Words & Images: Mitchell Belacone
Three or four times a week I ride my bike down to Circuito KDT to train on its car-free track. KDT consists of a 1.3 kilometre oval cycle route, a velodrome and a home-cooking style restaurant that I equate to a ski lodge for cyclists. There is also a bike storage garage with a skilled mechanic. It is on Salguero between the Alcorta shopping mall and the river drive. I get there almost exclusively by bike lanes.
During my five kilometre journey to KDT I typically share the bicycle lanes with: a motorcyclist whose helmet is dangling from his elbow; a twenty-something hipster pedalling with a leash attached to his bike at one end and a Dachshund’s neck at the other; a chatty couple pedalling side by side in the opposite direction and taking up both lanes; at least one ‘look ma no hands’ genius passing head-on at twenty kilometres per hour; a few people choosing to walk on the bike path, seemingly oblivious to the idea behind the little painted bicycles on the ground; and two or three cyclists speaking on the telephone, or forced to text because they have DJ-sized headphones on. Viewing a sexting would not be as big a surprise as you might think it should be. They all share in common a disdain for the helmet, excepting the aforementioned motorcyclist’s elbow.
This path still beats letting one of the million maniacal drivers meld me into the pavement outside the so-called protected area that is the bike lane. The insanity ends when I reach into my jersey pocket and pull out the 10-peso entrance fee and say ‘Hola amigos’ to the friendly and familiar faces inside the gatehouse. I enjoy the ritual of reaching down to tighten my cycling shoes and turning on my gazillion-function cycle computer. The device and conversation with the other cyclists help divert my attention from the repetitive and none-too-special scenery of the course. KDT, being less than a kilometre from the river, is windier than farther inland, so riding in a peloton is even more advantageous. Even without a breeze a cyclist going thirty-three kilometres per hour is creating and bucking a thirty-three-kilometre-per-hour headwind. The rider behind him (drafting) is doing between thirty and forty percent less work. Typically riders of equal ability will share the workload by rotating on and off the front. Often the younger and stronger riders will be happy to stay up front and do the ‘pulling’. My group seeks them out. We all like the feeling of going fast.
Argentina has a strong group of older cyclists called masters. Maybe it is the Italian bloodlines. Many have been riding and racing all their lives. At fifty-nine I am the second youngest in an informal group of around twenty-five friends. The majority of the riders are well into their seventies and four are over eighty. Most are retired or people that make their own work schedules, so we meet down there around noon. I have been training on racing bikes fairly consistently since I was fifteen. If I miss more than two weeks I struggle to keep up with this group. I’m always curious about their ages. Fortunately they usually ask me mine first. Likely some are interested, but I get the impression that more often their real motivation is to watch the shock spread across my face when they tell me theirs. They have every right to be proud. It has nothing to do with being patronising: I typically guess they are ten years younger than they actually are. It’s not only the lack of pudge, but also the way they move and act, on as well as off the bike. There is no weakness in their voices when they speak. At lunch they move around in their seats and gesture like college kids trying to make their points. They walk with the gait and posture of people twenty years younger.
In warmer weather, attractive women often sunbathe on a certain grassy portion of the infield. When my eyeballs are not otherwise occupied, I notice a few of our group leering there each and every lap. I think it’s less a case of nostalgia and more the result of superior circulation. Many have resting heart rates in the fifties and low sixties, more common to athletes in their twenties. They relish relaying their doctor’s classification of them as one in a million or freaks of nature.
There is an addictive quality to the audible hum and gentle vibration produced from chains driven by pedals whirling at ninety revolutions per minute, pushing us through the air in unison. We all share that need for self-produced speed. These elder statesmen’s addiction to endorphins is no less pronounced than in younger athletes, if not more so. Unless there is a crash, which is extremely rare for this experienced group, and as long as you are properly fitted on the bike, injuries are almost non-existent. Regardless, everyone in our group wears a helmet.
Rubén is eighty. He rides with a titanium hip. You could not meet a happier person spinning around with the pack. Two years ago, in the slow lane, a young distracted triathlete ran into his rear wheel and knocked him off his bike and onto his fake hip. It was clearly the triathlete’s fault. Rubén was in the hospital for a year, half of that time fighting for his life because of infections. One day I saw someone else riding his bicycle and feared the worst. I asked around and was told that in fact that was his old bike. He was still alive but had sold the bike because he was homebound. That was then. Now go there on any given Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday and you will see him on his new bike with an even bigger smile on his face.
