I have a couple of questions for this august sub-group of the forum:
1. I'll be 47 in June. Is that close enough to be considered 50 for purposes of this forum? (If it helps, I have male pattern baldness and progressives lenses.)
2. I'm returning to riding after many years away, but find that I'm really enjoying it (fast-paced group rides, in particular). Has anyone of my advanced years, and with limited (recent) miles and no race experience dipped his or her toe in the Cat5 35+ waters?
If so, did you do it (train and race) pretty much on your own, or did you try to team up with other life-minded and like-bodied souls?
It is very difficult to train/race on your own beyond a bit above basic fitness level. There are web sites that can give you clues as to methods and techniques but you will do much better to ride with others. Most cities of any size will have a racing group and triathletes do a lot of riding and are usually fairly savvy as to training methods though it must be understood they mostly time trial which is a distinctly different discipline from racing. OTOH they have limited time for training so tend to stick to business as they have 10 miles to run later or 4k to swim. Racers are categorized 1 to 5, with 1 being near pro level, 2 not too far behind and 3 being above and beyond average. Although there are always ringers out there, any group of racers/wannabes will stratify as to strength on group rides. Nasty group rides will be those that try hard to blow off the weaker riders and leave them strewn over the country side. Supportive group rides will tend to round up the stragglers periodically at designated stopping points. Races tend to occur in fits and starts and group rides can be great training for this type of riding. It is hard to judge your fitness for racing unless you ride with others, especially others who are similar in strenght to your own.
I participate in many local organized rides and also a Time Trial Series that is divided up into age groups, Cat's 1-5, etc. Interestingly in the Time Trials, the 50-54 recreational age group has 4-5 riders that are faster than those in the 40 age groups and also a faster than any in the Masters 45+. We're trying to push those guys into the Masters category to get them out of our bracket!!
There is one fellow in the 60+ age group that is just as fast as our 50-54 fastest riders.
I guess it says that age is just one factor in determining overall fitness and ability level.
It is very difficult to train/race on your own beyond a bit above basic fitness level.
Truer words were never spoken (written?)
We were really lucky here in the east bay that Berkeley Bike Club put on a series of Tuesday night training crits for many years with an Old Farts Cat 5 group. Eventually even someone as slow as I am managed to rise to the level of being able to fall off the back of the Senior 4's in half a lap.
Eventually the hoops they had to jump through to get Oakland City approval soured them and they ceased. This was a HUGE loss to racing in the bay area and I'm really sorry that happened. And I have to say that the racers did their part to make the organizers jobs more difficult. Walking behind the bushes and taking a piss might sound OK until you realize that behind the bushes was an office building and there were secretaries right there who had to watch from 3 feet away behind mirrored glass.
But to get back on subject: it is extremely hard to jump into racing. Unless you're especially gifted it isn't likely that you'll be able to keep up with the pack for long no matter how strong you think yourself. But depending on your own personal gifts it will take between 3 months and 3 years before you can ride with the front guys well enough to move up in class.
The main thing is to not be discouraged by being dropped and to keep trying. You will learn to keep your efforts within your abilities to maintain a pace.
Then as you get stronger and stronger you'll have to learn the limits of that strength as well. You'll find that after several years you won't have a very hard time riding over 30 mph ni the pack or 28 mph alone but that when you blow up it happens instantly and not the gradual slowing down you presently have.
I used to find myself talking to myself, "Stay withing yourself. Stay within yourself." for a large part of the race. Then near the end it would usually become a case of who had the best endurance and could still sprint.
When you race you discover a whole new world of strength that you were completely unaware of. You might be in any one of the groups depending on your natural talents but in any case the riding strength will be something that you'll treasure your entire life long after it's faded away from lack of racing.
As for training partners: at first you need to ride with guys that are fast in order to get the strength to even compete. Then when you can stay in the pack you need to train by yourself. Finally as you advance into higher catagories you'll need to devote almost your entire riding time to training. You must limit yourself to one or two social rides per week.
And here's something you're probably unaware of - MOST of your training will be SLOWER than you presently ride. You have one race and two hard training rides per week at the most. The rest of the time you must ride long SLOW distances with your heart rate below 60%. I didn't start getting better until I got that through my head and started doing slow rides the day after each hard ride. So slow that you have to fight with yourself to keep your speed and efforts down.
I used to have this circuit in which I'd ride about 12 mph and then there was a two mile climb to 800 feet including a section of 18% which would drive my heart rate up. But then it was back to slow and easy.
From my point of view, (haven't raced since late '70s), it was enough to be able to keep up with the pack, if there was a pack, or with my friends if not. Winning or placing was a rare event for me. Avoiding the crashes was more to be desired, especially a hazard in the 4-5 classes. Getting dropped in the first 5 miles of a 30mi race can be a bit demoralizing. Some of my fonder memories were going to a race in Fla and having the cat 3 road race cancelled, so I rode with the cat 1-2s for 30miles at average pace of 25mph until a great crash occurred, not involving me. Great fun to tool along at that speed and riding an intown road race in Tallahassee when John Howard passed me and I sat in for a few hundred yds, til he took notice, growling: "Don't sit in if you can't pull...!" and pulled away effortlessly. Weird he was by himself at that point.