Robert Marchand recently rode his bicycle into the record books — and science textbooks.
On Jan. 4, 2017, the 105-year-old set a world record, pedaling 14 miles (22.547 km) in one hour at France’s national velodrome in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, just outside Paris. He already owned the hour record for riders aged 100 and older, which he set in 2012 at age 101. This new record was so unique that the governing group had to create the classification especially for the centenarian cyclist.
French scientists were tracking Marchand’s training during those years and their findings were also startling. As reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology in December, his VO2 max — a key test of aerobic efficiency — and peak power output both increased, even as he aged. At 105, after training for his record attempt, his aerobic capability was comparable to that of a healthy 50-year-old, says lead study author Véronique Billat, PhD, professor of exercise science at France’s Université d’Evry-Val-d’Essonne. As the New York Times reported, the study “may help to rewrite scientific expectations of how our bodies age and what is possible for any of us athletically, no matter how old we are.”
“My secret is that I have no secret!” Marchand told Experience Life, speaking through his coach and longtime friend, Gérard Mistler.
Born in 1911 in the northern French city of Amiéns, Marchand was a career fireman in Paris. He was also always athletic, becoming a French gymnastics champion in the 1930s. He wanted to be a cyclist when he was young, but his local club leader told him he was too small — he currently weighs just 115 pounds and stands 5 feet tall — and would never be competitive. Marchand is now having the last laugh.
Marchand puts his fitness and longevity down to diet. “He eats a balanced diet without any excesses,” Mistler explains. His meals are plant-based with lots of fruit and vegetables, and a small amount of meat. In fact, just before his record attempt, Marchand gave up eating red meat to protest the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, and now prefers eating fish. And while he does not smoke, he usually drinks a glass of red wine or a beer daily, Mistler says.
Marchand trains each morning with an hour of stretching and exercises. Then he rides an hour daily on his indoor trainer or, depending on the weather, outdoors with fellow cyclists around his home in the town of Mitry-Mory in the countryside just northeast of Paris.
During his record attempt, his goal was to ride at 23 to 24 kilometers per hour (14–15 mph) without exceeding 110 heartbeats per minute. “If I rode at 30 km/h, everyone would say I was doping!” Marchand joked with the French media. His actual magic potion was just a bit of honey added to his water bottles.
“But for me, the element that makes the difference is his continual joie de vivre and his ability to be interested in everything and everyone!”
For the study, Billat tracked Marchand’s key indicators from his record-setting attempt at age 101 and then during a two-year training period to age 103. She reports that he trained 5,000 km (3,100 miles) a year using a polarized plan including cycling 80 percent of the time at a light rate of perceived exertion (RPE) equivalent to about heart-rate zones 2–3 level; then the remaining 20 percent at a hard RPE with a pedal cadence of between 50–70 rpm.
During this period, Marchand’s body weight and lean body mass remained the same. But his VO2 max increased 13 percent from 31 to 35 milliliters per kg per minute — all strong, healthy, and above-normal readings for a man over age 50. At the same time, his peak power output increased from 90 to 125 watts — an incredible 39 percent boost — due in large part, Billat reports, to increasing his cadence frequency from 69 to 90 rpm.
At the end of the study, Marchand did another hour ride in 2013 and completed almost 17 miles — three miles more than he had ridden at age 101 in setting his first record.
The results show that “we can improve VO2 max and performance at every age,” says Billat. And, as she concludes her study report, “it is still possible to improve performance after one’s 100th birthday.”
It is possible, of course, that Marchand is unique — sui generis with a supranormal blend of genes. But he himself is doubtful of that.
“No, I am not a phenomenon,” he told the French media after his recent record. “I [am] just a simple, normal guy.”
Or, as his coach Mistler says, “His secret is within reach of all of us — it’s just a question of will.”
These days, following his world record, Marchand lives alone in Mitry-Mory on his pension, doing his own cooking and continuing to bicycle.
And he just may have plans for future record attempts. After all, he wasn’t completely satisfied with his January ride.
“I could have done better,” he told reporters: He missed a signal from Mistler that he had 10 minutes left to ride, which threw him off his pace. “My legs didn’t hurt. My arms hurt — but that’s because of rheumatism. I’m not in such good shape as I was a couple of years back.
“I am not here to be champion. I am here to prove that at 105 years old you can still ride a bike.”