‘El Uruguayo’, also known as ‘El Gato’, is eighty, yet has the spirit and friendliness of a teenager. His bike and equipment date to a past generation but he still keeps up with everybody without sweating too much into his faded wool jersey. I ride one of the latest high-tech ‘Ferraris’ of bikes and I often wear out before he does. I asked him why this is. He told me, “Because I never stopped.”
Still another friend, Enrique, is eighty. He raced bikes from fifteen to twenty-four. He did stop, because he had to concentrate on work and then tennis became his leisure sport until he got aced by his knees. I had trouble keeping up with him the other week. Knowing his age, I diagnosed my struggle at that moment of incredulity as not enough air in my tyres, not enough oil on my chain and to a heart problem that must have just arisen. Five years ago his wife of forty-nine years died and he found riding a better alternative to staying home. Much heartache can be abated by riding two hours with friends at seventy to eighty percent of your max pulse. Don’t go down there looking for Enrique the next three Tuesdays because he will be in Spain with his new wife, following the Vuelta a España.
I hesitate to mention Alfonso only because he is seventy-nine and stronger than me. I average fifty kilometres a training session compared to his seventy. When we are riding side by side I’ll often look over and spy his heart monitor. When his is showing one hundred, mine is typically at a less efficient one hundred and fifteen for the same workload. Alfonso is the owner of an elevator repair company so I assume he is good at recalibrating electronic devices to his liking. How much different can a heart monitor be from an elevator control panel? Forgive my imagination, but I need something to explain away the painful discrepancy.
Carlos is a softly-spoken retired economist. He stands 6’3” and is the smoothest pedaller there. Call him economy in motion with no sign of retirement on that account. Carlos’s posture has not bowed one degree to eighty years of battling gravity. One session I asked him if he wanted to practice leading each other out in sprints. It agitated him and he declined in a firm tone. I then realized he understands his body very well and is all about protecting its engine. He would not want to risk his ticket to health and happiness for a momentary thrill as I was asking him to do. That being said, he often tucks in behind my wheel when I jump onto the fastest peloton. I can’t remember him ever letting go of it, even at speeds of forty kilometres per hour.
My first friend there was an eighty-two-year-old, also named Rubén. Before the bike lanes existed, I used to keep my bike in KDT’s garage. I would take a taxi there and sync my riding time with Rueben’s so I could take his cab back home. After two hours of riding, it amazed me how silently and cat-like he jumped in his cab. It encouraged me to bury the grunts and groans that I let out for that task. He was just as quick to jump out of the car, large-cat-like and not so silently, when challenged by aggressive drivers. Rueben smoked cigarettes until his fifties and the competition late into his seventies. Racers are often limited by their VO2 max (ability to consume oxygen under stress). Rubén was not limited by his lungs for the simple fact that he did not have lungs, he had a lung. I liked him a lot even if it annoyed me that he was as strong as me with just the one. Rubén had a relapse of his cancer and half of the remaining lung was removed. A few months later he was back, not as strong but no pussy cat either. As I know the excitement of being in a bike race I don’t feel sorry for him, just admiration for the thrilling life he had made for himself.
Francisco trains on a track bike (fixed gear) with only one handbrake, which he also uses to commute. Francisco is one of the most fascinating to watch because he is approaching eighty and can still keep up with the group at thirty-five to forty kilometres per hour on his jalopy. He is not usually the first to drop off. Francisco was gone for a few months. One evening as I was having dinner in Las Cañitas I saw him with his arm in a sling. He was working as a trapito, car parking guide and protector for tips. I went over and we spoke. He assured me he would come back from his crash and he did, a month later. Now I have not seen him for a few months again but I would be surprised if he did not return.
These people are not the exception. They are the norm for this clique. There are also many other people their age that just cruise around in leisurely fashion, clearly very happy to be doing so. This group proves that the Great Cyclist in the Sky is open to my athletic input and thus might be somewhat flexible deciding the final day of my ‘Vuelta de Earth’. You don’t necessarily have to get old at any appointed time. If not for these forever-young inspirational friends I likely would not have gotten married at age fifty-nine, and for the first time, this year. Please give me a couple of years before I decide whether to thank them or cut their brake cables.
This feature appeared in Conquista 22. It was first published in Mitchell Belacone’s 2019 collection Bud’s Nose: And Other Less Canine Stories.