Dispiriting though it is to find yourself older than the oldest elite competitor in both of your favourite sports, at least it gives you a broad perspective on those sports; a perspective enriched by witnessing the full career of several competitors. Careers whose narrative arc starts at “naive, raw talent” peaks with ability and experience in concert, then reaches its most interesting phase as declining physical prowess is compensated for with guile.
Simon Wilde’s biography of Shane Warne, Portrait of a Flawed Genius, describes this process superbly, with Warne’s age and shoulder injuries impairing the ability to spin the ball which had been so prodigious in his youth. What compensates is a sort of “total bowling”, where Warne uses every element within his control – field placements, sledging (at which he was a master; who can forget his casual “best to try to hit the ball, champ” to Andy Caddick, which drew predictable results – caught in the deep”), chat with the umpires (“oh are we not playing LBWs?”) and manipulation of the pace of the game. It was theatrical; stage management. And it worked a treat.
Compare that with the mastery of Alberto Contador, embarrassing Chris Froome in the ’16 Tour through nous and the confidence of years, rather than superior condition. Or Mark Cavendish using what we could call “sprint-craft”, surfing his opponents’ wheels, predicting their tactics and positioning himself using his photographic memory for run-ins. By all accounts, Eddy Merckx became a master of tactical subtlety when the need eventually arose; his engine was faltering but his appetite remained.
Having enjoyed Peter Sagan’s naive early period; always outnumbered, never outgunned, usually second, and feeling extremely fortunate to be witnessing his mature phase, I almost can’t wait to see how he ages. Even as his legs go, I suspect he will win races with his mind.