French cyclist sets the pace — at the age of 105
SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES: Robert Marchand is chasing another world record when he jumps on his bike to compete in the senior hour endurance on Wednesday.
Make that uber-senior — for, while still sprightly, the Frenchman is 105 years old and racing in a category all of his own.
Three years ago he managed to ride 26.927 kilometres (nearly 17 miles) at the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines velodrome outside Paris, a record for someone aged over 100.
He says surpassing that distance inside an hour will be tough but he’s determined to give it a go, even if the modest centenarian insists: “I’m not in such good shape as I was a couple of years back.
“If I were, I’d be a phenomenon, and I’m not.”
Admirers contest that assessment as he finalises preparations for the challenge, his gaze alert, his gait steady.
“He’s a Martian, he’s phenomenal,” says Jean Ridel, a mere whippersnapper at “just” 84 who will himself try to set a mark in the 85-year-old category next year.
At his age, never mind Marchand’s, “you have to be able to keep your balance on a bike and anticipate the bends,” says Ridel.
Marchand’s current feat may be well shy of Bradley Wiggins’ 54.526 kilometres, yet this veteran among veterans earns no less admiration.
In any case, “I am not here to be champion. I am here to prove that at 105 years old you can still ride a bike,” rasps Marchand, who completed 110 laps in his 2014 effort.
Gerard Mistler, a cycling coach who advises Marchand, remains impressed as ever.
“He is very regular in his pedalling. Nothing to excess — he is efficient.”
Jean-Michel Richefort, another coach keeping a watchful eye on Marchand, adds: “His heart is exceptional.
“He has the heart of a 60 year old and above all his cardiac rhythm is very slow and regular. Yesterday we did a 20-minute test and over the 20 minutes his pulse rate never rose above 100.”
Marchand, a former national gymnastics champion, boxer and firefighter, puts his enduring fitness down to lifestyle, including a healthy diet and no smoking.
“I’ve done sport all my life, eaten loads of fruit and vegetables, not too much coffee.
“I do between 10 and 20 kilometres a day (cycling), but I don’t train outside. I’m afraid I might catch the flu!”
– ‘Great example’ –
Marchand’s bike takes pride of place in his modest Parisian studio flat. A widower since 1943, he has no children — yet he does not want for friends or admirers.
“He’s lucky, he’s never been ill,” says fellow amateur cyclist Christian Bouchard.
“He did have an operation for cataracts — he had turned 100. He only wears glasses for reading the paper!”
Marchand, looking very much the athlete in his yellow and mauve gear, admits he fears the day when he cannot cycle or exercise.
Yet to judge by his performances on the bike, that day remains a long way off.
On Wednesday he’ll be looking at least to come close to his old mark, even if he fails to beat it.
“If I did 30 kilometres they’d say I had been doping!” he quips.
University professor and physiologist Veronique Billat, who has been following Marchand’s progress since he turned 100, says admiringly: “His body mass is small but he has a heart which pulses as much blood per minute as someone larger.
“And he’s not afraid to try things.”
That determination will stand him in good stead on Wednesday as he jumps back in the saddle once more and heads for the cycling track.
In the words of the coach Mistler, Robert Marchand is quite simply a “great example for humanity”.