Basic Biking -- Older Riders

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We all hope to be riding our bikes well into middle and even old age. Exploring trails on a bicycle is too much fun to ever consider stopping it. Fortunately, the path to that goal is clear, as many of your fellow riders, and perhaps even you, are already riding well into their 60's 70's and even 80's.

But, as riders age they tend to slow down a little, take fewer risks and not be as physically able to ride as they were when they were younger. They do however enjoy riding just as much as they did 10, 20, or even 30 years earlier.

Over a long period of time equipment changes, bikes get better, noticeably better, and increasing segmentation of the sport leads to having a lot of choices when a new bike purchase is being considered.

One of the advantages of having ridden for decades is that you have a different perspective on riding than a newer rider. New riders want it all, and if they're still young and flexible enough they can make any bike, unsuspended, hardtail, softtail, fully suspended, long travel or short travel 26", 27.5" 29" or even Fat Bike do whatever they want.

Older riders tend to look at things differently. They are more concerned with getting to the end of a ride, usually accompanied by younger riders, with smiles on their faces and the enthusiasm and desire to do it over again at the next earliest opportunity.

To make that happen they tend to choose bikes that are easier to ride over bikes that push the limits of technology, are extremely light, or just fast. They've also learned how to modify their bikes to make riding easier whether or not that makes them faster.

Of course anyone, no matter how old they are, can take advantage of at least some of those same tricks, or at least consider them when making a purchasing decision.

First: Suspension. It doesn't take a genius to realize that a fully suspended bike will give you a more comfortable ride that an unsuspended bike. That a hardtail sends more bumps into your posterior and back than a softtail and while a lighter more rigid bike may be better on a race course, most people agree that they are less suited for lengthy or multi-day rides. Older riders eventually gravitate towards full suspension bikes.

Second: Position. If you're hunched over low handlebars, with your neck bent, straining to look down the trail you're probably not very comfortable. This is the 'racing position'. You may be able to ride like that for an extended period of time, but couldn't you ride farther if you were more comfortable? One trend that seems to be universal is that as riders age they tend to run their handlebars higher. They accomplish this with a steeper stem, hi-rise handlebars or a combination of both.

Nearly 20 years ago I rode with a 70+ rider who ran his handlebars three inches higher than his seat. He claimed that lower bars gave him a sore back and neck. At the time I thought that was pretty weird, even though he'd ride through endless rock fields and root yards without a seeming concern - while I couldn't. Now, as I'm approaching my seventh decade, I recently raised my handlebars well higher than my seat, and you know what. Everything is easier!  That was a case where an old dog taught a younger rider a new trick. (Except that the younger rider didn't catch on till he was older too.)

Third: Direction. Older riders tend to have slower reflexes than younger ones. That's all a part of the aging process and can't be avoided. So older riders tend to adopt bikes that are less 'twitchy' than the bikes many younger riders prefer. What that means is that a bike that's designed for fast handling and racing is less desirable than one that tends to go straight over what's in front of them. One method of doing this is to buy a bike one frame size bigger than you need but set it up with a shorter stem. This gives you a bike that feels pretty much the same to the rider but which has a longer wheelbase that increases stability.

Similarly older riders tend to prefer bigger wheels that roll over obstacles and stick to the ground over smaller wheels with narrower tires.  Fat Bikes are becoming increasingly popular for many of these same reasons.

Fourth: Light weight parts. While few would deny that having a lighter wheelset adds more than a little bit of fun to your ride, older riders don't get caught up in the "weight weenie" phenomenon. As one ages one tends to get a little heavier. So rather than spending a few thousand dollars more for a bike that's 1-3 pounds lighter, older riders prefer to lose a few pounds. It doesn't cost anything to weigh less, and those thousands of dollars that you save can pay for some pretty nice mountain bike vacations.

Fifth: Tires. Tubeless tires run with less air tend to roll over things much better than tubed tires with higher pressures. That's why most riders, especially older ones, run tubeless. The advantages of fewer flats, less rolling resistance and more traction far outweigh the disadvantages of having to convert to tubeless or adding sealer every few months. Fat bikes run less pressure than most non-fat riders would believe, 4-11 pounds in many cases, and, increasingly fat bike riders are moving to tubeless setups too.

Sixth: Tire tread. Older riders tend to run tires with as little tread as they can get away with. In this they share with racers the desire to have the least rolling resistance possible. Less rolling resistance means that you can go farther, and yes even faster, with less effort.

Seventh: Gearing. It goes without question that the older one gets the more help one needs riding up hills or going fast. That little chain ring on front and big cog on back combination is called the Granny Gear for a good reason. Older riders tend to shy away from single speed bikes or bikes with a limited gear range.
Finally: Never overlook comfort. You can force yourself to ride a bike that doesn't fit you, one with handlebars or a saddle that's too low. You can ride with an ultra-lightweight seat that literally hurts if you don't get off it frequently or you can choose to make your bike more enjoyable. The choice is yours. Remember: The trails through the woods seem to go on forever. And, ideally, your enjoyment of them should too.

--By Bill Boles