Written for In the Bunch
They say a professional cyclist only has eight years to make hay.
This piece of wisdom I learnt when Sean Kelly’s bid for a Tour de France title fell apart halfway through the 1987 race when he crashed and broke his collarbone.
The television commentator alluded to the fact that, at age 31, the Irishman’s time was running out.
Kelly seemed to be painfully aware of it as well as the footage showed him burying his tearful face in his manager’s chest.
There seems to be consensus, backed by some wishy-washy stats, that the magic years span from ages 25 to 32 – give or take one or two for the freaks of the sport.
And this would possibly explain why the Grand Tours have a “best young rider” category for those aged under 25.
Years ago I read a thought-provoking article by a medical expert that basically stated that it wasn’t until 24 that the human body was ready for the perils of endurance sports.
The author went into details such as the maturity of tendons and so forth, much of which went straight over my head.
A different feature broke it down even further, citing one-day Classics of that era as examples. All the winners from the sample group were aged 28 to 32.
A quick Google search will tell you that Alberto Contador, aged 24 in 2008, became the youngest winner of Le Tour since Jan Ullrich, who turned 24 shortly after his victory in 1997.
Also in the “freaks” category are five-time winners Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, both of whom won the Tour for the first time at 24. Merckx’s fifth came at 29 and Hinault’s at 32.
Triple winner Greg LeMond had just turned 25 when he had his breakthrough victory and was 29 when he wore his final yellow jersey.
Miguel Indurain won the first of his fistful at 27 and had his final hurrah at 31. Lance Armstrong did it from 27 to 33.
The ages of several once-off Tour winners during my era make for interesting reading: Stephen Roche (28), Pedro Delgado (28), Bjarne Riis (32) and Marco Pantani (28).
Floyd Landis would’ve been 30 going on 31 had he not been caught out, giving Sastre a look in at the advanced age of 33.
Cadel Evans made history when, at 34, he became the oldest post World War II winner in July.
So, basically, ever since I saw Kelly retire from the Tour, I had this uneasy feeling that life would be different and downhill from 33.
It therefore didn’t come as much of a surprise when my metabolism started slowing down almost the very minute that I reached the unmentionable age. I know this for a fact, because I never woke up hungry again.
There were other telltale signs too: the battle of the bulge was one and wrinkles that seemingly appeared overnight on my forehead another.
When I hired one of my staffers a while back, she was already toeing the line I had crossed several years ago. I told her of my theory and she laughed it off as fiction.
The conversation was repeated several times over the following months and, as everything else, it became a standing office joke.
Only time would tell, I told her, stirring the pot as much and as often as I could. She agreed, but, of course, we expected different outcomes.
She turned 33 on a Sunday and my birthday message wished her all the best as she set off on this second, significant part of the journey called life.
The following day at the office she was rather quiet and possibly even pale.
By lunchtime she accepted defeat and picked up the phone to schedule an appointment with her chiropractor. I heard something about excruciating back pain.
The decline had obviously started and I was ready to cash in.
Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose PR company focuses on sports communications. E-mail him at email@example.com, visit www.inthebunch.co.za or follow him on twitter (fullstop).
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