A Lesson From The World’s Second Oldest Mode of Human Self-Propulsion
A 105-year-old cyclist upends the idea that exercise gets us only so far.
Posted above the water cooler at the gym I’ve joined is a February 8 clipping from the New York Times about Robert Marchand, an amateur cyclist from France who’s not only set a world one- hour mileage record for centenarians — 14 miles over an hour on a track — beating the record he set in 2014, but who’s upended conventional thinking about the ability of people age 50 and older to improve their aerobic fitness.
Records for distance covered in an hour have been maintained since the 1870’s, the days of high wheel “bone shakers” in France and the U.S. In 1892, Englishman Henry Sturmer (originator of the Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub featured on the bikes many of us had as kids) organized the International Cycling Association to set international standards for track and tour events. In the years following, velodromes, arena-like measured oval tracks, became the places where the distance races were run under rules maintained by the ICA’s successor the Union Cycliste Internationale. The one hour distance race follows a precise set of UCI rules, and, according to The Cycling News, is the world’s most prestigious cycling competition. The one hour bicycle endurance test also follows precise rules, but developed by trainers and exercise physiologists rather than cycling organizations. When performed on a stationary bike equipped with an ergometer to measures the rider’s energy output, and employing heart rate and respiration measuring equipment, it’s considered a highly reliable means of assessing aerobic fitness.
European cycling lore has it that Mr. Marchand, pictured in the May 4 post on the Capo Velo Cycling Collective news site, overstated his age when he was fourteen (that would make it in about 1926) on an entry form for a cycle race. According to Velonews, an international competitive cycling news organization which covered his record rides both this year and three years ago, Mr. Marchand has never considered himself a competitive rider, even though he’s ridden over the years in some nationally-sanctioned events. Mr. Marchand worked as a truck driver, gardener, firefighter, and lumberjack, according to the Times story, riding mostly for fun and exercise. He says he’d never had a regular exercise routine, outside the physical demands of his work of course, until he retired for real at age 91. It was then that he climbed aboard his bike to ride on tracks or on the roads near his home in suburban Paris, settling into a leisurely-paced routine most days of the week. According to a BBC interview in January, he supplements his road and track riding with an hour a day on an indoor bike at home, eats yogurt, fruits and vegetables, “a little meat,” and doesn’t drink “too much coffee.” He worked for a bit as a wine dealer after his truck driving and lumberjacking days, and so he does enjoy an occasional glass of red.
Nothing in any sports press coverage of Mr. Marchand’s achievement suggests that he has diabetes. He’s said in interviews that he’s enjoyed good health all his life. But for those of us who do have diabetes, what this gentleman has accomplished certainly bears out what our doctors and certified diabetes educators tell us: Life gets better if we step up our physical exercise and it stays that way if we stick to it. We know that a muscle that stays in tone benefits from nutrients, and responds to insulin, better than a muscle that’s underused. And we know that regular aerobic exercise helps get the junk out of our blood and makes for healthy circulatory tissue. Weak circulation in the legs and feet leads us to lose mobility, and, worse, makes us vulnerable to foot ulcers and slows our ability to heal. These are well-known risks for everyone who has diabetes.
When Mr. Marchand set the 2014 world record at age 102, he got the attention of Veronique Billat, a professor of physiology, and her laboratory at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne, where he agreed to undergo a series of stationary bike tests to measure just how efficiently his body used oxygen as he pedaled at measured workloads.
According to a paper published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in March, the French physiologists worked Mr. Marchand on a cycling ergometer for 10,000 kilometers over the two years after he set the 2014 record, with 80% of the time at a light rate of exertion and 20% at incrementally higher levels and with greater pedaling speeds. His weight and lean body mass stayed steady over the time, but over those the two years he was able to boost his peak power output from 90 to 125 watts, an increase of 39% in a relatively short period of time. Mr. Marchand’s heart rate under exertion stayed relatively steady too, but what changed dramatically was a measure called VO2max, an indicator of how much oxygen a body can use under exertion. When the Billat lab tested Mr. Marchand before he set the 2017 record, his VO2max had increased 13% to 35 milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute, considered a good level for a 60 year old man.
When Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine set a mile record of 3:54.6 in 1973 (at age 21), his VO2max measured around 84. Tour de France winners Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong were tested at 88.0 and 84.0 respectively. Nevertheless, Mr. Marchand, at VO2max 35, holds the status of an elite athlete. He’s looking forward to another go at the mile record when he turns 107, and, as he told the Associated Press, he’s “waiting for a rival.”
For those of us of a certain age looking for a low impact (non-bone-shaking) way to improve fitness and regain vitality, bike riding, like rowing (the human world’s oldest means of self-propulsion) is well worth considering. It needn’t involve a big outlay for gear, and you don’t have to pay a trainer. After all, once you’ve ridden a bike, you never forget how.
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