Mina enjoys the ride

ON YER BIKE: Mina McNeilly cycles hundreds of kilometres a week, and doesn't plan to hang up her helmet any time soon.
ON YER BIKE: Mina McNeilly cycles hundreds of kilometres a week, and doesn't plan to hang up her helmet any time soon.

Mina McNeilly has just completed her fifth Central South Island Charity Bike Ride, and at 71, is one of the veterans in the group. She talks to features editor Claire Allison about what keeps her riding.

She's broken her ankle after being hit by a car, and has been taken to hospital with hypothermia. But even that hasn't been enough to get Mina McNeilly off her bike.

Mina has completed the Central South Island Charity Bike Ride five times, ridden Molesworth, the Great Ride and the Otago Rail Trail.

Most weeks, she cycles a couple of hundred kilometres. If she's training for an event, it is more like 300km, with at least one day of 100km.

So why does a 71-year-old hairdresser set herself such a punishing schedule?

To keep trim, she says.

Husband Evan also rides, and was older than Mina is now when he did his first charity ride. He has pulled back a bit now, and comments from the other side of the room that for him, it's not an obsession.

Mina asks whether he's suggesting it is for her.

"Oh, absolutely!" he laughs.

It's not just about keeping fit. Cycling has led to friendships and social weekends away on cycling trips.

But her training schedule has come a long way from the day she first hopped on a bike.

"We used to live out at Levels. We had an apple orchard, and bought two mountainbikes, and we used to bike along the tracks. We just kept that up for a few years."

Mina then bought a road bike, and really started to clock up the kilometres.

Cycling took over from her earlier passion of running.

"I used to do marathons when I was 45. I'd worked full time, brought up the children, and never had time for anything."

Her son used to do a lot of running – he won a couple of two-day Coast-to-Coast events – and was in the harriers, so she went along with him, and met a few people to compete with.

"But then we got our mountainbikes and then when I got the road bike, it was even better."

Evan offers some insight: "She's got a large amount of energy, so when she gave up work, she started channelling her energy into marathon running, and then biking."

Mina admits she's very competitive, although as she has got older, she has had to accept that she can't compete the way she used to.

"I can't compete with people 20 years younger than me."

First placings, she openly admits, are often due to being the only competitor in her age group.

"I did the Pass to Pub yesterday [Sunday], and my grandson came up to me, and said, `Congratulations, Nana, but you were the only one in it', and I said, `Yes, I know, the others are all dead'."

The first big ride was the Central South Island Charity Bike Ride, and from that event, Mina has become part of a closeknit group of cyclists, mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s, who ride events and have social trips away together.

"I met people I could go away for races with and compete with. We used to go up and do the Great Ride, the charity bike ride, the Pass to Pub. A few of us did the Otago Rail Trail in a day. That was quite a long time on the bike, but I won that too – the other ones in my age group didn't finish it."

Her purchase of a fully carbon bike just before Christmas has renewed her enthusiasm for the sport.

"I'm no faster, but it's easier. It's made a big difference. A good bike is really important, and I hadn't realised that."

Mina says her best biking was probably when she was aged about 64 to 67. "I was biking really well then, but I find that each year I get a bit slower.

"A lot of men compete when they are older, but there aren't so many women who compete at this age.

"People are always nice to me. They look after me, and that's one good thing about being old."

She may describe herself as old, but Mina's always immaculately groomed.

"I always wear my makeup – I have to get up early to put it on. And I wear my necklaces. I only do it as a gimmick now, because they expect it."

While Evan may still take part in social riding, he's now more likely to be Mina's support crew, spending hours waiting in the car, or filling in time searching for field mushrooms.

"I couldn't manage without him."

Mina admits to some health issues, and various aches and pains, but says her doctor is supportive of her cycling.

"My doctor says, `As long as you can, keep doing it'. Some mornings I wake up and I say, `I don't want to get out of bed today', because I'm not sure what's going to ache, but after a bike ride, it's all fine."

She has no plans to pack it in. "Not as long as I can do it, although I have pulled back this year. I used to do too much. Now, I usually have one or two days off each week, and the day before a big ride."

She's also a bit more careful about heading out on cold, wet days. It's one thing to get wet partway through the ride, but another thing entirely to be wet from the start.

"I don't do it now if it's wet and cold. I can't warm up. It can get very cold on the bike.

"I've had hypothermia three times, and was taken to hospital once, and the other two times it was touch and go. One time, it was the middle of summer in Cromwell, and we all had shorts on. It was warm when we left, but then there was a terrible hailstorm and it was freezing cold. I finished it, but I couldn't see near the end."

There are other dangers. Mina suffered a broken ankle when she was hit by a car in Washdyke, she has been knocked off her bike by a dog, and she tore tendons in her shoulder another time when she came off the bike.

"And I got clipped [by a car] going along the canals the other day. This guy hit my arm. I was so wild. I shook my fist at him."

Racing after him, Mina had her chance to have her say when the driver stopped a little further down the road.

"I tonged him up. He just kept saying, `I'm sorry, I'm sorry'. It gave me a fright."

Aside from the occasional incident, Mina says cycling is great for older people, because it's much easier on the joints than some other activities.

"And South Canterbury is great. We've got very good cycling. There are hills if you want hills, and flat if you want flat. We've got mountainbiking. We've got it all here."flat. We've got mountainbiking. We've got it all here."

The Timaru Herald