Picture of cyclists going up a hill at the Gran Fondo eventLast summer, for the third year in a row, more than 4,000 people (mostly middle-aged men) pedaled their ultralight road bikes from downtown Vancouver to downtown Whistler, BC, a whopping 122 kilometers, uphill.   If anything, the Whistler Gran Fondo (Italian for “Big Ride”) is evidence that cycling is soaring in popularity and a sure cure for middle-aged mens’ need for speed, social contact and exercise. Group road riding is the fastest growing sport for men between 40 and 60, a groove where the economics of middle age maleness fits, almost perfectly, the tempo and limits of their middle-aged bodies.

Cycling’s accelerating popularity is easy to explain. Many men approaching their 40’s who were physically active in their youth, playing soccer or hockey, running marathons, and after kids, start developing nagging joint or other musculoskeletal problems. But they still have their mojo to want to run with the pack. They just need a new pack. It helps, as well, that by the time the body is wearing down, and the kids are growing up, there is a bit of extra cash in the wallet. This demographic doesn’t get too winded by plunking down $4000 or so for a decent carbon fibre bike, a cycling computer to collect, store and post personal cycling ‘data’ and a closet full of tight, ridiculously coloured cycling apparel.

But if you think high speed cycling and colourful lycra is harmless, we middle-aged men need to ask one question: Are we ready for the urodynamic changes which await us?

An innocent question, right?

We’ve all heard rumours of rampant impotence spreading through the peloton like a nasty virus, but are the side effects of this sport that hazardous to our nether regions?  According to a very reliable source of information (the pharmaceutical industry) 40% of men in our demographic suffer from low testosterone, 25% of us from premature ejaculation and 12% from erectile dysfunction, so being perched on bikes for hours on end, attacking hills with our buddies, may only be adding to our toll of ‘urowoes’.

All the sitting is actually a godsend (made easier by a featherweight $150 seat that cradles your prostate like a baby in a hammock) because compared to the pounding of feet on pavement, pushing pedals is relatively forgiving on the hips, knees and Achilles Heels that are slowly breaking down.

You might intuit that Newton’s 3rd law must have a say in all this, where the ‘action’ of pedaling for hours on end can create a new batch of ‘reactions’, including prostatitis, hemorrhoids, urinary leakage, and saddle sores. But you’d be wrong. In fact, according to some studies “bicycle riding as exercise or hobby has no negative effect on LUTS (lower urinary tract symptoms) and erectile function in healthy men.”

Let me point out the operative words in this study are “exercise or hobby,” because different effects are seen if you studied “bicycle riding as obsession.” Research has shown the overly fixated will tend to see more adverse effects in their personal relationships and their gluteal regions, especially near the buttock cheek that holds the wallet.

Relationships may suffer when men spend precious weekend hours on crazily long rides, and the mandatory post-ride caffeinated debriefings. Then there’s the whining, where the most common complaint is around how heavy the bike is. The cyclist’s obsessive search for feather-weight cycling components can present itself as both pathological and expensive because nothing on God’s green planet is more important to the middle-aged man new to road cycling than spending money to get bike parts so light the bike floats up the mountains by itself.

By way of example let’s take the German-engineered, Edelhelfer (which means “Precious Helper”) an uber-lightweight water bottle cage. A mere 18 grams, this little bit of cycling slickness is one of the lightest water-bottle cages in the world, mirroring the carbon-fibre lightness of an embarrassingly expensive wheel.

And the price? Well, let’s not quibble but weighing in at around 65€, (about $95 Canadian) the Edelhelfer may save you at least 21 grams off a plastic bottle holder that costs $5. (Note: Don’t tell the wife 20 paper clips weigh about 20 grams).

Are these things worth it? Well, that’s for the man and his new obsession to decide. Paying all that money for super-light bike parts may not make you lighter or faster. But we all know how good it feels to be trying to do what we can, even if it only makes your wallet that much lighter.

Happy riding.

by Alan Cassels, a pharmaceutical policy researcher in Victoria who has just turned 50, has ridden the Whistler Gran Fondo twice and is currently saving for an Edelhelfer.