In Good Conscience

Cycling centenarian makes mockery of limits of age

The elderly cyclist doing 92 laps on the relatively new Velodrome de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside of Paris, was in a class of his own.

Round and round Robert Marchand went, a small, lean sparrow of a man in yellow and violet lycra. When, finally, he was stopped once the clock turned the hour, the announcer said that Marchand had set a world record for a 105-year-old.

Yes, you read that right.

For emphasis, Robert wore the racing number 105 on his back. His first response when he was told that he had covered 22.547km on the track on Wednesday was that, alas, he did not see or hear the signal that he had one minute to go.

"If I had," he said, still on his bike, "I would have gone quicker. I'm not tired.

"I thought my legs would hurt, but they don't. My arms hurt."

Robert Marchand. PHOTO: REUTERS

And then, with mischief in his eyes, he told the young whippersnapper TV reporter: "You have to hurt somewhere."

A man of 105 (Robert Marchand), peddling away for an hour against the clock for his own self satisfaction is the picture of health and longevity beyond our New Year resolutions.

Quite a character, Robert Marchand. Still in his lycra, still on his bicycle, he was asked if he planned to come back in three years and set another record, for a 108-year-old.

"You know, Monsieur," he replied, "It takes nine months to come into this world... and only 30 seconds to kick the bucket!"

He laughed at his own joke, and at the assembled bevy of inquisitive reporters at the finish line of this Paris suburb new town. Beneath his streamlined helmet, he looked younger and fresher, than his white-haired coach Gerard Mistler who had rushed to hold up the bike after Marchand crossed the finish line.

By Thursday, the sight of this vigorous centenarian had gone viral on television and YouTube. A man of 105, peddling away for an hour against the clock for his own self satisfaction is the picture of health and longevity beyond our New Year resolutions.

Of course, in this cynical world, there will be some who, right now, will be running checks on the veracity of Robert Marchand's age. Barely two months ago, when Dharam Pal Singh, a bewhiskered former shepherd from India ran in a veterans' 100m race in Australia, the sleuths were on his tail.

Singh says he is 119. Doubters in his own country, and from as far away as the United States, just don't believe his claim that the quiet life herding cows, and a diet of herbal chutney and fruit, have sustained him in such athletic condition for such a long time.

To cut a long story short, Singh has no documented proof that he is the age his passport states him to be. The naysayers likewise have no proof to the contrary, and rural India is unlikely to provide evidence either way.

Singh might, says a professor of longevity from Boston, be no more than 80. That in itself pushes the limits for sprinters, but it sullies the story somewhat.

Marchand, by contrast, has the paperwork to show that he was born in Amiens, northern France, on Nov 26, 1911.

He can show that he was a fireman in Paris in the 1930s and that, after World War II, he left France. He drove trucks in Venezuela for a time in the 1950s, and later still worked as a lumberjack in Canada before returning to France in the 1960s.

His was gainfully employed as a gardener and then a wine dealer until he retired. And then, faced with retirement, he took up cycling again at 68.

There might have been defiance in every turn of the wheels. Marchand apparently never forgot being dismissed by a trainer at his first cycling club in his youth that he was not built for the sport.

The trainer was going on appearances. Even today, Marchand stands no taller than 1.52m and weighs precisely 52kg.

His coach and his physiologist (we all should have them!) told reporters this week that size is not the measure of a man, or words to that effect.

Apparently, Marchand's heart is big and his lung capacity extraordinary. He lives a lean and clean life, in bed by nine at night and up at six o'clock. He eats (like Dharam Singh) plenty of fruit and veg, never smokes, takes only the occasional tipple of wine.

His mind is kept sharp by reading L'Humanite, the left wing newspaper, and, of course, he trains religiously on his bicycle.

"He doesn't do dope," coach Mistler scoffed when the press raised the subject.

The physiologist, Professor Veronique Billat, told the Associated Press that Marchand could in fact have gone faster and further had he not recently cut meat out of his diet, after reading of how cruelly animals in the food chain are treated.

In all of this, the single-minded goal-setting of the Paris resident Marchand shows that he is not, and despite his first club trainer, probably never was a man to do things by halves.

Once he got back on his bike, at an age when many people let it rust or throw it out, he of course built himself up to ride the Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Roubaix routes that feature in Le Tour de France.

After those, he managed Moscow to Paris in 1992 when he was just 81.

What is left for such a man to challenge himself? "I'm waiting," he said, "for a rival."

It beats watching the clock wind down.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'Cycling centenarian makes mockery of limits of age'. Subscribe