Becoming Athletic In My 50s

For my entire life, I was allergic to sports and exercise. Then I fell in love with long-distance cycling

Clive Thompson


A photo of a young man on a bicycle, riding along a long highway, with a blue sky dotted with clouds above, and a city in the distance ahead
Arriving in Montreal

That picture above? It’s a snapshot of my 16 year old son arriving in Montreal by bicycle.

I’m the one who snapped the picture; I was cycling behind him, and you can see the skyscrapers of Montreal in the background. We were nearly at the end of a long journey. Four days earlier, we’d left Brooklyn at the crack of dawn, heading north out of the city. Now we were about to arrive at our destination — after 450 miles of cycling, doing about 100 miles per day.

It was about as punishing as it sounds! We did this during the final days of August, so half the time we cycled through the humid baking sun, which reached 98 degrees. Other times we shivered through pelting rain. We climbed thousands of feet of elevation each day, dodged 16-wheel trucks, fixed punctured tubes at the side of the road, and collapsed into bed each night like we were made of lead.

And we had a wonderful time. I am deeply impressed at my son’s persistence in pulling of this type of ride. He’s been an avid cyclist since middle school, pushing himself to do longer and longer rides.

But let me slap the klieg lights on myself for a second, too — because seriously, I am frankly astonished that I completed this ride. And not just this one; I’ve done multiple city-to-city cycling trips in the last four years. How in hell did I become the type of person who now routinely cycles 11 hours a day … for pleasure?

As I’ve discovered, it’s never too late. After a lifetime of avoiding sports, I somehow became an athlete in my early 50s.

I had sports drummed out of me very early.

It was largely because of school — specifically, the grisly nature of high school gym in the 1980s. I hit puberty very late, so compared to the strapping dudes at my rather jock-y high school, I looked like a hobbit, a head or two shorter and probably 66% of their average body mass.

This made gym class a dismal ordeal. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but back in the 80s, gym was a Darwinian exercise in physical dominance. Quaint ideas of “competing against your personal…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.