Words Adele Mitchell Photography Paul Mitchell
‘Who are all those men?’
It’s a Friday morning in the Surrey Hills – a time of the week when we usually have the trails pretty much to ourselves – and I’m with my ride buddy Rachel (no, not that Rachel). We’ve paused at a fork in the trail and approaching us, at a steady pace, is a group of around 20 riders. By the time they reach us it’s apparent that most of them are well over 60: a veritable Dad’s Army of mountain bikers.
They stop and we exchange pleasantries – in fact they even invite us to join them. We decline, of course, after all, Rachel and I are rootin’-tootin’ cowgirls of the trails (in our heads, at least) – what fun could there be in trotting along besides a bunch of pensioners?
But my journalist’s curiosity soon gets the better of me. Who are all these people? How had they got into mountain biking? And what do they get out of it? So I get in touch with the ride leader and, a few weeks later, join them for a ride.
First thing I learn: retirement clearly has its advantages – despite it being a Tuesday morning, some 30 riders, men and women, aged between mid 50s and 80, turn up with their bikes.
‘That’s a fancy machine,” comments one of the ride leaders as I unload my bike from the back of my car. I’d already quietly suspected that the carbon trail bike I ride may be a little excessive for this outing. I’d also quietly wondered if a saddlebag full of Werther’s Originals would be more appropriate than a pneumatic dropper post, if I should I pack a jumper in case I got cold, and if I had enough cash for what would surely be multiple coffee stops, possibly at garden centres.
Before long we set off at the aforementioned steady pace.
I chat with 70-year-old Jean, who has pink hair and likes ballroom dancing, as we climb to the top of the Downs. Everything is distinctly pleasant, so far. But before long the ride leader stops to warn us that we were heading for a long, technical descent – I notice that not many people opt to take the alternative, easier route. “You’ll be glad of that dropper post now,” someone says to me with a wry smile. I am beginning to sense that there is more to this group than meets the eye.
Worryingly, most of the group decide to descend behind me: I suspect this has more to do with my potential entertainment value than my perceived skills, and as I ride the rumble of wheels that are right on my tail pushes the pace.
Several – frankly testing – minutes later and we’re all spitting out of the trail’s rooty exit, like popping corn without the lid on. While I’m contemplating hugging my bike in gratitude for getting me down safely, everyone else is nonchalantly discussing where to go for coffee.
We ride on and the leader offers to introduce me to the tall rider ahead of me. “You might like to have a chat with John,” he says before casually adding, “he used to be a world BMX champion.”
It transpires that 71-year-old John, who still races but prefers cross-country and cyclocross these days, had been the 40+ age group BMX world champion not once, but twice – in 1986 and ’87 (search for ‘John Johns BMX’ on YouTube – I promise it is worth watching). I’m then introduced to Jane, his wife, who is also on the ride. Jane is 69 years old and rides most days – despite having a prosthetic leg.
Mountain biking may be a fairly new sport, but it turns out, of course, that many of this group have been riding for years – if not off-road, then commuting to work on a road bike or trials motorbike. Retirement has simply enabled them to do more riding, more often. No wonder they are so good at it.
Those who are newer to it have the benefit of learning from a group of extremely skilled, experienced riders. It’s a recipe for a very happy ride.
“Riding with this group makes getting old fun,” beams Izzy, a 64-year-old ex-nurse who is also a masters swimmer. It seems this statement is astutely accurate. In an excellent Ted Talk on what makes a good life, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger reports: “The people in our survey who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates… People who are socially connected are happier, healthier and live longer.”
I come away calculating how long it will be before I get to retire so that I can mountain bike every day with my mates, and also with an utmost respect for the pioneering spirit that this group bring to the trails. For these riders simply refuse to be restricted by age: instead they have committed to friendship and fun, to using their full potential, living in the moment and defying what society says they should be doing.
Long may they continue.
Name: John Johns
Bike: Scott Scale 27.5in
Name: David Potter
Bike: Marin Quro XC 26in (from the bike shop – his usual Canyon HT was in for repair)
Name: Toby Seville
Bike: Specialized Enduro 26in
Name: Gwyn Williams
Bike: Kinesis Sync 27.5in
Name: Tony Millership
Bike: Canyon Nerve XC 26in
Name: Jane Johns
Bike: Lapierre X-Control 27.5in (two – one for wet, one for dry)
Name: David Moxon
Bike: Norco Revolver 2 29in
Name: Steve Carpenter
Bike: Evil The Following 29in