An interview with the author of The Midlife Cyclist and founder of CycleFit, Mr. Phil Cavell.
The book’s premise is simple, but the thought it provokes, the questions it answers, and the ones left to ponder are far from it. Mr. Cavell describes the forty-plus cyclist as genetically irrelevant, an aberration for which evolution did not prepare.
Nature did not anticipate that the human being would need to live past, shall we say, the age of 30, and therefore there was no reason to prepare, or worse, select against it. In plain evolutionary terms, we missed the opportunity if we hadn’t done what we needed to do by then.
Evolutionarily Irrelevant Performance Pioneers
In this way, the revolution of midlife cyclists is performance pioneers. A statistically significant subset of the population, and the first of its kind in history, to make a conscious choice to push the envelope of performance and aging without any precedent of the predicted victor.
Mr. Cavell asks himself and the reader as he lays the groundwork for the cerebral cornucopia to come,
“Would I push myself to that brink of physical shutdown, either in training or competition, at my current age of 58? If the answer is ‘no’, then where is the line that I will not cross and what is its intellectual underpinning? If the answer is ‘yes’, and I should push the performance envelope without regard to age, then am I risking injury or even death?”
The steep increase in the number of veteran athletes who have gravitated to cycling, which the author offers as a universal truism to be addicting, for sport or leisure, has created a mass effect of evolutionarily unique individuals who willfully push their bodies past the point that science and experience much know.
The Truth About Truisms
The author also points to the truism that the challenges we face are primarily caused by “information and moderation deficit.” Mr. Cavell, a lifelong competitive cyclist himself, risks being seen as biased when he asserts that cycling can be “used as a panacea for solving the worst physical and cognitive effects of ageing as an athlete.”
Therein lies the dichotomy of the aging athlete, a mindset that shuns moderation backed by the benefits of exercise rationalization and uses the bicycle as its weapon of choice. Mr. Cavell puts the reader in a state of plausible deniability ease when he says,
“I’m not even sure that I’m trying to avoid getting old and dying, as much as meeting it on my own terms.”
Peeling the Layers of the Onion to Expose a Gem
With each page I turned, I peeled another layer of the onion of the author’s gifted talent for observation and ability to compartmentalize the infinite variables of cycling into a neat little package – The Midlife Cyclist.
I picked it up because it spoke to me on many levels. I’ve dedicated my professional life to healing with exercise. My passion for cycling and competition pervades my every thought and is a prism through which I view the world.
Now through the pages of this blog, combining the two and holding it together with a curiosity for the influential usage of the written word. I couldn’t put ‘The Midlife Cyclist’ down for a host of other reasons. Here are a few.
Growing Old Disgracefully
In Chapter One, The Ageing Cyclist – Growing Old Disgracefully, the author skillfully dissects and disseminates cutting-edge research and interviews of prominent authorities in genetics, metabolism, orthopedics, physiology, endocrinology, pulmonology, and cognition.
It is in this chapter that Mr. Cavell states,
“The road to becoming a great cyclist in middle age and beyond may well involve doing less cycling in favour of other activities.”
A conclusion he draws from a conversation he had with the well-known UK sports physiotherapist Graham Anderson. Mr. Anderson asserts that “cyclists don’t have enough ‘dynamic chaos’ in their ‘activity diet’ and when forced to veer off course of the cozy environment of “pedaling in predictable circles” and left to stand on our own feet that “our wheels fall off.”
I asked Mr. Cavell, if he had to choose one way for a midlife cyclist to add more “chaos” to their exercise routine, what modality, practice, or suggestion would you make? He answered,
It is also in this chapter that Mr. Cavell makes his first mention of virtual cycling when he writes,
“Controlling a fast-moving bicycle over any terrain is a complex synaptic juggling exercise that uses a huge amount of cognitive ability – I’m personally convinced that this is one of the reasons why cycling is so good for us, and why indoor cycling, though sometimes sensible, isn’t as mentally refreshing as outdoor cycling.”
I asked Mr. Cavell the reasons for this belief while mentioning the many unique ways that virtual cycling challenges the cyclist mentally? This is what he had to say.
A few follow-up questions and Mr. Cavell’s responses.
What suggestions do you have for the midlife virtual cyclist to maximize performance while minimizing the risk of harm? Do they differ from the suggestions you would provide an outdoor cyclist?
It Is About the Bike
In Chapter Two, It Is About the Bike, the author lays out a brilliant argument for how the UCI thwarted the evolution of the bicycle and credited it with its present state of suspended animation in Victorian design. The not-so-modern bicycle design, which Mr. Cavell contends, is a function of the ‘butterfly effect,’ much like the QWERTY keyboard.
