There’s something to be said for finding cycling in your 40s, when your athletic debut and your physical decline come conjoined. It’s so common there’s a name for us—both masculine and emasculating. We’re Middle-aged Men in Lycra (MAMIL). And compared to the faster folks, we’re a different animal.
An elite athlete’s arc might look something like this: There’s a childhood discovery of the sport. Early success feeds a drive to develop their talent. Then comes a meteoric rise toward elite achievement, a string of wins—and eventually, that inevitable dip back toward Earth.
But for us MAMILs, that rocket-fire rise-and-fall is more of an arrive-and-plop.
That’s not to say we can’t see improvements in middle-age. We can and do. But we work with an awareness that our athletic ceiling is somewhere nearby. We’ll soon hit it (if we haven’t already). Then we’ll return to our floor, with its gentle downward slope. And life will carry on.
This carrying on isn’t always so easy for elite racers. Pro athletes don’t become pros by bracing for their decline. And their natural weakening can catch them psychologically off guard.
Arthur Brooks is the best-selling author of Strength to Strength (which I have not yet read). But I did read an Atlantic essay he wrote a few years back that covers similar territory in shorter distance. It’s about the struggles top performers face as their abilities wane.
“I strongly suspect that the memory of remarkable ability [can often] provide an invidious contrast to a later, less remarkable life,” he said. In other words: When you’ve tasted excellence, being merely good is weak sauce.
Now, to us, the weight of so many trophies might sound like a nice burden to carry. “But if you reach professional heights and are deeply invested in being high up,” Brooks wrote, “you can suffer mightily when you inevitably fall.”
I contrast the bitter falls of elite athletes with the low-key plops of gravel MAMILs for a reason. Most of us may count as mediocre cyclists, but a lot of gravel folks are truly elite in other things.
My cycling circles include some damn fine engineers and nurses, PE teachers and city council members, nonprofit CEOs and IT pros. High achievers everywhere. (The joke at Unbound is always: If you crash out hard and hear that ugly crunch, don’t worry. There are three orthopedic surgeons in the group behind you.)
MAMILs can take our athletic peak and fall pretty much in stride. But how worried should us 40- and 50-somethings be about a decline in our own elite professional skills? Says Brooks: probably more worried than we actually are.
“No one expects an Olympic athlete to remain competitive until age 60. But in many physically nondemanding occupations, we implicitly reject the inevitability of decline before very old age,” Brooks said. “But … if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities—the kind of profession most college graduates occupy—noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine.”
If that’s true, our experience on the bike might just be a Lycra dress rehearsal for the professional downhills we’ll also face.
Most gravel cyclists have already grappled with the question: Why race if we can’t win? And our answers are pretty good.
We keep riding for the community. The self-discovery. The shared experience. The party. We’ve learned to value the height of our performance less, and the state of our being more.
Why shouldn’t these same lessons apply in the parts of our lives where our talents do count as elite?
If you grew accomplished at work in your 20s and 30s, there’s a good chance you did it with excellent “fluid intelligence.” Brooks described this as the “raw intellectual horsepower” that helps us untangle stubborn problems.
As we age, our fluid intelligence tends to recede. Meanwhile, our “crystallized intelligence,” or our “ability to use knowledge gained in the past,” surges “and does not diminish until very late in life.”
Some of us can struggle in our 40s and 50s as we enter that cognitive graying area between these receding and surging strengths.
Brooks’ advice: Recognize when our old habits become ruts. Then have the courage to hop out of bad lines in favor of newer strengths.
We’re also free to change how we measure success. Can we take new satisfaction in helping others do well?
Brooks said, “That older people, with their stores of wisdom, should be the most successful teachers seems almost cosmically right. No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way.”
Brooks’ quote made me think of last spring’s Loess Hills Enduro.
I remember riding into the carved hills of that course’s toughest stretch in a group of 10 or so guys. I put in what counts for me as a hefty stab. And the youngest rider in the group easily matched it.
He and I rode away as a pair, and we stuck together pretty much the rest of the way. His name was Seth. He was 17, new to gravel and eager to learn stuff.
He humored me as I “raced out loud,” talking through decisions in real time. How to bridge to the next guy without blowing up; what kind of terrain wasn’t worth a heavy effort; when I thought another move might stick.
If his reaction to all this was “OK, dad,” he at least hid it well. And I liked him more as the miles ticked by.
Toward the end, we had accumulated another small, middle-aged group. I told Seth: “These guys we’re catching now, they’re old and tired, like me. You’re neither. You need to attack us.” He laughed and promised he would.
That attack came in the closing meters. He launched with a young, fluid intelligence my older legs couldn’t match. But I wasn’t too proud to admire his speed, or cheer as he beat me across the line.
These days, that’s a joy that passes for winning.
6 thoughts on “What If You’ve Already Peaked?”
This is a brilliant post that I feel so hard right now, at 59–my last year in my 50s. I’ve adapted as a college athlete, but the other piece I struggle with is the faster deterioration of muscle gained with less time off. I could go a month off in college and throughout my twenties and thirties and barely lose fitness. In my forties and fifties, it is one week off and I feel like I’ve lost two months of gain. So discouraging.
Thanks for all the photo credits too. As someone who used to pretend to be an artist, it matters. 💕
Thanks, Sandra. Another tricky part for me: Keeping my jealousy at bay while I watch my teenagers make (seemingly) easy gains.
I appreciate your nod to the photo credits as well. This blog makes no money, and I don’t want photographers to feel like I’m trying to profit from their work. Instead, I hope this blog makes a few more folks aware of their talent.
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🙂 No kidding. . . as I near 60, I miss the days of easy gains and slow loss of muscle . . .
I have found that even though my muscles peaked when I was in my 20-30’s my brain was far from reaching it’s potential. I didn’t start bike riding until my 50’s and have been able to continue improving as a cyclist by working on all the small things. Now that I’m 63 years old, I believe my fastest days are behind me. I’m unable to ride fast day after day, but every once in a while I can still do a great ride. My advice is don’t stop. Recently I took a couple months off the bike and started living like a old grandpa. My aging jumped into dog years, my knees and hip hurt so much that it hurt just to walk. I knew that I had to start training like an athlete again, or I would quickly become your average out of shape grandfather. I’m now training again, but this time for my grandchildren. I want to be 80 years old and climbing mountains with my grandchildren. “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing”.
“Every once in a while I can still do a great ride.” I’ve had the good fortune to witness dozens of those great rides, Tony. You’re the real deal, and your grandkids will be lucky to have you as their guide up those mountains!
Thank Beth. Yeah, you have been right there for most of my races. I always enjoy seeing you at a race.