At the age of 14 he entered his first cycling event under a false name because he was too young: yesterday he established the first-ever best hour performance… in the category over 100 years.
And that pretty much sums up the personage of Robert Marchand. Full of energy and motivation, when he gets an idea in his head, nothing will stop him.
The centenarian rode 24.25 km (15.1 miles) in 60 minutes watched by crowds of cheering supporters at the International Cycling Union (UCI) velodrome in Aigle, Switzerland.
The feat does not threaten the 49.7 km (30.8 miles) achieved by Czech cyclist Ondrej Sosenka in 2005 at the age of 29, but it will be recognised by the UCI in a new over-100s category.
But I’m not playing at being a champion,” he said. “I just wanted to do something for my 100th birthday.”
With that intention in mind, less than three months after his birthday, he made the trip from his studio in Mitry-Mory (near Paris) to Switzerland to attempt the world hour performance on the center’s velodrome. The suggestion that Marchand make the attempt came from Gérard Mistler, president of the Ardéchoise Cyclo-Promotion, an annual sportif event that Marchand never misses.
I think he is a human example of the benefits of cycling,” said Mistler. “The fact that this performance is achieved at the WCC, headquarters of the International Cycling Union, is truly symbolic.”
With Mistler taking care of the administrative side of this record attempt, the athlete himself was able to concentrate on his preparation, which included familiarizing himself with the center’s track during the four days directly preceding the official date. While his ability to ride non-stop for an hour was not a concern, Marchand had to dig deep into his personal cycling history to retrieve the sensations of riding on the track.
“I haven’t cycled on a track for 80 years. You have to get used to the fixed gear. I prefer cycling outside but that is impossible at the moment,” he complained as he watched the snow fall heavily outside the WCC. “I don’t want to catch the flu. So I am short on training.”
His build-up at the WCC included a first initiation under the watchful eye and guidance of Magali Humbert, former junior world champion in the sprint and multiple French champion. The following days, he rode around the track accompanied by his “coach” Humbert, increasing his time in the saddle as the day of his challenge approached.
“The track is small. You just turn round and round,” he commented after one of the training sessions. “I could keep going for another hour. I’ve been told not to raise my pulse too high so I’m not even tired.”
For all his physical exploits, this man of small stature but big personality is obedient and follows medical advice. He has been told not to go raise his pulse over 110, and it is a rule he respects with reverence, for the most part. “I did climb a steep hill not long ago and went up to 134 but it’s best to avoid that,” he admits with a mischievous chuckle. “But I would be very surprised if I had heart attack,” he offers spontaneously. Marchand’s first ever cardiograph last week revealed that his heart was in excellent condition.
Optimism aside, he knows his limits and remains cautious. “For the last five years I have decided not to go for rides of more than 100km. There is no point going overboard. I want to keep cycling for some time yet.”
These words of wisdom come from a man who last competed in the Bordeaux-Paris race at nearly 90 years of age, completing the 600km in 36 hours. In addition to filling sportif event results with his name, Marchand has a mountain pass named after him.
What is his secret? How is it possible to be in such frighteningly good physical, and mental, health at 100 years old?
“I’ve never abused anything. I don’t smoke, I never drank much. The only thing I did in excess was work. I retired at 89 years old.”
His many jobs include looking after cattle, his first job as a boy, his time as a gymnastics monitor with the Paris Fire Department, his eight years in Venezuela as a driver, his three years in Canada where he was a woodcutter. Then there are the myriad other sports he was involved in when he was younger: boxing, gymnastics (he was French champion in the pyramid as the lightweight at the top), weightlifting (“I was good,” he explained. “I could have been a champion”).
“I have to try to resume everything or we’ll be here all night.” It would certainly be worth staying up all night to listen to this man who has a memory that would put anyone to shame and stories to keep any audience captivated.
“But basically, I am like everybody,” said Marchand. “I am lucky that I haven’t had any major health problems. My advice to anyone, young or old, is to keep moving. I do ‘physical culture’ every day. It works out my whole body and keeps me supple. Some people when they reach 80 years old, start playing cards and they stay immobile. Not me. I’ve never been able to keep still.” Clearly.