The ‘butterfly effect,’ known as ‘path dependence,’ is when decisions are made for social or political reasons and have long-term effects upon subsequent generations.
When I asked Mr. Cavell if he thought virtual cycling suffered from the ‘butterfly effect,’ this was his reply.
Will I die?
In Chapter Three, entitled Will I die? – the author lays it all on the line in a way that he admits “can be a mountain.” The reader will consider this an understatement when faced with the depth of research defining the effects of cycling at a performance level on the cardiovascular system of the veteran athlete.
I will not insult the pages by justifying a summation here, except to relay the thoughts of the renowned cardiologist, Dr. Stephens, when asked to comment on the relationship between cycling, heart health, and longevity.
“So where are the bodies?” he said when asked if midlife cyclists were doing the wrong thing by exercising at a high level. The second more honest statement echoes the sentiments of many of us, and is “I train and race bicycles at this level because I enjoy it, not because I think it is necessarily good for me.”
Cycling Saved My Life
With this in mind, the author provides a laundry list of risk-mitigating measures and reassures the reader with a thought that is very personal to me. Mr. Cavell writes,
“As an aside, it’s assumed that us lifelong exercisers do know our bodies exceptionally well. We monitor function and performance on an almost daily basis. We have decades of experience about our own health and performance, and that’s invaluable and should never be underestimated. We know how our bodies should feel when they are functioning well and conversely when they aren’t.”
It was only after noticing subtle signals from my body. I fainted during a group ride while training. I took the necessary steps to determine that I suffered from hemochromatosis. My condition had unknowingly progressed to a catastrophic level, and if left untreated, I risked cirrhosis and several other serious issues.
Too Late For Speed?
In Chapter 4, entitled Midlife Performance – Too Late for Speed? – the author challenges the tenets of periodization, criticizing its ‘granularity’ and advocating for a reduction in training zones to three or even two.
The author offers an alternative to the data-driven cyclist afflicted with ‘paralysis by analysis.’ Mr. Cavell believes the midlife cyclist will benefit from training by feel rather than a rigid structure. The individual will take more responsibility for their development and accountability for their growth and self-expression as aging athletes.
The detailed and in-depth justification for the author’s suggestions on training, recovery, overtraining, and many other performance-related areas are beyond this article’s scope. Interestingly, the author is a self-proclaimed ‘barefoot cyclist’ to a degree, making him a race and train by feel athlete. The dichotomy of this is evident in the next chapter.
Bike Fit and Biomechanics
In Chapter 5, called Bikes, Bike Fit, and Biomechanics, Mr. Cavell shines. In this chapter, the author, who is widely known as a foremost bike fitter in most cycling circles, and co-founder of Cyclefit, gives an extensive breakdown of every point of contact between athlete and machine.
Mr. Cavell describes the intricacies of his craft and breaks it down to a cellular level, leaving no doubt that he exists in a different plane of bike-to-human interaction. From the point of contact to pedal stroke, Mr. Cavell speaks with confidence for a reason, especially when the points he makes wave in the face of prevailing belief.
A true renaissance man of modern cycling, Mr. Cavell utilizes a holistic approach to bike fit, harnessing the entropic variability of athlete vs. machine and making the analytic an art.
When asked, Are there any unique or specific bike fit, cycling posture, pedal stroke, or riding style recommendations you would make to virtual cyclists? If yes, how and why do they differ from a cyclist who does not ride indoors? Here is what Mr. Cavell had to say.
In Chapter Six, Bike, What Bike? – the author is sensitive to the head/heart dichotomy of purchasing a new bike. The multi-factorial logic argument Mr. Cavell provides makes it clear that it is best to count to ten before purchasing your N+1, and definitely not from the internet.
Food For Sport
In the Seventh Chapter, Food for Sport – the author outlines the aging athlete’s changing dietary and nutrition requirements and demands. Mr. Cavell acknowledges that not much is known about nutritional needs and senior performance.
It was what he didn’t acknowledge that I was interested in knowing. The ubiquitous and significant topics of eating disorders, disordered eating, and extreme dieting, which affects many amateur and professional athletes, were not mentioned. A big issue in the virtual cycling world and among Masters athletes, as well. Mr. Cavell responded,
In Chapter Eight, entitled The Mindful Cyclist – the author urges the athlete to take great care of themselves as a whole to make themselves better cyclists, parents, and partners. Mr. Cavell, who espouses a pragmatic, open-minded, do what you feel approach to most cycling matters, writes that the cerebral cyclist must challenge every assumption to perform at a higher level as we grow older.
In the following paragraph, he immediately abandons this view in describing the less-than-mindful sequelae of virtual cycling when he writes.
