Technical FAQ: How cyclists can keep on rolling as they age

Lennard reflects on the injuries he has dealt with over the years and what he might have done to avoid or reduce risk.

Dear Lennard,
In reading your post on seats and reflecting on your tech reporting as of late, it seems to reflect the surprising fact that you’ve aged. This is fine by me, as I’ve run out of fingers and toes to keep track of my age. This thought made me want to ask: What would you have done differently that might have improved your ride experience as you aged? Or more generally, looking back do you think there are habits among younger riders that cause injuries/issues later in life that could be avoided without loss of youthful performance? For instance, extreme difference between high seat height and bar slammed down. Does this actually improve performance but is a young rider’s game and an old man’s sore neck?
— Jeff

Dear Jeff,
That’s a very interesting question, and it wasn’t until I started thinking about it that I realized I’ve been writing for VeloNews almost half of my life! I am now 60, and when I started at VeloNews in 1989, I was 31; I’m coming up on my 30th anniversary with VeloNews! Some things do come to mind that I think would have changed my current physical issues if I were to get a do-over while pursuing the same goals.

First, the chronic injuries I have lived with, most of them for decades, are:

  1. Heart arrhythmia; this appeared five years ago. In doing the research for “The Haywire Heart,” I have come to look at this as an overuse injury.
  2. Degenerative low back disease — complete loss of disc space between many of the vertebra in my low back first diagnosed over 20 years ago. Some medical professionals I have been working with on my current chronic high hamstring injury believe that the source of it may be pinched nerves in my low back.
  3. Chronic left shoulder problems for over a decade — ruptured long head of the biceps tendon, dislocation, rotator cuff tears resulting in two recent surgeries to repair those tears.
  4. Left elbow tendinitis — medial epicondylitis (“golfer’s elbow”) for over 20 years.
  5. “Morton’s neuroma” in between the joints of the metatarsals in my feet for over 20 years.
  6. The one most limiting my “ride experience” is my heart, which I would reduce the stress on if I could go back and do it over again. I see this from two sides — emotional stress as well as physical stress.

On the physical side, I think I could have reduced the injury to my heart by prioritizing rest and reducing total training volume while being more judicious with intensity training. I also would have spent more time relaxing and less time preparing multiple bikes, multiple wheels and tires, and, in the case of cross-country ski racing, multiple pairs of skis with a ridiculous number of layers of wax interspersed with fastidious scraping and brushing on each. I think my heart would have experienced less total stress (and my results may have improved) if I had instead rested rather than prepping equipment late into the night before races.

As for emotional stress, maintaining a more laissez-faire attitude toward race results would have served me well my entire life. I tended to place too much importance on them (I made poor results mean something negative about me), which I think increased the stress on my heart. It also drove the crazy amount of bike preparation and ski preparation in anticipation of and schlepping of equipment to races. Early arrival and calm warmup the morning of cyclocross and cross-country-ski races instead of the rushing around loading and unloading equipment from vehicles and trying different tires or skis on the course would have better served my heart. And accepting the occasional race where I didn’t have the ideal tires or tire pressure or hadn’t selected the ideal skis and prepped them with the ideal wax would also have been good for my heart.

I believe the discs in my low back would be healthier now if I hadn’t injured them repeatedly alpine ski racing and hard mogul skiing and then exacerbated it by sitting too much and not having enough regular movement, particularly rotational movement, of my spine. I think the following things would have reduced my current symptoms:

  1. Less high-speed bump skiing and less back bend while doing it.
  2. More awareness of sitting posture (I discovered too late sitting on this inflatable pad with proper ergonomic keyboard and screen setup.
  3. Limited duration of sitting (getting up more; using a standing desk).
  4. Consistent overall-body and core-strength conditioning starting in my teens without the hiatus I took from kayaking (it rotates the spine as well as works the core) between ages 20 and 45.

As for a slammed stem in my youth affecting me long-term, I’m not sure. I do believe overly short top tubes for my long body caused a curve in my back while riding that was not healthy, but once I started making my own frames at age 24, that was no longer an issue. My chronically stiff back always felt better after getting on the bike and also when coming off of the bike, except after exceptionally long or hard rides.

Until age 30 or so, the drop from the top of my saddle to top of my handlebar tended to be around 10 inches (250mm). As I have aged, that differential has reduced, and as my back has shortened due to flattened discs, my top tube length has also shortened. The canary in the coal mine was generally my shoulders; as I got older, these things seemed to cause me more shoulder pain than neck or back pain.

As for the second part to your question about potential performance improvement or not with the slammed stem — I think we generally understand now that a narrower hand position does more to reduce aerodynamic drag than does a lower hand position. I think that many racers leave climbing performance on the table with too low of a handlebar, and that may also haunt them later in life.

The narrow descending tuck position that I used in my 20s and 30s and can no longer sit in due to neck pain is not really affecting me now due to changes in bike design. By the time I could no longer tuck with my chin on the bar and my butt on the saddle, my bikes had sloping top tubes, and I could descend sitting on the top tube with my chest on the stem. The “Sagan position” does not hurt my neck and is as fast as either “Nibali position.” Otherwise, my neck doesn’t bother me riding, so I’m not regretting years of low handlebars.

The shoulder issues first started from too much reach and drop to the handlebar as my low back stiffened and shortened, combined with overuse injuries from cross-country skiing. These resulted in spontaneous rupture of my biceps tendon while riding my bike up a steep canyon. Resulting instability in the joint increased damage during bike and ski crashes — one that dislocated it and others that tore rotator-cuff tendons. Keys would have been treating positioning and overuse issues earlier and reducing crashes with less emphasis on race results mentioned above. I think crashing often can be avoided with a more long-term perspective on life and what’s important, something often lacking in one’s youth. Fewer crashes definitely can result in an improved ride experience in later life.

Elbow injury — knowing what I know now, I would not have created that overuse (offseason cross-country ski training) in the first place.

Neuroma in feet — not understanding my foot type, shape and biomechanics led to this. Orthotics with metatarsal- and medial-arch support, cycling shoes and ski boots wider in the forefoot, and a more rearward cycling-cleat position treats this and may have prevented it.

The good news is that, due to sciatica pain, the disc problems in my low back kept me from running, bump skiing, and heavily-loaded backpacking for the past 38 years and steered me toward non-impact sports. I think that my knees, hips, and ankles have no chronic problems, thanks to a lifetime of cycling, cross-country skiing, rafting, and kayaking to the near exclusion of other sports.
― Lennard