If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter
I love it. The dictionary definition of “master” as an adjective is: Having or showing very great skill or proficiency. So just by being a cyclist over the age of 35, I am considered a “master”. Of course the other definitions are: The captain of a merchant ship or a man who has people working for him. Neither of which I would like to be associated with.
Although most professional racers fall into the “senior” or “elite” categories, it’s becoming more common to see women and men kick some serious butt above the age of 35. The term “masters” is no longer seen as the first nail in the coffin. In fact, some of the strongest cyclists I know–ones that could ride circles around me–are in their 50’s and 60’s. Look at Raul Alcala. He won the Mexican time trial championship at age 46.
This past weekend the national cyclo-cross championships fell upon Madison/Verona, Wisconsin. Droves of people of all ages and abilities came here to show what they’ve got. Although the elites in their 20’s got most of the fame and glory, I was most interested in watching the masters. This wasn’t just because it’s my age category. They are also beautiful racers to watch. Long gone are the days of testosterone driven madness where everything is considered a sprint. No, the masters tend to calculate their moves a bit more. They know their bodies. They often realize that holding back sometimes is just as important as hammering all out…and when they go all out, they dance on their pedals.
For those of you not familiar with cyclo-cross, I’ll give you a brief history. Cyclo-cross began in the early 1900’s in Europe. It was designed to lengthen the training season for cyclists and allow them to ride into early winter. By forcing the cyclists to ride through pastures and climb over fences, it not only kept the riders warm, but also improved their bike handling skills. The first cross championship was held in Belgium in 1910. From that point on, it spread to Switzerland, Luxembourg, France and Spain. It didn’t really catch on here in the States until the 1970’s and only became popular here since the 90’s. The bikes are very similar to road bikes, however, they use knobby tires. Since the courses tend to be full of mud, water and sand, bikes often times have to be hosed off or switched out during races due to malfunctioning components. The course consists of a 1.5-2 mile loop where the racers have to make their way over obstacles, up and down steep hills and over different types of surfaces (grass, water, pavement, dirt etc.). The goal is to get as many laps in as possible in an allotted amount of time. No other bike race taps into the anaerobic system like cross does. Think of it as an all out energy expenditure for 30-60 minutes.
A few of the racers I was following during nationals agreed to be in this piece. All are in the masters category and all of them are stronger than most 25 year old cyclists I know. Dennis Bean-Larson, owner of Hell Yes Clothing and Fixed Gear Gallery, talked with me about what pulled him to the sport. He’s only been racing cross for a few years but he has been cycling for decades. One of his main draws is the safety factor. His idea is if you fall on a cross course the chances of getting hurt are a lot slimmer than if you take a spill on the road. Mud and grass are softer than asphalt! That’s one of the reasons you see so many cross riders over the age of 60–Dennis is 67 by the way. I just have to add that Dennis rides fixed all winter long–in Michigan–now that’s tough!
When I asked Lennard Zinn, frame builder, writer, and racer extraordinaire, what he thought of the course this weekend he said, “It was really cool! In Boulder we don’t get conditions like this. It’s usually dry, hard packed and fast or snowy and icy.” Lennard also talked about what a great family sport cross is. He often times sees parents racing/training with their kids because the travel distance to races is often quite short. Lennard was racing in the 50-54 age group and it was great to see his field swell to over 50 racers.
Monique Karlen, one of our hometown sweethearts, not only had a great race but also got a ton of media attention. It’s so nice to see women get this kind of attention in a sport. I sent here a couple of questions to get her perspective on being a female in the masters category:
As a female masters rider, do you feel there is enough being done to get other women out there?
I think as fitness opportunities increase more women are finding cycling in general (and also cyclo-cross.) In terms of racing there has been a big increase in beginner women (cat 4) in all disciplines over the last several years but races are primarily split by ability level and not age. I do think it would be nice for race promoters to offer a Masters women category as participation increases across the board. I was a competitive runner first and did not discover cycling until I was 35 so started as a master’s racer and have always been racing against women mostly younger than I am. This said, I know many women over 40 who still are very competitive at the elite level and with women half their age.
As more women of all ages get interested in riding and racing they can join women’s only groups and teams to learn more with a low intimidation factor. Women are generally encouraging and supportive of one another and always happy to get more women into racing and riding. There is still the issue of “equal pay for equal work” and even the top women in pro cycling are not able to make a living or support their racing with payouts and sponsorships not being equal to the men. If race promoters want to attract more top women racers they have to offer equal payouts at minimum.
What changes do you notice in your riding as you get older, both good and bad.
As I get older I notice that my body takes much longer to recover after workouts so I am not able to train as intensely as I used to. As well cycling is a high-risk sport and any injuries take longer to heal. A positive thing about being older as a racer is that I think mentally you are more grounded and have realistic expectations of yourself and can channel the nervous energy differently. Racing can be more fun as you take the pressure off yourself to perform as you once used to and focus on having fun each time you ride! You are thankful for the days on the bike and each day you ride is a good one. I also see women who begin to race in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond have the enthusiasm of a younger racer because they are not burned out and are really excited about learning something new and feeling good and getting fit.
I have to say that watching the races this weekend has been an inspiration. I may have to reconsider my plans for giving road racing a shot again next year and switch to cross!
I want to thank Monique, Dennis, and Lennard for taking time to share their thoughts with me. Also, a huge thanks to Nathan Vergin for taking pictures at the race and riding down with me! To see more of his amazing work go to: www.flickr.com/photos/nathanvergin/