When Jim Hornsby started collecting his pension he could’ve taken up bowls, bingo and gardening. Instead he chose fat tyres, singletrack and steep hills.

>>> 11 veteran riders who can still shred with the best of ’em

Words by Max Glaskin

Speed. Thrills. Risks. Danger. Mountain biking offers them all. So it may not seem a suitable hobby for a retired gentleman. Jim Hornsby proves otherwise.

“Being outdoors gets more valuable and exercise gets more important the older you get,” says Jim, over a lager and nuts. “Mountain biking is excellent aerobic exercise and great for fitness in ‘late middle age’,” he says with a wink. He’s 71.

He’s got the gear and the attitude. “I wasn’t a young man when our sons were born but when they got to the age where they could ride bikes I got a cheap hardtail so we could ride along quiet cliff tracks on our family holidays in Dorset,” says Jim.

When the boys became teenagers it was only natural they didn’t want to ride with their old man. By then Jim was in his 60s and was saved from daytime TV by a charity ride along the entire 100 miles of the South Downs Way. He signed up, knuckled down and smashed it.

Pic: Geoff Waugh

His experience is familiar to every mountain biker. “It was a mix of pain and pleasure,” he says, “The hills are long and take ages so you need resilience. There’s a pride in reaching the top. You don’t want to put a foot down because that’s a kind of failure, even if nobody sees it. The downhills are scary. They’re so fast and you have to react quickly to avoid hitting even a molehill. It’s a mental challenge to find out how much you dare let go – and that’s thrilling.”

After the first SDW he upped his game, finding a good Stumpjumper on eBay for £800. “I cherish it. It’s beautifully made and gives a wonderful ride. It’s very responsive so I’ve got only myself to blame for the times I’ve crashed,” he says.

He laughs about a tumble during another SDW ride. “I wasn’t fit enough so by the second day my legs were shot. I lost control on a steep descent, heading towards a flock of sheep. They didn’t move fast enough and I hadn’t realised I’d punctured, even when I braked. The bike swerved. I just missed the sheep and hit the deck. I was OK but, tragically, the rear mech was bust.”

After tears and TLC the bike was fixed and Jim’s off-roading was fostered by another old-timer he’d met on the SDW, Pete Betts. “Pete was a great companion, younger, fitter and experienced. We rode some fantastic trails together.” Sadly Pete died in a soccer accident but not before he’d enthused gentleman Jim to keep hitting the trails. “Mountain biking is exhilarating,” he says, “It makes you feel younger, not older.”