Robert Marchand

Last December, a French cyclist, Robert Marchand, created a new cycling record, the fastest hour for a cyclist over 105 years old. He cycled 22.547 km, or 14 miles in an hour. His feat was fairly widely reported (here is the Guardian report https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/04/105-year-old-man-sets-record-cycling-14-miles-hour-robert-marchand and here is the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38510439).  The record is for the furthest distance that a cyclist can travel in an hour on an indoor track.

This accomplishment isn’t another weird Guinness Book of Records achievement. Rather, it’s an age-stratified variation of the record that Bradley Wiggins currently holds and that Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman fought over in the 1990’s. Wiggins rode more than twice as far as Robert Marchand, but at roughly one third his age.

Marchand’s accomplishment isn’t just an inspiration for those of us determined not to go gracefully into old age. He was supported by a training programme that offers hints for disgraceful old gits. After he created the record for cyclists over 100 years old, he was contacted by a team of French physiologists led by Véronique Billat at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in France. She asked if he would like to train toward a new record, and he agreed. Their paper has been published in the Journal of Applied Physiology[1]. The New York Times published a good summary (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/well/move/lessons-on-aging-well-from-a-105-year-old-cyclist.html), but I’d like to look at bits that are particularly interesting for cyclists.

The physio’s basic unit of measurement in challenging Marchand to go further was the “Rating of Perceived Effort” (RPE). This is a self-reporting scale of how hard an athlete is working. The scale is from 6 to 20, with 6 being “no effort at all,” 9 being “very light effort,” up to 20, “maximal exertion.” (There’s more information about this scale at the Center for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/exertion.htm) This is a scale that works well for areas that aren’t well understood; Wiggins’s effort is easy to understand: did he cycle further than the previous holder of the hour record? But how hard you or I or an amazing 105 year old cyclist are riding is harder to figure out (unless you are a competitive cyclist—not me!). According to the CDC, RPE provides a pretty good measure of heart rate during an activity.

Essentially, Billat and colleagues asked Marchand to increase his effort from 12, “light” effort, to 15, “hard,” every other week for two years before trying for a new record at age 103 in 2014. In their estimate, this worked out to 80% equal or less than 12 RPE and 20% equal or greater than 15 RPE for the 5000 km (more than 3000 miles) he cycled per year. (That’s an impressive distance in itself, it seems to me.) They didn’t monitor heart rate, speed or power.

RPE is interesting for an aging cyclist; essentially, it asks us to listen to our bodies. In that way, it’s very low tech. Instead of power meters or even heart rate monitors, it simply asks how hard are you working. This could change during a ride, so less hard on the flats, harder perhaps at the end even if speed or power remained unchanged.

There was another measure of Marchand’s cycling, in addition to RPE, though. Billat and her team asked Marchand to increase his cadence from 60 rpm to 90 rpm. This was only for the 20% of his training at the higher rating of perceived effort. In the trial, he rode a fixed gear bike with a 49 tooth chainring and a 16 tooth cassette. His training focused on increasing his cadence, and this led to an increase of power output and VO2MAX, the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. Cadence is a simple metric that’s easy to measure.

Billat and her colleagues felt they had confirmed that it’s possible to improve performance after 100. It must have been a lot of fun to be there. In the formal words of the published article, “During exercise, the subject [Marchand] was given strong verbal encouragement to exercise to volitional fatigue”; in other words, the physios cheered him on (there are eight co-authors for the paper). This seems to chime with a mention in the NY Times article that he has a strong social network. People help.

Robert-Marchand-105-years-old-cyclist-750806Now, I should point out that he did less well setting the >105 record than he did at 103, in the trial that Billat measured. There were a variety of reasons suggested for his somewhat poorer performance (roughly 14 miles, rather than 17 earlier). He said that he missed a sign telling him he was near the end, and so didn’t push as hard as he might have. The New York Times report says he follows a simple diet, focusing on yogurt, soup, cheese, chicken and a glass of red wine at dinner. in Ihe Guardian article, Billat said that he had given up meat before the >105 trial because of reports of animal cruelty, and that reduced his performance. Whatever the cause, it remains an impressive record, though Robert Marchand was disappointed and wants to try again at 106.

[1] Billat, V. L., Dhonneur, G., Mille-Hamard, L., Le Moyec, L., Momken, I., Launay, T., et al. (2016). Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist. Journal of Applied Physiology.

 

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