This 81-Year-Old Great Grandmother Is a Cycling World-Record Holder—Here’s How She Does It

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Photo: Mike Gladu and Steve Walton / W+G Creative
At a time when most people begin to slow down their daily routine, Patricia Baker sped up her career as a professional indoor cyclist at age 67. Now 81 years old, she's won 25 national championships and one world championship. A retired pharmacist, Baker says being active was never a choice—it was a lifestyle, one she credits for her enduring health.

"When you've been a pharmacist for over 50 years, you see a lot of stuff," says Baker, a resident of Laguna Hills, California. "Throughout my whole life, I've believed drugs are something that a lot of people want to use because they're not willing to make lifestyle changes."

Baker's cycling takes place in a velodrome, a steeply banked 250-meter indoor track. From the inner ring of the track to the outer ring there is a 42-degree slope. If her speed falls below 16.5 mph, she'll literally fall off the track. Her track bike has no brakes and she changes gears by bringing your bike back to the infield to adjust the chain.

"I got my first adult bicycle and fell in love with it right then and there."

Baker is able to perform at this level because she's practiced healthy habits all her life. She grew up climbing trees and riding horses along the Gulf Coast of Florida. She loves to eat fruits and vegetables (fresh guava is her favorite). She played tennis in college, but admits she wasn't very good. Her family got into cycling when she was 36, soon after her daughter discovered the sport. "I got my first adult bicycle and fell in love with it right then and there," she says.

"The first race I got into, it was awful. It was a road race and I got blown off the back of the pack so fast," she says. "We had a the coach that we had for the whole club, basically told us he didn't want to ever hear of any of us quitting a race. So here I am with nobody else to ride with, and I finished the whole race."

So she practiced. A lot. She started riding her bike 21 miles to and from work every day. She swapped watching television for playing music and riding the makeshift stationary bike that her husband of 60 years, Michael, fashioned out of an old road bike frame and a generator.

In the early 1980s, Baker joined a all-male cycling club. With the encouragement of the club's president, she began a weightlifting regimen to improve her strength and endurance. Soon after she enrolled in a men's bodybuilding course, where she learned how to properly handle weights and work out with different machines. She spent the next 11 years getting better and better, until she got into an accident.

"I was riding with two of the guys in my club [after a race], we were kind of cooling down," she said. "I can remember hearing one of the guys yell, 'Pat, watch out for the pole.' I hit it just above the wrist on my right arm, and I catapulted. My bike went end-over-end. I ended up on the ground on my back." She broke her arm, and injured her back badly enough that it still bothers her to this day. "I could not spend time on my bike. I mean, it was like 11 to 12 miles, and I would feel like somebody was stabbing me right through the midsection," she says. She gave up cycling the following year.

"I felt like somebody had reached into my chest, and yanked my heart out."

The first year off was hard. "I felt like somebody had reached into my chest, and yanked my heart out," she says. Her husband got her a recumbent bike, that somewhat filed the void, but wasn't the same as racing. Twenty years later, in 2006, she took her granddaughter to an indoor cycling competition. It was there she realized how much she missed racing, and decided to give it another go.

She linked up with David Brinton, a former Olympic cyclist whom she met decades earlier when he was a teenager at one of her daughter's meets. Brinton says that cycling is a great sport for older people because it's so easy on the joints. "You can ride easier, and longer with cycling, rather than shorter and harder as you're relegated to do with running," he says. "There are cyclists in their 70s that are doing seven-hour bike rides in a day."

Baker trains five days a week. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, she's in the gym with Brinton for a two-hour strength training session. "Each of the two days she's doing a full body workout, mainly emphasizing leg power," he says. "She does maybe six sets of leg presses, plus working all the other muscle parts that she's not utilizing on the bicycle for overall skeletal balance, as well as keeping the legs strong."

Brinton says he likes doing full-body workouts with all of his cyclists. "When you tear down all the muscle tissue in the body at one time, it forces the body into an aggressive state of recovery," he says. "And that enhances day-to-day recovery." It also easier time commitment.

Baker rides on the track three days a week. During each session, Brinton says she's doing at least 100 laps. On Mondays, she works speed by doing sprints. On Wednesdays, she works on fundamentals like pedaling techniques. On Fridays, she practices endurance. She also rides at home on her off days.

"For an athlete at her age, we need to keep all of this going and keep working on all of these pieces," he says. It's harder for her to do things she hasn't practiced in a while without getting injured. "We have to just do systematic training all the way through to make sure we don't run into those issues and we can keep her injury-free on the bicycle."

"You know the carrot and the donkey? It's fun setting that record, to then have somebody else go after it."

One of the things Baker loves most about riding is being the "carrot" for other female cyclists. "You know the carrot and the donkey? It's fun setting that record, to then have somebody else go after it," she says. She loves showing people that there's a place for women of all ages in cycling, she says. She was the first woman to set world hour records in the 75-to-79 and 80-to-84 age groups.

It's important to remember that you are your biggest competitor. "You are competing against somebody else, but when it's your own internal being that you're competing with, I think it's a little bit healthier than when you're out there, you know, and want to beat everybody else at all costs," she says.

Baker developed scoliosis, possibly from her accident, and regularly sees and osteopath and a physical therapist to work through it. She says it won't get any better, but she's trying to keep it from getting worse for as long as she can. She sometimes feels pain, but when she's on her bike, it doesn't bother her. Right now, her big focus is getting into the next age bracket, 85-to-89, and setting new records there.

"I got a second chance," she says. "People don't get second chances—I have treasured every minute of it."

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