How This 57-Year-Old Became a Cross-Country Cyclist
Patricia McNeal biked across America five years after surviving a stroke. And she's going to do it again.
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Patricia McNeal has some tips if you’re planning to cycle cross-country: look for the nicer truck stops along the interstates for a hot shower, eat a lot of pancakes (shout out to IHOP), and when you reach the mountains, shift into an easier gear. In 2018, the 57-year-old grandmother of four rode from her home in Panama City, Florida, to Los Angeles. She trained constantly for her long-distance ride, logging up to 100 miles a day on her Trek bike for months in advance, but it was all done on Florida’s flat roads, so she never bothered shifting gears. She learned how to do that roughly 1,700 miles into her journey, when she was faced with the steep Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona. “I get to these freaking mountains, and I’m still on that same gear, and I was crying,” McNeal says. “My legs were burning. But I kept doing it, and I finally figured out changing gears. It was like a light bulb. It was so much easier.”
The 2,200-mile pedal-powered adventure was a learning experience for McNeal, who didn’t start cycling until she was 51. She didn’t even know how to change a flat tire when she set off on her solo ride—luckily, she didn’t get any flats along the way. Still, McNeal decided to tackle the long haul as a way to prove a point to herself and others. “I wanted to show women, and African American women in particular, what they can do,” she says. “I bumped into a couple of black guys in Mississippi who said they’d never seen a black woman on a bike. On TV you see cyclists, but they’re white and small. I’m a grandma. I just want to show people—you go anywhere in the world on a bike.”
That said, McNeal understands why some might be uneasy on two wheels. She didn’t grow up biking and only started after years of gentle pressure from her husband, who is a longtime recumbent cyclist. When she began to ride in earnest, her husband had to push her up any slight hill. “An old man on Rollerblades passed me by while I was pedaling,” McNeal says. “That’s how slow I was going.” McNeal immediately fell in love with the sport, though, riding daily and eventually swapping her car for her bike. She likes to show people that it’s never too late to acquire a new skill. “It was like being a little kid, learning things for the first time,” she says.
Familial health problems had always plagued McNeal—her mother, father, and sister all died from strokes. McNeal herself had a stroke in 2013 but used the setback as inspiration to continue on her newfound healthy path. She adopted a vegan diet and was back on the bike just two weeks after the incident, slowly building up to 50-plus-mile training sessions. “Bicycling changed my life,” McNeal says. “It gave me a lot of freedom. It gave me my health back. I now have the blood pressure of a 16-year-old.”
McNeal isn’t one for cross-training, though her son is trying to convince her to take up yoga. She relied completely on her daily mileage to build strength and endurance for her cross-country trip. As soon as she completed a century ride, she knew she was ready. “For me to go cross-country wasn’t a big deal,” she says. “It was just completing my daily ride, only I was riding into a different state each day.”
McNeal started pedaling west at the end of September last year, averaging 135 miles a day for the first several days of her journey, then settling into a pace that had her knocking out a century every day. She even worked sprints into her daily rides. McNeal fueled her journey with grits and pancakes, carried only a small backpack, listened to a lot of Tupac, and stayed in hotels or with friends and family every night. She finished in 45 days. “I was moving,” McNeal says. “I’d start early in the morning and have plenty of time to ride and stop and talk to people and still finish before dark.”
After her journey, McNeal founded the nonprofit Heels on Wheels, with a mission to inspire other women to take up cycling. She’s also prepping for another cross-country trip, this time riding from Seattle to Key West, Florida. “There will be a lot more elevation on this route,” McNeal says. “I know how to change gears now, but I’m still scared of going downhill.”
Learning how to navigate steep mountain passes won’t be the only skill McNeal picks up on this next venture. She’s also hoping to camp for the first time in her life. “I don’t know anything about camping, but I just heard of a guy that did this same route and camped outside of churches along the way,” McNeal says. “I’m a city girl, so I’ll have to learn how to do that while I’m riding, too.”
She also has an altruistic motive for her upcoming ride: to raise money for women new to cycling and for victims of Hurricane Michael, which hit Florida in 2018 as a Category 5 hurricane. “I want to change my community,” McNeal says. “It was hit so hard by the hurricane, and I want to make it more bike-friendly. I want to get more women riding bikes. I want to get more kids riding bikes. People see me riding 75 miles a day, and they think it’s too far for them to go. I try to explain to them where I started not that long ago. Anything is possible.”