Over the Hill
Old guys stay fit by riding hard.
Thursday, April 6, 2006
Ron Riley clicks the gearshift next to the handbrake on his mountain bike. His neck is arched. His head is still. Taut veins bulge from his forearms as he confidently grips the handlebars. Click! The gears shift. Ron pedals harder. His eyes are locked on the dirt trail in front of him. He slows down to round a sharp turn. The crunch of knobby tires digging into the earth grows louder. In less than a minute, he disappears over a steep hill. Two more laps to go.
In a cross-country mountain bike race, this scene is not uncommon. But the fact that Riley turns 71 this month makes it an awe-inspiring sight.
Riley is in better shape than the average 40-year-old. When training on his road bike, he rides six days a week for two to three hours at a time and covers distances from anywhere between 25 and 40 miles per day.
“I’m lucky that my body’s still in good shape,” he says. “I read that you lose 1 to 2 percent of your speed past your prime every year. So if I race against a 45-year-old, he’s got about 26 percent on me. If I can stay within 26 percent of a 45-year-old’s time, then I’m happy.”
Riley races a cross-country mountain bike, something he took up after he retired 14 years ago. On April 9, he will compete in the Sea Otter Classic’s 60-plus amateur cross-country race. This year, the 19-mile race is set to take place on a new course in Fort Ord. Riley is looking forward to this change in scenery.
“I like the new trails,” he says. “The course is a little tougher; it’s got some tough climbs.”
Last year, Riley finished 10th out of 18 in the same event at Sea Otter. And considering that the Sea Otter Classic is the largest cycling festival in North America, that’s not too shabby—especially for a guy who’s more than a decade past 60. “I’m just glad that there are still opportunities for an old fart like myself to compete,” he says. “There are very few racing events for people age 65 and up. That’s why I like Sea Otter; there’s something for everyone.”
Over the course of four days, 10,000 amateur and recreational riders, 500 professional cyclists, 50,000 fans, and 250 product exhibitors will congregate around the Laguna Seca Recreation Area for this year’s 16th annual Sea Otter Classic. The festival features an array of events from road bike tours and cross-country mountain biking to pro dirt jumping and even a kids’ bike rodeo. Biking enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels will have some source of entertainment throughout the duration of the festival.
Fifty-six-year-old cross-country racer Michael Simons can attest to this, although the feel-good aspect of the festival is of secondary importance for him.
“My favorite part is winning,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m competitive. That’s what makes it fun for me.”
Simons will not be competing in the Sea Otter Classic this year, but there’s something in his eyes that says he’s got quite a few more races in him.
“I think you’ve got to be somewhat masochistic to do this,” he says. “You get that adrenaline rush.”
“A lot of these guys are adrenaline junkies,” says 54-year-old racer John Silva. “I like the adventure aspect of it. There’s also a lot of camaraderie and a real sense of community. We call it the ‘tribe’ factor.”
Silva will be competing in the 55-plus amateur cross-country race.
Among these three competitors, Riley’s athleticism stands out the most on account of the fact that he’s got 15 years on Simons and Silva. Nonetheless, watching someone who is well over the age of 50 tear up the track is still impressive.
Silva, who teaches beginning mountain biking classes through the bike shop he owns in Fairfield, admires those riders who are older than him.
“I got a guy in my class who’s 72 years old. He keeps up pretty well. You can ride at any age.”
“Cycling is a sport for life,” says Sea Otter promoter/racer Keith Defiebre. “It seems like something that the 55-and-up guys can do for a long time.” Racing, on the other hand, is different. “Fast” Frank Pinto, a racer and owner of Joselyn’s Bikes in Monterey, says that seeing old-timers compete is one of the things that drives him.
“Just think,” he says, “we’re as young as we are, and they’re still going. Some of these guys are out at 7am layin’ the hammer down. That’s pretty cool.”
The secret behind these guys’ athletic longevity?
“You have to do a lot of clean living,” Silva says. “No drinking or smoking.”
Staying in shape and keeping your weight down is also crucial. “If you stop at this age, you gain your weight back real fast,” he says. “Unfortunately, most people love to eat.”