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Physiology: Tafi’s Roubaix plan might not be as impossible as it seems

At 53, Tafi may not have lost as much horsepower as you think. We take a closer look at the physiological changes that take place as we age.

Andrea Tafi wants to race Paris-Roubaix on the 20th anniversary of his victory in 1999. Okay, but could he actually survive the effort, or would he be dropped 1km into the race? What physiological challenge does he face as a 53-year-old athlete?

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to place Andrea Tafi in a laboratory for a thorough and public battery of physiological tests. Such assessments could show us how Tafi’s engine might perform, and whether he would be capable of withstanding the stresses dished out by the WorldTour peloton. Still, by analyzing some of the basic tenets of physiology — and looking at the declines faced by all aging athletes — we can decipher some of the performance-related challenges Tafi would face in his very public quest.

Before we continue, a caveat: We focused on the overall state of Tafi’s physiological engine and did not take into account factors like technical skills, his comfort in a fast-moving pro peloton, and other racing-related elements.

For a long time, there were thought to be three big performance-related changes with age: decreasing aerobic capacity (VO2max), increasing body fat, and shrinking muscles, as detailed in “Fast After 50,” by renowned coach Joe Friel. In the past five years, however, new research suggests those declines in aerobic capacity, specifically, aren’t as big as they were once thought to be.

But don’t get any ideas, masters racers. Tafi’s aging body still faces other factors that make his challenge daunting. Experts agree Tafi’s age would likely keep him from the front of the Paris-Roubaix peloton, but not necessarily because he lacks the raw horsepower — it may just be that his engine isn’t tuned the way it once was.

Let’s take a closer look.

Aerobic animal

Until recently, research indicated that the most likely culprit for performance declines in aging athletes was a loss of aerobic capacity. Findings suggested that an older athlete simply wasn’t capable of delivering oxygen to working muscles or using it as effectively as a younger athlete.

According to our in-house coach and physiologist Trevor Connor, new research on aging and physiology has changed this opinion. The old research made the age-effect look much worse than it actually is.

“From a pure physiological standpoint, actually if done right you can be very competitive at 50,” Connor says. “Maybe you can’t be as fast as you were at 30, but it’s not as big of a decline as you think.”

In fact, some of the research suggests that athletes could see improvements in their aerobic engines into their 60s. Racers in their 50s can actually be stronger aerobically than racers in their 20s.

So why aren’t they as competitive? Aerobic capacity is only one component of a cyclist’s overall strength. Aging also causes major declines to one’s anaerobic power — that one-minute, all-out effort of pure strength — and the losses there are significant.

Research indicates that the composition of muscle tissue changes as we age: We lose fast-twitch muscle fibers — those involved in short, powerful bursts. Some research even suggests those fast-twitch fibers convert to become slow-twitch fibers, which would explain the improvement in the aerobic engine. The net result is an overall loss in big, powerful, short-term strength.

And there are other changes that occur in aging athletes: more fat, less muscle, generally speaking. These changes are largely due to enzymatic changes. Specifically, lipo-protein lipase (LPL) leads to an accumulation of adipose tissue — “love handles.” In younger men, testosterone keeps LPL from being very active and helps maintain body leanness. As we age, there’s less testosterone, and therefore LPL is less restricted. We gain weight. It’s natural.

That weight gain decreases performance. The formula for VO2max is the volume of oxygen per kilogram per minute. Because of the inverse relationship between aerobic capacity and weight, as body weight increases, VO2max decreases. Simple. Thus, it’s easy to understand that when an athlete puts on weight, as many do as they age, if all other things stay equal the muscles will need to work harder simply to maintain the same pace as they would at a lower weight.

In other words, VO2max drops with every kilo you add in body fat or muscle. This is more relevant when an athlete is facing a stronger gravitational pull, for example up a climb. On the pavé of northern France, this will be less relevant, but still a factor.

There is also research to suggest there can be a simultaneous decrease in muscle, known as sarcopenia. This begins around the age of 40, largely due to a decrease in testosterone production. There are other hormonal changes that are closely linked to muscle maintenance and development that also decline after 40, including growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor.

Something to consider, however, is that research suggests if we continue to use our muscles strenuously, we can reduce the losses until later into life. Use it or lose it, as they say. So, assuming Tafi has continued to train regularly since retiring, he may have almost as much muscle mass as he did 20 years ago. He better hope he does.

Lessons from legends

To discern a bit more about the challenge Tafi is up against, we can look to other athletes who’ve been able to remain strong into their 50s. There is no better example than the legendary Ned Overend, who was the first world champion of mountain biking in 1990. Overend was still winning pro races, including the Mount Washington Hill Climb in his 50s. Now in his 60s, Overend still rips with the local pros in Durango almost every week. He does so in large part because of an emphasis on recovery and staying healthy. He is an aerobic animal, able to compete with athletes of any age when it comes to the aerobic engine. It’s when things get spicy that he cannot compete.

In the following podcast, we discuss how Overend trains, how he stays “young,” and what has slowly changed over the years despite his best efforts.

So, what about Tafi? Once a world-class cyclist, winner of the 1999 Paris-Roubaix and the 2002 Tour of Flanders, does he have any chance of competing — or even completing — the 2019 Paris-Roubaix? After all, we’re talking about an exceptional athlete who was once at the pinnacle of the sport. What is possible now?

Coach Connor believes Tafi actually has a good shot at finishing Roubaix. Racing it to win? Not a chance.

“If there was any race you were going to do when you’re older, it would be Paris-Roubaix,” Connor says. “To a degree, it becomes a more individual race with everyone just trying to go his own pace, and less about the one- or two-minute climbs, the constant attacks — unless you’re in the lead group. If you’re in 60th place, it’s about putting your head down and going a good, steady pace, which is what old guys are good at.”

The issue becomes, of course, that without having raced at the WorldTour level in decades, Tafi will not be acclimated to race-intensity efforts, nor will his body be as well-equipped as it once was for the anaerobic demands of pro racing.

“I don’t care how much training he does, how fit he gets, he’s going to go there and all these younger guys are going to do huge attacks and there will be some tongue-hanging-out moments, and he’s just not going to be ready for it,” Connor says. “He’s just not used to it anymore.”

Anyone who has ever raced, and trained to race, knows that it is virtually impossible to replicate true race-intensity efforts in training. While there is no research to suggest why that is, it’s clear to anyone who has pinned on a number that the mental aspect of racing has a huge impact on performance. Racing takes us to another level — we can push harder, we have a different definition of what hard is, when inside the chaos of a peloton. In other words, what we think is hard is all relative, and flexible.

“Tafi is going to go into Paris-Roubaix without having experienced that intensity for a very long time,” Connor says. “As much as it is going to be a physical shock to the system, it’s going to be a mental shock to the system.”