Book Review: The MidLife Cyclist by Phil Cavell

Phil Cavell is a world-renowned bike fitter who, together with co-founder Julian Wall, runs Cyclefit in Covent Garden, London. On top of tens-of-thousands of bike fits, Cavell and Wall have consulted with Pro Tour race teams and Olympians. They did Fabian Cancellara’s fit when he was the fastest male rider on the planet. Cyclefit is also a nexus for cycling’s top physiotherapists, podiatrists, and physicians. Their professional web of experts is perhaps the largest in the cycling world. Phil’s voice will be new to American readers, but in his native England and throughout the European continent he’s a recognizable authority on everything you and I do on two wheels.

I have had the pleasure of knowing Phil for a bit over a decade. We collaborated on hundreds of custom bikes for Cyclefit clients, and during that time he shared volumes of experience with me. When he told me he was writing a book, I was eager to read it.

Having said all that, on the face of it, it’s a how-to book, and frankly I hate those. I don’t like to be told what to do, and I don’t like to have my passion distilled into carefully measured units and fed back to me in the sterile fashion most how-tos adopt.

If I didn’t know Phil, if we weren’t friends, if I didn’t know what a great story teller he is, I would have been very reticent about reading The MidLife Cyclist. I learned quickly though, t’s not really a how-to book, or at least not just a how-to. It’s also a how-not-to, complete with explanations of why we want to do it the wrong way and what a better way might look like. It’s more of a cook book really, giving you the ingredients you need to make the cycling life you want, whatever that looks like.

There’s a joke in the title, The MidLife Cyclist, which hints at the mid-life crisis, but in reality, the predations of time do create this sort of ontological crisis for the athletically inclined, because we are literally declining in our physical powers, so the book addresses that crisis, how to manage the decline in the best possible way, and this is Cavell’s raison d’etre, helping us get what we want, within our means, as long as we want it.

The book came out of Cavell’s experience, not just as a world-class bike fitter, but from his experience with a serious, long-term back injury that nearly took him off the bike permanently. He began writing during the convalescence from a second surgery, the one which has saved his riding life.

Phil with a guy name Jens Voigt at a team fitting session.

If you’ve read this far, let me tell you, before I get into the weeds, this is a brilliant book. I am a skeptical person, a cynic, but I can tell you honestly that The MidLife Cyclist changed my behavior on the bike (and off), and even improved my relationship with cycling (read: less burn out efforts, more fun). What I want after all is fun. I want health too, and I want longevity. I want to be able to do the things I enjoy doing as long as I possibly can.

The MidLife Cyclist taught me how to get those things with less pain, fewer injuries and most importantly, with a better attitude.

Cavell speaks to us in an empathetic voice, a voice that has shared our mistakes and bad habits, a very human voice. There is a lot of medical science to sift through, but Cavell makes it digestible, and there’s not so much that I felt overwhelmed by facts. The science is there to explain what we, as older riders, feel and to suggest other ways to get what we want.

Cavell in his racing days, Eastway, London, 1994

As an example, the revelation that serious amateurs (like me) typically do more high-intensity workouts than the pros is a brain breaker. And that whole ethos around working hard, all the time, no matter what, just sort of crumbles under the simple evidence that it doesn’t work, that what it produces is deeply embedded fatigue, injury, and demotivation.

I have that experience, and one of the things I’ve done since reading the book is dial myself back so I’m not at 11 all the time. Because the truth is, we amateurs do feel that hard work is the way forward, and I have trouble understanding why. Is it because we like the chemical result of hard work, the endorphins? Or is it because we’re wedded to the mistaken idea that more is always better? The answer: Yes.

The MidLife Cyclist‘s discussion of heart health was particularly timely for me. I had a serious dehydration experience about a month ago, literally while I was reading the chapter on heart conditions. Getting some depth of understanding about what might be going on in my chest helped me feel more at ease. It also motivated me to make a doctor’s appointment. Why worry, when you can get answers and move on with your life?

“Find out, and then move on,” Phil told me, later.

For me, there was a lot of good news in the book. I’m not just a cyclist. I do resistance training. I run regularly. And I couldn’t help but feel this didn’t need to be a book just for cyclists. Yes, there was a lot of bike-related content, but there is a running book here too, and a book for anyone who is trying to maximize their remaining time above ground. Are you middle-aged? Are you slower than you used to be, more tired? Read this book. It will help you.

To hear MUCH more about The MidLife Cyclist in the author’s own words, check out the upcoming Paceline Tandem interview I did with him in early August.

The MidLife Cyclist ($18, 275pp), is out August 20, 2021. It is available from Bloomsbury, widely purchasable on-line, as well as at your local book store.

Join the conversation
  1. khal spencer says

    Sounds like a good book, Robot and on your recommendation, I’ll strongly consider it.

    I had a good friend in Honolulu who burned himself out trying to peg the fun meter long into middle and old age. Apparently he succommed to an overstressed heart. As a retired Marine with combat experience in Vietnam and a life of pushing the personal and professional envelope, his idea of life was always to be 11 on the 0-10 scale. I suspect a lot of us are in that category. We need to scale back and realize that in our dotage, bicycling is supposed to be fun, not flogging.

    One of my grad school buddies, a retired sedimentology professor who retired to become a USCF national champion in his age group. recently retired from racing. Said it was time to ride for fun rather than to test himself. I suspect we all have to know when its time to make that transition and smell the roses rather than the sweat dripping down from our helmet as we chase that elusive idea of eternal youth and power. At nearly 68 laps around the sun, I guess I need to think about that too.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      @Khal – I have an appointment with my doctor today, just to confirm I’m not burning out the motor. Fun is job one, and I’ve heard heart attacks rank low on the fun-o-meter.

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