Cycling has always been a part of Mary Harper’s world, but only recently did she make the world part of her cycling.
Harper, 28, of South Charleston, has spent portions of the past several years pedaling through parts of Turkey, Spain, Canada and the United States. Her travels, she said, have had a “transformative effect” on her.
“Aside from team sports, I’ve found that cycling is the best activity I can have for mental health,” she said. “Riding my bike makes me feel better. And now I do it almost obsessively.”
It took quite a while, however, for her to figure that out. She grew up in a cycling family, but didn’t really embrace the pastime as a youngster.
“I definitely grew up in it,” she says. “In fact, I exist because of it. My parents met through rides that started at the bike shop.”
“The bike shop” is John’s Cyclery, the business her father purchased in 1984 and has operated ever since.
“I’ve worked at the shop, off and on, since I was in elementary school,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in mechanical things, and working at the bike shop gives me an outlet for that.”
Even so, Harper didn’t take cycling seriously until 2014, when she was a graduate student at West Virginia University learning to teach English as a second language.
“After my first year of grad school, I got a Fulbright grant to teach in Turkey,” she said. “I took my bike over there to use for transportation, and I found myself riding it more and more. I’d use it to commute to work during the week, and on weekends I would do longer rides.
“There was a local cycling club that was much more laid-back in their approach to cycling than most American clubs, and I really liked that.”
Harper lived in a region of Turkey close to that country’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria.
“People riding [their bikes] around the world, or doing big trans-Eurasian tours, would come through there,” she said. “Some of them were solo females, and that really piqued my interest. The seed was planted then [to start doing long-distance tours].”
Her father, Rich Harper, pedaled across the United States in 1979, shortly after he graduated from WVU. Mary started wondering if she could duplicate the feat. First, however, she had to prove to herself that she could spend long hours in the saddle, covering distances that might shock casual cyclists.
“After I moved back from Turkey, I did my first century ride,” she said, using the cycling term for a 100-mile ride in a single day. “I realized I really could do a trans-American tour.”
She finished graduate school a year later, in 2016. Less than a month after that, she hit the road on a 21/2-month, 4,000-mile sojourn from Yorktown, Virginia, to Florence, Oregon, following much the same route as her father rode in 1979.
“It was a transformative experience,” she recalled. “I realized what a complainer I am. One day I was complaining, and one of the girls in the group said, ‘If this were easy, you wouldn’t want to do it.’ And I stopped and thought, ‘That’s true. If it were easy, everyone would do it.’ I’ve tried to complain less since then.”
After completing the ride, she returned home and, as she put it, “spent a year floundering.”
“I had some personal issues I was running from and not dealing with,” she said. “Then I saw a Facebook post from one of the guys I’d taught with in Turkey. He was teaching in Spain. I asked him how he’d gotten the gig, and he told me where to apply.”
Harper chose Murcia, an area in southern Spain near the Mediterranean coast, as the area where she’d prefer to work.
“I knew people there from my grad program at WVU,” she said. “Plus, I knew that sunshine and bike riding were good for me, and I wanted to go somewhere that had that. Murcia is fantastic for cyclists. It’s on the Mediterranean, but it’s not touristic. It’s semi-desert except for the coastal region. I loved it.”
As she’d done in Turkey, Harper used her bike for recreation as well as transportation.
“I lived in a rural area of Murcia, and the roads there are fantastic,” she said. “Spain has this incredible network of quiet country lanes, and all of them are paved. There’s no freeze-thaw cycle, so the pavement stays buttery-smooth. There’s almost no car traffic. A herd of goats or sheep might get in the way occasionally, but cars aren’t a problem.”
During her summer vacation while in Spain, Harper took off on a 3-week cycling tour. “I did a westward loop through Andalucia, and visited the cities of Seville, Granada and Malaga, among others,” she said. “The longest single-day ride on that tour was last day, when I did 110 miles, just to see if I could do it.”
Harper returned home earlier this year and embarked on yet another adventure — a 3-week, 800-mile-plus bike tour of the northern Rocky Mountains.
“It started in Missoula, Montana and ended in Jasper, Alberta in Canada,” she said. “My favorite part was the Icefields Parkway in Canada.”
The parkway, which winds 144 miles through Banff and Jasper National Parks, features nonstop views of jagged, glaciated peaks. “In Montana, we rode through Glacier National Park,” Harper said. “Trust me, we saw a lot more glaciers along the Icefields Parkway than we did in Glacier.”
Her cycling adventures have brought Harper more than just a sense of well-being. She believes they’ve also helped her earn respect.
“It’s hard being a female working in a bike shop, especially in this area,” she explained. “There’s a lot of sexism and ageism. I look like I’m 16, and people are taken off guard when I tell them I’m 28. Part of my motivation [for doing big rides] was to get some respect. And it actually has worked. It’s sad I have to do something that extreme to get people to give me the respect a man gets automatically just by being a man.”
Harper said her next goal is to find an English-as-a-second-language teaching job in an area more cycling-friendly than West Virginia.
“Right now, I’m focusing on Richmond, Virginia,” she said.
And for future long-distance cycling adventures?
“I don’t have plans for another big ride at the moment,” she said, smiling, “but it probably won’t be long before I do.”