Suffer-age: elite women who’ve improved with age
August 10, 2016, Kristin Armstrong wins the Olympic gold medal for the women’s individual time-trial. September 10, 2016, Sarah Hammond wins the inaugural Race to the Rock endurance event from Adelaide to Uluru in the Northern Territory, Australia.
October 11, 2016, Amber Neben wins her second World Championships in the individual time-trial.
Each of these women has her own story of success and struggle. Each is an exceptional athlete capable of pushing physical and mental boundaries past the breaking point.
And each is over the age of 40.
Former US national champion Inga Thompson, who retired in her early thirties, certainly believes in women’s ability to be competitive for longer.
“I would have liked to have raced another five years at least,” she says. “I felt I had finally reached my potential when I was about 29.
“I’d broken through my own barrier and that was in 1992. But then bike racing is bike racing. At the time I think maybe they wanted younger riders.
“But then again, I think riders like Longo and Kristin Armstrong blew that apart. Women only get better in their 30s. We just get stronger.”
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One thing holding women back from wanting to become professional athletes – especially cyclists – is the low pay scale. Love it or not, to do anything professionally you really have to be paid for the work.
But the definition is not so cut and dry for women cyclists since so many of them are forced to work an outside job alongside their racing.
“My family owns a business that’s a restaurant, so I felt compelled to go back and help out,” says Laura Van Gilder, an American racer with a palmarès of wins stretching back to 1992.
Unfortunately, the issue of a fair wage still rankles and bedevils most women who want to commit to competing professionally full time.
“That’s another thing that makes it so difficult for women, if they are set to peak in their late 30s, but it’s tough unless they’ve been in the sport since they were younger and they have a base or whatever financial means to get by,” says Leah Thorvilson (pictured at top of story) from Canyon-Sram.
“But at 35, 40… you know, I don’t want to move back in with my parents, it’s just not going to happen. That’s why unfortunately, if you haven’t been brought up in the sport, getting into it at a professional level at an older age is harder because there is just not the financial backing.”
Zwiftly Does It
Thorvilson landed her place on the Canyon-Sram team at 37 after winning a competition on Zwift. The average age of the women competitors in the Zwift Acacemy was 38 and all three of the finalists were 37 or over.
Kate Veronneau, Women’s Strategy Manager at Zwift and a former professional racer herself, has some hard numbers to support the notion that women keep excelling well into their 30s.
“I was not that surprised at the age demographic that we saw competing,” she says.
“It’s true that if you are 23, and chasing the goal of a pro contract, you’re probably riding outside all the time.”
“But looking at the ages of our top 40 finishers, six or seven were in their twenties, and the rest were 30-plus. In general we did notice that 35 to 45 was probably our strongest demographic.”
This is a trend that the trainers at Trainsharp, the coaching group that helped Zwift sift through the Academy data, can back up.
“I wouldn’t want to generalise based on the Zwift Academy alone. However, it was the case that the best cyclists, physiologically, were over 35 years of age,” trainer Elliot Lipski confirmed.
Veronneau can also speak from personal experience: “I’ll tell you that I’m 39, I just turned 39 and I’m as fast as I ever was. I haven’t raced in a handful of years but I can get away with less training, and basically I’m doing more efficient training too. There is something about life miles.”
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According to team DS Beth Duryea, age had not been a factor in the selection of Thorvilson as the eventual graduate from Zwift Academy to Canyon-Sram.
“Leah’s age didn’t figure into the decision. One thing we really liked in Leah – and actually it was the case for all three finalists – is that you had a woman who had already chosen a career path, and a certain path for her current lifestyle,” she explains.
“She was willing to give it up for the life of a professional cyclist. It’s inspirational that someone is willing to take that leap, and that, along with Leah’s personality and physical talent, was something that we were proud and excited to bring into our team.”
Even if Thorvilson is relatively new to cycling, she had been a long distance runner and dreamed of going to the Olympics to represent the United States.
Injury forced her to refocus on the bike, initially as a sport to help keep her fitness up, and then as a way to re-engage with her competitive side.
“I didn’t need any help getting up in the morning. What Zwift helped me with is that transition from thinking I am just getting on the bike to get my heart rate up, to now where I’m getting up, I have specific workouts to do, and it becomes a different motivation. Suddenly it’s like I’m getting my competitive edge back.”
And though a gifted athlete in multiple disciplines, Thorvilson certainly never expected to win the competition, partly because of her age, but also out of modesty.
“I never discussed my age with the people who organised the competition, but I know I discussed it with some of the other participants because I think a lot of us who were our age didn’t expect to be among the selection,” Thorvilson confided.
An aged question
When does anecdotal evidence become science, though? With increased numbers. We can point to Beryl Burton breaking records well into her forties, Jeannie Longo winning French national championships into her fifties, Inga Thompson in her fifties running a tight cattle ranch all alone, Leah Thorvilson getting her first pro contract at 37 or Trixi Worrack winning the German time-trial championships at 34, just months after losing a kidney.
But is there any real evidence that women excel later in life relative to men? Armed with my loaded question, I asked the coaches at the UK-based Train Sharp whether their numbers reinforce this evidence of experience.
“Historically, it has been suggested that greater decreases are seen amongst female athletes compared to males,” Lipski explains. “However, traditionally, smaller numbers of female cyclists compete, and certainly studies are limited, in the older groups versus male ‘masters’ athletes. This has already changed in recent years and I expect that more recent studies will prove the opposite of the observations shown previously.”
Whether we are talking about Sarah Hammond, Kathrine Switzer, Trixi Worrack, Kristin Armstrong, Amber Neben or any of the other women succeeding against the odds at a time in life when Hollywood would officially declare the bloom has worn off, this information can help inspire all of us of any age to recognise that we shouldn’t allow social norms hold us back from anything.
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Personally I’m 39 years old, and I drink wine. Frequently. So it’s difficult for me to tell how I would match up with my much more disciplined 29-year-old self.
Luckily, no one is asking me to. But what I’ve realised is there is no need to give up hope. The French believe that women bloom only in their forties, and looking at some of the most successful modern sportswomen bears witness to this adage.
Approaching my forties, my snap is probably a bit soggier. I climb sitting down now, not so much out of the saddle. I haven’t tried sprinting in years, but I can churn the pedals for hours, and my recovery after a climbing effort has recently started to amaze me, it can be so fast. I started racing when I was ten, and have several decades of serious riding under my belt.
Here’s to at least 40 more years.
This article is an extract from Rouleur 17.5
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