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 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2017

Another Benchmark Birthday

I wrote a column titled On Turning Sixty a while back: a refelction on the passing years and how that relates to cycling. I just reread it. I’ve been reminded of it because another decade has gone by and I am now turning 70.

I didn’t put that in the header this time. I’m not trying to hide the fact. It’s staring me straight in the face. But I needed to soften the impact just the teeniest bit by not putting it in bold face type, right at the top. Silly, I know. But this benchmark birthday has hit me hard. I’m not all that happy about it…not waxing too wise and philosophical. I even wondered if someone 70 years old has any business writing a column about cycling. Have I become irrelevant? But I look around me and see many other cyclists in the same old boomer bracket…still getting on their bikes and heading up the road. So perhaps I can still speak for them.

When I turned 60, I confessed to being slower on the bike—slower at everything—than I had been a decade before that. Nevertheless, I still felt as if I were hitting on all cylinders, at least approximately as vibrant and vital as I had been in whatever passed for my youth. Now? Not so much. The years are ganging up on me. 

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Okay…time for the standard disclaimer: if you’re on the high side of 70—as many of my friends are—you can scoff at me and call me an infant. Fine. I salute all of you who are pushing on ahead of me into what we so ironically refer to as our Golden Years. Good for you! Keep it up! Be a shining example for the rest of us. Case in point: my frisky mom, 95 years old, dancing up a storm at my son’s wedding last October. I know 70 is not the end of the world, at least as long as you can keep plugging along. (The obits in the paper are crammed with folks no older than 70.) So, in spite of some intimations of mortality, we take it as duly noted that 70 is not a fatal disease all by itself. Done…got it.

That said, the distance from 60 to 70 seems much more substantial than the distance from 50 to 60 or from 40 to 50. At least it seems so when measured in bike years. When I turned 60, I had just completed a cycling year that included over 9000 miles and 52 centuries. Ten years on—last year—I logged less than 4000 miles and knocked off a grand total of two centuries. Using centuries as some sort of metric for charting fitness or ambition or, I don’t know, just general biking chops, I can plot the decline in the numbers of 100-mile rides done each year since that year of 52: 24, 22, 24, 18, 26, 19, 18—so far, so good—but then…11, 9, and last year just those puny two. And they were both back in the spring…most of a year ago.

I was chugging along in pretty good shape until about three years ago. Then I tipped over the edge of the mesa and started going downhill fast, with this past year turning into a no-brakes, runaway screamer. (I like a good downhill, but this is not what I had in mind.) I’m not quite sure how I came to slope off so suddenly, but I can point to one incident that seems significant. I broke my back last year, just three days before I was to do a 200-K brevet. (It’s the second time I’ve broken my back.) I recall with great clarity, when that happened, that although I was bummed to miss the brevet, I felt even more strongly that it was time to give myself permission to stop feeling gulity about not logging my miles. 

I haven’t been buying an Agenda with a capital A at the start of each year for quite some time. I’ve had a pretty laid back approach to all my cycling ambitions. But deep down, there has still been some not-quite-latent OCD about pounding the miles and keeping some semblance of cutting-edge fitness. When I fell off that ladder and landed on the brick courtyard, all that went away. Instead of St Paul getting knocked off his horse, it was Mr Bill getting knocked off his ladder. The scales fell from my eyes, as the old cliché has it. I said: hey, I do not care whether I crank out 7000 or 6000 or 5000 miles this year! It doesn’t matter! 

There is more to life than filling up pages in my log book. There are any number of projects around my home that are begging for my time (and that I actually enjoy doing), from putting the irrigation lines in the garden underground to building a new stone wall; from remodeling the upstairs bathroom to repairing the back stairs. There are no-bike vacations with my non-cycling wife. There are visits with my kids and my grandkids. On and on. All that stuff was always there. I just pushed it aside and worked around it to get in my miles. Now I’m letting some of the other stuff push the miles aside. Life feels a little more balanced.

But I do still love cycling. I have not gone cold turkey. I still rode more miles last year than would have been needed for a journey from Seattle to Key West. I did a wicked-hard tour in July…hot and hilly. I survived it and even had fun most of the time. I have another great tour lined up for this summer and two more in the pipeline for 2018. I still enjoy biking, more or less as much as ever. But I am soooo slow! I’m so slow I get dropped by my shadow. If we measured the cycling experience by number of hours on the bike instead of number of miles, I would probably still be close to my totals from a few years ago because it takes me so much longer to roll out the miles now. That’s mostly okay. Sure, I would love to be faster—as fast as I was 20 years ago—but to trot out a tired old line: it is what it is. This is me. This is now. I can live with who I am and what I’m able to bring to my cycling. It’s not some miraculous wonderland where I stay young (and fast) forever, but it’s better than a lot of the alternatives.

I guess I should look at turning 70 as a mixed blessing. It’s rather depressing to consider that so much of my life is now in the past. No way to hit Rewind and go back for a do-over. On the other hand, perhaps I should count myself lucky to have made it to 70 with most of my faculties still intact…still able to ride my bike pretty well, albeit at a dignified pace. Some of you out there who have not yet reached 70…do not assume you will get there, or that your health and circumstances will allow you to still be riding your bike if you do. Don’t take the years or the miles or the good health for granted. Nothing is promised. Grab onto each day and squeeze it til it squeals for mercy.

And hey…it’s almost springtime! We have suffered through one of the rainiest, funkiest, most un-bike-friendly winters in history, these past few months. But that is going to change soon. Sunshine and dry roads are just around the corner. I have this week treated my bike to a nice dose of TLC: new chain, new cables, new brake pads; tune-ups for the derailleurs, a thorough cleaning. I went out for a spin yesterday and the bike felt almost showroom new: smooth and quiet and ready to—dare I say it?—log some miles!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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