“Simply riding your bike and undertaking no other exercise is probably a poor strategy, especially if most of your riding is inside rather than outside – the former could encourage dehydration, overexertion and limited cognitive engagement in terms of terrain change and machine control. Riding indoors will almost certainly not positively contribute to maintaining your fluid intelligence.”
I asked him to clarify the statement and provided his thoughts here.
Emotional Equilibrium is in the Balance
To become a truly mindful cyclist is to achieve emotional equilibrium. To eliminate the external factors that illicit our hardwired fight-or-flight mechanism and mitigate the inflammatory burden upon our health, training, and performance.
For Mr. Cavell, the balance also includes the trade-off between the brain-building stimulus of riding and racing outdoors with the neural-induced stress it creates.
This inherent fear of the unknown and the emotional and physical pain of the known was a prime motivation in my transition to becoming an ‘indoor specialist.’ I no longer accept the inevitable reality that ‘I could really hurt myself or worse during this race.’
The positive change in my view on racing, and the sport-related anxiety I once suffered, has made me a better person and athlete.
I asked Mr. Cavell his thoughts and he chose to answer my question with one of his own.
I took a leap and assumed his query was more than rhetorical and replied. This was my answer to Mr. Cavell’s questions.
To be honest, I would answer, “Absolutely. Better.” I am able to race with family members and friends watching the entire event on Livestream or standing beside me. Feeling everything I feel. I can let them know what I am thinking, feeling, my passion.
There is nothing like competing with your support system within inches. In addition, with technological advances in the virtual cycling game, I communicate with my teammates via Discord. Much the same applies.
I am not a pro and I get the greatest enjoyment from sharing the experience, sacrificing for myself and those I race with, and setting a positive example.
In addition, because of the more favorable dynamic of virtual cycling, the team unity and willingness to work as a team and sacrifice for the common goal is greater than any I have ever experienced in real life.
There are breaks in virtual cycling. I’ve been in many. The chess game is still there. To take it a step further, I am able to discuss my next move with my mates in real-time as it is unfolding.
All the drama and realism. Only in 2D!
If we are to strive for emotional equilibrium, then reducing the outside stress to focus only upon the ultimate goal, to win, may in fact be the absolute goal. Your answer appears to describe the opposite.
Mr. Cavell followed up by saying,
I asked Mr. Cavell – What is the most surprising or revelatory thing you learned or discovered during the research and writing of the book and how has it affected your life as a midlife cyclist, parent, and partner? His answer was deep and heartfelt – and follows.
Throughout my early cycling history, I fell victim to the ‘butterfly effect’ of the cycling norm. It wasn’t until I accepted the honesty of introspection and negotiation that my cycling self changed for the better. I am an ‘indoor specialist’ and proud of it.
I didn’t fall victim to coming to the defense of virtual cycling when thoroughly enjoying Mr. Cavell’s book, either. As I enter my 6th decade of ‘Midlife’ I have evolved, finding greater merit in the virtues of education over instigation.
Perhaps the best defense would be to quote the author himself when he describes in the epilogue,
“The three most liberating words in my profession are ‘I don’t know.’ It helps if you can immediately follow them with ‘but I will find out’ or even ‘but I know someone who does.’”
I know many midlife cyclists who do, and I hope you find out, Mr. Cavell. I feel bad that there are things you don’t know about virtual cycling and are missing out on something great.
It may be the only thing you lack authoritative experiential knowledge of about cycling. Your book will hold a prominent and convenient place on my shelf. I know I will be reaching for it often.
Thank you for the pleasure. I strongly urge that you pick up a copy for yourself, and you can do so by clicking this link https://amzn.to/3nozd2K
About Phil Cavell
Phil and Julian co-founded Cyclefit in Central London over twenty years ago. It was the first company dedicated to dynamic bike-fitting in Europe.
They opened Cyclefit bike-fitting classes in 2009 and went on to work with Trek Bicycles a little while later to help create their worldwide bike-fitting educational program. Cyclefit’s educational DNA is in almost every fitting studio in the UK and many around the world. They worked with Trek’s professional racing teams for many years.
In 2012 Cavell and Wall started the International Cyclefit Symposium ICS) – an annual and then bi-annual conference that hosted speakers from all over the world.
Cyclefit continues to work with male and female pro-tour athletes, helping them control the process of building resilience to training and racing in their bike set-up.
Cyclefit runs the only cycling-specific podiatry clinic in the UK with long-term collaborator Mick Habgood. The clinic is incredibly popular with both professional and amateur clients.
The Midlife Cyclist has been in gestation for a long time. The book examines first principles about the challenges of exercising and even competing as we move into middle-age and beyond.
The book is not a training manual – it is often a philosophical discussion around the consequences of ageing and intense exercise. To try and help folk re-contextualise their cycling positively and effectively. Well, that was my intention anyway.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!