet.us/2009/04/corn-cob.html) about my dreams, as a kid, of graduating from big cogs with spoke protectors to small cogs without. As I wrote in that blog:
“We didn't call them spoke protectors though, as ‘pie plate’ better mocked how big they were. They caused the largest cog to seem to grow--a mean illusion, awful to endure. A bigger cog meant lower gearing, see; the stuff of weaker boys, embarrassing. We longed for smaller clusters, finally free of pie plates. Lack of metal was our bling.”
Marty’s gift alone wouldn’t have meant so much, but it so happened that earlier that very morning I’d acquired the largest gear cluster I’ve had since I was twelve. At that age, my whole future looked like a continuous upward path of improvement. I now realize this path is more of an arc, and I’m on the downward side of it. I rode my most macho gear cluster half my lifetime ago, and my cogs have gotten incrementally larger since then. For the criterium Marty was rocking a really small cluster—at least, it looked small to me. It was actually a 23. Imagine, 23 looking small! I remember racing a full season on a 19! But again, that was twenty years ago.
The 27 … well, that’s almost humiliating. I got it from another teammate, Mark, at whose house I watched the Tour stage. Asking if he had 27-tooth cluster to sell me was not fundamentally different from asking if he had an adult diaper I could borrow. A month ago I’d have been tempted to tease him for merely owning such a thing, as low gearing is a concession to one’s diminishing strength. And now here I am in possession of it, and I have a pie plate to boot. This is what’s so hard about getting old: realizing that your best health is behind you, and for the rest of your life you’ll be making more and more little concessions like this, to ease your way into the grave.
Sport, of course, isn’t everything. The point isn’t really the strength itself—strength is all relative, after all—but the willingness to take on new challenges. Think about Lance Armstrong: here’s a guy who can’t stand losing, and yet willingly took on his worst odds since cancer to try to eke out another Tour de France victory. Watching Lance fail to win the Tour is ultimately a lot more interesting than seeing him win it when he last raced it in ’05. Learning to lose gracefully isn’t really something he’s had to do before, so in that sense he’s progressing in new directions now. And having that experience is a lot more worthwhile than a lot of things Lance could do at age thirty-eight.
I guess something like 1.5 million people get Lance’s frequent updates on Twitter. It’s not hard to see why—he’s a badass, out to conquer the best bike racers in the world. But imagine if he kept up the Twitter without keeping up the hard life. What might those Twitters look like? “Got pretty pissed off today. How elite a country club do you need to still get good service? I’m sitting there trying to relax and have a good meal, and there are spots on my flatware! I’ve seen that scumbag dishwasher, and let me tell you, if he focused as much on his dishwashing as he does his body piercings and tattoos, maybe he could do a decent job for a change.”
Perhaps a worthy goal for anybody, whether or not he would ever feel like broadcasting the minute details of his day to a wide audience, would be to lead a Twitter-able life. That is, to have enough going on, especially into old age, to have something interesting to say. More interesting, for example, than this: “I’ve decided my back wouldn’t be so messed up if the toilet were the right height. Why should one size fit all? They make this thing so a child or a short person could use it, and I’m like a grasshopper sitting there. As often as I have to lower myself onto that toilet these days, it’s no wonder my back is in constant pain.”
In the spirit of fighting this ageing process to the death, I’ve decided to ride the Everest Challenge bike race (http://www.everestchallenge.com/), a two day event this September featuring more than 29,000 feet of climbing in 206 miles. I can safely predict that I won’t win, and in all likelihood won’t even be in contention. But, if I finish, it will be the hardest course I’ve ever raced. And if I don’t finish, it’ll be the hardest race I’ve ever dropped out of. This is why I acquired that 27-tooth freewheel, and I think that’s about as good a reason as any.
Does this mean I think the key to ageing gracefully is to make huge demands on the body? Not exactly; again, the point is the willingness to take on a challenge. Perhaps the greatest goal for old age is wisdom, and how better to gain it than to struggle against something really, really hard? At age forty, I want to live such that the things I one day tell my grandchildren about are from the second half of my life, not just the first.