Age is Just a Number So Don’t Let it Stop you from Racing

Here are four inspirational women who prove that age is just a number

Words by Sarah Mainprize

I’ll never be a racer, I only took up cycling less than two years ago and at 44 I’m just too old to start racing. How could I compete with all the younger, fitter girls who have had years of training and are burning with ambition to win?

I don’t really know what prompted this ageist preconception or the belief that every female racer must have been born straddling a bicycle and completed countless races since childhood, but I’m pretty sure it’s a common piece of negative self-talk among thirty and forty-something riders.

However, I’m delighted to report these imaginary barriers are exactly that, and plenty of ‘older’ women are blasting them right out of the water. I’ve been chatting with four incredible women who prove that age is just a number as they take on the race scene with stamina, tact and style.

Becky: Feeling the buzz

Photo: Richard Sharpe

One Hull cycling club is brimming with enthusiastic new women racers – who happen to be in their 30’s and 40’s. The Gro Marketing Cliff Pratt racing team now boasts five female racers who only embarked on the sport in their third or fourth decade.

At 32, sports massage therapist Becky Longthorp has already bagged two top spots on the podium so far this season. Becky got into fitness in her late 20s, and at 30 borrowed her dad’s retro wheels and clothes to do a charity ride. She was hooked, bought a road bike, discovered her competitive streak on Strava, then joined a club, where she was encouraged to race.

She said: “Last year I became absolutely hooked. The adrenaline and the buzz you get from it are amazing. I’ve never felt as nervous about anything as my first race… At first, I felt a bit intimidated competing against younger women but I’ve realised it doesn’t really matter. You can’t assume they are fitter or are as race savvy, and mentally, the older women can be tougher.”

Photo: Richard Sharpe

Becky believes there are advantages to taking up racing as a more mature woman: “A lot of older women have had their families, done their partying, and have the time and discipline to train. I couldn’t have done this when I was 18, I was too busy travelling and socialising.”

In her view, the best advice for other women who are considering racing is to join a cycling club and “get the hours in and make it fun. A lot of people use coaches or online training programmes, there’s so much help out there. Being on a team with other girls helps, we really support each other. We feel emotional hearing about each other’s results.”

Debi: Racing can be fun!

Becky’s team-mate Debi Charlesworth is now in her second season of racing and is focusing on time trials. Debi didn’t get into cycling until she was 40 after completing a triathlon. While the swimming side of competition didn’t appeal to her, the cycling side certainly did.

“I started doing some social rides and then bought a really nice road bike from Cliff Pratt. Rod (the team manager) just asked me if I fancied racing and I thought, why not?” – Debi Charlesworth

Now 45, Debi completed her first race season last year at age 44. She said: “It does cross your mind at first that you might be ‘too old’ but you see so many older women doing it as well as the younger girls. Last year I did a time trial and one lady was 86. She was inspirational, and she wasn’t much slower than everyone else!”

Last year Debi completed some crit racing, road racing and time trials, and particularly enjoyed the latter. With TT podium places already under her belt this season, Debi is consistently improving on her personal records. She admits she’s strict about training, putting in about 10 hours a week, and prefers to work with a real coach rather than an app or online programme.

“I really enjoy it and unless I stop enjoying it, I plan to carry on doing it,” she said. “Age is just a number. I would say to anybody anyone who feels they might want to try it, just give it a go, no matter how old you are, just go and have a blast. Everyone I know who races feels the same way about it. I’ve made such good friends from it as well, it’s brilliant.”

Mandy: All shapes, sizes and ages

Mandy Leach swallowed her nerves to do her first race two days after her 40th birthday in October last year. With a cycling husband, Mandy would often watch his training and races with the Cliff Pratt team. She noticed how powerful and fast the ladies were, and cites team-mates Becky and Debi as an inspiration.

After a few café rides and a ‘come and have a go’ ladies race training session in York, she was encouraged to try out for the Cliff Pratt team. Mandy said: “They offered me a place and I was just so excited. At first, you do think ‘am I too old for this? What am I doing?’ But I don’t feel too old, I feel younger than I’ve ever felt.”

Working full-time for her parents’ business, Mandy says: “I could look at 18-year-olds and feel so insecure,  but I don’t. I’m fit, and I believe older women can have more mental strength and stamina. Nobody bats an eyelid at your age. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes and ages, you can’t tell just by looking at someone how good they’ll be.”

“My life has just spiralled since I got into racing, it’s been amazing. I do it because I love it, it’s crazy and exciting and it’s what keeps me ticking. This is my passion, I feel like I’ve found my calling. Even if I’m not in the pack on the race track, I’m still smiling. In another 10 years time, I’ll definitely still be cycling. Racing? I’d like to think so.”

Victoria: Addicted to two wheels

Victoria Hood developed such a love of cycling in her 30’s that she decided to launch an all-female race team with the aim “to support more women to get into racing, with friendly and approachable role models”. The Jadan-Weldtite team members are mainly younger girls who Victoria is mentoring to success, but her own cycling career began aged 34.

A dancer for many years, mother-of-one Victoria had never done any endurance sports but decided on a whim to buy a bike and enter a women’s road race, with no training. “I didn’t even get clipped in and they’d all gone, it was a real shock,” she said.

She was determined to progress and worked with a coach to improve her bike fitness, technique and race craft. She said: “It might be hard to start building endurance in your 30s, but it is doable. I’m not the strongest rider physically, so I had to think tactically to race well.”

Victoria now works for British Cycling and runs a bike shop in Lancashire. She does point out that it can be tough if all categories of riders are bundled together due to low levels of female entrants in races, and hopes more women get into the sport to boost numbers.

“It’s about testing yourself when you finish a road race you just think ‘wow, I can’t believe it!’ Road racing is the best thing I’ve ever done. I think it’s absolutely amazing, it makes me feel so exhilarated. It’s addictive.”

Now 39, Victoria is focusing more on track racing and says her own age or the age of her competitors has never had an impact on her performance (a much bigger concern is the painful arterial endofibrosis condition that affects her left leg).

“I don’t think women get weaker as they get older, I think their endurance gets better. There’s no need to even consider not being as good as a younger woman. The only thing that can separate you is your skills,” she added.

All four women have partners who are also cyclists and agree it’s helpful if family and friends are understanding. All say they feel age brings with it greater psychological strength and self-discipline, which can be put to good use in race training, strategy, and physical resilience. None of them believes their age should or will prevent them achieving their racing goals. All women hope to see more ‘older’ women taking up the sport in the future, with encouragement from local cycling clubs.

I think these women might just have convinced me that age is no barrier and I really should stop using it as an excuse…

You may also enjoy:

An Open Letting from the Women’s Over 40 MTB Brigade

Cycling at any age and what to expect

British Cycling Go-Races Clinics help get women into racing

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